End of the Cold War

End of the Cold War

Collapse of the Soviet Union


By 1982, it was clear the Soviet Union’s economy was failing. Once the breadbasket of the world, the Soviet Union was forced to import grain from the United States starting in the 1970s. Yet, even this development could not predict that in less than a decade, the Soviet Union would cease to exist. In America, Ronald Reagan gambled that if the United States government invested millions of dollars in developing its military, the Soviets would follow suit and that such an investment on the side of the Soviets would lead to their bankruptcy. It was a risky gamble. But the Soviet government continued to invest extensively in new military technology—technology that cost a fortune, even though it did not have the funds for such an expense. Meanwhile, this build-up of the military at the expense of the Soviet economy was a key topic of Soviet politics that drove decisions about leadership.  


Learning Objectives

  • Analyze how and why the Soviet Union collapsed.
  • Examine the impact, internally and abroad, of the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Belavezha Accords: document signed by leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine that ended the Soviet Union

Boris Yeltsin: President of Russia from 1991 – 1999

Chernobyl: nuclear power plant near Pripyat, Ukraine; site of the worst nuclear disaster in world history

fall of the Berlin Wall: monumental event in 1989 that united the two Germanies, and facilitated the end of the Cold War

glasnost: policy of “openness” during Gorbachev years

KGB: main domestic and foreign intelligence and security force for the Soviet Union

Lech Wałęsa: head of the Solidary Movement and in 1990; the President of Poland

Mikhail Gorbachev: last General Secretary of the Soviet Union of liberalizing politics; won Western support and helped bring about an end to the Soviet Union

perestroika: policy of “economic restructuring” during the Gorbachev years

Ronald Reagan: president of the United States during the 1980s

Solidarity Movement: Polish movement that peacefully, and successfully opposed Soviet policies during the 1980s

Ukrainian independence: monumental moment in 1991 when Ukraine peacefully separated from the Soviet Union, thus signaling the collapse of the Soviet Union

Vladimir Putin: President of Russia (2000-2008; 2012-Present)

Yuri Andropov: General Secretary of the Soviet Union from 1982 – 1984


Andropov Years


In November 1982, Yuri Andropov was appointed the new General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Andropov had maneuvered his way into power both through his KGB connections and by gaining the support of the military with his promise not to cut defense spending.  At age 69, he was the oldest General Secretary ever appointed. He would also be the last of the “old guard Soviets”—men who sought to maintain Stalinist ideology in which the Soviet Union was strong, authoritarian, and uncompromising.


Andropov's Domestic Policies


Andropov’s domestic policy leaned heavily towards restoring discipline and order to Soviet society. He rejected radical political and economic reforms. . In tandem with these economic experiments, Andropov launched an anti-corruption drive that reached high into the government and party ranks. This measure was undertaken to preserve and protect Andropov’s power as General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Unlike his political predecessors who possessed several mansions and luxury cars, Andropov lived a modest life.


Yuri Andropov, sixth Secretary General of the Soviet Union.


Andropov began a thorough house-cleaning throughout the Communist party and state bureaucracy, a decision made easy by the fact that the Central Committee had an average age of 69. This fact suggested that the politicians had served under several previous General Secretaries, and that they may not be entirely loyal to Andropov and his policies. He replaced more than one-fifth of the Soviet ministers and regional party secretaries, and more than one-third of the department heads within the Central Committee apparatus. As a result, he replaced the aging leadership with younger, more vigorous administrators. But Andropov’s ability to reshape the top leadership was constrained by his own age and poor health and the influence of his rivals.


Andropov's Relationship wiht the United States


U.S.-Soviet relations deteriorated rapidly beginning toward the end of Andropov’s leadership in March 1983. The first significant blow to the relationship that year was when President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The official Soviet press agency, TASS, accused Reagan of “thinking only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-communism.” Further deterioration occurred when on September 1, the Soviets shot down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007; the plane was carrying 269 people, including a sitting U.S. congressman, Larry McDonald. The incident was further fueled, by Reagan’s stationing of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe. It was a show of force by the United States against the Soviet Union, which was suffering from economic setbacks and internal discontent. Moreover, the U.S. undermined Soviet-supported governments around the developing world by supplying arms to anti-communist resistance movements such as those in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola. .


