Russian President Vladimir Putin once remarked that anyone who "does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart," while anyone who "wants it back has no brain." For nearly 70 years, the Soviet Union's founding communist ideology held the disparate peoples of its constituent socialist republics together. This ideology, antithetical as it was to the tenets of U.S. capitalism, also set the stage for the decadeslong war of worldviews that the United States and Soviet Union waged against each other through the latter half of the 20th century. The Cold War was a conflict unlike any other in history, an indirect battle between two superpowers in which the rest of the world was caught and maneuvered in for nearly half a century. On Dec. 26, 1991, the United States claimed its victory at last when the Kremlin lowered the iconic red flag that had flown over the Soviet Union. Twenty-five years later, the anniversary of the Soviet Union's collapse invites a reflection on the Cold War, its history and its legacy.
Laying the Foundation
No sooner had World War II ended than the preparations for the Cold War began. Before the ink had even dried on the various peace treaties that concluded the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States were already shoring up their positions, and their opposition, in Europe. As the Soviets, battered and nearly broken by the war, consolidated control over the so-called Eastern Bloc states, U.S. President Harry Truman said the United States and its allies needed to "show [them] how to behave." Just 25 years into its existence at the time, the Soviet Union was, after all, a young country. What Truman failed to understand, however, was that Moscow was following a strategy that had served it well for centuries under the Russian Empire, seeking security through expansionism. The United States and Western European nations quickly caught on to the Soviet agenda and formed their containment strategy, which evolved in time from the 1947 Truman Doctrine into the NATO military alliance. Even before the United States and Soviet Union formally drew their line between East and West in Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill pronounced that an "iron curtain ha[d] descended across the Continent."
The two nations spent the ensuing decades embroiled in war. But they managed it without ever fighting each other directly. Instead, the conflict played out in proxy battles across nearly every continent; through trade wars; in the perpetual worries of leaders and citizens in each country over the looming threat of nuclear war; and, of course, in an ideological war.The Soviet system was built on the socialist concept of equality — legal, social and economic — for all people (beginning with workers), a strategic move by the Union's founders more than a reflection of their convictions. The Communist Party presided over this system, directly overseeing the Soviet Union's political apparatuses, economies, industries, press and societies. In its principles and functions, the Soviet model stood in direct opposition to that of the United States, which espoused self-determination, democracy and capitalism. Neither belief system was as ironclad as its champions in Washington and Moscow perhaps imagined, and some ideals inevitably fell by the wayside, unrealized. War, moreover, makes for strange bedfellows; in the course of their conflict, the United States and Russia each supported states that held diverging — if not contradictory — views. Still, the United States saw the Soviets as godless oppressors of freedom and hope, depriving their citizenry of the right to pursue a better life. The Soviet Union, in turn, considered the United States an imperialist superpower trying to become a global hegemon. The Cold War struggle became a moral contest to determine which worldview was correct.
The Beginning of the End
Toward the end of the 1970s, after proxy conflicts and threats of nuclear war by the dozen, it seemed to Washington that Moscow would prevail. In its estimation of the apparently unstoppable Soviet Union, though, the United States failed to appreciate just how unwieldy an entity it was. Whether governing the Russian Empire or today's Russian Federation, Moscow has faced the same geographic constraints and vulnerabilities throughout its long history. With an economy dependent on oil (and, at times, grain), a highly diverse population and competitors beyond its indefensible borders, each variation of Russia behaves at its strongest and weakest much as its predecessor did. The question, then, was never whether the Soviet Union would fall to the West but rather when it would inevitably collapse under its own weight.
The Soviet Union had already shown signs of faltering. When Nikita Khrushchev assumed the Soviet premiership a few years after longtime leader Josef Stalin's death, he proclaimed a "thaw" throughout the Soviet Union. Khrushchev proceeded to relax censorship somewhat, liberalize political and economic policies, and release political prisoners, all the while decrying Stalin's often brutal tactics. (Even the nearly ubiquitous likenesses of the late leader were destroyed or cached away during Khrushchev's de-Stalinization campaign.) He and the rest of the Party elite knew the Soviet Union would fall apart if it did not evolve. In the decades that followed Khrushchev's shake-up, the country moldered in a cycle of alternating consolidation and liberalization schemes under a string of leaders.
