Last updated on January 1, 2020
On December 26, 1991, the world watched in shock as the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) dissolved, splitting the once mighty Soviet Union into fifteen separate nations. I vividly remember watching the news broadcasts and seeing the flag of the Soviet Union lowered for the last time. It was the end of an era highlighted by the Cold War in which Washington and Moscow viewed each other as a threat to world peace. Paranoia, suspicion and espionage propelled the two to the brink of nuclear war on several occasions. In October, 1962, the world watched in gut-wrenching suspense as the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up and threatened to be the spark that ignited the next world war. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) found their selves in a situation that could have resulted in the physical destruction of half the planet within a matter of minutes. Diplomacy eventually prevailed through the use of back door channels encouraged by the realization of figures in both governments that the looming showdown would produce no winners. Tensions between the two super powers cooled but never full subsided and as the dissolution of the USSR played out on television, Washington closely monitored the events while re-examining its global position as Russia emerged from the post-Soviet empire as the country to watch. Twenty-eight years later, the USSR is still recalled as one of the greatest powers in history. Its fall was earth shattering and left so many wondering, how and why did it happen?
Author Chris Miller is an Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And here in this investigative report into the struggle to save the Soviet economy, he explores and explains why the USSR met its demise. The story is focused on the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev who is the head of an empire that is struggling financially. Failed Marxist policies and hard-liner policies have become anchors that are weighing the USSR down heavily. Its neighbor China, has found a solution that has allowed it to move away from the policies of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) known as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Under a new leader, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), China chartered a new course that allowed more economic freedom to ignite the nation’s struggling economy. While never fully leaving its Marxist ideology, China does in fact go through an economic rebirth and in the process becomes part of the “Asian Tigers”, joining Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. In the USSR many eyes were watching and Miller perfectly explains the resurgence of the Asian markets and how they have grown into the financial hubs they are today. But this story is about the USSR which found itself in a similar position as China and sought to emulate the success of its left-leaning ally.
As the author wades deeper in the scenes taking place in the Kremlin, we become witnesses to the struggle Gorbachev became engulfed in with his own government. Incredulously, he was not allowed to see the USSR’s budget nor was he privy to significant information held by the Soviet Army and the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). The hold over the country by the military and intelligence apparatus is strikingly clear and highlights the uphill battle that Gorbachev was forced to fight as he struggled to save the economy.
It is said that old habits die a hard death and in the case of the USSR, this was painfully true. Miller shows the stubbornness of the old guard who clung to ideology in order to maintain the status quo even as the country slid closer to implosion. The arguments that are put forth against Gorbachev are at some points mind-boggling and mind-numbing. Little by little, Gorbachev becomes a man on his own whose radical ideas fly in the face of what the hard-liners believed to be true Marxism. Unwilling to waver from their commitment to the memories of Karl Marx (1880-1883) and Fredrich Engels (1820-1895), they oppose Gorbachev at nearly every turn and the USSR becomes an empire at war with itself. To the west much of this was hidden until the very last-minute, but to those inside the USSR, signs that all was not well had been growing for decades. But officials in high positions continued to cling to the hope that the economy could miraculously be revived. Realists knew otherwise but life in the Soviet Union did not permit dissension. And those who went against the system sometimes paid the ultimate price. One of the true ironies in the book is the parallel between Gorbachev and the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924).
At times the story is beyond shocking but the author’s clarity in explaining the mistakes consistently being made behind the scenes, is a concise step-by-step guide to show the inevitable fate that awaited Moscow. Gorbachev probably did not realize just how fierce opposition would be but when the failed coup took place in August, 1991, the realization that the left and right had lost their minds must have been crystal clear. The nation could not survive another period reminiscent of the era of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the meltdown at Chernobyl was still fresh in the memories of many. To the Soviet Republics, these were more examples of Moscow’s growing incompetence and the urgency for independence. The Soviet Republics would play their own part in the fall of the USSR but for the most part, Moscow continued to make many mistakes on its own. Tragically, the Soviet Union could have and should have saved itself, but failed to take action that would have spared it from certain doom.
Today, the Soviet Union is an afterthought for many of us and for the younger generation, a relic of a time that existed before they were born. But we should never forget the role the USSR played in the events that changed world history over the past one hundred years. It no longer exist, but the ghosts of the former Soviet Union continue to haunt many. An empire that should have continued to dominate half a continent collapsed under its own weight and for reasons that will surprise and shock many readers. This is a relevant and informative account of the final years of the once mighty Soviet Union.