The disintegration and collapse of the Soviet Union was the result of a complex combination of internal and external pressures which had been building for decades. Economic decline, strong currents of indigenous nationalism, corruption and the systematic deligitimization of the central authority and Communist ideology all contributed to an environment of internal pressure, doubt and cynicism. Externally, the Soviet Union’s foreign policy had led it into a tense and costly confrontation with the West, both socially and militarily. The combination of these internal and external pressures forced the Soviet Union into an untenable position, no longer able to maintain control through a sense of legitimacy and lacking the will to exact it through force.
Many were surprised not only at the speed with which the USSR unraveled, but also at how quickly nationalist movements and organizations were able to move forward with popular support and structure in such a short amount of time. The pressures that had been building show the collapse of the Soviet Union to have been more akin to a dam breaking, releasing pent up pressure and momentum that had been merely held back. What made the disintegration and collapse of the Soviet Union so remarkable was not just the convergence of so many complex factors to necessitate its failure, but the means and manner in which its broken parts responded.
It must be remembered that the Soviet Union was an empire. As Gerhard Simon Points out in Aussenpolitik, it was the first of its kind, held together by a party and a committment to ideology. As a result “The Soviet Union was not perceived in the context of the other empires which had fallen apart in Europe… The USSR, on the other hand, ranked in the West as a ‘normal’ state… The Soviet Union, however, was simply not a normal state.” (Simon, 2000) It was based upon the legitimacy of its party and its ideology. The systematic deterioration of this legitimacy served as one of the main factors in its disintegration and collapse. It was the weakening of the dam itself, so to speak. The actions of its satellite states represent the impulses of newly freed captives, not the heartless abandonment of their mother-state.
The pressures against the dam, however, reach back into the early 20th century. Simon identifies the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 as an effective reassertion of the Russian empire following the First World War. Furthermore, he argues that it arrested the nationalistic movements taking shape among the recently freed peoples’ of post-imperial Russia. These nationalist movements, of major ethnic and cultural signficance for many, were not stamped out under the Soviet system of control and oppression. They were merely pushed underground. They spent the better part of the 20th century building momentum from within the Soviet system until the internal pressures, exerted in so many directions and ways, could no longer be contained. (Simon, 2000) This explains how quickly and eagerly the different sattelite states declared independence and moved toward Western models of government and economy. “The causes for the downfall are rooted, on the one hand, in the design errors of the Soviet system and, on the other hand, in the process of degeneration which had been undermining stability for decades.” (Simin, 2000)