Who Saw the Collapse of the USSR Coming?: Clara Ferreira Marques

On Dec. 25, 1991, unable to overcome the blow dealt by a hardline coup months earlier and by independence movements in Soviet republics, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned. The last Soviet leader wanted to reform communism, not replace it, but he was unable to contain the centrifugal forces his reforms had unleashed. The USSR, ailing and dismembered, came to an end.

“The old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working,” he said in his final address, calling on Russia to preserve its hard-earned democratic freedoms. At Russia’s helm, Boris Yeltsin instead revived a system of personal power that has endured.

We asked some of the foremost economists, historians and observers of Russia and the Soviet Union why this collapse surprised so many, and what lessons today’s occupants of the Kremlin — and students of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia — should take from it.

Sergey Radchenko is a historian of the Cold War and Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The reason that few predicted Soviet collapse was that the Soviet Union outwardly appeared to be a mighty military power with an extensive security apparatus. Few observers understood just how little legitimacy the system possessed; that it was eaten away on the inside by the rot of corruption, by the loss of faith in ideology, by the dismal standards of living, and, lastly, by elite in-fighting. It was ultimately elite defection that brought it down — that, and its lack of overall legitimacy. What purpose did the Soviet Union serve, seeing that the building of communism was no longer in the cards?

Putin has tapped into Russian nationalism — a much more potent force for national unity than the Soviets could ever have boasted. As a nation-state, therefore, Putin’s Russia is inherently more stable. Yet it is also plagued by some of the same problems the USSR had, including a deficit of legitimacy (in the absence of free and fair elections), corruption on a scale unseen in the USSR, stagnating standards of living and, as Putin ages, by elite in-fighting. So while Putin’s Russia is highly unlikely to fragment into quasi-independent principalities any time soon, the country has already entered a protracted crisis. The only question is what awaits at the other end, and how violent the transition period will be