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Communism: The decline


Between 1985 to 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the USSR. In 1989 Soviet control of Eastern Europe collapsed. In 1991 the Soviet Union fell apart.


Was Gorbachev responsible for the collapse of communism in Europe?

The standard of living

In the early 1960s, communists had been convinced that communism was better than capitalism and that the communist states would soon produce more goods than in the USA and Western Europe. By the 1980s it was clear that communism had failed to deliver high living standards.


Most people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were much poorer than the people of Western Europe. Some basic goods, such as sugar, were rationed. The gap between communist and capitalist economies was growing all the time. The Soviet Union and its allies were not able to compete with the West in the new industries of the 1980s - computers and telecommunications.


By the 1980s Soviet farming had failed. The Soviet Union had rich land at its disposal but it could not produce enough food to feed its people. Many people worked on the land but they were very inefficient. In the 1980s farming employed over 20per cent of the workforce, compared with 3 per cent in the USA. On average each American farmer produced seven times more food than each Soviet farmer. As a result the USSR had to import millions of tons of grain, much of it from the USA.


Corruption and the decline of communism

The founders of communism promised a new kind of state based on fairness and equality. Under the leadership of Brezhnev, Soviet communism moved a long way from these ideals and became more corrupt. As a result ordinary people had less respect for communism.


It was widely known that the family of Brezhnev was corrupt. Leading communists had luxurious country houses or 'dachas' built for themselves. According to one joke that circulated in the Soviet Union at the time, Brezhnev showed his own mother round a new luxury house that he had just had built: his mother commented, 'It's wonderful, Leonid. But what happens if the communists come back to power?'


A second Cold War

With the communist economies in trouble, the cost of the Cold War became more and more unbearable. The price of weapons was constantly increasing. By the 1980s a single bomber cost the same as 200 bombers built during the Second World War. America and its allies could afford these higher costs because their economies were doing well. The Soviet Union could only keep up with the USA by diverting a huge proportion of its national income to defense. People suffered even lower living standards as tanks were built instead of cars and televisions.


The cost of the Cold War began to increase when the US President, Ronald Reagan, came to power in 1981: He rejected the idea of detente and encouraged a policy of confrontation with the Soviets. He took the view that communism was wicked and needed to be approached with great firmness. Reagan increased military spending and challenged the USSR to join a new arms race.


The early 1980s have been called the 'Second Cold War' because there was heightened tension between the USA and the Soviet Union. The competition between the superpowers was symbolized by Reagan's 'Star Wars' project (officially known as SDI: the Strategic Defense Initiative). This project involved research into ways of giving America nuclear superiority by destroying Soviet missiles in space.


War in Afghanistan

Brezhnev made a big mistake in December 1979. Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan to support its communist government. The invasion was widely criticized and lost the USSR many friends. It led to a widespread boycott of the Olympic Games that were held in Moscow. Afghanistan was a Muslim country and the USSR was criticized by much of the Islamic world. The Afghan rebels received help from the USA and the invasion encouraged Reagan to take a tough anti-Soviet stance when he became president in 1980.


The Soviet military action was a failure. The official Afghan army was not strong enough to win alone and once the Soviet forces had become involved it became very difficult to withdraw. With Soviet help the Afghan government controlled Kabul, the capital, and other large towns, but the rebels controlled much of the countryside. More and more Soviet troops were needed to prop up an unpopular government. In the early 1980s there were about 125,000 Soviet troops in the country.


The situation of the Soviets in Afghanistan was similar to that of the Americans in Vietnam a decade earlier. The 10-year war led to the death of about 15,000 Soviet troops. It also damaged the Soviet economy: one estimate is that the war cost the USSR about $8 billion dollars a year. The last Soviet troops finally left Afghanistan in February 1989.