The Fall of the Soviet Union

We’re going to go back and look at what was going on outside of the US and the USSR soon. But if I can skip ahead for a second – and I can, because it’s my podcast – let’s talk briefly about how the Cold War ends. Basically, by the 1980s the Soviet Union was experiencing all of the same issues that every massive empire has at some point going all the way back to Rome. Just like we can copy and paste the way empires are administered from the Persians, we can copy and paste the reasons for their decline from the Romans.

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

soviet struggles abroad

First, the Soviets had overextended themselves trying to spread communism – for example, they were embroiled in a basically unwinnable war in Afghanistan. They were propping up Communist regimes around the world in places like North Korea and Cuba and funding Communist attempts to take over governments in Africa, Latin America and Asia. This was especially important after the 1960s when China split from the Soviets.

A quick note about Nixon. Why did he visit Communist China? Nixon had a new strategy on fighting the Cold War that involved two things. First, he promoted detente, or relaxation toward the Soviet Union. He met with Soviet premier Brezhnev in 1972 and the signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, or SALT. This prohibited the manufacturing of new nuclear weapons by either side, which was a big step toward decreasing the global nuclear threat.

The second part of Nixon’s strategy was to move away from the tense, bipolar world of the US vs. the USSR. He intended to use diplomacy to create more poles that could diffuse the tension. This is why Nixon visited China and asked the UN to officially recognize them as the Chinese delegation, replacing Taiwan. Ouch. This strategy of detente and diplomacy ended with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

pressure from the u.s.

Reagan’s approach was much more hardline. He believed that the way to win the Cold War was to push the Soviet Union harder than before. By turning up the heat, so to speak, the U.S. was forcing them to keep spending money on weapons and space racing when they should have been shoring up support at home. One fantastic example of this is Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed the Star Wars program. Reagan hated the philosophy of Mutually Assured Destruction, calling it a “suicide pact,” and so he called upon the scientific community to create a defense system that would make nuclear weapons useless.

Scientists studied lasers, particle beam weapons and space-based missile systems that could shoot nuclear weapons out of the sky. It was concluded that the world was decades away from actually being able to do any of these things, but the Soviets didn’t know that. Because of Reagan’s hardline approach, the Soviets ramped up spending right at the moment that they should have been cutting back. Reagan’s legacy is pretty tricky depending on who you ask and what events you study. But as far as pushing the Soviets to the edge of collapse, Reagan did a pretty good job. But there was one American who did more than anyone else and is never talked about in history books.

An ode to sylvester stallone

An ode to Sylvester Stallone. Stallone, you sly dog, you won the Cold War for us. You were John Rambo, the troubled Vietnam War vet who fought the Vietcong and brought to light the plight of prisoners of war in the wonderfully named Rambo: First Blood Part II. In Rambo III you bravely went off to fight with the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Your movie was even originally dedicated to the resistance fighters until we realized that that included the Taliban and were like, “Whoops! Never mind!”

But you didn’t stop there Sly. You were also Rocky Balboa, the loveable boxer with a head of steel who single handedly ended the Cold War. While Ivan Drago needed fancy equipment and blinking lights to train, you just needed a cabin in Siberia. And lifting that wheelbarrow really came in handy in the ring when you were somehow able to lift Drago off the ground even though he was approximately 3,000 times bigger than you. Drago said, “I must break you,” but you broke him. And in doing so, broke down all of the barriers between the U.S. and the Soviets that had accumulated over 40 years in just one 15-round boxing match.

Historians like myself consider Rocky’s speech at the end of Rocky IV to be more influential to ending the Cold War than Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall.” “During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, the way yous feel about me, and in the way I felt about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than 20 million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!” Thank you, Stallone, for being a true American hero.

nationalism in the ussr

OK, back to real history. At the same time that the U.S. was pressuring Soviet spending, they were also trying to rule their massive empire and keep their satellite states under their control. They also were dealing with a lot of nationalist movements within its their borders. A lot of different groups had been conquered – either by the czarist Russian Empire or later by the Soviet Union – and they wanted out.

In Yugoslavia, a guy named Tito led an independence movement that was especially embarrassing because they still wanted to be communist, just not with the Soviets. “It’s not us, it’s you.” Ouch. Nationalist movements were occurring across the USSR since the 1950s. The most notable places are first Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, and eventually Poland in the 1980s.

gorbachev’s reforms

By the 1980s there was disagreement about where the Soviet Union should go next. A reformer named Gorbachev rose to power and he began making changes within Russia to try to keep the empire together. Glasnost and perestroika were both attempts to open up society and allow for some capitalist measures and freedom of speech. (Did anyone watch the final season of The Americans? It’s all about this – Philip is OK with reforms but Elizabeth is a hardliner who doesn’t want Russia to be like the U.S.)

Anyway, these reforms backfired. To many, it was an admission that the goal of communism would never be achieved. And allowing for more openness and transparency just helped the voices calling for independence to be even louder. By 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, reuniting Germany, and in 1992 the Soviet Union officially broke apart.