Not With a Bang, but a Whimper
By the 1980s, a perfect storm of political pressures had converged on the Soviet Union. The Soviet political system was atrophying. Three elderly leaders — Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko — died in office in a span of three years as the country fought a bloody and expensive war in Afghanistan. Independent labor unions were sprouting up and gaining political traction across the Eastern Bloc. Meanwhile, oil prices — which made up more than half the country's revenues — plummeted, plunging the mostly hollow Soviet economy into ruin. The Soviet Union was starting to give under the weight of its own problems, a process the United States helped speed along. Washington set off an arms race in the early 1980s with its decision to take an active military position against the Soviets. Between 1980 and 1989, the United States nearly doubled its defense spending, armed mujahideen forces against the Soviets in Afghanistan and flaunted its advanced military capabilities by launching the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars." The Soviets' efforts to keep up only exacerbated the pressures on their country.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, addresses on June 12, 1987 the people of West Berlin at the base of the Brandenburg Gate, near the Berlin wall. (MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images)
Mikhail Gorbachev tried to stave off the Soviet Union's demise when he came to power in 1985 by bringing a younger generation of leaders to the Kremlin and introducing a series of liberal political and economic reforms. Gorbachev permitted the countries of the Eastern Bloc to establish independent political systems and struck an arms control agreement with the United States. But the measures were not enough to save the Soviet Union; the seeds of dissolution had already been sown. Just a few days shy of its 69th anniversary, the Soviet Union dissolved, ending the Cold War without so much as a bang. Instead, the Kremlin quietly lowered the Soviet flag — the symbol of one of history's most formidable forces.
In the Wake of the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union's collapse was hailed in the West as a victory for the United States and its allies, proof that the American system and its governing ideology were morally, ethically and technically superior. Perhaps the clearest illustration of Western views toward the end of the Cold War was the Berlin Freedom Concert, which commemorated the opening of the border between East and West Germany in 1989. Televised in more than 20 countries around the world, the concert brought orchestral musicians from both sides of the Berlin Wall together to play Beethoven's 9th Symphony. But instead of "ode to joy," the choir sang "ode to freedom." As the West saw it, the end of the German Democratic Republic represented a triumph for freedom, and the demise of the Soviet Union liberated the world from the so-called Evil Empire.
Without an equal adversary, the United States became a global hegemon, just as the Soviets had feared, and the Western institutional, economic and democratic models spread across many parts of the world. But the fall of the Soviet Union yielded some more unexpected outcomes as well. Despite the proxy wars that had raged throughout the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet dichotomy kept other conflicts in check. In the waning years of the Soviet Union and for decades after its collapse, wars broke out across the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the former Soviet states. Many of these conflicts tested the United States' hegemony. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War facilitated the rise of regional powers such as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Germany and France — some of which diverge from the United States' worldview. Alternative regional coalitions formed or expanded in the wake of the binary alliance system that the Cold War had built, creating competition for the United States.
Though the Soviet Union's dissolution seemed to suggest that Moscow could never again challenge Washington, Russia eventually regained its footing. Now, the Russian Federation is following the same strategy, however flawed, that its Soviet and imperial forerunners pursued. Much as it did in previous eras, Moscow is once again resorting to authoritarian and expansionist tactics to overcome its inherent fragility — this time under the guise of a democratic system and a market-driven (albeit state-influenced) economy. This resurgence has in some ways echoed the rise of the Soviet Union, but having learned from its mistakes, Moscow will not attempt to match the Soviets' global reach. Nonetheless, Russia's comeback has proved that 25 years after the Cold War's end, a stable world order is as elusive as ever.