Andropov's Death


Andropov’s health declined rapidly during the tense summer and fall of 1983, and he became the first Soviet leader to miss the anniversary celebrations of the 1917 Revolution. He died in February 1984 of kidney failure after disappearing from public view for several months. His most significant legacy to the Soviet Union was his discovery and promotion of Mikhail Gorbachev.


A Noblest Man?: Mikhail Gorbachev


In March 1985, the Soviet Union introduced a new General Secretary: Mikhail Gorbachev. The new leader was stately and stocky, nearly bald, and famously had a prominent birthmark on his scalp. Moreover, Gorbachev was relatively young. At the time of his appointment, he was only in his mid-fifties, and of a different generation than all his immediate predecessors. No one knew entirely what to expect from Gorbachev. He was intellectual, but he had a sly humor about him and was frequently self-deprecating. He adored his wife and preferred the comfort of family, sports, and intellectual pursuits to Communist party events. Importantly, he publicly claimed to maintain the Soviet Empire and its Socialist principles, but he also promoted democratization, intellectualism, and a general “openness” in society. To hard core Communists, Gorbachev appeared weak. To others in the Soviet Union, he was the long-awaited hope for restructuring Soviet society.


Mikhail Gorbachev, last Secretary General of the Soviet Union.


Perestroika and Glasnost


With the hope of saving the failing economic and social conditions of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev initiated two critical new policies upon his appointment as General Secretary. The first was his new policy of perestroika (“economic restructuring”) in 1986—one year after his appointment.  This measure pushed away from the Soviet practice of a planned state economy. Instead, Gorbachev proposed a mixed-economy of state and private entities.

Two years later, Gorbachev introduced glasnost (“openness”), which gave the Soviet people freedoms they had not previously known, including greater freedom of speech. The press became far less controlled, and thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were released as part of a wider program of de-Stalinization. Gorbachev’s goal with glasnost was to pressure conservatives who opposed his policies of economic restructuring. At the same time, he exposed his plans to more public criticism.

In June 1988, at the CPSU’s Party Conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms to reduce the Communist party’s control on the Soviet government. He proposed a new executive in the form of a presidential system. He also proposed a new legislative element: the Congress of People’s Deputies. Elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies were held throughout the Soviet Union in March and April 1989. This was the first free election in the Soviet Union since 1917. Gorbachev became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (or head of state) on May 25, 1989.


Discontent across the Soviet Union


By the late 1980s, people in the Caucasus and Baltic states were demanding more autonomy from Moscow, and the Kremlin was losing some of its control over certain regions and elements in the Soviet Union. In November 1988, Estonia issued a declaration of sovereignty, which eventually led to other states doing the same. Then in April 1986, an event occurred that shook the world.

During a test operation, the nuclear reactor core at Chernobyl in Ukraine melted down, creating the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Winds spread the majority of the radiation north and west into Belarus, but smaller amounts of radiation were spread around the world. It is difficult to establish the total economic cost of the disaster. According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union spent 18 billion rubles (the equivalent of USD $18 billion at the time) on containment and decontamination, virtually bankrupting itself in the process.


Photo of the Chernobyl disaster.


One political result of the Chernobyl disaster was the greatly increased significance of the Soviet policy of glasnost. Under glasnost, relaxation of censorship resulted in the Communist Party losing its grip on the media, and Soviet citizens were able to learn significantly more about the past and the outside world. The Soviet media began to expose numerous social and economic problems in the Soviet Union that the government had long denied and covered up, such as poor housing, food shortages, alcoholism, widespread pollution, creeping mortality rates, the second-rate position of women, and the history of state crimes against the population.

Although Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s personality cult as early as the 1950s, information about the true proportions of his atrocities had still been suppressed until Gorbachev’s reign. These revelations had a devastating effect on those who believed in state communism and had not been previously exposed to this information, as they began to realize their driving vision of society was built on a foundation of falsehood and crimes against humanity. Additionally, information about the higher quality of life in the United States and Western Europe and about Western pop culture were exposed to the Soviet public for the first time.

