Nationalism and ethnic pressures contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union, but they were not the primary cause. A qualified exception to this argument is Russian elite separatist nationalism, led by Boris Yeltsin, which had a direct impact on Soviet disintegration. This article provides an overview of Soviet policy vis-à-vis nationalities, discusses the surge of nationalism and ethnic pressures in the Soviet Union in 1988–1991, and shows how ethnic unrest and separatist movements weakened the Soviet state. It also emphasizes that the demise of the Soviet Union resulted mainly from three other key factors: 1) Mikhail Gorbachev's failure to establish a viable compact between center and periphery in the early years of his rule; 2) Gorbachev's general unwillingness to use decisive force to quell ethnic and nationalist challenges; and 3) the defection of a core group of Russian elites from the Soviet regime.

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