There are many competing theories that seek to explain why the USSR collapsed.
One of the most popular theories is that the Soviet Union simply couldn’t afford to compete in the arms race against the United States. President Reagan’s adoption of the Star Wars missile defence system demonstrated that the USSR could never afford to compete with the high tech military systems that the US was able to deploy. While the USSR could always put soldiers in the field, and could churn out low to medium tech weapony, any attempts to compete on technology was too expensive for the Soviet Union’s limited finances. This was no doubt an important contributory factor, but was probably not enough on its own to bring about the downfall of the Soviet state.
Other theories suggest that Gorbachev’s reforms – Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) were to blame. Giving political freedoms to the Soviet people opened their eyes to what they were missing – both in terms of the freedom to govern themselves in a democratic way and (perhaps more importantly) to afford to buy the consumer products they saw were widely available in the west. Why, the Soviet people wondered, didn’t they, the citizens of one of the world’s mightiest countries, have the same freedoms and wealth as their US and Western European counterparts.
Gorbachev’s reforms have also attracted criticism for focusing too heavily on political reform at the expense of real economic reform. Proponents of this argument wonder why he didn’t follow a policy of economic liberalism combined with shoring up support for the one party political system, which has been so successful to date in neighbouring China. This theory is somewhat undermined by evidence that USSR GDP growth during the Gorbachev era was very rapid, especially compared to the Brezhnev era.
Others believe that nationalism in the Soviet republics was to blame, brought on by poor decisions in the Stalin era to set arbitrary boundaries between states, and the freedom of expression offered under Perestroika. And it is certainly true that many of the first expressions of real dissent in the Soviet Union came from the republics – most notably the Baltic republics – and also from more loosely associated parts of the Soviet ‘Empire’, Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland and East Germany.
When the USSR finally collapsed the end came quickly. The August coup demonstrated that Gorbachev and the old regime no longer had political support, and Yeltsin’s defiant (and in PR terms, inspired) decision to oppose the coup by clambering aboard a tank gave the people a new hero to rally around. A referendum on Ukrainian independence soon followed, and on 8 December the leaders of the Rusisan, Ukrainian and Belarussian republics met and signed a document that dissolved the USSR, forming instead independent states within a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Two weeks later, on 21 December, the leaders of all of the remaining Soviet states (with the exception of Georgia) also signed, and on December 25th 1991, President Gorbachev resigned, ceding all of his remaining powers to Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia.