All Around the World


Why did the Soviet Union Collapse

By: Robert Strayer

Robert W. Strayer specialized in African, Soviet, and World History when teaching at Universities. His teachings led to him earning the Chancellor’s Award for excellence in teaching and for Excellence in Scholarship at the State University of New York College at Brockport.

How the Soviet Union Collapsed

By: David Castro

It was the fall of a Great Empire. Rivaling the U.S. throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union ended in an abrupt demise. It is a controversy on what could’ve caused this enormous world power to fall so quickly in a span of a couple of years. Professor Robert Strayer discusses the end of the U.S.S.R. in his book Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse. Going into the detail of the beginnings and ends of the Soviet Union, Strayer aims at answering the question.

In the beginning, Strayer introduces the notion of the why the Soviet Union fell. The introduction brings out the overall basis of the book and explains the discussions on the fall of the U.S.S.R. It was because of the rise of nationalism, downturn of the economy, and Gorbachev reforms with Glasnost. Strayer mentions all these explanations on the downfall and then goes straight to where communism took power. He connects the reasons of the fall on Lenin and Stalin, explaining how Stalinism utilized a totalitarian government for setting up the Soviet Union: “Among the features of old Russia that shaped Soviet and post-Soviet society, none was more significant that its autocracy.”1 The basis of the Soviet Union was built on fear and brainwashing of citizens and when Gorbachev brought on Glasnost, it allowed people to come out from that fear and criticize the past and present governments of the U.S.S.R. There is also the discussion of the Russian Revolution with the Bolsheviks coming into power, and the rise of the Communist Party; he connects the beginning of Communist Russia and state of the Soviet Union at the end. Strayer explains what Marxism was about and how the Russian Revolution left these legacies. Then there is the idea of the U.S.S.R. was doomed from the start. The groundwork Russia built the Soviet Union was ready to crumble as soon as the first piece was placed. He asks the question of the U.S.S.R. being ready to crumble from the beginning, but doesn’t actually answer it. Instead he leaves other questions of how come it didn’t collapse during the 60’s and why the late 80’s, and why it collapsed so quickly. There is no answer, but instead finishes with “The debate continues.”2

The quarter of the book dives into the Khrushchev with the end of Stalin. Khrushchev wanted to de-Stalinized all of the Soviet Union. The fear and order Stalin imposed was being renounced. Strayer explains this as the point where people start to become more open-minded: “The whole atmosphere of reform, innovation, and greater freedom inspired a generation of younger, educated people…among them were many of the leaders and supporters of perestroika.”3 Since Stalin was now being criticized for his actions, the previous leader of the U.S.S.R. who ruled with an iron fist, people now question what else is wrong with Soviet Union. Westernization leaked into all of the Soviet Union where people wanted to dress like the Westerners, and listen to Rock n Roll; rebellion was coming to all of the U.S.S.R. The black market, an illegal place to buy western goods, and became ever more popular during this time since the Soviet Union lagged heavily behind other countries around the world. A world power was struggling with nations like Korea, Japan, and other countries who accelerated their technological advances. There was also a heavy rise in corruption among officials where they abused their power they had in the party to acquire more wealth. Brezhnev then comes, and with him is the freedom these older officials have. Corruption for them increases since they have nothing to fear since Brezhnev wasn’t there to attack them and remove them from power like they feared before with Stalin and Khrushchev. These men who are past their prime now had the ability to hold onto their power for a long time which attributed to the fall of the Soviet Union since they were there until the late 80’s. There were no new minds able to enter in power.

In the latter half of the book, Strayer delves into Gorbachev coming into power and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. Gorbachev came into power with the desire to change things because he knew with the way things were going the Soviet Union would fall. Glasnost and Perestroika are constantly brought up throughout the book, but are now finally explained. Its effects would be disastrous for the U.S.S.R. because Glasnost was the basis of people having a voice in the government. The country was built on the silencing of people (the Iron Curtain) and now that people have a voice, everything toppled down. Strayer explains how at first writers started to talk about the government and how change was needed, but as time progressed during Gorbachev’s rule, people started to criticize more and more. Instead of criticizing just Stalin, people were now criticizing Lenin, and how the U.S.S.R. ideas were wrong: “Attacks on Stalin turned into criticism of Marx, Lenin, and the revolution itself, discrediting the entire Soviet experience.”4 There is the repeal of the 6th act which allowed for more than one party, bringing a struggle now since there was the Democratic Party taking anchor. Before the 6th act there was never any competition for the Communist Party. Now with there being a rivalry for the Communist Party, there is a struggle within the Soviet Union where people are expressing their distaste for the Communist Leaders. The economy was at a downturn as the revamp in the economics didn’t work bringing on even more inflation. Everything was going wrong where Gorbachev was in a struggle to push reforms with people who did not desire change while others wanted change faster. Failure in Afghanistan (the Russian Vietnam War) brought on more criticism on the government as they were struggling in a war leading to countless losses in lives. Western ideas were constantly being broadcasted among the Soviet citizens with radios becoming more common. People were becoming more educated, and this fear that the party had on them wasn’t there anymore as they had a voice because of Glasnost. They were given a taste of freedom and now they wanted more.

The end is completed with the explanation on the rise of nationalities, and the summary on the finals days of the Soviet Union. Strayer explains the main nationalities that lead to the downfall of the U.S.S.R.: Russia, Ukraine, Baltic, Caucasian, and Central Asian. Nationalities were emerging throughout the Soviet Union that it got to the point where everyone was discriminating against others, wanting it to be their own individual country: “…none were more acute, or potentially threatening, than those from the Soviet Union’s fifteen constituent republics, for those national awakenings called into question the very existence of Soviet Statehood.”5 Even Russians, who were treated as the main race in the U.S.S.R., wanted like the others to be separated from the other states. Ukraine who was considered like Russia’s little brother declared their sovereignty, which led to many other states wanting to declare theirs. There was a failure in how the Soviet Union didn’t feel united together as States, but instead wanted to be separated from each other. Yeltsin, leader of the Democratic Party in Russia, challenged Gorbachev constantly, leading to a power struggle where Gorbachev was not popular in Russia. Conservatives were constantly fearful of change where the rich and powerful didn’t want for things to go towards a progressive era. Then came the coup where KGB, military, and other high ranking power officials lead a coup against Gorbachev where they demanded he declare a state of emergency giving them all the power. Gorbachev refused and so they took the power from him forcefully, but all of over world did they not see this as the official government. Yeltsin then took the initiative of this seize power by ending the coup and saving Gorbachev. Gorbachev was done for where he was in the hands of Yeltsin and everyone saw the Communist Party as weak and filled with corruption. All that was left for Gorbachev was to resign and bid farewell.

Strayer believed the Soviet Union ended because the groundwork the U.S.S.R. was built on wasn’t stable. His statement of, “…this book focuses primarily on those historical changes that led to the demise of the Soviet Union,”6 shows that the change that the Soviet Union needed wasn’t possible since it stood on fragile groundwork. The U.S.S.R. suffered from leaders imposing their will upon the people, Stalin, who oppressed the people to keep them in control, but that wasn’t possible with the change the Soviet Union needed. Strayer further states, “The Gorbachev reforms merely exposed that fragility for all to see…”7 Gorbachev was unable to fix the problems because the system was as broken as it could be. Strayer constantly relates his discussion to this idea because he starts with Stalin and Lenin and keeps relating it to Gorbachev and how his reforms could not fix the Soviet Union. While he does attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union to other things such as economy, politics, and nationalism, the way the U.S.S.R. was set up caused these problems. It was a bomb ready to explode at any moment is how Strayer emphasizes his belief.

From a personal point of view, Strayer keeps his hands well out of it. There aren’t any personal goals or other ideas that appear prominent throughout the book where bias may occur. Everything is given forward to the reader’s belief while he does ask rhetorical questions to stir the reader’s mind towards a certain direction; those questions don’t have any advantage to them of being biased—the questions merely stir the reader’s mind to think upon a greater level. For example, “Might a more sequenced approach delaying political change until a market economy took hold, have prevented the Soviet Union’s disintegration? But without the pressure of Glasnost and democratization, could substantial economic reforms have been implemented at all?”8 These type of questions don’t sway a person’s mentality, but instead give a way of thinking about the subject. Strayer gives a perspective, but then counters it with an alternative argument. Both sides are given for the most part. He informs the reader of the subject, and doesn’t push for an agenda. To the knowledge of the reader, Strayer appears to give an objective point of view, but also argue his own idea of how the Soviet Union ended. The reader is given the facts, and it is up them to decide on the question—what caused the Soviet Union to fall.