As Gorbachev weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR’s central government to impose its will on the USSR’s constituent republics was largely undermined. During the 1980s, calls for greater independence from Moscow’s rule grew louder. This was especially marked in the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist sentiment also took hold in other Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

Starting in the mid-1980s, the Baltic states used the reforms provided by glasnost to assert their rights to protect their environment (for example during the Phosphorite War) and their historic monuments, as well as strengthen their claims to sovereignty and independence. When the Balts withstood outside threats, they exposed an irresolute Kremlin. Bolstering separatism in other Soviet republics, the Balts triggered multiple challenges to the Soviet Union.


Collapse of the Soviet Union (Summer 1989 to Fall 1991)




Momentum toward full-blown revolution against the Soviet Union began in Poland. In 1980, a Polish, independent trade union was founded in the coastal city of Gdansk; this trade union transformed into  a political party was known as Solidarity. For the first time since the establishment of the Warsaw Pact in 1947, Poland officially recognized the trade union as independent and legitimate. Headed by Lech Wałęsa, roughly one-third of Poland’s working population joined the trade union in support of its freedoms and in opposition to Soviet policies. The organization practiced firm, but largely peaceful, protests to promote workers’ rights and social change. For heading the largely peaceful resistance, Wałęsa won the Nobel Peace Price in 1983. To the shock of neighboring countries, Russia seemed to be doing little to halt Wałęsa or Solidarity.


Symbol of Polish movement, Solidarity.


By 1989, the trade union had expanded to become the Solidarity Movement—a direct challenge to Soviet policy. In 1989, the first free elections since 1947 were held in Poland as a result of the peaceful civil resistance and negotiations of the Solidarity Party. The results were staggering. The Solidarity party received widespread support. And a coalition government was formed. One year later, in 1990, Wałęsa was elected President of Poland.


The Soviet Bloc Dissolves


Revolutionary momentum, encouraged by the peaceful transition underway in Poland, continued in Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. A common feature among these countries was the extensive use of campaigns of civil resistance, demonstrating popular opposition to the continuation of one-party rule and contributing to the pressure for change. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country whose people overthrew its Communist regime violently.


The Fall of the Wall


When Hungary disabled its physical border defenses with Austria on August 19, 1989, it initiated a chain of events that would eventually precipitate the fall of the Berlin Wall. In September 1989, more than 13,000 East German tourists escaped through Hungary to Austria. After that, the Hungarians prevented many more East Germans from crossing the border and returned them to Budapest. Those East Germans were sent to the West German embassy and refused to return to East Germany. The East German government responded to this by disallowing any further travel to Hungary, but allowed those already there to return to East Germany. Soon, a similar pattern began to emerge out of Czechoslovakia. This time, however, the East German authorities allowed people to leave, if they did so by train through East Germany. This was followed by mass demonstrations within East Germany.

Protest demonstrations grew considerably by early November, and the movement neared its height on November 4, when half a million people gathered to demand political change at the Alexanderplatz demonstration, East Berlin’s large public square and transportation hub.

The wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the West kept increasing. This was tolerated by the new government in East Germany because of long-standing agreements with the communist Czechoslovak government that allowed free travel across their common border. However, this movement grew so large it caused difficulties for both countries. And both sides took steps to reduce the exodus of East Germans.


November 9, 1989


On November 9, 1989, Günter Schabowski, the party boss in East Berlin, was preparing to announce new travel regulations that restricted the movements of East Germans. He was not yet aware of the details. Shortly before a press conference began he was handed a note announcing the changes but given no further instructions. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following day to allow time to inform the border guards. But this starting time delay was not communicated to Schabowski. At the end of the press conference, Schabowski read out loud the note he had been given. One of the reporters asked when the regulations would take effect. After a few seconds’ hesitation, Schabowski stated, “immediately.”

The speech by Schabowski was broadcast across East and West Germany. East Germans began gathering at the Wall at the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin, demanding that border guards immediately open the gates. The surprised and overwhelmed guards made many hectic telephone calls to their superiors about the problem, but it soon became clear that no one among the East German authorities would take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force, so the vastly outnumbered soldiers had no way to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens.

