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Document Study: Cracks in the Soviet Union in the 1980s

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Document Study: Cracks in the Soviet Union in the 1980s

Document Study:  Cracks in the Soviet Union in the 1980s


Read the below article and documents to answer the questions at the end of this study…

  1. Before you read:  What does GDP (Gross Domestic Product) measure and indicate? (5pts)

Background Information:

In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union appeared to be thriving to outside observers. Its nuclear stockpile was larger than the United States, it was building new military bases throughout Africa and the Middle East, and its political clout in parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, was at an all-time high.

But appearances were deceiving. The Soviet economy was outperforming the United States in several key industrial areas, but it was doing so at enormous cost – Soviet industries were far less efficient than their American counterparts, a fact that could be attributed to the growing technological gap between the United States and the USSR. Furthermore, the Soviet Union maintained an oppressive hold on political and cultural life within the Eastern Bloc, sparking a great deal of social discontent. To top things off, all of these problems were exacerbated by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, which was dragging on with no end in sight. Inside the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, residents in Eastern Europe began to grow restless and vocalize their discontent in ways that had not been allowed in earlier years.

You will be reading and answering questions about four documents that highlight the problems that the USSR faced in the mid-1980s. The first compares the Soviet economy with the American economy. The second is Lech Walesa’s 1983 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, an example of the conflict between the Polish worker union Solidarity and the Soviet Union, a state ostensibly founded in providing for the world’s workers. The third piece is an excerpt from a memoir written by a Soviet soldier deployed to Afghanistan. The fourth document is an excerpt from Mikhail Gorbachev’s memoirs, addressing the disaster at Chernobyl. In April 1986, the worst environmental accident in world history happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, releasing a great deal of radioactive material into the Soviet Union and parts of Europe. The explosion, fire, and release of radiation affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (though less than 100 were killed in the immediate explosion), and the area around the nuclear power plant will be contaminated for 24,000 years.

Document 1 -Economic Comparisons (chart and article)

Background: In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was less productive than the United States, which was starting to drag down the Soviet economy and security. It took the Soviets longer than the Americans to process their raw materials and build new structures. For example, whereas it generally took American companies less than two years to build an industrial plant, the Soviets spent ten years constructing the same kind of plant. At the same time the Soviets began to use more resources than the United States (1.8 times more steel, 2.3 times more cement, and 7.6 times more fertilizer). As the decade progressed, the Soviets’ inability to keep pace with production made the country increasingly dependent on imported goods, which started to alter the economy in serious and irreversible ways.

Document 1 provides figures that compare American and Soviet economies while Document B is a 1970 piece presented to the Soviet government by leading Soviet scientists and reformers.

Comparison of USSR and US Economies in 1989:




Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in millions $



Population (July 1990)



GDP per capita



Labor force (1989)




Source: CIA The World Factbook, 1990 For more information see: Yegor Gaidar, Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia, 2007 (75)


Economic Comparison Article

Calls for Reform from Within: At the present time, there is an urgent need to carry out a series of measures directed toward the further democratization of our country’s public life. This need stems, in particular, from the very close connection between the problem of technological and economic progress and scientific methods of management, on the one hand, and the problems of freedom of information, the open airing of views, and the free clash of ideas, on the other…


Over the past decade, menacing signs of breakdown and stagnation have begun to show themselves in the economy of our country, the roots of which go back to an earlier period and are very deep-seated…. [N]ew means of developing production potential are not being discovered or properly put to use, and technical progress has slowed down abruptly. For these very reasons, the natural wealth of the country is often destroyed with impunity and without any supervision or controls: forests are leveled, reservoirs polluted, valuable agricultural land flooded, soil eroded or salinized, and so on… The population’s real income in recent years has hardly grown at all; food supply and medical and consumer services are improving very slowly, and with unevenness between regions. The number of goods in short supply continues to g row. There are clear signs of inflation.


Of particular concern regarding our country’s future is the lag in the development of education: our total expenditures for education in all forms are three times below what they are in the United States, and are rising at a slower rate. Alcoholism is growing in a tragic way, and drug addiction is beginning to surface. In many regions of the country, the crime rate is climbing systematically….


In comparing our economy with that of the United States, we see that ours lags behind not only in quantitative but also – most regrettable of all – in qualitative terms. The newer and more revolutionary aspect of the economy may be, the wider the gap between the USSR and the USA. We outstrip America in coal production, but we lag behind in the output of oil, gas, and electric power; we lag behind tenfold in the field of chemistry, and we are infinitely outstripped in computer technology.  


Source: Andrei Skharov, Roy Medvedev, and Valentin Turchin, “A Reformist Program for Democratization,” in Stephen F. Cohen ed., An End to Silence: Uncensored Opinion in the Soviet Union (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984): 317-319



  1. Based on the chart and document above, what was the relationship between production and population in the Soviet Union and USA? And what were the consequences of this relationship? (10pts)



  1. Based on the documents above, why was the Soviet Union falling behind the United States? (5pts)



Document 2 Lech Walesa Trade Polish Union Founder


  1. Before you read answer: What is a trade union? (5pts)


Background: In 1983 Lech Walesa founded an independent trade union called Solidarity in Poland, part of the Soviet Bloc. The mere fact that a trade union formed inside the Soviet Bloc was troubling for the government. A primary goal of the Soviet Union was to serve the needs of workers, which should have made labor unions unnecessary. But when this union formed (and when its founder received the Nobel Peace Prize), it signaled to the rest of the world that workers were dissatisfied in the Soviet Union.


Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech by Lech Walesa:


Your Majesty, Honourable Representatives of the Norwegian people,


You are aware of the reasons why I could not come to your Capital city and receive personally this distinguished prize. On that solemn day my place is among those with whom I have grown and to whom I belong – the workers of Gdansk.


Let my words convey to you the joy and the never extinguished hope of the millions of my brothers – the millions of working people in factories and offices, associated in the union whose very name expresses one of the noblest aspirations of humanity. Today all of them, like myself, feel greatly honoured by the prize.


With deep sorrow I think of those who paid with their lives for the loyalty to “Solidarity”; of those who are behind prison bars and who are victims of repressions. I think of all those with whom I have travelled the same road and with whom I shared the trials and tribulations of our time….


We are fighting for the right of the working people to association and for the dignity of human labour. We respect the dignity and the rights of every man and every nation. The path to a brighter future of the world leads through honest reconciliation of the conflicting interests and not through hatred and bloodshed. To follow that path means to enhance the moral power of the all-embracing idea of human solidarity.


 I feel happy and proud that over the past few years this idea has been so closely connected with the name of my homeland.

 Source: Lech Walesa, 1983 Noble Prize Acceptance Speech (read by Mrs. Danuata Walesa), December 10, 1983. Available online at



  1. Who does Walesa say he is representing? (5pts)


  1. What does Walesa say the key problems are for working people? (5pts)


  1. What do you think he is advocating? (5pts)



Document 3 -Life as a Soviet soldier during the invasion of Afghanistan


  1. Before your read: use your text or the internet to find out… Why did the Soviets invade Afghanistan? (5pts)


Background: Vladimir Tamarov was a Soviet soldier who was sent to Afghanistan in the 1970s. In 1992 he wrote a memoir that explained the costs involved in being engaged in that war. He also reflected on how he felt about the challenges and the effect of the war on the Soviet Union:


It had a rather banal beginning. In December 1979 Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. This wasn’t anything unusual; our troops were already in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary; sometimes they dropped in on Africa, and even briefly on Egypt. So one country more or one country less – it didn’t make much difference.


It’s only now, after the Soviet government has officially declared it was a mistake to bring Soviet troops into Afghanistan, only now that the Soviet press has started to say, it was a mistake to bring Soviet troops into Afghanistan….


The war divided the Afghan people. Some were with us, and others were against us. On our side was the Afghan government, which had come to power in April 1978 (not without our help), and the Afghan Republican Army….


Frankly, they were lousy soldiers. They tried to stay behind us and were never in a hurry to overtake us. There was nothing surprising about this: many of them, like many of us, were not in this war of their own free will. We had nothing to lose but our lives, but they were fighting their own people on their own land. Our newspaper depicted them as brave and valiant warriors defending their revolution. There were some volunteers who fought on our side to avenge the deaths of their families… (B)ut the question was, what were we doing there? And why were there more and more unmarked graves in our cemeteries?


Source: Vladimir Tamarov, excerpt from Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam. Republished in The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 567-568.



  1. According to Vladimir Tamarov, how did the Soviet Union initially feel about intervening in Afghanistan? (5pts)


  1. Why do you think Tamarov begins to question Soviet intervention? (5pts)



Document 4 – the Chernobyl Disaster as explained by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev


Background: In April 1986, the worst environmental accident in world history happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, releasing a great deal of radioactive material into the Soviet Union and parts of Europe. The explosion, fire, and release of radiation affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (though less than 100 were killed in the immediate explosion), and the area around the nuclear power plant will be contaminated for 24,000 years. Below is Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s explanation of the effect of the disaster.


Gorbachev Explains the Accident: The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was graphic evidence, not only of how obsolete our technology was, but also of the failure of the old system. At the same time, and such is the irony of history, it severely affected our reforms by literally knocking the country off its tracks.…


It is necessary to say with all honesty that in the first days we just did not have a clear understanding that what had happened was not just a national catastrophe, but one that affected the whole world… If something was not done in a timely manner, it was mainly because of a lack of information. Neither the politicians, nor even the scientists and specialists, were prepared to fully grasp what had happened.


The closed nature and secrecy of the nuclear power industry, which was burdened by bureaucracy and monopolism in science, had an extremely bad effect. I spoke of this at a meeting of the Politburo on 3 July 1986: ‘For thirty years you scientists, specialists, and ministers have been telling us everything was safe. And you think we will look on you as gods. But now we have ended up with a fiasco. The ministers and scientific centres have been working outside of any controls. Throughout the entire system there has reigned a spirit of servility [submissiveness], fawning [too much praise], clannishness [exclusivity] and persecution of independent thinkers.…


Chernobyl shed light on many of the sicknesses of our system as a whole. Everything that had built up over the years converged in this drama: the concealing or hushing up of accidents and other bad news, irresponsibility and carelessness, slipshod [sloppy and unkempt] work, wholesale drunkenness. This was one more convincing argument in favor of radical reforms.


Source: Mikhail Gorbachev, excerpt from Memoirs. Republished in The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 578-580.



  1. In the document above, underline every place where Gorbachev explains what the accident revealed about the Soviet system. Second, in your own words, write one sentence that explains what the accident showed about underlying Soviet problems? (10pts)



  1. What do you think Gorbachev meant when he wrote about the bad effects of “bureaucracy and monopolism in science?” (5pts)



  1. Using the documents provided, give a detailed explanation on how each document supports the oncoming collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. Please cite each document in your explanation. (30pts)



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