Fall of the Soviet Union and End of the Cold War: Causes & Timeline

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  • 0:03 Fall of the Soviet Union
  • 0:43 Soviet Union Post-Stalin
  • 2:25 Gorbachev
  • 3:48 End of Communism
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we chart the reforms made by Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev attempting to save the Soviet Union and the communist federation's eventual dissolution in 1991.

Fall of the Soviet Union

Often in history, the biggest changes to the status quo are accompanied by large-scale violence. For example, in the centuries-long decline of Rome, the once grand city was violently sacked several times by various Germanic tribes. More recently, it took the deaths of millions of Allied soldiers in the 1940s to finally oust the German dictator and architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler, from his roost in Berlin. It is perhaps most surprising, then, that the Soviet Union, a state that was seconds away from all out nuclear warfare with the United States for decades, ended in a relatively peaceful manner.

Soviet Union Post-Stalin

Though the Soviet Union's demise in the late 1980s and early 1990s may have been peaceful, its past was certainly not. Indeed, from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953, Joseph Stalin terrorized the Soviet populace as the leader of the Soviet Union's Communist Party. Millions of foreigners, right-wing activists, Stalin's political enemies, and many innocents were arrested or exiled. Many were even summarily executed or sent to the far reaches of the Soviet Union to one of the many Soviet Gulag prison camps.

After Stalin's death, the Communist Party sought to 'de-Stalinize' Russia and dismantled some of the military and prison apparatuses constructed during Stalin's time and relaxed some of the regulations Stalin had put in place. With this said, the Soviet Union still maintained direct control over all sectors of the Soviet economy and most facets of everyday Soviet life. It also continued to sponsor the spread of communism worldwide, and maintained a firm grip of control on its Soviet client states.

For example, Soviet troops invaded and violently suppressed a political movement in Czechoslovakia, which attempted to relax regulations on private industry and press censorship in 1968. Additionally, the Soviet Union began competing in an increasingly costly arms race with its chief capitalist enemy, the United States. From shooting satellites into space to developing an enormous stockpile of nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union spent vast sums of money in its bid for technical and military superiority over the U.S.


These policies created several problems for Mikhail Gorbachev, a lifetime Russian politician who became Soviet premier in 1985. The huge expenditure on the military-industrial complex had drained many other sectors of the government and economy, and the central control of the Soviet economy had led to gross mismanagement. Additionally, the air of secrecy that pervaded the Soviet government and the highly hierarchical nature of Soviet political structures made government reorganization nearly impossible.

Gorbachev realized the current economic and political situations within the Soviet Union were unsustainable. As a result, he attempted a modicum of reform. He instituted two major policies: glasnost and perestroika.

Through glasnost, Gorbachev removed many of the barriers to political freedoms the Soviet Union had erected under Stalin and his successors. Glasnost allowed other political parties to run for office (which, prior to glasnost, had not even been allowed to exist), freed some political prisoners, and removed the wholesale censorship of the press. Perestroika, meanwhile, attempted to tackle the myriad economic problems the Soviet Union faced. It relaxed the communist party's firm grip on the economy by allowing workers to organize and letting a select few individuals begin private industries.

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