The Arms Race Furphy: How the Soviet Union Really Collapsed


Earlier this week, New Matilda published a story from economics columnist Ian McAuley on why Donald Trump’s strategy of boosting the military was a poor one. He linked it to the arms race that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union. Iliana Nikolova, a US-based academic, responds.

One of the most intriguing questions of modern history is: Why did the Soviet Union collapse? The dominant narratives offering an answer to this question are two.

  1. One comes from the so-called ‘Western anti-imperialist camp’ which attributes the collapse of the Soviet Union to the simplistic but popular ‘when-in-doubt-blame-the-CIA” theory. This stipulates that the collapse of the Soviet Union was as a result of a CIA orchestrated coup d’etat in order to clear the way for the American neoliberal/neoconservative agenda.
  2. The other answer is that offered by the Western/American pro-imperialist camp that attributes the collapse on the Soviets themselves, accrediting the demise to the vile mix of a socialist dictatorial regime and the Soviet state’s deranged obsession with the arms race. This ultimately led to miserable living conditions for the people of the Soviet Union, who, following Western prescriptions for democracy, at some point in the 1990s got “enlightened”, took to the streets, and the evil socialist regime loss its legitimacy and collapsed.

Both narratives are incomplete and erroneous. Incomplete because they don’t take into consideration the historical context and the irrevocable correlation between American imperialism (a by-product of the end of World War II) and the rise of the Soviet Union as a superpower (also a by-product of the end of the World War II). Erroneous because they aim to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union without a critical analysis of global capitalism and its implications on world economic dynamics.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square in Moscow. (IMAGE: Flickr, Seth Morabito)

The imperialists’ narrative is not new, it is the same narrative that their predecessors – the colonialists – have been using to explain why people around the world were colonized – “it is their fault, they are backwards, they are aggressive, they can’t manage themselves, they live in primitive oppressive societies, they subject their people to a miserable existence (imagine that!) while the people desperately dream to have “nice” white colonialists to civilize them.

In the case of the Soviet Union, the imperialists could not say that the Russians/Soviets are uncivilized because they have given the world such cultural beacons like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky. And they are white, so the imperialists had to modernize the terminology.

The Soviet people were civilized but oppressed because they lived in a socialist state. These oppressed, miserable people were so desperately dreaming for freedom and democracy but not just any freedom and democracy – American-style freedom and democracy – one where your plate will be two meters away, your chain is one meter long, but you’re free to bark all you want.

The historical context matters. It is a major mistake to analyze the fall of the Soviet Union outside of its historical context. For one it isolates the collapse of the Soviet Union as an event that took place in a vacuum, with no connection to American imperialism (both military and financial) and its agendas for “balance of power” and “new world order”.

American imperialism on the 20th century outlined specific imperialist ends which were achievable by many means, both crude and belligerent and subtle and persuasive. The imperialists understood well that domination can be effectively achieved through economic ties that bind countries through economic coercion (under a global capitalist market), a tactic as effective as colonial rule.

The fall of the Berlin Wall – November 1989. (IMAGE: Gavin Stewart, Flickr)

US policy of the 20th century anticipated the financial imperialism of the 21st century and with it the economic and political collapse of their worse enemy – socialism. During this time, the Soviet Union currency and the currencies of the Socialist Bloc states (major trading partners of the Soviet Union) were not convertible on the global capitalist market, and they never became convertible. This would become one of the main reasons for the collapse.

The Cold War broadly is reduced to “an arms race set against the backdrop of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)”. However, the Cold War was also a monumental battle of ideas, where the US rulers sought to cast aside the ugly, oppressive imagery of colonial administration and military occupation.

Further, the enormous need for capital by those under-developed by colonialism or ravaged by war could easily be fulfilled by the US, but at the price of rigid economic ties (neo-colonial dependency), binding a country to the global capitalist economy now dominated by US capital.

The idea of parlaying economic power, capital resources, loans, and ‘aid’ into neo-colonial dependency through the mechanisms of free and unfettered trade – the ‘internationalization of business’ – may well be seen as the precursor of the various trade organizations and trade agreements of today, like GATT, NAFTA, TPP, and so many other instruments for greasing the rails for US corporations.

The American imperialism disguised as an economic aid was soon given its proper name – ‘neocolonialism’ – by the leaders in the developing world (Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, Patrice Lumumba in Congo, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, just to name a few) who waged a war against this new form of oppression and exploitation, utilizing the teachings of Marx and Lenin.

Marxism-Leninism took roots as the guiding ideology for liberation and nation-building in the developing world. Naturally, they turned for aid to the Soviet Union, which saw their strive for liberation from American imperialism as an opportunity for the Soviet Union to shift the balance of forces globally.

However, it failed to foresee that the newly born, socialist-oriented countries were largely resource-poor, economically ravaged, and riven with ethnic and social schisms, all of which were easily and readily exploited by imperialism.

The Mikoyan MiG-29, a twin-engine jet fighter designed in the Soviet Union. Developed by the Mikoyan design bureau as an air superiority fighter during the 1970s, the MiG-29, along with the larger Sukhoi Su-27, was developed to counter new American fighters such as the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. (IMAGE: Mikhail Serbin, Flickr)

Aid and assistance taxed the Soviet economy and in no small way contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union a decade later.

Civil war, dysfunctional economies (thanks to colonialism), insufficient cadres, and unskilled administrators left those committed to building socialism facing a profound challenge, a challenge that proved impossible for most after the demise of the Soviet Union.

It would have taken decades to integrate these countries into the socialist economic community. Unfortunately, they were not granted that opportunity.

Often, completely omitted from the narrative of why the Soviet Union collapsed is the Soviet Union’s taxation system, or more precisely the lack of it. From the early 1930’s until the early 1990’s there was not a real taxation system in the Soviet Union. Taxation was deemed as a symptom of the exploitive nature of capitalism.

Nonetheless, this ‘taxless’ system was successfully (from the viewpoint of the planned economy) operating for the past 60 years, providing for free education, free medical care, free childcare, up to two years paid maternity leave, and guaranteed pensions. It was not until the late 1980’s, when the Soviet Union first started to talk about establishing a tax system when fixed economic rates were introduced.

Yet, in spite of all these real factors which played a major role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, today, the prevailing narrative remains the one of the ‘arms race cautionary tale’.

That’s the cautionary tale that warns any socialist state that dares to economically or militarily challenge the American empire of assured collapse and destruction.

Iliana Nikolova graduated from the 7th Secondary School 'Sveti Sedmochislenitci' in Sofia, Bulgaria with accelerated study in Humanities focussed on History and Philosophy. She has a BA in Political Science with focus on International Relations and Political Theory, and graduated with a Major in Political Science and Minor in History (Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, IL). She is currently enrolled in the MS in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at DePaul University (Chicago, IL).