The Soviet Union was a union of several socialist republics established in 1922. It was the result of a series of revolutions beginning in the early twentieth century and a long civil war that ended in a communist victory in 1923. For seven decades the Soviet Union stood through world war and cold war, rising to become an industrial and military superpower that provided its people with universal access to education, food, housing, jobs, medicine, and leisure, while sharply reducing inequality and poverty and raising the overall standard of living for the population. The history shows that, far from being a “failure,” the Soviet model of development represented a viable alternative to the capitalist mode of production.
So why, I am asked, if the state socialist system was successful, is there no Soviet Union today? There is no Soviet Union today because the working class was betrayed and forces intent on establishing capitalism in the Soviet republics dismantled the system that had worked so well for the proletariat. The proletariat’s worst enemy came from within: Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991, and head of state from 1988-1991. Ostensibly, to deal with the problem of an economic downturn, Gorbachev instituted a series of reforms (glasnost and perestroika) that gave greater autonomy to the republics and liberalized the Soviet economy. Instead of improving the situation in the Soviet Union, liberalization worsened the plight of the working class, sparking widespread dissatisfaction and unrest.
Liberalization weakened communist political hegemony, as well, and some republics took steps to secede from the union. In 1989, under Boris Yeltsin, Russia itself moved to declare sovereignty, thus bringing about a political crisis. In a referendum of nine republics in 1991, a majority, although voting to remain a socialist union, supported significant changes in the Soviet political-legal system. The New Union Treaty concerned Communist Party leadership, who (correctly) saw it as the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. In what is widely characterized as an attempted coup d’état, members of the CPSU, led by Gennady Yanayev, deposed Gorbachev and asserted control over the Party. The intervention lasted but three days. Key members of the military defected to a coalition led by Yeltsin. As a result, both the Gorbachev and Yanayev wings of the Communist Party were delegitimized.
From there, pro-capitalist forces quickly dismantled the Soviet Union. Yeltsin, in charge of the new Russian Federation, gave away the national wealth of the proletariat to a small corrupt network of oligarchs in a massive privatization scheme. In 1993, amid ever worsening economic conditions, Yeltsin illegally dissolved the parliament. The parliament responded by removing Yeltsin from his post. However, the military came to Yeltsin’s aid and forcibly dissolved parliament. With the military at his back, Yeltsin abolished the constitution, banned political opposition, and stepped up privatization.
This is why I say that it is inaccurate to claim that the Soviet Union collapsed. In fact, it was dismantled.