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Assignment: The Soviet Union

Assignment: The Soviet Union

Assignment: The Soviet Union


Eastern Europe abruptly abandoned Communist rule in 1989, ahead of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Thereafter, democracy and privatization (the process of turning formerly state-run enterprises over to the private sector) advanced rapidly in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, as well as in the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia). Romania and Bulgaria have followed suit, but at a slower pace. The former East Germany is a special case, having merged with West Germany in 1990.

Russia: Old Habits Die Hard

As the 1990s began, the Soviet Union stood as one of the last of the world’s great empires (see Figure 8.1). The Stalinist state that remained in place until 1991 displayed all the classic features of totalitarian rule, including centralized control over the armed forces, the media, and the economy; a dominant monopoly party; an official ideology; and a systematic program of terror against suspected political opponents and the mass murder of innocents deemed unworthy (or dangerous) by the regime. The story of how the former Soviet Union emerged from the long dark winter of totalitarianism provides the essential background for understanding the nature of Russian politics today.

The Decline and Fall of a Superpower

When Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, the Soviet Union faced daunting political and economic problems. The USSR was falling behind the West and, looking east, the People’s Republic of China was stirring. Gorbachev recognized the need for radical reforms; and because the Communist Party monopolized power, he made a risky decision—a kind of wager with the devil—to transfigure the Soviet political system in order to save it.

From the time Lenin assumed power in 1917, the Soviet Union had featured a command economy in which all important economic decisions (such as what and how much was to be produced and so on) were made at the uppermost level of the Communist Party. Competition, the pursuit of profits, and most forms of private ownership were forbidden as inconsistent with the tenets of Communism.