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What effect did the Cold War have on the Soviet Union?

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Phillip Holland eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The Cold War made the Soviet Union quite powerful politically. It secured buffer states in Eastern Europe after World War II mainly because its armies would not leave the occupied areas. The Soviet Union also sponsored regimes in Cuba, North Vietnam, and North Korea and did a brisk business exporting assault rifles and fighter planes. The Soviet Union was also able to develop its nuclear capability in order to threaten both Western Europe and the United States.

For the average person living in the Soviet Union, the Cold War made life very difficult. The Soviet Union suffered the most of any nation from World War II but would not join the World Bank or accept any funds from the Marshall Plan. The Soviet regime was quite repressive under Stalin, and after the war, he imprisoned those who had been German prisoners of war and others he feared were contaminated with Western ideas. It became a crime to listen to Radio Free Europe, an anti-Soviet propaganda machine begun in the early days of...

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The Cold War is usually defined along the lines of an ideological conflict between Soviet socialism and American capitalism. If this is the widely accepted view an interesting question to begin with asks should the Cold War be chronologically locked to the period ranging from 1945-1989? I think you can make the compelling argument that the origins of the Cold War trace back to the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1918. The Allied forces supported the Whites and even fought against the Bolsheviks and this had a powerful impacting shaping the mentality of the Reds/Bolsheviks. The Polish-Soviet War could be shown as a 'hot' war within the early years of the Cold War.

Back to the widely accepted time frame it is important not to view the Cold War from the perspective of post-1989. This tends to lead to the assumption that it was inevitable that Soviet socialism would fail to be a viable alternative to liberal capitalism. In fact this would be wrong as many people and movements in what would be labeled the Third World viewed the Soviet model as better alternative to capitalism.

To to the question surrounding the effect of the Cold War on the Soviet Union it depends on the time period. During the post-war years of Stalin, the Cold War was entangled with reconstruction and the idea of going from socialism to communism. After Stalin's death in March 1953, the Cold War continued as an opportunity to maintain the USSR as the other superpower beside America. The Soviet success in being a superpower was enhanced further into the 1960s from the boasting of Nikita Khrushchev and international prestige with space exploration. The launch of Sputnik, the first satellite in October 1957 and being able to put the first human in space with Yuri Gagarin in April 1961 made the Soviet model appealing for those nations formed from decolonization.

It is important to remember that even though the economy began slowing down and foreign mishaps, invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan intervention in 1979, the Soviet Union was still perceived at the same level of America. In 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and communist regimes in Eastern Europe the Cold War came to an end. But the Soviet Union didn't collapse until 1991 specifically after the failed coup d'etat in August of that year. It is also important to remember when the collapse of the Soviet Union happened earlier in March 1991 a referendum was held where nearly 70% of the vote from the republics wanted to keep the union together.

To say the Cold War led to the collapse of the Soviet Union provides an incorrect narrative. It assumes that the Soviet Union was destined to fail, taking away the agency of not only the political leadership of the Soviet Union but the everyday people who made up the USSR. The Cold War played a significant role in shaping the decisions and culture of the Soviet Union but can't be viewed as the sole explanation towards understanding its existence and collapse.