11-12: Collapse of the Soviet Union


end of the ussr

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1982. At that time the Soviet Union was suffering from serious domestic problems most notably food shortages, social unrest and debt. In order to improve the situation Gorbachev instituted reforms. The two most important of which were glasnost, meaning transparency in government, and Perestroika which opened the Soviet system to capitalist reforms.

As he lessened control of the Soviet Union, he also lessened control of the satellite nations. Without the tight fist of the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania all began movements towards solid democratic nations. The power of the Soviet Union was falling apart and they were not strong enough to stop it. More nations began to fight for freedom from Soviet control, but these nations began to come from within the Soviet Union’s borders.

There were more than 100 ethnic groups represented in the old Soviet Union. Russians were the largest, most powerful group. However, non-Russians formed a majority in the 14 soviet republics other than Russia. Ethnic tensions brewed beneath the surface of Soviet society. As reforms loosened central controls, unrest spread across the country. Nationalist groups in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldavia demanded self-rule. The Muslim peoples of Soviet central Asia called for religious reform.

The failed coup attempt in August 1991 was the final straw. Estonia and Latvia quickly declared their independence and formed their own countries. Other republics soon followed. By early December 1991, all 15 republics of the Soviet Union had declared independence. Leaders of some of the new nations met to form a loose agreement of independent nations. On Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev resigned as head of the Soviet Union, a country that no longer existed.


  1. Who is Mikhail Gorbachev?
  2. What is Glasnost and Perestroika?
  3. Why did the Soviet Union not put down rebellions in Poland and Germany like they had in previous decades?
  4. Do you think the collapse of the USSR could have been avoided? Why or why not?