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Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

By Lisa J Walters, on 20 April 2017

Prof Alena Ledeneva, Professor of Politics and Society

The Soviet Union collapsed more than quarter of a century ago and since then many people have offered their own interpretations of the event. Most of them are valid, but none of them could fully embrace the complexity of the phenomenon and we still do not have a comprehensive account of why the largest country in the world disintegrated, and what the consequences of this were.

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One Russian president called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” and hard-core Marxists would second him.

Theologians might side with an American president, who once stated that “By the grace of God, America has won the cold war.”

Game theorists might point to the limitations of a zero-sum approach and short-term understanding of such a ‘victory’.

IR specialists would make their assessments based on nuclear balance, military competition, the geopolitical centrality of the US and Russia, and the Afghan war.

Political scientists would focus on nationalism and comparative analysis of transitions to democracy in Central and East Europe and Russia.

Historians would analyse the “Gorbachev factor.”

Economists would emphasize the role of unprecedentedly low oil prices in the run up to December 1991 and the systemic inefficiency of the centrally-planned economy.

Ethnographers would highlight corrosive practices within the Soviet system: absenteeism, false reporting (pripiski), progress-pushers (tolkachi), or the use of networks for getting things done (blat).

Cultural historians might examine art (from revolutionary liberation in the beginning to samizdat and non-conformism in late socialism).

Sociologists would note the tendencies outlined by Trotsky in his Revolution Betrayed (1937) – the revolutionary elite needs to undermine its own declared principles in order to preserve acquired power and privileges and pass them onto the next generation.

The Russian revolution itself is an important factor in the interpretation of the collapse of the Soviet Union and vice versa. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian revolution was seen as the beginning of the new era, a point of departure from capitalism and the foundation of an alternative form of being. The collapse of the Soviet Union, especially in the context of the end of communism in Europe and its subsequent world-wide loss of influence, has brought to the foreground a new range of political myths, such as the “second Russian revolution” and the “end of history.” These conceptions have shifted the focus of attention to the end of Romanovs’ empire and the end of Brezhnev’s era to understand the “deep structures” of the revolutions, which reveal themselves in the fairly technical ways in which complex entities cease their existence.

Lawyers would claim the centrality of finding a legal way to dissolve the Soviet Union, masterminded by the signatories of the 1922 formation treaty, and the role of historic meeting between Russian President Yeltsin and heads of Soviet Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, and Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk (the latter two statesmen were present at the conference). The result of this meeting, the Belovezha treaty of 8 December 1991, established that the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical entity, had been dissolved.

The BASSEES, University of Westminster and the Phenomen Foundation have set up a conference on Protagonists of Political Mythologies , with an impressive list of participants and powerful locations. My opening remarks were made in FRINGE style: short, focusing on complexity, calling for cross-disciplinarity and targeting fluid, resistance to articulation, invisible, neutral, grey zones and elusive subjects around the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The conference was a rare occasion where representatives of different disciplines and key participants of the event could make a step towards a comprehensive cross-disciplinary – and somewhat fringy – account of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The conference was opened by a roundtable discussion involving the following participants:

  • Stanislav Shushkevich, former Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus, first leader of independent Belarus, signatory of the Belavezha Accords;
  • Dr Gennady Burbulis, former deputy prime minister of the RSFSR and the Russian Federation, Secretary of State of the Russian Federation, signatory of the Belavezha Accords;
  • Dr Andreas Meyer-Landrut, former West German Ambassador to the USSR;
  • Sir Roderick Braithwaite, former British Ambassador to the USSR and Russian Federation.