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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.4 (2003) 3-42

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The Collapse of the Soviet Union (Part 2)

Mark Kramer


The four articles in this special issue look at some of the major internal and external factors that helped precipitate the breakup of the Soviet Union. These articles should be read in conjunction with the four that appeared in our first special issue on the collapse of the USSR, published in Volume 5, No. 1 (Winter 2003). Our final special issue on this topic, to be published in Volume 6, No. 3 (Summer 2004), will deal with domestic political and economic trends that destabilized the Soviet regime and contributed to the demise of the Soviet state.

The Social Context

The first article in the current issue, by Walter Connor, discusses the social context of the dramatic events in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. In the 1960s a number of Western scholars, influenced by the burgeoning literature on "modernization," argued that long-term changes in Soviet society—increased literacy and education levels, industrialization, increased urbanization, greater occupational differentiation, generational change, the advent of modern communications, and other such trends—were mitigating the Soviet regime's ability to exercise tight political and economic control. 1 Although [End Page 3] few (if any) of these analysts believed that the Soviet Union would cease to be a Communist state, many assumed that the USSR would gradually "converge" with Western societies. This school of thought was challenged by other scholars, notably Kenneth Jowitt, who asserted that the leaders of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) would be able to preserve Leninist rule by co-opting or integrating new social groups into the system. 2

These contending views of how the Soviet regime would cope with long-term social change were never fully reconciled, but the topic was revived in the mid- to late 1980s by Jerry Hough, who averred that changes associated with modernization and economic development in the Soviet Union had generated strong pressures "from below" for democratization—pressures that Gorbachev was seeking to use to his advantage:

During Gorbachev's lifetime, the Soviet people became vastly more sophisticated, urban, and educated.... Even before becoming general secretary, Gorbachev apparently understood the implications of these enormous demographic changes.... Gorbachev had good reason to believe that the Soviet Union was ripe for dramatic political change. Historically, when a country achieves a high level of urbanization and education, the democratic pressure against dictatorship becomes irresistible.... Gorbachev understood that the transformation of Soviet society [in the decades after World War II] had increased the risk of radical popular rebellion.... As a country urbanizes and education becomes more widespread, the threat of popular revolt becomes greater. 3

Hough's analysis was grounded in the traditional themes of the modernization school, but it also tallied well with contemporaneous Western literature that highlighted the role of key social groups (especially the middle class and new professionals) in pushing for democratization in southern Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. 4 [End Page 4]

Although Hough emphasized "the Russian people's receptivity to radical reform," he believed that there were limits on how far the Russian public actually would go. 5 Most Russians, he argued, were "shocked by the strength of the national feeling" in the non-Russian republics and were more concerned about the cohesiveness of the Soviet Union than about the prospects for further reform:

The vast majority of Russians—even highly educated Russians, including the intelligentsia—are very leery of the possibility that a multiparty democracy would lead to the establishment of separatist parties in union and autonomous republics that would gain majority support.... [Russians] fear that democracy for themselves would mean the breakup of the union. A Boris Yeltsin who is forced to concede that his program means the possibility of independence for the Baltic republics faces a virtually impossible task in winning the populist mandate [in Russia]. 6

Hough claimed that the adverse "effect of the multinational character of the Soviet Union on the Russian attitude toward full democracy" was what had...