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The Soviet Union's Collapse: Causes and Consequences

Sir Rodric Braithwaite (Speaker), Andrei Grachev (Speaker), Professor Margot Light (Speaker), Professor Michael Cox (Chair)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012, 6.30pm, Hong Kong Theatre

The end of the Soviet Union dramatically changed international relations twenty years ago. What were the origins of the collapse of the USSR? What did 1991 look and feel like from the inside? What is the legacy of 1991 for the former USSR itself? The panel reflected on how history unfolded.


By Harriet Shone

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the British ambassador to Moscow between 1988 and 1992, Andrei Grachev, the former Deputy Director of the International Relations of the CPSU and official spokesperson of Mikhail Gorbachev and Professor Margot Light, an Emeritus Professor at the LSE, discussed the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s and the impact this momentous event had on the international system in the post-Soviet world.

The first speaker, Sir Rodric, began his lecture by describing the economic failure that he witnessed in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and posing the question that, in light of the poverty he witnessed, why did the West fail to foresee the collapse of this backwards superpower? The answer to this lies, Sir Rodric told us, in the inevitable excesses of war. The Cold War bred caution within Western analysts which led the men at the top of the CIA to err on the side of caution when discussing the Soviet threat and to adhere to conservative orthodoxy. Next he considered the reasons why the collapse of this extensive empire was relatively bloodless. Fear of civil war was rife in contemporary Moscow but Gorbachev was able to avoid extensive bloodshed by consistently following a policy of nonintervention and never resorting to the Army as a means of slowing the reform process he began. When assessing the role played by external actors, Sir Rodric emphasised that it was the role of Gorbachev and the systemic economic problems of Soviet Communism that were the deciding factors in the decline of the Soviet Union.

Andrei Grachev gave a personal account of that crucial year for the collapse of the Soviet Union, 1991. As the official spokesperson of Gorbachev in this period, Grachev was able to poignantly illuminate the difficult position Gorbachev held in 1991 as he tried to balance the conservative wing of the CPSU and Yeltsin's reformers. As a result of the earlier successes of his policies, which had effectively resolved the most contentious Cold War issues, and of his decision to slow internal reform, Gorbachev found himself internally and internationally without a strong bargaining position and fell victim to opposition from both sides. The role Yeltsin played in defeating the conservative putsch of August 1991 cast Gorbachev, as Grachev put it, more as Medvedev than as Putin. Grachev left us with an interesting proposition that, had the West supported his economic reforms and had he persevered in a more radical reformist mould, perhaps 1991 would not have signalled the end of the USSR.

LSE Professor Margot Light discussed the legacy of the collapse of the Union, in particular the long term impact upon the former Soviet republics. Professor Light argued that the disintegration of the Soviet Union added to the inevitable difficulties of a transition from authoritarian socialism to liberal democracy. Had a true federation been achieved, rather than the lose confederation of nation-states that came about in 1991, there is reason to believe that the patchy democratisation and uneven economic reform might have been less dramatic. Perhaps the role of Russia might have been as part of a solution to these problems rather than part of the problem.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has cast a long shadow over history, both internationally and within the region, and doubtless historians will debate it's causes and consequences for generations to come.



Sir Rodric Braithwaite joined the Diplomatic Service in 1955. He had postings in Jakarta, Warsaw, Moscow, Rome, Brussels (European Union), and Washington. He was British ambassador in Moscow from 1988-1992.


Andrei Grachev has served on the International Relations Department of the CPSU and became confidant and official spokesman for the last president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Margot Light

Professor Margot Light is Professor Emeritus at the LSE International Relations Department. Her expertise relates to foreign policy analysis in particular in relation to Russia and Eastern Europe.



Michael Cox

Professor Michael Cox is Co- Director of LSE IDEAS and Professor of International Relations at LSE.


 To listen to the event podcast click here


Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House. London School of Economics.   Map.