Afghani Mujahadeen fighter

An Afghani rebel aims a stinger missile at an aircraft in February 1988. Afghanistan in one of the nations where a proxy war was fought between the USSR and the U.S.

Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison/Getty Images

The Swahili have a proverb: When the elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled. For more than 45 years, the elephantine superpowers of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States fought the Cold War -- and some might argue the grass was, in this case, the rest of the world.

While the Cold War was largely a war of threats, there was plenty of real violence, too. The aggression between the U.S. and USSR spilled over into places like Angola and Nicaragua, and the two nations fought proxy wars -- conflicts between warring parties of a third nation, but supported by the U.S. and USSR. The soil of European nations served as nuclear missile sites for both sides. In Soviet satellite states, populations were repressed and subjugated by communist rule. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet condoned kidnapping and murder of the leftist population under an American-backed regime. And the global psyche was plagued by anxiety over possible nuclear war.

The tense standoff that characterized the Cold War ended when the USSR collapsed in 1991, becoming the Russian Federation. This collapse was preceded by revolutions in Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the USSR fell, the Soviet states dissolved. The end of the Cold War came so abruptly (and with such finality) that even years later, disbelief gripped the West. A 1998 episode of the American TV show "The Simpsons" depicts a Russian delegate at the United Nations referring to his country as the Soviet Union. "Soviet Union?" asks the American delegate. "I thought you guys broke up." "Nyet! That's what we wanted you to think!" the Soviet delegate replies and laughs ominously [source: IMDB].

This scene underscores a hallmark of the Cold War's conclusion: uncertainty. What exactly led to the downfall of the Soviet Union? Was the collapse of the USSR inevitable, or did America hasten its disintegration? Or, as former CIA director and Soviet expert Robert Gates puts it, "Did we win or did the Soviets just lose?" [source: Powers].

On the next page, we'll examine the theory that the United States brought down the USSR.