Assess the importance of economic and political issues in ending the Cold War.

Economic Crisis

Because of the pressure of the Arms Race, the Soviet Union's productions were heavily geared towards the military sector. This had a negative impact on the production of consumer goods so much so that the United States planned to boost their military production in order to pressure the Soviets into competing which would then cripple their domestic production. Should this happen, the nation would be strained by the citizens’ dissatisfaction and the Soviet government would be forced to decrease their military production and opt for a less aggressive foreign policy.

Along with the Soviets’ focus on military, the decrease in the production of consumer goods can also be attributed to the workers’ work ethic. The problem stemmed from the workers’ drunkenness, sloth and lack of motivation – of incentive was what the reforms aimed to fix as well. In addition, agricultural and mining conditions weren’t ideal, lagging investment and the failure of the system to utilize the workers and the potential of the Soviet workers in the best way possible.

The currency weakened and living standards plunged. Threats of unemployment were met with promises of support for frail businesses because unemployment at any rate was unacceptable. Under Soviet law, every citizen must have a job. If he or she were to lose his or hers, they must be given another. Though, there weren’t as many workers as before. The casualties that the Soviet Union suffered from the Second World War lessened the amount of workers available and resources that could be used.


Economic Reform

Under Perestroika, the Soviet economy was opened up to elements of a free market economy. A mixed economy-model was proposed but this failed due to the difficulty of reconciling elements of a free market with a single-party country with a planned economy. The changes conflicted with Soviet society and the principles of a command economy.

The people lost confidence in the economy as shown by the decline of the ruble. First, workers did not trust that the government would, indeed, provide them the raises and bonuses they promised. This signaled the failure of the government’s attempt to motivate the workers in order to improve the quality and quantity of consumer goods. Second, the self-interest of the bureaucracies came into play as they sabotaged the economic reforms. Gorbachev’s economic and political reforms hurt them most and they feared that wealth would become concentrated in the private sector. Third, the economic reforms clashed with Soviet society and principles. As elements of a free market were introduced, it caused unemployment and inequality, two things that are foreign to and not welcomed by Soviet society. The Soviet economy had been in a period of stagnation for 2 decades and was in dire need of reform. Gorbachev was hopefull that adjusting the old system with a period of restructuring would make it more efficient.

Political Reform

A policy of democratization was introduced in accordance to Perestroika. The policy is most apparent in the new committee that Gorbachev created: Congress of People’s Deputies. Two thirds of the body was voted in via a secret ballot whilst the remaining one third was left for the Communist Party to fill. The intent of the process was to provide the people with a sense of involvement in government and served as a lever against the nomenklatura, the ruling elite and bureaucracy. Unfortunately, this democratic practice only showed the Party their declining popularity. Some party officials found that they weren’t able to gain the required amount of votes even when they ran without opposing candidates.

With political freedom came the formation and the strengthening of other parties. Such parties rose out of the Congress of People’s deputies, some of which included nationalist parties for some Soviet republics. Though the government attempted to suppress such parties, they gained influence and supporters locally. Thus, rival parties were created at Gorbachev’s allowance for political freedom and democratic practice. Through this, Gorbachev indirectly allowed the creation of opposition against his very own regime.


Glasnost was a policy first introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980's to promote "maximal publicity, openness, and transparency in the activities of all government institutions in the Soviet Union, together with freedom of information".

‘Glasnost’ or ‘openness’ included, first and foremost, the lessening of limitations on censorship. Under this policy, citizens were allowed to criticize and openly vocalize their views on the government and society. The government believed that the policy would result in constructive criticism in regards to how Communism has been executed, not the principles and values of Communism itself. The openness and newly found freedom exploded due to urbanization as well as the introduction of technology.

First, urbanization increased the amount of dissent. Much of the Soviet Union’s population was peasants: uneducated, easily manipulated and threatened and accustomed to following as the ruler dictates. The rapid movement of people from the rural areas into the cities caused a great decrease in the peasant populations. Peasants who migrated exposed themselves to education and more consumer goods compared to those in rural towns. As they gained an education, they added to the population of intellectuals and learned citizens in the cities. Dissent was of a greater amount in the cities and this swept the former peasants up.

Second, the technological advancement paved the way for greater access to information. With less censorship, citizens gained access to Western literature and other ideologies as well as better communication within the Soviet Union. At the time, the Soviet Union was behind the rest of the world in the production of technology. Such free access was prohibited by the government but the public constantly found ways around the limitations. Instead of having citizens cheat against the system, they chose to produce their own in the hope of being able to control the way citizens use them and what information they gain from it. This opened Soviet society to a vast amount of knowledge and information they otherwise would have never had. Ideas flowed in and out of the Soviet Union and not all were in support for the Communist regime.

The "maximal publicity" component of glasnost resulted in the Communist Party losing its control over the media. The media began to expose serious social and economical problems of the Soviet Union, which were long denied by the authorities and hidden from the eyes of the public. Problems such as poor housing, food shortages, widespread pollution, alcoholism, creeping mortality rates and the second-rate position of women received increased attention.

"Political openness continued to produce unintended consequences. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union's constituent republics, nationalists swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR's central Moscow government to impose its will on the USSR's constituent republics had been largely undermined. During the 1980s, calls for greater independence from Moscow's rule grew louder. This was especially marked in the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in other Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan"

Taken together, urbanization and access to information made political dissidents out of the Soviet citizens. Gorbachev obviously never meant for the overturn of Soviet Union to happen but with the introduction of glasnost, the people found ability to criticize the government and was exposed to exposure to Western ideals. This led to more and more dissent, and reform within the Soviet Union and intercommunication within the Soviet Union, which led to the crumble of the USSR with the people's call for a change from a system that bound them for too long.

