Mikhail Gorbachev was the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union and briefly its first President. Being widely considered one of the most significant figures of the second half of the 20th century, he played an instrumental role in ending the Cold War, stopped the human rights abuses, to a certain degree, in the USSR and shifted the trajectory of the Soviet Union from communism towards social democracy. As a result, he is widely considered responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The aim of this essay is to understand and explain how much of an impact did Gorbachev’s reforms and Western influence have on the downfall of Communism not just in the Soviet Union, but in the Communist Eastern bloc as a whole, and whether or not Gorbachev should be regarded as the dismantler of the Soviet empire and consequently, the savior of Eastern Europe.
Gorbachev was born on the 2nd of March 1931 into a peasant Ukrainian-Russian family and grew up in Stavropol Krai in the North Caucasus region in Southern Russia. While he was young, he used to work on the collective farms introduced by Stalin before graduating with a degree in law from Moscow State University. In June 1950 he became a candidate of the Communist Party and later, as he was an advocate and a supporter of the de-Stalinization process started by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, he was appointed Secretary of the Central Committee, the youngest man to hold the position. Shortly after the death of the aging Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 and the short reigns of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko as leaders of the Soviet Union, he was elected General Secretary by the Politburo in 1985 and later, in 1990, President of the Soviet Union for a short period of time.
Being thought of as more modern and younger than the previous leaders of the Soviet Union, as he was the Party’s first leader to have been born after the Bolshevik Revolution, he introduced a series of contested reforms in 1986, such as ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’, in order to reorganize the Party and improve the state economy. The Brezhnev years were considered more or less stagnant for the country, therefore Gorbachev’s main goal was reviving the economy and called for increased industrial and agricultural productivity. He began reforming the personnel and changing people from the old leadership with new ones who had closer mindsets to his, as well as introducing an anti-alcohol campaign in 1989 in order to fight the spreading alcoholism in the Soviet Union due to the harsh living conditions by raising the price and restricting its sale. However, this campaign was seen more as a symbol of change rather than a victory, as most alcohol production shifted towards the black market and resulted in revenue lost by the state, ultimately calling it an error. Moreover, in order to increase the agricultural productivity, he merged five ministries and a state committee into a single body called Agropom. A year later, in 1986, he indicated that the reform had been a failure as well.
The ‘perestroika’ reform, which means literally “restructuring” in Russian, was an attempt to overcome the economic stagnation by accelerating it and it would be the main focus of his leadership for years to come. He mentioned it repeatedly in the majority of his speeches, proving that he was a hard believer in what it represented and showing his confidence of its success. For example, on 6 July 1989 when he addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, he talked about a variety of issues, such as human rights, the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons and environmental-friendly solutions, but the main focus of his speech was the mutually benefic communication between all major countries in Europe and the United States of America and the idea of a ‘common European home’. Nevertheless, ‘perestroika’ was his means of achieving all his goals, saying towards the end that “Perestroika is changing our country, advancing it to new horizons. The process will continue, extend and transform Soviet society in all dimensions: economic, social, political and spiritual, in all domestic affairs and human relations.”
On the other hand, the ‘glasnost’ policy, which can be translated to “openness”, gave the Soviet people freedoms that were never seen before, including the freedom of speech, even though it was mostly on a restricted range of topics. However, this freedom would make Gorbachev more vulnerable to criticism as his leadership grew increasingly transparent. This can be clearly seen in 1988 when he was publicly criticized in the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya by a Leningrad chemist and teacher named Nina Andreyeva, which would have been unacceptable in the past, who warned that Gorbachev’s reforms would lead the country to capitalism. An important transparent moment in his policy occurred on the 26th of April 1986, when the infamous Chernobyl disaster happened. A nuclear reactor from the Chernobyl power plant exploded, even though it had been known to be faulty, releasing more than a hundred times the radiation of the 1945 strikes in Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined. This accident could not be kept a secret, although it was not the first one to happen in the Soviet Union, thus showing the official incompetence of the state and making Gorbachev ask for foreign expertize and aid two weeks later. Initially, he was hoping that, by giving in and offering more openness and participation to the people, they would eventually support his policies. However, he soon realized that the ‘glasnost’ process might as well be used against his agenda and cripple his authority, which is why starting with 1986 he began a series of changes, such as the relaxation of censorship and the slight improvement in people’s social lives, as “more than nine out of ten Soviet households possessed a television” by 1987, making his tactic at first a “striking success.” Furthermore, he instructed the state police to stop jamming the foreign radio broadcasts and released thousands of political prisoners, including Andrei Sakharov, the world’s most known dissident. Later, through the Law on Cooperatives of 1988, he permitted private ownership of businesses for the first time since Lenin’ New Economic Policy in 1921. As Tony Judt explains in his superb book about postwar years in Europe in the second half of the 20th century, “Gorbachev displayed a distinctively Leninist quality: he was willing to compromise his ideals in order to secure his goals.”
