The Fall of the Soviet Union


What was known as the Soviet Union dissolved in December, 1991. Join Active Minds as we explore the history of the Soviet Union as well as the causes of its failure. In addition, we will discuss the continued relevance of the Russian Federation, the influence of Vladimir Putin, and ongoing challenges to democracy in the region.

Key Lecture Points

  • August, 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of a failed coup that attempted to topple reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev from power and re-establish hard-line Soviet policies.  The failure of the coup signaled the lack of Russian military and popular support for the maintenance of the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union collapsed fully on December 25, 1991.  After 75 years, the Communist Party was no longer in power.
  • Established in 1922 after a 5 year civil war within Russia, the Soviet Union (under the leadership of Lenin) replaced the czarist dynasty in Russia.  Over time, the Soviet Union came to encompass over 8.5 million square miles of Europe and Asia.  Additionally, Soviet influence expanded beyond its borders, especially after WWII.
  • The Soviet Union fell as the cumulative result of many factors.  Within the Soviet Union, issues such as the size and diversity of the nation, the fundamental economic flaws of the communist command economy model, and the reforms of Gorbachev all contributed to the fall of the nation.  In addition, external forces played a significant role in toppling the Soviet Union, most notably the economic pressures brought to bear by the Cold War arms race with the US.
  • With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia entered a time of turbulent economic transition from a command economy to a market-based one.  The transition resulted in a significant loss of GDP and expansion of unemployment.  In addition, widespread corruption and graft reduced the amount of investment in Russia that might otherwise have helped Russia establish itself in the wake of the communist era.
  • In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, many (both within and outside of Russia) hoped that Russia and its surrounding area would move in the direction of democracy.  Instead, Russia, especially under the leadership President Vladimir Putin, has reverted to authoritarianism, funded by oil and gas revenue. In addition, Russia’s oil wealth has afforded it the ability to put pressure on nations that formerly were in the Soviet Union or under Soviet influence.
  • Under Putin, Russia has also re-asserted its power in former Soviet republics, most notably Georgia, invaded in 2008, and Ukraine.  In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea and has, since that time, supported separatists in other portions of Eastern Ukraine.

Exploration Questions

  • What led to the fall of the Soviet Union? What do you think are the most important causes?
  • How has Russia changed since the fall of the USSR? How is it the same?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you remember when the Berlin Wall was built? When it fell? What were your thoughts?
  • Why do you think Putin is so popular with the Russian people?

More to Explore

  • Library of Congress country study of the Soviet Union Click here
  • The Cold War Museum web site Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Sebestyen, Victor. Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Union (paperback). Vintage, 2010. 496 pages. Sebestyen tells the story of the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of the 6 Soviet vassal states.
    Click here to order
  • Politkovskaya, Anna. Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy (paperback). Holt Paperback, 2007. 288 pages. Politkovskaya, a Russian reporter, portrays corruption in Russia and the war in Chechyna.
    Click here to order
  • Goldman, Marshall I. Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia (paperback). Oxford University Press, 2010. 244 pages. Goldman describes Russia’s use of its oil wealth to regain international power.
    Click here to order