Furthermore, production in the economy declined as personnel had no incentives to work. From 1976 to 1980, labour productivity was 3.2%, down almost half from 6% in the five years prior (Arnot, 1988). Konstantin Chernenko, in office from 1984-85, fared no better. The GDP growth rate for 1984 was 4%, down from 4.7% in the previous year. The next year the growth rate had plummeted to a mere 1.4% (kushnirs.org, 2013). By the time Mikhail Gorbachev had come into office in 1985, the USSR was in such deep economic instability that even Gorbachev’s radical reforms of Perestroika were not enough. Perestroika weakened the centralised economic system with a limited allowance of private enterprise and a shift in focus to markets (Downey & Smith, 1996). These drastic alterations of the Soviet economic system had little impact which exposed the poor situation Gorbachev had inherited. Clearly, several years of Soviet mismanagement lead to the increased investment in military spending fuelled by the pointless participation in the Cold War and Afghanistan War. This signified an absence of funds available to stimulate domestic development. Attempts were made to recover the economy but it had been damaged beyond repair. With the failure of Gorbachev’s extreme measures in 1991, the USSR saw that its collapse had been inevitable all along.
Social problems also played an important and underestimated role in the USSR’s collapse. Social unrest had peaked under Nikita Khrushchev amongst the widespread manifestations of demonstrations, rallies and protests: “The era witnessed mass disturbances on a scale that was unheard of in later years. Large volumes of critical and oppositional leaflets were distributed in public spaces. People also formed underground political groups and even a few would-be terrorist cells” (Hornsby, 2013). Despite this, no major social improvements were seen during his time in office, nor were there any under Khrushchev’s replacement, Leonid Brezhnev. It was not until 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev took charge, that radical reforms were introduced to try and solve the serious social problems affecting the union. Gorbachev implemented his ‘Glasnost’ programme, which allowed citizens to express their views and opinions without fear of retribution, as a result of the ‘openness’ of the policy (Krieger, Kesselman, Joseph, 2008). The people’s ability to voice their opinions meant there was widespread condemnation of the state for their previous failures. Free from the shackles of the Communist party, the media began to inform the USSR’s public of countrywide issues such as corruption and food shortages. Glasnost also broke down the centralized government system which meant the party’s power and influence decreased. The state had lost control over its angry and resentful public. Inevitably, Soviet states called for independence from Moscow: “The call for independence grew louder in most Soviet republics, and one after another split off in years to come” (Leonard, 2013). The USSR was being geographically dismantled. Glasnost gave people a medium through which to express their opinions and grievances, and this was especially important in external Soviet states where nationalistic feelings were prevalent. The Soviet government’s failed attempts to maintain control serve as evidence to prove that the state had effectively lost its power. Social problems consumed the USSR from within and was ultimately an important factor in its downfall. Decades of state neglect lead to drastic drops in living standards and quality of life, the effects of which would become painfully clear in 1991. Radical reforms such as Glasnost could not repair the damage caused by previous administrations. In light of this, it is clear that the social collapse of the USSR was inevitable.
A never-ending succession of political errors in the decades following 1950 further guided the USSR down the road to collapse. 1950 saw the birth of the Cold War, which was an episode of political aggression and intimidation fought out between opposite factions lead by the US and USSR. The war hosted the arms race, which then spawned the space race (Dickens & Ormrod, 2007). These contests sparked attempts to create and innovate superior modern nuclear weapons and spaceflight technology, which unsurprisingly came at a huge cost. The Cold War distracted the Soviet government from domestic issues, therefore their participation must be called into question. Another political failure which cost the USSR dearly was the inability to make the transition over to informationalism. “Informationalism is a mode of development in which the source of productivity is the capacity to optimize production on the basis of knowledge and information” (Castells, 2000). The Kremlin’s inability to innovate and shift into the modern technological era meant they were forced to resort to alternate methods of innovation: “Theft quickly became the principal way that Russian computing kept pace with the West” (techradar.com, 2009). However, even this method proved ineffective. The Soviet systems were outdated and unsustainable, which is why they were unable to keep up with the West. As a result of the political incompetence of the Soviet state, domestic economic and social issues were overlooked in favor of insignificant contests with the US. Furthermore, the USSR’s failure in making the fundamental technological transition (Castells, 2011) to informationalism meant they were not able to compete with western countries. Evidently, political failures also contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the state had pointlessly invested huge amounts of state resources in the Cold War whilst also failing in attempts to evolve into an informationalist state.
There have been arguments presented which claim the Soviet collapse was not inevitable. The majority of these claims revolve around the belief that Gorbachev’s policies were to blame for the collapse, which implies that had Gorbachev not been in power, the USSR would have survived. Robert Gates, director of the CIA in 1991, said: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was not inevitable in 1991, but was precipitated by Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader who set out to save the Soviet Union and who, instead, destroyed it” (Nuechterlein, 2015). Although it would be easy to blame Gorbachev’s policies for the collapse seeing as they were in use during the USSR’s final years, it would be naïve not to delve further into the causes behind the collapse and accept this simple explanation. Gorbachev had only come into office in 1985, by which time the Soviet Union had been experiencing decades of troubles. Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 the Soviet people had been repressed by a tyrannical regime whose main interests did not coincide with those of its people. The economic and social problems discussed earlier show that the situation in the USSR has progressively worsened after Stalin’s death in 1953. These problems endured the administrations of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. By the time Gorbachev rose to power in 1985, the USSR was a ticking time bomb ready to explode. The fact that his policies Glasnost and Perestroika were not sufficient is not enough to explain the collapse. Had any other leader been in charge, they too would have suffered the same fate. No policy could repair the 38-years worth of damage the Soviet society and economy had suffered. Therefore, it is clear that this argument is invalid and the collapse of the USSR was in fact inevitable.
In conclusion, it is clear that the collapse of the USSR in 1991 was inevitable. The Soviet leadership had committed several mistakes regarding domestic and foreign policy which resulted in the progressive breakdown of the USSR as an empire. Economic reforms were ineffective in stimulating production and the economy continued to falter. Socially, the people of the USSR had spent decades suffering under repressive rule and refused to cooperate with the Soviet Union’s leadership. Through Glasnost, the Kremlin had lost the power to repress its citizens. Moscow had effectively lost its authority and chaos ensued. Political strategy was also completely misguided which triggered the involvement in the Cold War, draining the USSR of most of its resources. Inability to keep up with technological innovation in the form of informationalism also meant the USSR had fallen behind the west and was left with its old, outdated and inefficient systems. Finally, the argument that Gorbachev was to blame is invalid due to the fact that the USSR had already been placed in a position for imminent collapse long before Gorbachev took power, due to economic, social and political factors. The failure of his policies proves this to be true, and it also ultimately proves that the collapse of the Soviet Union was, in fact, inevitable.
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