Another radical reform meant to reduce the party control of the government apparatus occurred in 1989 when elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies were held throughout the Soviet Union for the first time since 1917. The result saw Gorbachev becoming the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet on 25th of May 1989 and a year later, in March 1990, he was elected as the first President of the Soviet Union, however being the only candidate on the ballot. Interestingly, a study of 1990 showed that his popularity was declining and in autumn of that year he only had the support of 21 percent of the population. Moreover, Boris Yeltsin was elected as mayor of Moscow and would later become a vocal critic of Gorbachev, playing a crucial role in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as being Gorbachev’ successor at the helm of the new Russia.
Gorbachev’s foreign policy also changed compared to his predecessors. First of all, his aim was reducing the tensions created by the Cold War and improving relations with Western countries, as well as taking the Soviet Union out of isolation and promoting trade between the West and the USSR. As a result, he established close relations with several Western leaders, such as West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and most importantly, US President Ronald Reagan. All three of them appreciated Gorbachev’s new way of thinking and shared the feeling that they could resonate more with him than with the previous leaders of the Soviet Union. As his reputation at home was declining, his prestige in the West was rapidly rising. Moreover, in 1988, he announced the full withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which had been a disaster for the country, and proposed the elimination of at least half of the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals to President Reagan. Both of them understood the dangers of a nuclear war and were determined to avoid another escalation of the conflict, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Secondly, during 1988, he abandoned the Brezhnev doctrine which allowed for military interventions between the Warsaw Pact countries and granted the Eastern bloc countries the chance to freely determine their own internal affairs. After decades of Moscow close observation and interventions, this policy represented a corner stone in Gorbachev’s foreign policy strategy. There have been multiple military interventions resulting in violence and executions during the previous decades, for example the 1956 Hungarian invasion which ended with the execution of Imre Nagy. In some instances, the fear of a Soviet military intervention was the only factor which gave legitimacy to the Communists and kept them in power and the population obedient. Once this fear factor did no longer exist, it led to popular revolutions in most countries from Eastern Europe throughout 1989 and the result was the overthrowing of the communist regime.
It had been mostly a peaceful process, except in Romania, where there had been violent protests and fighting on the streets of major cities and the communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed on the 25th of December 1989 following a public trial for crimes against the Romanian people. This is not entirely surprising due to Ceausescu’s extreme cult of personality, abuse of the secret state police and the severe living conditions in the whole country. Regardless, Gorbachev decided not to intervene in any of the countries as his predecessors have done before in Warsaw, Budapest or Prague. He also turned a blind eye to the people of East Germany when they began crossing to the Western part and allowed the Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall and determine their unification internally, which would have been out of the question just a few decades earlier when Germany’s situation was a priority.
As Tony Judt argues, Gorbachev did not realize the contradictions between his policies and the basic character of Communist systems. From the outset, he was determined to rebuild the dying economy and fix the corruption of its institutional apparatus. In Judt’s words, the Soviet leader wanted “a melodious, meaningful and well-performed Communism.” The only issue was that by relinquishing control through policies like ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’, he was doing the opposite of what he hoped to accomplish. Communism is dependent on control, control of the people, the media, the economy, knowledge, essentially everything. However, he understood that fixing the economy on its own was not an option, as it represented merely a symptom of the problem. In order to have a chance of turning it around, he would first have to reform the party and the governing apparatus as a whole. This had been done in the past many times, mostly through purges during Stalin’s reign, but the years of terror were long forgotten and it would have been unthinkable to return to those times, especially under the leadership of someone like Mikhail Gorbachev. His only option was to do it his own way, using his own reforms, which has been a defining approach in times of turmoil for Communist leaders in the East, regardless of the fact that they might be counterproductive. Nevertheless, this time, the core features of Communism, such as the control and the monopoly of information, were lost. Furthermore, as Judt explains it, Gorbachev’s main mistake in domestic affairs was to encourage considerable independence and the emergence of a national legislature with national visibility.
