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Why Did the Soviet Union Fall? Part 2

An indecisive economic policy, together with a campaign of naive transparency to the reality of the Soviet context created a powder keg that suddenly exploded

[Leer en español]

“In a word, the dismantling of socialism as a global phenomenon has been taking place. It is a reunification of humanity on the basis of common sense. And the one who has set the whole process in motion is an ordinary guy from Stavropol.”

-From the diary of Anatoly Cherniaev, October 5, 1989.

Read part 1 here

On the night of April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Anatoly Dyatlov and his team were conducting a safety test on the plant’s reactor number 4. Dyatlov wanted to check that, should the reactor lose power, the safety systems would continue to operate until the backup generator was switched on. The safety test was never completed and as a consequence reactor number 4 would explode killing two plant engineers immediately and, in the future, more than 4,000 people.

The initial reaction of the Soviet authorities was to send in a team of firefighters and attempt to shut down the reactor with hoses and liters of water. Otherwise, the Soviet Union’s high command went to great lengths to cover up the events and bureaucrats downplayed the seriousness of the matter in front of their own bosses.

The lie was soon discovered by Western scientists themselves, who noticed abnormal levels of radiation dissipating throughout the atmosphere.

In the end, the Politburo had no choice but to admit the truth, declare a state of emergency, evacuate the entire Ukrainian city of Pripyat and initiate a messianic cleanup and sealing of the nuclear plant that would involve more than 830,000 people.

Soviet Union
Thousands of people who participated in the Chernobyl cleanup developed cancer and other diseases due to the excessive radiation to which they were exposed (Image: Flickr)

The Chernobyl disaster would represent a fatal blow to the reputation of the Soviet Union, revealing a state incapable of protecting its own citizens and inefficient because of the excessive secrecy of its officials reluctant to share information even among themselves. In short, the Chernobyl tragedy was a consequence of Soviet paranoia.

The disaster was an eye-opener for the party’s general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was not only forced to dismantle much of the bureaucracy surrounding the chain of command and initiate nuclear disarmament negotiations with Ronald Reagan, frightened by the consequences of a nuclear war. The catastrophe also revealed the consequences of the Soviet Union’s excessive secrecy, which led to a process of transparency known as Glasnost.

Reykjavik, nuclear de-escalation and Afghanistan

Gorbachev’s obsession with military de-escalation was his main condemnation to the Soviet Army leadership, which was horrified to see a change in military doctrine that admitted the impossibility of defeating the United States in a direct conflict and focused on the defenses of the national territory.

The final blow to the military high command came with the conference in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, where Gorbachev met with Ronald Reagan to reach a mutual disarmament agreement of nuclear arsenal, starting with medium-range ballistic missiles.

Unfortunately for Gorbachev, Reagan did not go along with his pacifist aspirations and Gorbachev’s position was weakened both internationally and domestically.

While the premier of the Soviet Union failed to reach an agreement with the United States, the once glorious Red Army was bleeding to death in Afghanistan in a fateful struggle against the fundamentalist guerrillas, the mujahideen. Casualties were piling up, and the Soviet air force was being decimated by the CIA’s anti-aircraft missiles sent through Pakistan. The war was becoming unsustainable.

Glasnost and Perestroika, the Soviet Union’s turnaround

If there was one thing that aligned the conservative wing of the Politburo with the modernizing wing, it was the understanding that the Soviet Union needed fundamental reform to continue to exist.

In the economic and social sphere, Gorbachev sought to improve public health, reduce military spending, as well as transfers from the USSR to its communist systems and attract the creation of private enterprises within the Soviet Union.

The 1988 law on cooperatives established the possibility of establishing a private business, however, to do so it was necessary to be affiliated to some kind of collective, and individual entrepreneurship was still not allowed.

soviet union
Perestroika proved ineffective in modernizing the Soviet Union’s productive apparatus, but generated much resentment among the conservative Politburo caste. (Open Archives)

Despite the changes, the state retained control over the production of large industries and granted more autonomy to managers from the political control of the Communist Party.

The autonomy gained by factory managers never came to fruition. Managers reacted by raising wages above inflation and even asking for an increase in transfers without ever seeing a real increase in productivity. By 1989, Soviet industry, although it increased its income by 10.9 %, only saw a 1.7 % increase in productivity.

Although Perestroika attempted to separate production from political control, Gorbachev was never able to understand the workings of the market economy. His search for a third way between socialism and capitalism not only failed economically but was increasingly unpopular with Politburo members.

Politburo was not only dissatisfied with the economic results of Perestroika, but also with the “Glasnost” transparency campaign promoted by Gorbachev. By 1986, a number of former dissidents exiled from the USSR began to return to the country and establish their media outlets critical of the system.

Restrictions on the foreign press were also lifted and for the first time citizens of the Soviet Union were able to listen to the UK’s BBC, West Germany’s DW, and Free Europe Radio.

Gorbachev’s attempts to urge “new thinking” were never compatible with the political system he was trying to govern, for it based its power structure on repression, not the circulation of ideas.

A vacillating economic policy, coupled with a campaign of naive transparency to the reality of the Soviet context created a powder keg that exploded suddenly and unexpectedly for the world.

The house of cards collapses

On November 9, 1989, at a boring Thursday evening conference, the German Communist Party official in East Berlin, Günter Schabowski, announced the lifting of restrictions on old people going abroad: “Private travel is now permitted without prerequisites, conditions or family relationship”. When asked by a journalist when these restrictions would be lifted, Schabowski replied: “I understand that immediately.”

The news was soon echoed by news broadcasts in East and West Germany, and within hours, the security guards at the Berlin Wall were swamped by the massive crowds of Germans who wanted to travel to West Berlin. Before long, all of Berlin was facing the wall that had separated them for more than 30 years. Next came the fall of the Wall and with it the fall of the German communist regime.

There was little the non-interventionist Soviet Union could do as it saw the beginning of the end of its empire. Within two years, all the former Warsaw Pact republics began to hold democratic elections and one by one they expelled their communist leaders, a reminder of years of repression.

As if that were not enough, within its borders, the USSR itself was undergoing a process of destabilization. In Estonia, the Estonian deputies demanded the independence of their country from the Soviet Union, to which Gorbachev reacted with a refusal.

The pygmies who brought down the giant

In the following months of 1990 the other two Baltic republics, Latvia and Lithuania, would join Estonia and lobby the Politburo for their independence, arguing that the annexation of the Baltic republics to the Soviet Union consisted of a conquest by force as part of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany before the outbreak of World War II.

Encouraged by the moment, Russian deputy Boris Yeltsin led the voting in the Congress of Deputies of the Russian Federation that on June 12, 1990, would adopt the declaration of Russia’s national sovereignty.

The Soviet Union could survive without the Baltic States, but without Russia, the Union did not exist. With the declaration of sovereignty, Yeltsin slapped Gorbachev in the face, who faced the greatest challenge a premier had ever faced in the history of the USSR.

Restrictions in the Baltic States were increased, which generated annoyance and protests among the population. After an attempted violent takeover by the communists on May 15, 1990, in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, the leaders of the three Baltic States formed the Baltic Council in order to protect democracy and prevent retaliation against the Baltic people by the USSR.

After several violent confrontations and Yeltsin’s support for the independence cause, the conflict erupted with the seizure of the Latvian Interior Ministry by Soviet special forces.

Meanwhile, in the Caucasus, the nationalist conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out, leading to the first clashes in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, showing Gorbachev unable to control even his own military forces within the borders of the USSR.

The Soviet leadership, dissatisfied with Gorbachev’s weakness to contain the situation, and taking advantage of a trip from Eastern Crimea, created the State Committee for the emergency situation and appointed Gennady Yanayev — Gorbachev’s vice-president — president, setting up a coup d’état to seize power.

The coup plotters, including Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, KGB chief Vladimir Kriuchkov and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, attempted to seize control of the armed forces. However, a large part of the army and the entire air force refused to support the coup d’état.

Without the support of the Army and with Yeltsin whipping up the masses to restore Gorbachev to command, after four days of uncertainty, the coup plotters had no choice but to give up their attempt to seize power on August 22. Many surrendered to the Soviet authorities and others opted for suicide.

While events were unfolding in Moscow, in Estonia the Council of Deputies declared the independence of their country. A Gorbachev indebted to Yeltsin had no choice but to give in to the demands of the Baltic States.

As a chain reaction, the other Soviet republics began to declare their independence, leaving Gorbachev’s figure completely nondescript. On December 25 Gorbachev announced and on December 26 the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

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