Essay: The cold war and the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union

The formal dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred on December 26, 1991. It signaled an end to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. ‘In December of 1991, as the world watched in amazement, the Soviet Union disintegrated into fifteen separate countries. ‘Its collapse was hailed by the west as a victory for freedom, a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism, and evidence of the superiority of capitalism over socialism’ (The Cold War Museum). The pre and post-Soviet Union/U.S. relationship has always been strained, but continued progress towards the development of mutual understanding will always evolve in both expected and unexpected ways. Understanding the rise and fall of this relationship might be the key to maintaining positive relationships in the future.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 marked the start to the formation of the Soviet Union. Nicholas II of Russia was overthrown during this revolution, which ended three hundred years of Romanov dynasty. Led by Vladimir Lenin, a Russian communist revolutionary, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd and overthrew the Provisional Government. A civil war had begun which led to the establishment of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. Local communists were able to seize power with help from the Red Army, leading to the formation of the Soviet Union.
Two years after the USSR was established, Lenin, who became the first leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), died unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage. Following his death in 1924, fellow revolutionary, Joseph Stalin, came to power. Stalin was an authoritarian ruler who sought to turn the USSR from a peasant society into an industrial and military superpower; however, ‘he ruled by terror, and millions of his own citizens died during his brutal reign’ (Joseph Stalin, 2009). He went against anyone that disagreed with him and had them executed, this included people of power that were close to him. It was estimated that Stalin sentenced millions of people to death by means of torture, labor camps, purges, manufactured famines, and mass murder. Under his brutal 30-year rule, the people of the Soviet Union had no freedoms. Even though he was known for establishing a cruel and strict policy, he quickly gained complete control of the entire country. By doing so, this allowed him to maximize the abundance of all resources and energies throughout the country. The Soviet Union immediately saw many improvements during this time, such as industrial and agricultural development.
The war in Europe was evolving between Adolph Hitler of Germany, and France and Britain. France and Britain were concerned about Hitler and the fact that he was secretly trying to build up his army and weapons. They were also uneasy about the spread of communism. With the tensions high in Europe and the impending threat of Nazi, Germany, Stalin made what he thought would be a preemptive move. He signed a non-aggression pact with Adolph Hitler in hopes of keeping the Soviet Union out of harms way if a war in Europe erupted. This agreement stated that both countries would take no military action against each other for ten years. Stalin knew that war with Germany would be inevitable, but at least this gave him time to build up his army and prepare. ‘Hitler believed as part of his racial fantasies that communism had been invented by the Jews as part of a plan to take over the world. Consequently, it was inevitable that he would invade Russia.’ (Vashem, 2012). Hitler also used this agreement to make sure Germany would be able to invade Poland, which would then allow the Soviet Union and Germany to divide independent Poland between them. Many of Stalin’s military commanders tried to warn him of Hitler’s integrity and the fact that Germany was already at Russia’s eastern front, but he chose to ignore them.
On September 1, 1939, German forces, under control of Hitler, invaded Poland. Britain and France were not convinced that Hitler was actually invading due to defensive action, thus, World War II began. WWII took a toll on Germany and depleted it resources quickly. Even though the pact between the Soviet Union and Germany had already been signed, Hitler saw the Soviet Union with their resources intact and decided it was the time to invade. Hitler had a general hatred for the Jews, but what he hated more was communism. In 1941, only two years after Germany and the Soviet Union signed the pact, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. While Germany depleted the Soviet Union’s aircraft defense in the initial invasion, what they did not account for was Stalin’s troop reserves. Stalin also made a clever move by either destroying or moving any of his own resources in order to prevent the Germans from using them. This hindered the Germans greatly, especially since winter was approaching.
The United States had initially refused to stand by the Soviet Union due to the pact with Germany; however, when the Nazi’s invaded the Soviet Union, American attitudes began to change. ‘Under the Lend-Lease Act, the United States sent enormous quantities of war materiel to the Soviet Union, which was critical in helping the Soviets withstand the Nazi onslaught’ (The United States, the Soviet Union, and the End of World War II, 2005). The Soviet Union was then able to begin a massive counteroffensive against Germany and eventually expel the Nazi’s.
