Why did Soviet Union break up? What exactly went wrong?


Why did Soviet Union break up? What exactly went wrong?

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ELI5. The Soviet Union as a union of nations was held together by the military and economic power of the central state (mostly Russia). Military power is also tied to economic power. At the end of the 1980’s, Russia no longer had the “money” to keep the separate nations together – so they declared independence from the USSR. These nations believed that tying themselves closer to the wealthier Western European economies was a better bet.


Two things went wrong:

Firstly, capitalism is the best way to create wealth, in contrast socialism is the best way to destroy wealth.

Secondly, free markets are superior to central control, which is a characteristic of both communism and facism.

Add in the pressure Reagan and Thatcher deliberately applied to the Soviet system (“Star Wars” and Afghanistan) and it collapsed like the house of straw it was.

The USSR was a large ’empire’ that spanned many decades, so there were many factors that lead to its breakup, but at a broader level, the biggest issue for them was that their highly centralized economic system was not particularly productive, and couldn’t keep up with their western rivals.

The Soviet Union was basically created and grown by Russia invading other countries and then pretty much just telling them that they were part of the USSR now. One of the realities of having an empire like that is that it comes with costs. Administrative costs, military costs, and so on.

By the 80’s the Soviets were having a really hard time keeping up with those costs, because their economy was so far behind the US/Europe/Japan/Etc. The standard of living for most of their citizens was significantly less. They had pretty good internal propaganda that hid some of that fact, but the expansion of global media was making the discrepancy more visible to their citizens.

Some of the Soviet leadership realized that they needed to try to make some changes if they hoped to catch up or at least not fall further behind. There were attempts by some in the leadership to make some economic reforms and start to ‘open up’ to the west. These reform attempts met a lot of push-back from others in the leadership, and there was a lot of political turmoil as a result, including a failed coup attempt.

By the late 80’s it was so much of a political and economic mess that some of the countries that had been part of the USSR wanted out, and Russia wasn’t in a situation where it could effectively force them to stay in anymore. And so they started declaring independence and over the course of a few years the Soviet Union was no more.

Same as with any leftist government. They get super crazy ideas on how to spend money, but not on how to actually generate it.

Once savings are done for, everything crumble to pieces.

There were many problems that over the decades pilled up and were not adressed or not adressed properly.

Firstly the economy of the Soviet Union. Initially the USSR industrialised at a rapid pace and by the 40s it’s main focus was heavy industry. After Stalin however when Khrushchev eventually came to power that focus changed. Khrushchev shifted the focus of the USSR from heavy industry to agriculture which economically was not advantageous. In addition to that Khrushchev also made some irrational decisions in regards to agriculture as far as to try growing corn in Siberia. Now this is only an assumption, because he never personally stated it, but his “obsessison” with agriculture probably stems from the famines the USSR suffered in 1932-1933 and the post-war famine in 46. The former of which especially hit Ukraine, the Soviet Union’s breadbasket hard. Khrushchev happened to be Ukrainian and was the highest Soviet authority for the Ukrainian SSR before succeeding Stalin as the head of the USSR as a whole.

After Khrushchev with the shift to agriculture innovation and economic progress were stiffeled. Especially under Brezhnev who succeeded him things worsened economically. Bureaucracy and corruption grew rapidly under him and nothing noteworthy was done to improve the situation.

Eventually Gorbachev came to power. Someone who wanted to make political and economic reforms. However his economic reforms made things go from bad to worse. The economy basically crumbled during his term to the point were the Soviet Union could no longer sustain itself.

More than just economically the Soviet Union also sufferd in the field of politics near it’s end. Certain individuals who came to power, among which were Gorbachev and Yeltsin, actively wanted to dissolve the Soviet Union. As mentioned before Gorbachev’s reforms damaged the economy further, but this was done so on purpose. His reforms angered many of the conservative and communist elements of the government and party and lead to an attempted coup in 1991. The coup failed and with it sealed the fate of the Soviet Union. Any powerful individual who wanted to maintain the Soviet Union was removed as they just attempted to overthrow the Gorbachev government. This gave way to Gorbachev finally dissolving the USSR in December 1991 along with many non-communists opposed to the Soviet Union like Yeltsin gaining popularity in the aftermath of the failed coup, especially in the Baltic states, but also in Moscow itself.

People tend to overcomplicate this a bunch with all sorts of other variables when it’s actually pretty simple:

In the 80’s as part of liberalizing reforms, individual soviet states were granted expanded levels of power at the expense of the central government (in theory to allow states to better tailor policies). Thus for example the leader of Russia became individually powerful relative to the central soviet government.

Eventually, as crisis’ grew these now powerful state leaders turned against the central government and broke up the union.


While people talk a lot about economic issues or other liberalisation, none of these really matter as much as the devolution of power away from the supreme soviet as the actual direct cause of the unions failure.

A lot of things, their economics failed horribly.

No freedoms for the people.

Politicians with the power of life and death in their hands.

No way to improve their own life for the people.

A society of mistrust where 1/3 was a state informant, which meant in your own family there was one state informant on average.

Widespread starvation and bad living conditions even for the working people.

The weapons reduction agreement begun some 20 years before greatly reduced fear among the Soviet Union; fear that was used to hold a forced participation of countries to only associate with “their frenemy’s” Gradually “the weapons” were greatly reduced by both sides, and massive interest in “seeing other people” started.

No longer feeling as insecure, countries within, but near the borders became more active to “choose” for themselves. At the same time, then leader Gorbachev was “seeing other people” touring and enjoying time in the “free nations” and agreeing to reduce Soviet weapons. Great relief of many years of threats of harm evaporated, and a feeling that those who wanted to leave could started.