Finally, at 10:45 pm, Harald Jäger—the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing—yielded, allowing the guards to open the checkpoints and people to pass through without checking identities. As the Ossis (“Easterners”) swarmed through, they were greeted by Wessis (“Westerners”) waiting with flowers and champagne amid wild rejoicing. Soon afterward, a crowd of West Berliners jumped on top of the Wall and were joined by East German youngsters. Some danced together to celebrate their new freedom. Others still, took hammers out and began the symbolic step of knocking down the border that had separated Germans for twenty-seven years. The fall of the Berlin Wall had finally occurred.


German citizens chisel away at the Berlin Wall, 1989 – 1990.


The Fall of the Soviet Union: August - December 1991


On August 24, 1991, Gorbachev dissolved the Central Committee, resigned as the party’s general secretary, and dissolved all party units in the government. Five days later, the Supreme Soviet indefinitely suspended all party activity on Soviet territory, effectively ending Communist rule in the Soviet Union and dissolving the only remaining unifying force for the Union.

The Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed in the last quarter of 1991. Between August and December, ten republics declared their independence, largely out of fear of another coup. In September 1991, the United Nations Security Council admitted Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by unanimous vote. No longer did the Soviet Union have a stronghold in the Baltics. By the end of September, Gorbachev no longer had the authority to influence events outside of Moscow. He was challenged even there by Yeltsin, who had begun taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin.

The final round of the Soviet Union’s collapse began with Ukrainian unrest. In 1990, Ukrainians formed human chains that linked two of their most important cities, Lviv and Kyiv. The demonstration resulted in sharp, almost universal calls from Ukrainians for independence. On December 1, 1991, 90 percent of voters opted for Ukrainian independence. The same month, Leonid Kravchuk was elected the first President of Ukraine. For the first time since the brief period following World War I, Ukraine was independent and free. The Secession of Ukraine, the second-most powerful republic, ended any realistic chance of Gorbachev keeping the Soviet Union together, even on a limited scale.


Ukrainians forming a human chain.
In 1990, Ukrainians formed human chains, including from Lviv to Kyiv,
to show their commitment to independence.


On December 8, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly met in western Belarus to sign the Belavezha Accords, which proclaimed the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and announced formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States as a looser association to take its place. On December 12, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian states formally ratified the Belavezha Accords and renounced the 1922 Union Treaty. It also recalled the Russian deputies from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Later that day, Gorbachev hinted for the first time that he was considering stepping down.

In a nationally televised speech early in the morning of December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR, or, as he put it, “I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” He declared the office extinct; All of its powers, including control of the nuclear arsenal, were ceded to Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. On the night of December 25, at 7:32 p.m., after Gorbachev left the Kremlin, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time and the Russian tricolor was raised in its place. It symbolically marked the end of the Soviet Union. On that same day, the President of the United States George H.W. Bush held a brief televised speech officially recognizing the independence of the 11 remaining republics.


Conclusion: The Transition to a Market Economy, 1991-2000


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia radically transformed from a centrally planned economy to a globally integrated market economy. Corrupt and haphazard privatization processes turned major state-owned firms over to politically connected “oligarchs,” which left equity ownership highly concentrated. Yeltsin’s program of radical, market-oriented reform came to be known as a “shock therapy.” It was based on the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and a group of top American economists. The result was disastrous, with real GDP falling by more than 40% by 1999, the occurrence of hyperinflation—which wiped out personal savings, and rapidly spreading destitution and crime.

Difficulties in collecting government revenues amid the collapsing economy and a dependence on short-term borrowing to finance budget deficits led to the 1998 Russian financial crisis. It also contributed to Yeltsin’s declining popularity. At such a time of crisis, the Russian people sought a strong leader who could transform Russia and make it strong again. Little did they know that in just two short years, they would elect a man whose political origins stemmed from his service in the KGB, Vladimir Putin.


Inauguration of President Vladimir Putin, 2000.
Behind Putin, Boris Yeltsin watches his successor take the oath of office.






1 of 2