Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

In August 1991, Gorbachev was sat in his holiday home in Crimea. Four of his senior ministers visited him unexpectedly, and during the meeting Gorbachev realised his phone line had been cut off. The leader of the Soviet Union was facing a coup organised by his own Party. What was the significance of this coup, and what did it lead to?

You can download the worksheet for today’s lesson here. If you cannot access the worksheet please complete the tasks as outlined in the yellow boxes.

Coup = A sudden seizure of power from a government.
Socialist Republic = Any state that is dedicated to the construction of a socialist society by its constitution. These countries made up the Soviet Union.
Nationalism = the political belief that you should be in charge of running your own country. Foreign countries should have no say in how you are run.


The Soviet Union was made up of 15 different Socialist Republics which made up the country’s borders, as shown in the map below. Can you name all fifteen countries that made up the Soviet Union? Some have been completed for you below.
Look at a world map from today to help you. You can click here to go to Google Maps.
NOTE: The Socialist Republics did not involve the satellite states (e.g. Poland, Hungary, etc.). The satellite states were not part of the Soviet Union, but instead acted as a ‘buffer zone’ between the Soviet Union and Europe.

1 =
2 =
3 =
4 = Estonia
5 =
6 =
7 =
8 =
9 =
10 =
11 = Russia
12 =
13 = Turkmenistan
14 =
15 =

TASK ONE: A flowchart of events

Read the information below on the collapse of the Soviet Union. Create a flowchart similar to the one below and include the core details under each heading.

What were the key events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Losing control of the satellite states was a political disaster for the Soviet Union and Gorbachev. Within the space of 12 months, a swathe of countries that were once under Soviet influence completely dismantled communism in their economies and politics.

Losing the influence of these states had two severe impacts on the Soviet Union:

  1. It lost vital economic resources. The Soviet Union was hugely dependent on the natural resources and economic output generated in the satellite states. Suddenly the Soviet Union had no access to these. Its struggling economy was hit even harder.
  2. It compromised the security of the Soviet Union. The original purpose of the satellite states was to provide a ‘buffer zone’ between the capitalist West and the communist East, with the states in question active members of the Warsaw Pact. This protected the Soviet Union from what it saw as an aggressive NATO alliance. Losing the buffer zone meant losing this protective front.

Yet Gorbachev’s problems did not end there. The threat to the Soviet Union was exacerbated by unexpected defiance by a socialist republic within the USSR: Lithuania declared itself independent from the USSR on 11 March 1990.

Gorbachev was shocked – he hadn’t thought republics within the Soviet Union itself would question the decisions or leadership in Moscow. It was becoming apparent that the wave of nationalism was becoming a real danger to the very existence of the Soviet Union itself.

Gorbachev was prepared to see rapid changes in the satellite states, but he had no intention of seeing the end of the Soviet Union. Strict economic sanctions were placed on Lithuania in an attempt to bring the Republic back in to line. Lithuanians began engaging in civil disobedience, refusing to listen to the Soviet police and army. This culminated in the Soviet army opening fire on demonstrators in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in January 1991, killing fourteen people.

Hampered by political instability throughout the USSR, Gorbachev had little choice but to grant independence to the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The ‘January Events’ in Lithuania in January 1991 marked the first opposition to Soviet control from within the Soviet Union itself.

Alarmed by events in the Baltic states, hard-line communists in the Soviet Union lost their respect for and patience with Gorbachev. A military coup was organised by top Soviet leaders with the aim to bring communism back to the Soviet Union and beyond.

A new treaty was introduced to reduce the powers to the socialist republics within the USSR, and all but 12 newspapers were shut down. Tanks rolled in to the streets of Moscow. Yet to their surprise the people of Moscow pleaded with Soviet soldiers to disobey their orders. Barricades were built in the streets by civilians waving Russian flags to stop Soviet troops from reaching the parliament. Climbing on to a tank in the streets of Moscow, Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Soviet Republic of Russia rallied people to oppose the coup and support Gorbachev.

Yeltsin’s passionate speech marked defiance to the aims of the Soviet Union within Russia. Yeltsin was to become the first President of Russia in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev survived the coup, but his position as leader of the Soviet Union was looking weaker by the day. The leaders of the other Soviet republics took advantage of Gorbachev’s weakness: 12 of them swiftly joined together in a Commonwealth of Independent States in December 1991. The leaders of the republics met in Belarus and signed the Creation Agreement which stated that the republics were independent nations, free from the control of the Soviet Union.

This marked the effective end of the Soviet Union. Without the participation of these states, the Republic failed to exist. On the 25th December 1991, Gorbachev announced his resignation. This was immediately followed by the break-up of the Soviet Union.

TASK TWO: Where was the ‘point of no return’?

Over the last four lessons we have explored the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed. But where was the critical moment when it became inevitable that the Soviet Union would collapse. Explain your answer. Was it…
– The introduction of glasnost
– The introduction of perestroika
– The end of the Brezhnev Doctrine (the Sinatra Doctrine)
– The independence of Poland
– The fall of the Berlin Wall
– The ‘January Events’ in Lithuania
– The Soviet Coup of 1991
– Something else?

TASK THREE: Explain two consequences…

For our final task in the Cold War, attempt an answer to the following question. Be sure to use your Cold War packs to help you.

Explain two consequences of Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine [8 marks]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: