By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
In the USSR, the ruling elite enriched themselves at the expense of the nation. The system had moved away from the Bolsheviks’ utopian visions of the 1920s, and there seemed to be no prospects for change. Then, the leadership started to die of old age. The party leadership was eventually given to 52-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev.
Deaths of High-ranking Soviet Officials
In the early 1980s, the deaths of high-ranking Soviet or party officials became commonplace, including that of 75-year-old Leonid Brezhnev himself. But instead of replacing the late Brezhnev with someone from a younger generation, the Politburo named the 70-year-old Yuri Andropov as the new general secretary. He died 14 months later, in February 1984. Next up was the 74-year-old Konstantin Chernenko, who lasted barely a year before expiring in March of 1985.
It was after Chernenko’s death that the party leadership named the 52-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev as the next general secretary of the Communist Party, and leader of the country. Having come of age during the cultural thaw of the Khrushchev era in the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s clear that this experience had stayed with Gorbachev. And now, Gorbachev initiated a platform of reform—ostensibly to save the revolution.
Perestroika and the Policy of Glasnost
Unfortunately for Gorbachev, the high global oil prices of the 1970s—that had allowed for a measure of economic stability in the Soviet Union—had since gone bust. Furthermore, the USSR faced a stagnant economy, the ruinous war in Afghanistan, and a surge of military spending by the United States under its anti-communist President Ronald Reagan.
Seeing the necessity, Gorbachev initiated a restructuring of the Soviets’ centrally planned economy. Known as perestroika, it called for a more flexible system of economic management, and for opportunities for enterprises to become self-financing. However, for the new plan to succeed, Gorbachev believed that Soviet citizens also needed to be more informed.
This initiated his policy of glasnost, which removed the rigid limitations of state censorship and allowed for unprecedented levels of freedom of expression.
Gorbachev hoped that glasnost would rejuvenate the Soviet people. Instead, it exposed systemic social and political problems. And these irrevocably tarnished many of the legitimizing myths of the Soviet system. On the television nightly news, Soviets began to see social upheavals once hidden from sight.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Understanding Russia: A Cultural History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Chernobyl: A PR Nightmare for Gorbachev
One exception was the horrific accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in northern Ukraine in April 1986. The Gorbachev government issued no statement on the accident for days, instead clinging to decades-old habits of maintaining silence in the face of domestic disasters.
As the Chernobyl ash swept across northern Europe, radiation detectors in Sweden measured pronounced levels of radioactivity. Only then did the Soviet government begin to tell the public—and the world—the truth. Dozens of people were dead, and tens of thousands more had been exposed to disastrous levels of radiation.
This turned into a public relations nightmare for the Gorbachev regime. By the time the Soviet leader delivered a television address about the disaster three weeks later, he’d squandered much of his credibility. Public confidence was undermined.
Renouncing of Brezhnev Doctrine
The economic restructuring—perestroika—necessitated new sources of state funding. Gorbachev decided that the most expedient source of savings was in military expenditures. So, he worked to find a way out of Afghanistan, to reduce the arms race with the Americans, and to extricate the Soviets from their commitments in Eastern Europe.
In a 1988 speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, Gorbachev renounced the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine. Under the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet Union had reserved the right to intervene in any state where socialism was in jeopardy. Gorbachev rejected the very framework that had helped maintain Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe since the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War. He also announced that the USSR would reduce its forces in Eastern Europe by 500,000 over the next two years. This proved decisive.
Without Moscow’s military support, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe fell in quick succession. And in the Soviet Union, protestors filled Red Square—on May Day, 1990—with jeers, boos, and calls to ‘resign’ as Gorbachev and his fellow leaders stood by glumly.
Congress of People’s Deputies
Meanwhile, Gorbachev had also created a new legislature—called the Congress of People’s Deputies—that had introduced contested elections and a new crop of politicians on the national stage. These included the former de facto mayor of Moscow, Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin had suffered mixed political fortunes under Gorbachev, including a significant demotion in the Communist Party in 1988, and allegations of public drunkenness the following year. But he was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies in March 1989. And now, he led a radical reform faction.
Gorbachev’s position worsened after he supported an initiative to end the Communist Party’s monopoly on power in February 1990. This was an attempt to gain control of the reforming tide that was surging past him. A month later, he was elected to the newly created position of president of the Soviet Union, and appeared to have weathered the storm.
Common Questions about Soviet Union under the Leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the USSR was already facing a stagnant economy, the ruinous war in Afghanistan, and a surge of military spending by the United States.
Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a restructuring of the Soviets’ centrally planned economy. Known as perestroika, it called for a more flexible system of economic management and for opportunities for enterprises to become self-financing.
Under the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet Union had reserved the right to intervene in any state where socialism was in jeopardy. In a 1988 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Mikhail Gorbachev renounced this doctrine. He also announced that the USSR would reduce its forces in Eastern Europe. Without Moscow’s military support, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe fell in quick succession.