- The End of the Cold War - David Pietrusza
- Political Reform Leaders - Patrick Tracey

Transition of Power

What largely contributed to the end of the Cold War was the transfer of power from Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin, how it came about, and how it led to the demise of the Soviet Union.

In the new Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin was elected as the new President of Russia. He was a former Moscow party boss, and now had become Gorbachev’s chief rival. Yeltsin had a grand objective: to abolish the Communist Party, dismantle the Soviet Union, and turn Russia into an independent, democratic, and capitalist state. For all of Gorbachev’s promises to open up barriers in the Soviet Union, he never subjected himself to popular vote, nor ever discussed dismantling the Soviet Union. At this time, the United States was supporting Gorbachev, and generally disliked Yeltsin. Among those close to Gorbachev, like Chernyaev, claimed that his ebullient spirit was now gone, and may have been a contributing factor to the USSR’s demise.

Soon after, a coup on Moscow took place from August 19-21, 1991 by the hard-line Communists who believed that Gorbachev’s policies were going to destroy the union (as evidenced by many of the USSR’s satellite states becoming independent by this time). However, the coup was regarded by many, including the United States, as illegitimate, and those who planned the coup did not secure military or police support. In addition, Yeltsin also played a part in ensuring the coup would not succeed, symbolized by his standing on a tank outside the Russian parliament. At this time, Yeltsin was now becoming the predominant leader in Moscow, as all this occurred while Gorbachev was away on vacation.

Yeltsin then abolished the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and confiscated all its property. In addition, he disbanded the legislative body Gorbachev had created, the congress of People’s Deputies, and replaced it with a council that recognized the remaining states of the USSR, as well as the newly-formed independent states, such as the Baltic States, Ukraine, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. Yeltsin continued to bash Gorbachev on state television, lending even more authority to Yeltsin, and stripping it away from Gorbachev.

On December 8th, 1991, Yeltsin agreed with the Ukraine and Byelorussia to for the Commonwealth of Independent States without Gorbachev’s permission, who was enraged once he learned of the results. This essentially dissolved the Soviet Union, and on December 25th, he transferred the state’s nuclear launch codes to Yeltsin, and finally signed the decree that would officially terminate the existence of the USSR.

During Gorbachev’s farewell address, he announced to the world that, “An end has been put to the ‘Cold War’, the arms race, and the insane militarization of our country, which crippled our economy, distorted our thinking and undermined our morals. The threat of a world war is no more.”
John Lewis Gaddis states that Gorbachev’s primary goal was to save socialism, but refused to utilize means of force or terror to do so. He claims that these goals were incompatible, as he could not achieve one without abandoning the other, and therefore led to the collapse of his empire and his ideology.

Afghan Proxy War (1989) and its role in the dismantling of the USSR Empire
For 9 years the USSR was attempting to invade Afghanistan as part of their expansionist policy. Afghanistan geographically provided a buffer zone for the USSR like many other satellite states under the control of the USSR. So to gain control over Afghanistan would provide the USSR access to the Middle East. As part of the containment policy of the USA, they provided Afghanistan Guerrillas weaponry and supplies in order to combat the expansionism of the USSR. In February 1989 the USSR finally pulled out of Afghanistan resulting to show that the USSR was not the unstoppable force that they tried to portray themselves to be.
The Afghan Proxy war contributed to the down turning economic situation that the USSR was facing during the 1980’s. Because resources in the USSR were both focused on the Red Army and the USSR proxies in order to secure Afghanistan, the USSR was rapidly running out of money and food for its own people. This Proxy war fuelled the economic deficit that the USSR was facing.
The exhaustion of the USSR’s resources because of the proxy war in Afghanistan greatly weakened the Red Army, which would in the following years be unable to stop conflicts within the USSR’s satellite states. The USSR consisted of over 100 nationalities, many of which were in direct conflict with each other, such as the Azeris and Armenians, who whose conflict was rooted in ethnics and in religious backgrounds. The Azeris were Shi’ite Muslims and the Armenians Christians, and because they live in close proximity with each other they had several violent conflicts between 1988 and 1989. Other ethnic riots were also occurring in Georgia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Romania at the same time, which would cause the USSR army to overly stretch its resources to try and maintain peace.
As ethnic riots began to proceed in the Turkish speaking republics of the USSR, in the Baltic Republics attempts were made to overturn the USSR constitution. Lithuania in December 7 1989 directly opposed the part of the constitution that allowed the communist party absolute control (Article 6). By January 1990 Lithuania successfully broke away from the USSR. In January 1990 Latvia also removed Article 6 from their construction and broke away from the USSR, and Estonia did the same on February 23. With these three republics openly denying supreme communist power in their republics, the Communist Party of the USSR was facing crisis throughout the entire empire.
The greatest, and more famous loss to the USSR that occurred during 1989 was that the Berlin Wall coming down on November 10. Because of the USSR was unable to maintain control over their republics and satellite states, maintaining support for East Germany was impossible. This is considered the end of the Cold War because it is when the USSR definitely submitted to Western Democracy and the US by allowing Germany to be unified and the USSR pulling out of East Germany.
Overall the chain of events preceding the Afghan proxy war resulted in greatly weakening the USSR resources and army so much that the USSR was unable to stop the mass riots, separating republics, and German Reunification. If the USSR did not exhaust its resources on this proxy war, it probably would not affect the economic situation that USSR was in during the 1980’s, but it was a factor that it provided evidence that the USSR could be fought against and won against, and it wasn’t unstoppable.


Crozier, Brian (1999). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire. Rocklin: Prima Publishing
Gaddis, J. L. (2005). The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin Books.
Leone, Bruno ed. (1999). The Collapse of the Soviet Union. Greenhaven Press.