While the death toll between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union may have hindered both sides, the Soviet Union came out victorious and was able to extend its borders into Eastern Europe capturing Berlin in 1945, and establishing the Eastern Bloc in much of Central and Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union quickly became one of the two largest superpowers along with the United States. ‘On August 15, 1945, World War II was over. A new age of nuclear weapons had begun, and a cold war between the two superpowers that emerged from the war’the United States and the Soviet Union’would result in many “surrogate wars” in the decades to come, wars fought in and between nations backed by one side or the other.'(
Many thought that the United States and the Soviet Union were allies in WWII, but this was only because they had a common enemy, Nazi Germany. Once restructuring of Europe began after WWII, a power struggle began between the United States, who wanted a more democratic rule, and the Soviet Union, who wanted to infringe communism on Germany and surrounding countries. Seeing as neither side wanted to go to war after WWII, they termed this new power struggle, The Cold War. ‘The Cold War was at once an ideological, political, economic, cultural, military, and strategic contest between the United States and its allies on one hand, and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other’ (Atkinson).
The Cold War began following the end of WWII. The conflicts that occurred between the capitalists, which included the United States, and the communists, led by Soviet Union, put the world on the brink of war. During this time, Americans feared communism and saw it as a threat to their freedom. The fear eventually led to paranoia in the United States and became known as the Red Scare. ‘Because of the struggle against the Soviet Union, anticommunism moved to the ideological center of American politics. The cold war transformed domestic communism from a matter of political opinion to one of national security’ (Schrecker, 2002). Widespread fears of communism swept through the United States. The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb making it an extreme threat. Joseph McCarthy, an American politician, added to the growing hysteria accusing thousands of Americans of being communists and they became the subjects of aggressive investigations and questioning while having to stand trial.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, a de-Stalinization period began and The Cold War tensions had temporarily ceased. “The Communist Party remained the sole political force in the Soviet Union, but decades of post-Stalinist economic reforms left the Soviet empire with a seemingly robust economy and an increased standard of living for Soviet citizens’ (Hyder, 2004). Nikita Khrushchev, a Russian politician, aimed to take his place. Khrushchev believed in ending The Cold War. He even surprised the world by saying that he wanted to clean out the Communist Bloc. Despite the declarations that Khrushchev made, the Cold War seemed to get worse. Even though he was a devoted communist, he continued to criticize Stalin and wound up destabilizing the Soviet-Bloc governments Stalin set up in Eastern Europe. He stood for a peaceful coexistence but made it clear that he was not going to allow freedom to the Soviet-bloc countries. The time between 1955-1963 signaled the greatest tension, as the presence of America and Britain in West Berlin became a huge problem for Russia. Khrushchev eventually ordered that a wall be built between East and West Berlin and closed the border. This became a huge symbol for The Cold War.
Another problem during this time that led to increased tensions was the arms and space race. The hydrogen bomb was first built by the United States with the Soviet Union right behind them sending into space the first space satellite called Sputnik. This was rivalry at its finest. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States at the time and organized a talk with Khrushchev about a potential nuclear weapons ban, but an American U-2 spy plane had crashed in Soviet territory and Khrushchev backed down.
During this time, there were many happenings taking place. The Berlin Wall was causing the population to decrease dramatically due to emigration and defection. The Vietnam War had also begun causing turmoil between by the United States, French, and South Vietnamese against the North Vietnamese, supported by the Russians and Chinese. The Cuban Missile Crisis was also taking place, which occurred because the Soviet Union placed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launchers in Cuba. It caused the United States to create an embargo on Cuba and they threatened to blow up the world if the Soviets didn’t remove their weapons.
Krushchev’s policies were aimed to better the lives of the Soviet Union’s people; however, they were ineffective and agriculture suffered the most. Unfortunately, he ruled during the tensest time of the Cold War, but he was seen as an erratic leader and was eventually overthrown in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev.
Early on in Brezhnev’s rule, the economy was starting to slowly improve. The oil, chemical, and gas industries allowed for increased exports, and the middle-class was growing in size allowing for an increase in the average salary. “The availability of medical care, higher education, and decent accommodation reached levels unprecedented in the Soviet context. But the income from the sale of Russia’s natural resources also allowed the Soviet regime to evade undertaking necessary but potentially politically dangerous structural economic reforms.(“
The Soviet Union entered a period of stagnation, also known as the “Era of Stagnation” in which everything stood still. Growth in resources had slowed greatly. The Soviet economy was in crisis. They suffered from a lack of technological advances, poor quality production of goods, and they were unable to keep any workers. The arms race between the US and the Soviet Union also took its toll. A lot of money was spent on the space and military program just trying to keep up with the US. “As the competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union became more intense, it was obvious that both powers could not coexist and that one economic system had to be proven superior over the other. Democracy prevailed, as socialism led the Soviet Union to a serious downfall. ” (Yermenia)
This time period and economic crisis did not just happen instantaneously, but Brezhnev ultimately failed to modernize the economy, which proved to be a big factor in decline. He also introduced a new social contract that was aimed to provide equality at the expense of social mobility. Unfortunately, he created the perfect breeding ground for stagnation. The people of the Soviet Union no longer had incentives to achieve self-improvement as the contract removed rewards for doing so and wages were disproportionate.
