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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.1 (2003) 3-16

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Special Issue:
The Collapse of the Soviet Union (Part 1)

Mark Kramer


The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was remarkable because it occurred so suddenly and with so little violence, especially in Russia itself. Even now, more than a decade after the fact, the abrupt and largely peaceful end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union seems nearly miraculous. History offers no previous instances in which revolutionary political and social change of this magnitude transpired with almost no violence. When large, multiethnic empires disintegrated in the past, their demise usually came after extensive warfare and bloodshed. 1 As late as mid-August 1991, just before an attempted coup d'état in Moscow, few if any observers expected that the Soviet Communist regime—and the Soviet state as a whole—would simply dissolve in a nonviolent manner. Many long-standing Western theories of revolution and political change will have to be revised to take account of the largely peaceful upheavals that culminated in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Despite the enormous significance of the Soviet collapse, Western scholars have not yet adequately explained why and how it occurred. Although a plethora of articles and books on the subject have been published over the past eleven years, the cumulative results of this research have been modest. 2 The basic chronology of events from 1985 through 1991 is well-known, but the details of many crucial episodes (such as the failed coup of August 1991) are as murky as ever. There has not yet been a systematic, in-depth assessment [End Page 3] of the major factors and circumstances that precipitated the breakup of the Soviet state. Nor has there been a wide-ranging comparative analysis of the demise of the Soviet Union. The dearth of comparative research is surprising. Several important books examining the performance and decline of large empires from the past were published in the 1980s and early 1990s. 3 Although the Soviet Union was not an "empire" per se, it did possess many of the same characteristics. 4 The dissolution of the USSR is certainly worth comparing to these earlier cases of imperial collapse as well as to the more recent fragmentation of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Thus far, however, only a small number of political scientists and historians have pursued this line of inquiry.5 [End Page 4]

Much of the existing literature on the breakup of the Soviet Union has tended to depict the outcome as inevitable. Those who believe that the result was preordained are apt to assume—implicitly or explicitly—that the choices made by Soviet policymaker from 1985 on and the unexpected circumstances that arose at key points ultimately made no difference. Such a mechanistic conception of the Soviet collapse may be superficially appealing, but it is far too simplistic. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was an intricate and highly contingent process and was frequently spurred on by chance occurrences and twists of fate. Choices did exist. Dramatic events often seem inevitable in retrospect, but the reality almost always is more complex, as it was in this case.

The past five to six years have witnessed some valuable additions to the literature on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and these have helped to fill some of the gaps in our understanding. Nonetheless, many aspects of the demise of the USSR have remained mysterious. For scholarly reasons alone we need to have a better understanding of the reasons for the collapse. A careful assessment of this phenomenon is also likely to have practical benefits, in part because numerous features of the Soviet Union are still present in most of the [End Page 5] post-Soviet states, and in part because some observers have argued that a future regime in Moscow might attempt to reestablish some portion of the Soviet Union. If we gain a better understanding of how and why the Soviet Union broke apart, we may well conclude that the prospects for reviving some...