Last night, stinger asked for more information on the causes of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Here’s a short summary of my understanding, with some references, not all (sorry!) links.
The Soviet economic system was faltering from the sixties on. The First Secretaries during that period were slow-moving, sick, and in no way capable of innovating out of that situation. It may have been inherently impossible in any case. Manufacturing of anything but weapons never was a significant part of the economy, which depended on oil exports.
The Soviet Union was made up of 15 Union republics. Some of those republics became part of the Soviet Union after World War II but had fought civil wars for independence from the Russian empire during and after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Baltic States in particular, but other republics as well, were not happy members of the Union. Moscow went through waves of Russification, in which the Russian language was forced on populations for which it was not native. Social restrictions sometimes accompanied the language crackdowns.
Most of the rest of the world refused to recognize the Baltic republics as part of the Soviet Union. Token embassies were maintained in Washington and London.
By the 1980s, even the Soviets were beginning to realize they had a problem. The arms race with the United States had been partly tamed by the SALT arms control agreements, but an intermediate-missile race was burning. Building armaments was bleeding money and industrial capacity out of the economy. Mikhail Gorbachev, a newcomer with promise, was made First Secretary in March 1985.
Reactor #4 at Chernobyl blew up as a result of a poorly planned and executed safety experiment in April 1986, contaminating chunks of Ukraine and Belarus in particular. The secrecy and slowness of the Soviet system to respond convinced Gorbachev that something needed to be done quickly. That something included both industrial reform and increased transparency.
Industrial reform came first and was called perestroika. A little later came glasnost, openness. Opening up to criticism of industrial practices was necessary to build a better-working economy. Integrating that economy with the rest of the world after several decades of isolation was also necessary. Neither would be easy. Arguably, Gorbachev moved too fast, without sufficient planning.
Besides the republics, several countries were satellites of the Soviet Union: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and East Germany. Their governments were nominally independent, but in reality heavily directed from Moscow. With the Soviet Union, they made up the Warsaw Pact, a response to NATO. Hungary and Czechoslovakia had staged revolts in 1956 and 1968 but were harshly put down. Poland was engaged in a slow-motion revolt throughout the 1980s via the Solidarity organization, which had characteristics of both a labor organization and political party.
Political parties were banned within the Soviet Union, but once perestroika was announced, nationalists in the Baltic republics began organizing perestroika groups. For improving industry, they said, but those groups contained, deliberately, the seeds of political parties. The Baltic states had strong expatriate groups in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia that were willing to help.
Something that remains a mystery to me is how the Baltic republics managed to stack their Supreme Soviets with nationalists. But they did. After 1985, the Supreme Soviets began to legislate the primacy of local laws over Union laws, the legitimacy of national symbols like their flags, and eventually called themselves parliaments instead of Supreme Soviets. Demonstrations alternated with bursts of legislation. People were jailed.
Moscow had never bothered to understand what they called “the nationalities,” all those Soviet people who were not Russian. So the leadership missed a lot of what was going on in the satellites and republics. They paid more attention when secession was openly spoken of.
Gorbachev recognized that Moscow could no longer support the satellites, and their restlessness presaged a possible need for military action that he could not afford financially or in its public fallout. So in October 1989, he dissolved the Warsaw Pact and said that the satellites could go their own way in what he humorously called the Sinatra Doctrine. Additionally, he renounced the doctrine of proletarian revolution, which had underpinned Soviet expansionism.
Gorbachev felt that this, along with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, would allow him to concentrate on reforming the Soviet economy. But he was not fully aware of the rebellions brewing in the republics.
In one of the internal moves toward reform, Boris Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federated Soviet Republic, the largest of the Soviet republics. Yeltsin spent time with Baltic politicians to learn their tactics. Discussions continued with the republics on their constitutional duties toward the Union. Lithuania declared independence in March 1990. Soviet militia were sent in. Estonia and Latvia had come up to the edge of independence legislatively, but did not declare. Lithuania cooled its rhetoric but did not repudiate the declaration. In January 1991, Gorbachev insisted that Lithuania repudiate the declaration, sent in the military, and fourteen civilians were killed.
In August, a group of former military officers who felt that Gorbachev must be overthrown to preserve the Union held him prisoner at a Crimean resort. Boris Yeltsin took advantage of this to look powerful in Moscow. The plotters were turned back. Estonia and Latvia took the opportunity to declare independence. Moscow sent troops to seize television towers in Tallinn and Vilnius, and a press building in Riga, but they were withdrawn after confrontations with civilians.
A conference among the leaders of the Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian republics in Belarus produced a document dissolving the Soviet Union in early December. The remaining republics signed on, and the Soviet Union ended on December 25, 1991.
Was the missile race part of what took the Soviet Union down? It was one more straw in a succession of them. It played a part. But Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric was a much smaller part.
Jack Matlock, Autopsy on an Empire. Matlock was the US ambassador to the Soviet Union as it broke apart. His view tends to be Moscow-centric and shares the Kremlin’s vague point of view of the nationalities. But a good guide to what was going on in Moscow.
Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution. Probably the best book available on the Baltic republics/states as they broke away from the Soviet Union.
As I write this, I am realizing how much of my information has been gained piecemeal from various sources, mainly Estonian ones. I thought for a while about writing a book about the process in Estonia, and maybe I still should.
The Singing Revolution is a film about some of the history and the role of culture in Estonia’s revolution. I’m in the photo of the audience at the 2004 Song Festival, if you can find me! It has some footage of protests that I didn’t realize exists.
The Estonica encyclopedia has a number of helpful articles in its history section.