The 1980s was a time that led to major changes for the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s reform, the United States’ strategic defense initiative, and the expense of maintaining the Soviet’s allies all led to the disruption to the balance of power. Mikhail Gorbachev was the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, in his first years in office, “believed that peaceful coexistence was the option of common sense and that socialism and capitalism could coexist without interfering with each other” (Zubok, 2010.) Gorbachev tried to carry out a series of new economic and political reforms, also known as perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) to pull the Soviet Union out of the era of stagnation. Both of these reforms; however, would eventually fail.
The Soviet Union was facing serious and economic problems, which contributed to the decline in living standards and the gradually decreasing growing ration of gross national product in the late 1970s to 1980s. After being elected as General Secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union in 1985, he soon began to realize there was an urgent need for a reform, which would speed up the rate of economic growth and improve the living standard. This is where Perestroika was carried out. It was a reform that changed the economic system from an authoritarian one to a democratic one. This plan of transformation was not one to completely change the planned economy to a market economy, but to make socialism more efficient and more effective. It aimed to improve the efficiency in the use of its resources, raise the quality of its products, enhance the competitiveness of its manufacturers in the Western Market, and narrow the widening of the technological gap with the West. It became more of a market-like economy in which the central planning of the economy had ceased and people had the freedom to plan production and private ownership was permitted. What it failed to do, however, was make the breakthrough that Gorbachev hoped. It created a worsening condition, bringing the country into major crises involving the consumer market.
Because of this, the economic and political system had collapsed which was the eventual cause to the end of the Cold War. There were many reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the end of the Cold War and the instillation of a new, youthful leader, were the core factors that shook both the planned economy and the communist ruling of the Soviet Union.
Conflict was at an all time high. Communist regions were beginning to replace their governments with non-communist ones, the Berlin Wall was finally destroyed and by 1991 the Soviet Union was no longer. “On Christmas Day 1991, at 7:35 p.m., the Soviet flag flying over the Kremlin was lowered and replaced by the new Russian banner. The USSR officially ceased to exist on 31 December. The Cold War was over.” (Global security)
Following the dissolution of the USSR, the 15 Soviet Republics had gained their independence. Gorbachev handed over power to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and now the new republics had the difficult task of picking up the pieces. ‘The United States lost its main enemy, the Cold War is over, and many Americans believe that there are no grounds for U.S. involvement in the affairs of the former Soviet Union. However, Russia remains a great power with a huge nuclear arsenal, and the future of economic and political reform is unclear, as is its foreign policy, especially in the so-called “near abroad.”(belfer center). The transition into capitalism and westernization would prove to be a detrimental transition. The economy and political structure was in pieces but Yeltsin pressed on and began the task of economic freedom and rapid privatization. This proved to be more than Russia could handle. This mean poverty for many, crime and corruption began, and the economy was at an all time low with widespread food shortages. Yeltsin ran for two presidential terms and eventually announced his resignation to Vladimir Putin. While some may say that he failed to improve Russian economy, he developed a new constitution, one that allowed the people an opportunity to be free.
Putin took control of Russia and has been in power for most of the last decade. “As president, Putin moved quickly to consolidate his authority over the economy and politics. Rapidly rising energy prices in the mid-2000s enabled him to implement policies that sought to restore Russia’s status as a global power.” (the guardian) A rapid economic growth has been seen under his presidency. Revenues are increasing mostly due to the oil and gas sector, industrial production has seen a large increase, and incomes continue to rise.
The effects of the Cold war and the dissolution are still very much present today. People in Russia still live with the effects of communism and the legacy of political patronage. Conflicts of interest still continue to hinder US/post-soviet relations. Even with technological advances, history always seems to repeat itself, just with different names and faces. There are lessons to be learned from history, but that is only if either side is willing to act on them.

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