Twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, three Indiana State professors weigh in on how the world has changed since the communist power dissolved.
The Soviet Union had become a global superpower — and a danger to democratic nations. The communist country, characterized by brutality, repression and international aggression, threatened to spread communism across the world and start a nuclear war.
“With the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s, we were on the verge of a third world war … At that time, the United States had over 26,000 nuclear warheads and Soviet Union had over 3,000,” said Mike Chambers, professor of political science at Indiana State. “It would have been cataclysmic.”
That crisis, prompted by the installation of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, was a critical moment in the Cold War (1947-1991). For almost 45 years, the United States and the Soviet Union vied for global supremacy — both in military strength and political ideologies. The era included a frightening nuclear arms race, bloody conflicts in several regions and the spread of communism in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Within the Soviet Union — whose borders encompassed 15 republics but whose direct influence reached several nearby European countries — political dissent was prohibited, information was tightly controlled and shortages of goods and services were common.
“No one was doing very well inside the Soviet Union, except for those very few top officials of the Communist Party,” said Barbara Skinner, associate professor of history. “There were shortages of household goods, cars, housing and many other things. People had three outfits for the entire year. They had much less than we did — to a Westerner, it looked like poverty.”
The Soviet Union’s swift unraveling began with efforts to resurrect that struggling economy. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s leader from 1985 to 1991, initiated several reforms intended to help solve economic problems and promote economic development. Open political discussion and criticism were permitted and control over other countries loosened as resources once devoted to international dominance were redirected back home. But in the smaller republics, efforts were already underway to gain more autonomy from the central government based in Russia.
“Inherent tensions in the Soviet Union had an outlet for expression, and they gathered strength,” said Richard Lotspeich, professor of economics at Indiana State. “A sort of centripetal force was generated as some of the 15 constituent republics said, ‘We want independence.’”
Ultimately, internal forces overpowered the central government. On Dec. 25, 1991, the country dissolved — and a new era began. Twenty-five years have passed, and the impacts of the dissolution have been mixed. But from the United States’ perspective, some positive outcomes are certain.
“We won the Cold War,” Lotspeich said. “Our liberal democratic and capitalist system prevailed and outlasted the Soviet Union, whose communist system collapsed from its own weight. We didn’t have to directly fight the Soviets, and the threat of nuclear war was reduced.”
“Plus, communism as an ideology is dead,” Chambers said. “(The fall of the Soviet Union) showed that communism was not a viable alternative to democracy and capitalism. Countries (across the globe) were not going to be inspired to follow it anymore.”
With help from Western consultants, former Soviet countries began to transition from communism to democracy and capitalism. But the path to political freedoms and economic prosperity was not easy.
“For the people in those 15 republics, the dissolution was initially an economic disaster,” Lotspeich said. “The GDP fell about 25 percent. It was a wrenching experience to transition to different economic structures. Some people became very poor, life expectancy decreased, suicides increased — all kinds of social ills have been connected to the economic chaos that followed the dissolution.”
And immediate economic collapse wasn’t the only consequence. Several devastating wars emerged within and between countries. But eventually, stability returned.
Economic recovery and growth arrived between three and 10 years later for the different countries, Lotspeich said. Most conflicts have ceased as well, Chambers said. Although some of the 15 constituent republics ultimately evolved into authoritarian regimes or kleptocracies, others managed to establish flourishing democracies and economies.
“It generally has shifted the world to liberal democracies and free-market economic systems,” Lotspeich said. “There’s a lot of bad things that happened — a lot of conflict emerged out of the dissolution directly — but in the large scheme of things, I think it’s probably a good thing for the peoples of the world.”
“A lot of people have more freedom around the world today, especially those who were part of the Soviet empire but in other places as well,” Chambers said. “Economic development and growth happened in a lot of these countries. It took some time. But a lot of these countries are a lot better off than they were in the early ’80s or ’90s.”
Although the existential threat of nuclear war subsided, economies developed and more people experienced political and economic freedoms, the world has — perhaps paradoxically — become less stable without the Soviet Union.
“That’s one of the things about the Cold War,” Chambers said. “We kept people on our side under control, and they kept people on their side under control. There was an overarching structure on the world.”
Although it used brutal methods, the Soviet Union once managed ethnic tensions that later erupted after the dissolution. And that turbulence has had consequences, according to Lotspeich.
“I think we can draw a connection between the Boston Marathon bombing and the Soviet Union’s dissolution,” Lotspeich said. “The bombers were Chechens who got radicalized by Islamic movements in (Russia’s) North Caucasus, which were tied to the political turbulence associated with the dissolution. I don’t think the brothers would have come to America without their experiences that were ultimately connected to the Soviet Union’s dissolution.”
“We’ve turned to trying to deal with this post-9/11 situation, and international terrorism is the leading concern right now,” Skinner said. “There used to be two sides — a bipolar world — and it was easy to understand. Today, we’re in a messy, multi-polar world. We’ve got a rising communist China, an authoritarian Russia, rogue states in North Korea and Iran, extremist ideologies, non-state actors. All this is so much harder. Dealing with the world now requires a lot of sophistication and understanding of the complexities and motivations of the various actors that threaten us today.”