The first piece about the reasons for the collapse of the USSR
suddenly became one of the most commented-on on the side. I am glad that this
topic has attracted so much attention. Unfortunately, the perception of the
USSR is too idealized on both sides: some consider it the Devil incarnate,
while others Paradise on earth.
Of course, the Soviet Union was neither one nor the other. It’s
time that we study the subject of our recent history, reflect, disagree with
each other, debate, and to think and seek after the truth.
In the last part, we talked about the fact that the not-so
successful economic models and a reliance on energy exports led the USSR into a
deep crisis in the second half of the ’80’s. This is not a new subject, and
many researchers have rightly pointed out that the state in which the Soviet
Union found itself as a result of falling oil prices, were not so extremely
bad. In fact, despite the fact that half of all exports were oil and gas in the
mid ’80’s, the overall contribution of this sector to GDP was only 7-8%
percent. In the modern history of Russia, the export of energy resources has a
significantly larger value, and such fluctuations in oil prices have happened
twice already, and nothing, we’re still living.
The explanation is quite simple: the Soviet Union carried
enormous burdens as a leader in the global confrontation with the Western
world. By the ’80’s, the USSR was weary of this protracted struggle, and we had
almost no safety margin. In the end, serious, but not fatal economic
difficulties were the final straw which broke the back of the great country.
The confrontation known as the Cold War, in fact, began before
the end of the Second World War. In 1944, the Allies fundamentally disagreed on
the fate of Poland. At the time, our country had the strongest military on
earth. From the position of the victors over Germany, we could dictate to the
whole of Europe, and no one dared to object.
All of that changed in August, 1945, when the US introduced
nuclear weapons. Like the revolver in the Wild West, the atomic bomb became the
leveler of odds between countries. The
tone of the West towards us immediately changed: the Soviet proposal on Japan,
following the example of Germany, was met with a categorical refusal of
Those familiar with the art of war know that a short, rapid
blitzkrieg campaign may be won due to tactical advantages: good position,
surprise, careful preparation, talented commander, etc. But in a long struggle
of attrition, only one thing has meaning: resources – how much the state can
spend to fight and meets the needs of society and development.
A lot of resources are required to fight, but they all boil down
to mass indicators: population and the size of the economy.
While approximately equal to the United States in terms of
population, the economic development of the Soviet Union always lagged behind
America: industrial production by 1.5 times (the share in world production in
1990 being 12.9% for the USSR, as compared with 19.4% for the US), and in terms
of GDP by 2 times (2.6 trillion vs. 5.5 trillion for the US in 1990).
Despite a mighty army, we emerged from the Second World War
battered. The direct losses of the army and civilian population were 16
million, with about 1.7 thousand destroyed cities and towns, 200,000 farms, and
30,000 industrial enterprises.
Overall, the material losses of the USSR in the war are
estimated to be a full third of the national wealth. At the same time, the US participated
in the war without much strain. They lost 418 thousand people in the army and 8
civilians. There were virtually no material losses since no fighting was
conducted on the territory of the USA.
One can argue about who started the Cold War: the USSR or the
West? It is important that with such a balance of forces and losses, the Soviet
Union, unlike the West, could not afford a global and long confrontation.
Moreover, unlike the Great Patriotic War, which for us was a matter of life or
death, our country could well do without such confrontation which could only
lead to a zero-sum conflict, where one side can only win if the other loses.
The Soviet doctrine during the Cold War was based on the
principle of parity: any step of the West (primarily the United States) had to
be followed with an adequate response. Any element of the armed forces of the
US and NATO had to be balanced by a symmetrical element.
Since the strategic initiative was on the side of the West for
most of the time, we found ourselves playing catch-up. The language of
propaganda all those years was “the arms race unleashed by the aggressive
Of course, there were some asymmetrical responses from our side
(for example, the development of anti-air defenses) and steps ahead (the space
rocket project of the ’50’s) and a successful struggle by the hands of others
(Korea and Vietnam). But most of all the leadership of the Soviet Union acted
ahead of time without assessing needs. The Soviet leadership strove to globally
counterbalance the United States, and so there was the failed expedition to the
moon and the stillborn Energia-Buran project.
For the entire postwar period, Soviet armed forces were
preparing for a land war in the European theatre and created offensive trains,
armored pieces, tank factories, vanguard missile bases and so on. During the
Cold War years, our industry built tens of thousands of tanks, thousands of
planes, and thousands and thousands of tons of ammunition, including countless
artillery. These weapons never saw combat, and many units didn’t even
participate in exercises, but year after year the Soviet Union worked on
developing their production, maintenance, storage, and disposal. And this
despite that fact that even in the late ’40’s it was obvious that a land war in
Europe was impossible.
Soviet military bases were posted in all parts of the world
except Australia. As such, there was not strategic necessity for them. The USSR
never depended on supplies from third world countries, so we had no need of
protecting trade routes. Radar stations were important in the ’60’s, but the
need for them disappeared with the development of space surveillance.
To ensure a global presence, the Soviet Union actively supported
regimes in third world countries. Unlike the cynical West, we never had a
colonial policy, and never sucked satellite countries dry. On the contrary, our
country always gave more than it received. All of the Soviet republics (except
Russia and Belarus), according to Soviet statistics, were subsidized to varying
degrees; we gave to the Warsaw pact countries (we not only helped them recover
after the war, but supplied them energy at domestic prices for the entire
second half of the last century); and, of course, we gave to regimes in the third
world in the form of commodity loans and direct logistical support.
By the time of the collapse of the USSR, third world countries
owed us $176 billion, or $300-350 billion in current value.
According to various estimates, this amount covers between a
quarter and third of direct and indirect assistance of the Soviet Union to
This approach is useful for karma, but harmful to the economy.
Where the West profited, we spent. Where the US had an invisible but strong
global financial network, we paid for loyalty. And, as they say, there is
nothing cheaper than purchasing loyalty.
After the Second World War, the military-industrial complex
became the engine of progress in the Soviet Union and in the United States: the
most advanced development of science and technology came from the defense
sector. However, the Western public-private system much better allowed military
developments to be converted and made available on the market. We have many
examples: nuclear power plants as byproducts of atomic weapons, jet
aircraft…In general, our military technology remained classified as “secret,”
which means that they could not serve people who would pay themselves and could
not be grounded in mass, civil production.
In the West, and primarily the USA, almost every military
know-how in one form or another entered the market. Teflon and gel pens,
Internet and mobile communication, the microwave and microprocessors – there
are hundreds of examples. Each of these developments had a secret Soviet counterpart.
The Soviet army was the largest in the world with nearly 4
million people (1988) against 2.3 million in the United States. Defense
spending, taking into account PPP between the USSR and the USA, is estimated to
be about the same. For us: $300 billion in 1988, but due to the smaller volume
of the economy and the fact that there GDP was nearly twice as large, we spent
13% of GDP as opposed to their 6.5% of GDP. This ratio was maintained during
the entire postwar period, and it allowed American to participate in the arms
race while developing a peaceful life. As a consequence, the per capita income
and overall quality of life in the US grew significantly faster than ours.
The effects of defense costs often left much to be desired.
Soviet (and later Russian) military doctrine was based on mass mobilization and
compulsory conscription. This approach is justified when there is a high
fertility rate and population growth, but in the demographic terms of the ’70’s
and ’80’s, when the index of natural increase fell below 10, it led to the
withdrawal of a large number of young workers from the economy. Not to mention
the fact that Soviet military equipment was complicated, and couldn’t be
mastered upon only being called to service. In the US, conscription was
abolished in 1970, and the army has remained fully on contract since then.
The lower technological level of the Soviet Union also resulted
in inefficient spending. For example, American satellites were already equipped
with capsules for filming, and they could lower down to earth and record. The
same satellite could operate in orbit for months. We only had a similar system
in the late ’80’s. After reaching orbit, it could do a few turns, work out the
program, and come down. The constant launching of satellite images for military
“Zenith” maps ran on schedule once a week or so. Such examples are numerous.
Although a more technologically advanced army is not necessarily better at
fighting, it definitely consumes less energy and resources.
The mobilization philosophy penetrated Soviet life everywhere:
in each university, there was aMilitary Department, every underground garaged
could be sealed and operate as an air-raid shelter, and each passenger car was
so strong and heavy that it could be attached to heavy trains. Every airliner
was designed so that it could be quickly converted to carry troops on deck. All
of this demanded precious resources, and it all eventually turned out to be in
Global presence demanded from the Soviet Union significant
costs, subsidies, and generous relations with satellites which were not
compensated even indirectly. Defense spending per unit was double that of the
US and five to six times that of Western Europe. In addition, things were
inefficient, and the features of the economic structure of the USSR didn’t
allow the massive introduction of military technology and developments to
civilian life and thereby make money off of them.
All of this, coupled with a weaker potential than its rivals,
led to an over-straining of the capacity of the Soviet Union. Urgent systemic
reform was constantly postponed. In order to carry out reforms, resources were
needed, but these primarily went to the confrontation with the West. Not for a
moment did government or the country as a whole unwind and deal with the
backlog of problems. Instead of pursuing a long-term development strategy, year
after year preference was given to bandaid-solutions which gave the opportunity
to fight here and now.
By the mid ’80’s, the country was exhausted by the Cold War and
decades of mismanagement. Although frivolous at first glance, economic crisis
causes a chain reaction and led to internal conflicts, revolution, and the
disintegration of the country.
Next time, we’ll discuss the “third death” of the USSR: the
sphere of internal politics and society.