The collapse of the Soviet Union happened surprisingly fast and it represented a unique event in modern history, as Communism imploded from within and mostly on its own. Naturally, there had been some outside influences which contributed, such as Vatican’s impact through the Polish Pope John Paul II and Washington’s support for the Solidarity movement in Poland, as well as the revolutions for independence in the satellite states, but mostly the Soviet Union lost its power and authority, which happened with unprecedented speed compared to the other previous empires. It then fractured into multiple states, led by experienced communists, who have now become Presidents following theoretically free elections. However, the transition towards democracy happened later, if at all.
In August 1991, as Gorbachev had already lost his popularity at home, it was widely considered by his opponents that he needed to step down. As a result, during his annual vacation in Crimea, his colleagues in Moscow staged a coup and initiated martial law and an emergency status, at the same time removing Gorbachev from power. Unfortunately for them, they did not have the backing of the KGB and Boris Yeltsin put himself at the helm of the resistance. Tony Judt once again charmingly describes the situation, writing that “the plotters were an unintentional caricature of everything that was wrong with the Soviet past: old, grey men from the Brezhnev era, slow and wooden in speech, out of touch with changes in a country whose clock they were clumsily trying to turn back thirty years”. Eventually they were arrested, some of them decided to commit suicide, and on the 20th of August, Estonia declared itself independent, marking the beginning of satellite countries seeking independence from the Soviet Union. Latvia followed the next day and Gorbachev returned home, theoretically still in power, practically just representing the past. He began talking about ‘perestroika’, which can be considered the leitmotiv of his leadership, the leading role of the Party and other reforms that need to be taken, but he had long lost the support of the population in favor of Yeltsin. In the next few weeks, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and other Asian countries declared themselves independent from the Soviet Union, many others following in the next few months, and on the 24th of October the KGB was formally dismantled. Shortly after, Boris Yeltsin gained total control of the country, Gorbachev announced his resignation as Soviet President in December and starting with the 1st of January 1992, the Russian flag took its place on the Kremlin, marking the end of the Soviet Union. In his final address to the people on the 26th of December 1991, he explains himself saying that he had to change everything because there was something wrong with the country and calls his reforms ‘democratic’. Moreover, he states “We had a lot of everything – land, oil and gas, other natural resources – and there was intellect and talent in abundance. However, we were living much worse than people in the industrialized countries were living and we were increasingly lagging behind them. The reason was obvious even then. This country was suffocating in the shackles of the bureaucratic command system.” He then blamed the arms race for taking the country towards its breaking point and said that he never had any regrets.
Loosening the grip on the Eastern bloc and East Germany officially ended the Cold War and in December of 1990, Gorbachev was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in it. In his acceptance speech, read by Andrej Kovaljov in Oslo, Norway, Gorbachev expressed his gratitude, cited Immanuel Kant and said that he did not regard the Prize as “an award to me personally, but as a recognition of what we call perestroika and innovative political thinking, which is of vital significance for human destinies all over the world”. Moreover, he assured the rest of the world that the USSR leadership is doing everything in its power to “ensure that future developments in Europe and the world as a whole are based on openness, mutual trust, international law and universal values.” Again, this would have been unthinkable in the past.
In conclusion, I would argue that Gorbachev’s ‘perestroika’, ‘glasnost’ and loosening the people’s freedom were all the precursors that led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the re-birth of Russia. Such reforms, coupled with severe food shortages, low sale prices for oil exports, the new foreign policy and the democratization of Eastern Europe as a whole eventually brought the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, it also led to economic improvement for Russia and the Eastern European countries previously under Soviet influence. Nevertheless, Gorbachev cannot be held responsible for bringing down communism, but he can be held responsible for standing aside and watching it go down. In the words of Tony Judt, “it was Mr. Gorbachev’s revolution.” Bibliography
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Prize, December 10 1990
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Gorbachev’s Farewell Address, December 26 1991
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Speech at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, July 1989
Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, Vintage Books London, 2005
Matlock, J.F. Jr. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended, 2004
Taubman, William. Gorbachev: His life and times, 2017