Russia experiences Smutnoye Vremya—Time of Trouble—that periodically occurs in that vast turbulent land until a Bronze Horseman (the poet Pushkin’s words) brings Russia back to order and stability. Unfortunately, Gorbachev was not a Bronze Horseman.


A new age is created by a dying one.

Sean o’Cassey


Thirty years ago, in December 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was dismantled. In the history of nations, this tumultuous event was a unique phenomenon.

This union of multi-racial, multi linguistic, multi-cultural republics of under Russian leadership spanned two continents, and 12 time zones—from snow bound Arctic Arkhangelsk to semi tropical Kushka valley in Turkmenistan. They were bound by a common ideology, professed racial equality and were bound by a unified socio-economic system.

The Soviet Union was established in December 1922 following the Bolshevik Revolution, civil war, famine, and typhus epidemic which took a toll of a million lives. Amidst this ordeal, Britain, France, the US and Japan invaded Russia—each for their own purpose. Britain, the leading imperialist, was terrified of communism. The US and France feared the rise of Russia and Japan wanted to annex parts of Russian Siberia. Undeterred by this challenge, the newly organised Red Army under its young and brilliant commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky defeated them. This unprovoked invasion made the Soviet Union wary of the West.

Soviet Union shaped the history, thoughts and events far beyond its frontiers.

For two decades the Soviet Union concentrated on building its social, educational, scientific and military infrastructure. It sped ahead in science and technology and space explorations. Russia was the largest and most developed of the socialist republics. It comprised half the population of the Soviet Union and produced 60% of the gross national product of the Union. The Moscow Kremlin was the powerhouse of the Soviet Union. It was within those sturdy bastions designed by 15th century Renaissance architects that the administration of the Soviet Union was decided and international power politics was formulated.

By 1936, Soviet Union was a dominant power, so feared by the colonial governments that they allowed Hitler to abrogate the Treaty of Versailles so that it could fight Russia. This appeasement cost Europe dear. Hitler lost the war but not before he had destroyed the power of colonial empires.

The US was an exception. The far-sighted and sagacious F.D. Roosevelt recognised the necessity to forge amity with the Soviet Union. He was influenced by Soviet Union’s welfare measures and introduced some features to America during the Great Depression. When the US entered the Second World War, he knew alliance with Russia was vital to defeat Hitler. At the commencement of the battle of Stalingrad, President Roosevelt sent aid to Russia. As the war was ending, Roosevelt met Stalin at Tehran and then at Yalta to discuss the post-War world. It is one of the tragedies of the 20th century that President Roosevelt died in 1944. Had he lived a few years more, there might have been a more unified world. There might not have been Cold War. Roosevelt did not share the Russophobia of his British and French counterparts.

The challenge of communist ideology had sent European rulers scurrying to introduce social welfare. Universal and state funded education was another policy adopted by Western capitalist nations. Most challenging to the West was Lenin’s Decree that enunciated the liberation of people from the shackles of colonialism. The battle lines between the Soviet Union and the West were then drawn. The Decree was not a theoretical matter; the Soviet state gave aid, arms and strategic support to most liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This was their way of winning friends without demanding alliances. Soviet Union welcomed the non-aligned movement spearheaded by Nehru, Nasser, Tito and Nkrumah at the Bandung Conference in 1955. The US and its imperialist allies not only disapproved of this “Afro-Asian insolence” but split the non aligned nations by hurriedly concluding military pacts—CENTO and SEATO—with oppressive regimes which feared socialist doctrines. Soviet Union gave generous financial and technical aid to developing nations: India, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Chile, Peru, Cuba, Nigeria, Ghana, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos.

Another great American President, J.F. Kennedy recognised the imperative to establish peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union and pursued this through dialogues and agreements with Nikita Khrushchev. While he insisted on removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, in return he removed American missiles from his NATO allies, Italy and Turkey.

The success of Soviet diplomacy throughout the 1960s and 1970s became a matter of grave concern to the US and its allies.

It is in the nature of the universe that all that begins must end. Empires are no exception. The Romans Livy and Tibullus believed that the walls of Rome vied with eternity—until Huns and Goths swooped down to plunder the eternal city. The Byzantine Empire endured for a millennium until the Ottomans breached its bastions. Britain boasted it would always rule the waves—until the Second World War. Russians also believed in the durability of their vast state, built on doctrines of equality and social justice.

