collapse of the USSR

The collapse of the USSR took place in fairly dramatic fashion over the course of 1989–1991, following attempts by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gor­ba­chev to reform its economic and political system (perestroika and glastnost, respectively). It’s sort of hard to go past this excellent answer on /r/AskHistorians(external link) that explains what happened in just the right amount of detail, so go check that. But very simply:

  • Gorbachev’s reforms led to a rise in nationalist sentiment and inter-ethnic conflict (e.g. civil war between Azerbaijan and Armenia).
  • The party’s “old guard” were not happy with these reforms leading to such outcomes, so to circumvent them, Gorbachev increasingly created new institutions to bypass them (e.g. President of the USSR, and mirrors at the constituent republic level like President of Russia). The new institutions declared that the republics were able to declare laws overruling USSR-wide laws, and that they also had ultimate control over resources (e.g. military, industry, finances) within their own territory. By 1990 Gorbachev was getting scared that they were outgrowing his ability to control them, so he tried to pull back, but it was too late.
  • Another group of politicians (most prominently Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia) were also unhappy with Gorbachev’s reforms because they felt like they didn’t go far enough. They were especially unhappy once he started trying to pull back.
  • To try to salvage the union, Gorbachev tried to renegotiate the 1922 treaty holding the USSR together (but some republics – the Baltic states, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan – refused to even negotiate, having no interest in remaining part of the USSR).
  • Before the replacement treaty could be implemented, there was a coup attempt by hardline elements of the Soviet establishment. It doesn’t seem like they had a very coherent plan – it seems to have gone like 1) force Gorbachev to stop the reforms; 2) ???????; 3) the system is back to how it was in 1985, hooray! At any rate their coup attempt failed, seemingly because they were unable to stomach the violence required to see it through when Gorbachev didn’t just immediately cooperate with them.
  • Boris Yeltsin had played a key role in convincing military units in Moscow not to cooperate with the coup, and emerged from the attempt with significantly increased influence.
  • Immediately after the coup, Boris Yeltsin outlawed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union within Russian territory (!) and seized all of their obviously considerable assets. He also “absorbed” other Soviet institutions within Russian territory.
  • Also within days of the coup, the remaining republics of the USSR declared independence, lest they be absorbed completely into Russia. Boris Yeltsin and pretty much every other Russian or Soviet leader was shocked and appalled, and Yeltsin tried to argue that Russia would need to renegotiate its borders with Ukraine and Kazakhstan then, but ultimately no border changes took place and those countries declared independence by the end of 1991 (see this answer(external link) for more on that).
  • It took until 1993 for the USSR military to be completely disbanded, with units mostly being absorbed into the new militaries of the countries in which they were based.

The aftermath of the collapse of the USSR were calamitous for Russia, with 50% of the population living below the hunger line at one point. The healthcare system collapsed, the economy collapsed, life expectancy took a massive hit, there was an exodus of Russians emigrating to countries like the USA, Israel or Australia, and so forth. It wasn’t really until after Putin became president in 2000 that things started to recover in any way in Russia – which perhaps helps to explain his popularity which is otherwise difficult to understand considering he’s a nasty small-minded tyrant.

The USSR’s collapse was also pretty devastating for other constituent countries; Ukraine’s GDP, for example, had dropped 60% by 1999 and had only nearly reached its 1989 level when Russia invaded in 2022. Life expectancy took a big hit in Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine as well as Russia, and even as of 2016, the average Belarusian, Ukrainian or Russian could barely expect to live any longer (just a year or so) than one of their compatriots in 1989. The hit to life expectancy was more severe in the European successor states than the Central Asian one though, apparently due in large part to the higher rates of alcoholism (see relevant Jacobin article(external link)).

The article also talks about the changes in social attitudes, with a sense of collective responsibility replaced by selfish individualism – whereas it used to be seen as the state’s obligation to provide housing and social services for the poor, now it’s seen as the fault of the poor person themselves. A big new adherence to the toxic ideology of the “deserving poor” vs the “undeserving poor”.