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Explaining Soviet collapse

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posted on 2017-10-04, 10:15 authored by NEIL ROBINSON
Explaining the collapse of the Soviet system is different to explaining the causes of perestroika. The causes of perestroika are generally agreed upon: reform was initiated because of economic decline, Soviet loss of international power relative to Cold War rivals, the accumulation of social problems, and the need for political reform to deal with some, if not all, of these problems (see Robinson, 2018, chapter 3). Explanations of Soviet collapse all recognize the range of problems that the USSR faced in the mid-1980s and that led to perestroika. The difference between explanations of Soviet collapse is over whether or not collapse was inevitable, and over the nature and the extent of collapse. The different positions adopted on these questions reflect different understandings of the Soviet system, understandings that have their roots in debates about Soviet power that began (mostly) in the 1960s. These debates were over whether or not the USSR was ‘essentially’ flawed. Was a basic design fault in the USSR as a socio-political system so that it could not evolve? In the view of essentialists ‘the Soviet system collapsed because it was essentially abnormal; stability requires normality, and normality requires consent, but the Soviet reliance on coercion crowded out consent. Thus the nature of the Soviet system made its eventual collapse inevitable and even predictable’ (Harrison, 2001, p.4). Alternatively, anti-essentialists stress that the Soviet system could evolve so that its collapse was contingent on actions taken by the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev. This paper has two main parts. In the first we look at arguments on why the Soviet Union collapsed, contrasting arguments that its demise was inevitable with arguments that its collapse was a matter more of circumstance and the particular decisions that were made between 1985 and 1991. We then move on to discuss the nature of Soviet collapse, to discuss what type of process collapse was. These arguments are not unrelated to discussions about the inevitability of Soviet collapse. However, they do take us in a slightly different direction. The two sets of ideas that are discussed in this second section, namely that the end of the Soviet Union was either a revolution or a part of democratic transition, are neither wholly right. In many ways the nature of Soviet collapse, as opposed to the reasons for it, is still open for debate. Looking at these arguments, however, does show us the range of problems that post-Soviet Russian politicians faced and the limited tools that they had to deal with them as they attempted to reconstruct a political regime and a state.

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