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Why did the Soviet Union collapse? Part 2

Slava The Ukrainian Socialist

Jan 26, 2023

From its birth, the Soviet Union came under attack by imperialist powers who did everything possible to bring about its final and permanent collapse.  Xi Jinping once quipped: “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken.” If you ask anyone who spent time living in the Soviet Union, you are likely to hear such an explanation. But how and when did the foundation of the USSR first begin to crack and crumble? Most of the former-Soviet population would blame not Stalin, as westerners may suspect, but Nikita Khrushchev. But hadn’t Stalin been a dictator, universally despised by his people? In reality, Joseph Vissarionovich was highly-respected and honored by the people of the USSR. Harry Haywood, who witnessed Stalin at work in the Soviet Union, remarked: “When I was in the Soviet Union it was pretty clear to me that Stalin was a man loved by the people. This is no exaggeration. There was a tremendous sense of achievement, an all-pervasive feeling that the country had made great advances, and the people attributed much of this to Stalin’s leadership. I think this was true right up to the war and through the war. Now, when he died in 1953, there was a big trend to the right throughout the world. Khrushchev and his cronies were part of that trend. They had to attack Stalin to achieve their own goals. With all the prestige the man had built up over the years, they really had to vilify him.”

After Stalin died, hundreds of thousands of mourners filled the streets. It was a tragic day for all. Not long after the funeral, Khrushchev, who was eager to gain popularity, initiated a process of historical revisionism of Stalin’s legacy that would erase the decades of progress and achievements of his predecessor and forever change the course of the Soviet Union.

Krushchev's Anti-Stalin Diatribe

John Rettie was the first foreign journalist informed of the details in Nikita Khrushchev's so-called "Secret Speech" to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party denouncing Stalin. Rettie described the sudden, disorienting change: “Stalin was virtually a God to most citizens of the Soviet Union, and suddenly only three years after his death he was made the devil, and this was so shocking to so many people in the Soviet Union and to believing Communists elsewhere in the world.”

We could only speculate as to why the once-loyal comrade of Joseph Stalin betrayed the leader after his death. Had the party not been full of opportunistic bureaucrats concerned only with personal gain, it would have been a brave act to ridicule the late Stalin, the man who for almost thirty years had led the first Socialist state. Stalin had constantly fought the bureaucracy but to no avail. The problem was exacerbated under Khrushchev, who decided to lower the standards of party acceptance after millions died in WWII. Khrushchev’s obsession with blaming everything on Stalin brings to mind Democrats in the US who continue to blame every failure on Trump, even long after he has left office. Most Marxist Leninists agree that it is under Khrushchev’s leadership that things turned very ugly for the USSR. 

Arms Race and Afghan War

Another contributing factor to the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the most alarming feature of the Cold War competition - the nuclear arms race. On July 16, 1945, the U.S. military conducted the world’s first atomic weapons test in Los Alamos, New Mexico. In early August of the same year, American warplanes dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 Japanese people. The USSR scrambled to do everything possible to avert a similar fate and succeeded. Just four years later, the Soviet Union exploded its own nuclear weapon at a test range in Kazakhstan (1949). But the race was just getting started. Next came the development of a new class of weapons, known as thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bombs. This was followed by the militarization of outer space. Each leg of this arms race with the U.S. put a greater burden on the economy of the USSR, diverting time, energy, and resources.

Then came the Afghan War, a trap set by President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. In a 1998 interview with the French paper Le Nouvel Observateur, Brzezinski explained: “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was on July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion, this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” Asked whether he had any regrets, Brzezinski bristled. “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?” (Le Nouvel Observateur, Jan. 15-21, 1998)

Second Economy

A shadow economy in the Soviet Union emerged when the population began engaging in private economic activity for personal gain. The second economy involved workers and farmers making money on the side, sometimes including illegal activity. The private economy that had been restrained by Stalin grew under Khrushchev and exploded under Brezhnev. By the end, the underground market almost replaced the primary socialist economy. The second economy led to widespread corruption and criminality. There is a very popular movie phrase in Russia: “May you live only on your official salary” (from “The Diamond Arm” movie, 1969). So strong was the black market that the curse became widely used, wishing one’s enemies to do what was practically impossible and live with official income only.

Perestroika and Chernobyl

The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 at a nuclear power station in the Soviet Union marked the single worst disaster in the history of nuclear power. The explosion and its aftermath cost the Soviet Union billions in clean-up and rebuilding costs. According to Gorbachev, it was in fact Chernobyl, not Perestroika, that caused the Soviet Union Collapse. Like Khrushchev, he found a scapegoat in the Chernobyl disaster, instead of admitting the role of his failed reforms. Gorbachev’s background made him sympathetic to the second economy. His travel to the West influenced him to be more susceptible to pro-capitalist ideas. He also surrounded himself with social democrat advisers and had only a superficial grasp of Marxist theory. In light of all this, Gorbachev’s policies begin to make sense.

The internal problems leading to the dissolution had deep roots. When World War II claimed the lives of millions of dedicated party members, Khrushchev lowered the standards of party admissions, weakening it further. His anti-Stalinism confused and divided comrades domestically and internationally. As the second economy grew, the increasingly corrupt party bureaucracy did not act to tame it. An aggressive arms race and the Afghan war further weighed down the sinking economy, placing additional burdens on workers. The final nail in the coffin was Gorbachev’s capitulation to the bourgeoisie class. Together with the external factors discussed in the first part of this series, the cumulative effect of all these problems ultimately caused the fall of the USSR.


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