The book was published in 1998, seven years after the end of the Soviet Union. The book being in the writing during the decade the U.S.S.R. fell is positive since the information shouldn’t be vague. If anything it should be accurate, but since it was written quite close to the end of the Soviet Union this book might have outdated information. More revelations could have arisen, making the book not fully up to date. During this time there wasn’t anything that could actually affect really the book. The only thing that could maybe have an effect is that during this time there was the restructuring of many of these countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, but this is not relevant in what the book has to say since it is more about what happened before the end of the U.S.S.R. Strayer provides a lot of background, including a lot of factual information about the U.S.S.R., although being written shortly after the end of the Soviet Union. Historians have reviewed the book to be optimal to read. Cited as a, “…Book that would be excellent for any undergraduate…”9 Historian Harold J. Goldberg compliments the sections of “Questions and Controversies,” saying how it helped stimulate the reader’s mind from what could be just factual information they stuffed into their head. Leaving only compliments for the book, Goldberg finishes off his review with, “…A welcome addition to the literature of this subject.”10 Historian Pal Kolsto has similar things to say about the writings of Strayer: “…Make an effort to keep students’ attention by writing in a lively style and using good illustrative examples, and Strayer has.”11 Also describing the book perfect undergraduate students, Kolsto does have some of negative feedback to give though. Criticizing the factuality of some information, Kolsto points out certain statistics and documents being referenced weren’t correct or didn’t have the correct story on what was going on. Kolsto does see the inaccuracies as, “Unfortunate,”12 giving off the impression that the minor errors weren’t enough to stain the book, but instead finishes with, “Strayer’s book is a most welcome addition to the stock of contemporary texts on the country that once was the Soviet Union.”13

Overall, the book does complete the basis of the title. While it does jump from topic to topic sometimes without fully explaining the idea behind that passage, the book is meant for college level students who do have some background in Russian History. This book is merely meant to give students or readers a perspective on why the Soviet Union collapsed, and it does accomplish that. It tries to stimulate the reader’s minds about the ‘why the Soviet Union fell.’ Each chapter has this section of “Questions and Controversies,” which encourages readers to think out of the box on the discussions that took placed in that chapter. Strayer wants the reader to think and use the knowledge they have to stimulate some of their own ideas and come up with their own theories. This book enlightens the readers on the fall of the Soviet Union, being a recommended read to those who are interested.

The big idea this book aims at solving is the ‘Why the Soviet Union Collapsed,’ but that isn’t the only question being asked. A constant thought always being referenced back to is “…The Soviet collapse took place within a few years and with relatively little violence…Ottoman Empires, for example, endured in decline for centuries.”14 Strayer is always going back to questions like these, relating the Soviet Union to previous empires that fell by themselves. The Soviet Union was built on such a shaky platform that it collapsed at the first moment of change. While other large civilizations at least had groundwork that could support itself, but was withering away with age themselves. Everything about this book questions the uniqueness of the Soviet Union; it brings up the question on whether the demise of the Soviet Union was unique, and answers itself with a yes. This empire fell because the first moment Gorbachev tried to bring the Soviet Union back on track, it was already too late that the Soviet Union collapsed at first notice.

Strayer explains the reasons for the end of the Soviet Union. Discussing the problems the Soviet Union faced, Strayer provides his perspective on the collapse. The book completes the objective of explaining why the Soviet Union fell.

[1] Strayer, Robert. Why did Soviet Union Collapse. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1998. 21
[2] Strayer, Robert. 37
[3] Strayer, Robert. 39
[4] Strayer, Robert 102,
[5] Strayer, Robert 174-5
[6] Strayer, Robert. 3
[7] Strayer, Robert. 36
[8] Strayer, Robert. 121
[9] Goldberg, Harold J. “Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?, History: Reviews of New Books,” 27:2, 79-79, (1999)
[10] Goldberg, Harold J. “Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?, History: Reviews of New Books,” 27:2, 79-79, (1999)
[11] Kolsto, Pal. “Reviewed Work(s): Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? Understanding Historical Change by Robert Strayer,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Mar., 1999), pp. 352-353. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
[12] Kolsto, Pal. “Reviewed Work(s): Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? Understanding Historical Change by Robert Strayer,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Mar., 1999), pp. 352-353. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
[13] Kolsto, Pal. “Reviewed Work(s): Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? Understanding Historical Change by Robert Strayer,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Mar., 1999), pp. 352-353. Taylor & Francis, Ltd
[14] Strayer, Robert. 13