What went wrong, persistent struggle to feed themselves vs. the other guys always having a lot of food and nice things was never solved by Soviet leaders, causing mistrust between average Joe and Leadership. Of course not this simple in “events” but core issues.

In short: Gorbachev.

Gorbachev gets elected in 1985 and, unlike his predecessors, he seems to actually want to improve the soviet economy and the lives of the citizens. He actually gives a speech in 1985 where he admits that the economy was not growing very fast, and he creates a few initiatives: withdraw from foreign conflicts (pulling troops out of Afghanistan and allowing the Berlin Wall to come down, for example), “glasnost” (“openness”, basically freedom of expression for the people) and “perestroika” (“restructuring”, decentralizing industry to follow a more western-style model).

Chernobyl happens in 1986. Because of Glasnost the citizens really get to see the ineffectualness and incompetence of soviet leadership in full display, and the expense of the disaster puts a serious strain on the economy.

In 1989 Boris Yeltsin visits the US and has a famously “eye-opening” visit to a supermarket in Clear Lake where he sees first-hand how much better American communities are doing than Soviet ones. He comes back as a major proponent for glasnost, perestroika and other reforms.

In 1990 Gorbachev visits the US, signs some treaties, and also sees more US industries, especially computer industries.

So now you have this perfect storm: There’s no more “common enemy” to fight abroad because of military pullbacks, and there’s a sense that the USSR is weaker (or, at least projecting less strength) which is a problem when your “empire” is held together by the threat of military force. The people have a new right to speak freely and protest (which they use, at length), and people are seeing on TV how much better the rest of the world is doing than they are. Leadership admits things aren’t going well and vow to make improvements, but it’s not at all clear that these are the right people for the job because they certainly aren’t freely-elected.

At some point the satellite nations decided to go, and the USSR was powerless to stop it.

A lot of things were compensated/covered up by the oil money and at the end of 80’s the oil price collapsed.

They went broke with military spending and trying to keep the empire together combined with a failure to modernize their economy.

With the glasnost of Gorbachev came an increased flow out outside influences. There had already been a long history out Western information revealing the lies of Soviet State actors and institutions, but the arrival of the VCR and smuggled/pirated video tapes now made them clearly visible.

Credit had been given to the television series Dallas, whose central conflict of two brothers and their families forever at odds with each other mirrored many themes of traditional Russian stories. Except that here, instead of arguments over who got to milk the cow this week, it was over oil fields, and investments. Plus, everybody had a big house, fancy cars, and dressed well — including the plebes who served them! That last part was the knife twist.

As a Central American immigrant supposedly said, “I want to live in a country where the poor people are fat!”

Gorbachev started dating some artist chick who told him he was the smartest one and it just caused so much tension and in-fighting that the whole country broke up.

Boris Yeltsin, a member of Soviet parliament, went to the US and made an unplanned visit to a modest American grocery store. He was shocked by the sheer variety and quantity of food available to the lower classes, when in his home country even the elites didn’t have so many choices. When he returned he pushed for many changes.

There were many reasons why the USSR fell apart, but that’s genuinely one of the things credited with their ~~downfall~~ 30 year pause.

Ok that’s really hard to make Eli5 on this. In very short – Soviet Union had hard times and there always was States in it that really wanted independence. So they used that possibility window.

RONALD REAGAN lifted his voice and demanded that the wall between the east and west be torn down, and like the Mighty Black Bolt the sound of his voice was so powerful that the wall crumbled to bits and the Soviet Union dissolved like a sugar cube in water at the command of the pluripotent ultra-potus! Grown men took their lives, women weeped and tore at their garments as his mighty roar thundered across the continent like a blast wave from a nuclear bomb, shattering windows and blowing out doors as the piercing sonic wave devastated the countryside from Berlin to Siberia, also I talk to Bigfoot daily and sometimes at night I like to shoot my rifle at the moon.

This is a highly debated topic u will see many people claiming they know what happened. There are many factors that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union but I’ll name the major ones.

1. Liberalization. When Gorbachev came in power he attempted to move away from the hardline soviet model. When he did this the foundations of what the Soviet Union was built on crumpled. Opening of the press, western private business, and he gave many Soviet satellite dates the right to gather and protest against the government.

2. Money. The Soviet Union was isolated and lacking behind the western economies. There central planning was lazy. Quotas were instated but supervisors found ways around them, workers had no greater incentive to work harder due, and the soviets threw more man power and material at underperforming factories to help make up.

3. Stagnation. The Soviet economy stagnated in the 70s. They were late to innovate and upgrade to keep up with western economies because again the poorly planned economy.

All of this lead to civil unrest in Eastern Europe and the generally negative opinion of the Soviet system. In the end the Soviet Union bled out from the inside trying to maintain a facade that it couldn’t

Check out the series Pandora’s Box (available on BBC iPlayer in the UK).

They have a great episode on the failure of the Soviet attempts at central control and how the ideal was crippled by over complication, bureaucracy and the available technology. Weirdly, what they needed is exactly what Google and Facebook are doing now.

Obviously not the only reason for the collapse by any means but a great insight into the failure of one of their main logistical ideals. Which certainly added to the reasons their economy couldn’t keep up with the capitalist West.

Largely because they went broke. Who would have ever thought however that it would end in such a velvet thud and not in a bloody coup or civil war. For anybody of my age it was just an amazing experience to see it all come so quickly unglued. A loss has to do with the percentages within the Soviet Union and giving them credit. It could have ended it could have ended a lot lot nastier