The only surprising thing about the fall of the Soviet Union is why it took so long. The USSR, the Red Bear, call it what you like, the Soviets may have been the perfect 1980s movie villain and an excellent Cold War foe, but they were doomed to fail from the start.
Despite its near 70-year shelf life, the Soviet Union was a dead man walking. No matter what the “Rocky” films would have you believe, after the Space Race, the Soviet Union was never all that great at anything — and to win the Cold War, they needed to be good at everything. There’s a reason the fall of the Soviet Union came without firing a shot.
Whether it was manpower, resources or money, no one could squander something like the Soviet Union could squander anything. If there was one clear catalyst for the Fall of the Soviet Union, it’s in the Soviet oil sector.
The USSR experienced an oil boom in the 1970s and the money that should have been used to create things like food and luxuries for the Soviet people was wasted on a losing arms race instead. “Give the people what they want” isn’t just a catchy slogan, it’s a necessary aspect of any economy.
With millions of people yearning for freedom, the Soviet Union needed a large military to not only keep people in, it needed a large military to keep Eastern Bloc countries in the Soviet sphere. The Soviet Union had a military more than 5 million strong at its height, and it was needed to intervene in places like Hungary, Czechoslovakia and, of course, Afghanistan.
If there were two clear catalysts for the fall, the second would be its adventure in Afghanistan. Trying to prop up a communist government is the “Graveyard of Empires” not only spent a chunk of that oil money, it cost the USSR 15,000 troops. For comparison, the U.S. has lost 2,300 there in about 20 years.
And the Soviet Union didn’t have it. The Free Market allowed for the economic boom that propelled the United States to superpower status and kept it there. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had to force its citizens to industrialize and reform to meet its needs.
When Americans demanded consumer goods, food and cheap gasoline, the government and the free market responded the Soviets couldn’t believe. When Boris Yeltsin first visited a grocery store, he thought it was a fake setup designed to fool him.
Sure, the free market has its issues, but communism outright sucks. If you need proof, look at China. China’s economy is barely recognizable as communist because if it was, they’d still be wearing Mao suits.
Looking at the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, it’s easy to understand why so many people were looking to the revolution to change their lives. For a lot of Russia’s history, most people were serfs, essentially slaves tied to whatever roles they were born into. So when someone came along promising a government where the workers rule, it probably sounded pretty good.
A couple of famines, forced migrations, and a world world war later, many Russians found themselves back to where they started. Only now, they had a whole new set of problems and now they couldn’t turn to religion to help.
It’s telling that the period under the Soviet Union’s longest ruler, Leonid Brezhnev, is now known in Russia as the Era of Stagnation. Brezhnev allowed Soviet industries to place profits above producing things people actually wanted. So as Soviet citizens stood in lines for food, the Communist Party was lining its pockets with rubles.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, whatever money left in the government’s coffers disappeared into private bank accounts.