So what led to the dismantling of Soviet Union?

If one does not surrender to the theory of historical inevitability, one can say that Yury Andropov might have changed the destiny of the Soviet Union. He could have averted the disruption that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In 1979, Andropov foresaw the peril of intervening in Afghanistan; he anticipated the military reverses in that formidable terrain, the economic danger of diverting valuable resources, the intensification of the costly arms race. Russia’s attempt to check the US funded Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan during 1979-1989 and which threatened to spill into Soviet Central Asia was an ill-starred venture. Unfortunately, it was dictated by serious security concerns. Those concerns still exist.

Andropov addressed himself to eradicating government corruption. As former head of KGB he gathered information on inefficient and corrupt ministers and officials; they were dismissed or jailed. He tried to improve the non-productive agricultural sector. He addressed himself to “the challenges of the future instead of resting on triumphs of the past”. It was he who advocated structural reforms; later Gorbachev plagiarised these ideas. In the Novosibirsk Manifesto Gorbachev voiced fears of the impending economic calamity that Yury Andropov had anticipated.

Unfortunately for Russia, he died of kidney failure. He was the last member of the group that had governed the Soviet Union for a decade. Mikhail Gorbachev, the new General Secretary of the Communist Party, hurtled the Soviet Union towards its dissolution.

Russia experiences Smutnoye Vremya—Time of Trouble—that periodically occurs in that vast turbulent land until a Bronze Horseman (the poet Pushkin’s words) brings Russia back to order and stability. Unfortunately, Gorbachev was not a Bronze Horseman. He did not possess the titanic energy of Peter the Great, the brilliance of Vladimir Lenin, the iron will of Stalin, or the fierce commitment of early Soviet leaders. Gorbachev brought in his untried protégés as full members of the Politburo. He replaced the astute foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko by a Georgian Politburo member, Eduard Sheverdnatze with no experience of international relations. Another inexperienced person became Chairman of the State Planning Committee or Gosplan. Gorbachev dispensed with senior members of previous governments as a symbolic severance from the past. These men had no knowledge of the complexities of governing Russia and numerous Soviet republics.

After seven decades the Soviet Union ceased to exist; Soviet republics became sovereign states. A union of former Soviet Republics was created—Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The unified Red Army forces were dispersed to other republics on the basis of ethnicity. To protect their nuclear arsenal during World War II, the Soviet government had dispersed some of the units to the Central Asian republics. Now, fearing these falling into control of antagonists, Russia recovered these and placed them under its own defence forces.

For seven decades the Soviet Union was the largest planned and controlled economy of the world. The transition to a market economy was daunting. Suddenly the new Russian Federation had to formulate the strategy for liberalization and privatization. The abrupt change from price control to market forces resulted in high inflation. Russia’s Central Bank, which decided the country’s fiscal policy, printed money to redeem its debts. This worsened the situation; the value of the rouble plunged. The protective arms of the Soviet state were prised open; competition was rife to seize opportunities from this new economic system. Those who had better education, who were young, who had experience of commerce and finance and who had their own funds, were able to seize the opportunities.

A new class of entrepreneurs graduated as black marketers and corrupt oligarchs. The victims of this unbridled laissez faire were those with fixed incomes and government pensions. Generous printing of paper money enhanced inflation. The lifetime savings of people vanished. Austerity measures were introduced to avert complete disaster. Interest rates were raised to encourage private investment. Punitive taxes were imposed to raise government resources. To prevent flight of capital from Russia government bonds were issued, without success.

Russia now entered that most unenviable of fiscal status—an economy in a debt trap.

Very unwisely, Gorbachev embarked simultaneously on two transformations in the early 1990s. If his perestroika and glasnost had concentrated only on economic changes there would have been stability. Without experience of managing a market economy he and his colleagues rushed headlong into transformation of the planned economy. In this they should have taken a leaf out of India’s experience which cushioned the trauma of change from a colonial economy to a planned one by gradual transition. Without the scaffolding of political stability, economic chaos was guaranteed. Without economic stability, albeit controlled, political chaos was inevitable.

Paradoxically, economic reforms initially did not usher in prosperity. Standards of living declined. There was a shortage of ordinary consumer goods. Peoples’ purchasing power declined drastically. Soviet citizens yearned for the security and stability of the Soviet economy which controlled prices, gave subsidy to crucial sectors, whose policies had shielded them from harsh market forces. Never before in history had a huge political entity encountered the challenge of an abrupt transformation.

Communist party members, trade unions, directors of state-owned firms, and politicians in the new parliament opposed reforms and deplored the disruption in the new market economy. Gorbachev’s policies earned him kudos in the West. In Russia he was a deep disappointment.

When the Cold War began, Soviet Union spent one fourth of its gross national product on the defence-industrial sector. One fifth of Soviet citizens were employed in this area. Disbanding of the massive Red Army created a huge vacuum. Employees of armaments and defence related industries became jobless. Sadly, highly skilled and experienced citizens in these fields sought employment in consumer goods enterprises. Attempts were made to relocate the work force but there were few industries to absorb their skills. Ironically, the new market economy created unemployment.

The Soviet Union had industrial firms that ensured social welfare; housing for workers, health care centres, educational infrastructure. These ceased to exist in the Russian Federation. The new entrepreneurs removed socio-economic benefits; subsidies to industry and construction stopped. Many state enterprises closed; unemployment became rampant. A poor harvest resulted in reduced food production. Russia appealed to the international community for assistance. Members of the Communist party and trade unions organised a nation-wide strike. Yeltsin, who had succeeded Gorbachev, was asked to resign for mismanagement.

A man walks by a monument to the founder of the Soviet state Vladimir Lenin, also known as “the biggest head of Lenin in the World”, in Ulan-Ude, Republic of Buryatia, Russia on 4 March 2021. REUTERS

The Marxian dictum of “each according to his need, each according to his ability” was stood on its head by Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”.

The fittest were the emergent powerful class of black marketers and oligarchs.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union had dramatic repercussions on the global arena. A uni-polar world was dominated by the US. There was no balance of power. Central and West Asia felt the first onslaught of the unchecked power of the US. Afghanistan was invaded in search of Osama bin Laden who was hiding under the protection of US ally Pakistan. There was unprovoked invasion of Iraq on the ground that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. Libya was invaded on similar grounds. Syrian rebels were armed to facilitate a civil war. These had been stable, albeit authoritarian states. Now there is hunger, violence and despair.

The response to the dismantling of Soviet Union in India was narrated by two American writers, Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph in the Christian Science Monitor magazine in late 1991. “In India the response was guarded, troubled, fearful. The mood was something like mourning; a dear friend had passed away. India’s national press—sophisticated, cosmopolitan, full of lively editorial analysis—sees the world differently, and never more so than since August 19th… India’s guarded media reaction to the coup, its ignominious failure, and the reverberating upheavals that followed reflect India’s markedly different attitude toward the Soviet Union. India feels orphaned—ideologically, strategically, economically. The Soviet Union was not just India’s friend and neighbour. Socialism, secularism, and democracy comprise India’s ideological trinity… India’s ideological identity was intertwined with that of the Soviet Union. Jawaharlal Nehru thought he could industrialize India democratically by combining Soviet-style planning with parliamentary democracy… After Nikita Khrushchev’s 1955 visit, India began to rely on the Soviet Union’s strategic support. The Soviets cast vetoes at the UN for India—when India used force to erase the remnants of Portuguese colonialism and the Kashmir question appeared on the agenda. It supported India in wars against China in 1962 and against Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. The Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971 fortified this partnership.”

Indeed, Soviet Union supported India’s dominant role in South Asia. The Soviet Union was critical in India’s economic calculations. One of the world’s leading arms buyers in the 1980s, India acquired most of its arms from the Soviet Union at bargain rupee prices. India’s protected and regulated economy fitted well with the Soviet command economy. State trading in soft rupees and roubles linked the two economies.

Seeing the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the attendant serious problems, the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, observed: “Mr Gorbachev’s ouster was a warning to people who favoured reforms without controls.”

With the advent of Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister and President of the Russian Federation, the scene began to change slowly but perceptively. Russia is once more a superpower with a determinant voice in international forums.


The author Achala Moulik is a former civil servant and author. She has written widely on Russian history and culture, notably “The Russian Revolution: Storms Across A Century 1917-2017” and “Indian-Russian Cooperation: The Treaty of Peace Friendship and Cooperation, 1971.” She was awarded the prestigious Pushkin Medal by the Russian President, and the Yesenin Prize by the Russian government.