Glasnost and perestroika were programs of reform that followed a dismal decade for people in the USSR. The war against the US-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan dragged on until the mid-1980s; the Soviet Union lost around 3,000 soldiers in each year of the conflict. Soviet Russia’s domestic economy was stagnating after years of military spending, shortfalls in natural resources, bureaucratic mismanagement and corruption. Russia’s rapid technological growth had come at the expense of its agricultural sector, which slowly shrank through the 1970s. By the 1980s, the USSR could not produce enough grain to feed its own population. Moscow relied on grain imports – including large amounts from Western countries, which not only proved embarrassing but contributed to a trade deficit. The Soviet regime had few effective solutions to the country’s economic slump. There was inadequate support for extensive economic reforms. The Kremlin’s habit of micro-managing the economy meant new projects were slow to be approved. The government’s only significant economic reform of the early 1980s was a series of anti-corruption policies.
This economic downturn had dire effects on the Soviet way of life. Soviet citizens had never enjoyed a standard of living comparable to people in the West – yet by the early 1980s it had deteriorated even further. Of particular concern were shortages of food and consumer goods. The Soviet economy had always prioritised military and industrial production over the need for consumer goods. As a consequence there were dire shortages and long waiting periods for even the most basic consumer goods; Russians who could afford to buy a car, for example, faced a waiting period of several years. Electrical items like televisions, refrigerators and washing machines were very difficult to obtain. The consumer goods that were produced in the USSR – mainly cars, clothing and footwear – were notorious for their poor quality and lack of durability. Imported goods from Europe and the US were very expensive and out of the reach of ordinary people. Images of Russian stores with long queues or near-empty shelves appeared in the Western media – further evidence that Soviet communism was failing its people.
Disaster at Chernobyl
The Soviet economy was dealt a further blow by a devastating accident at Chernobyl, a nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. In April 1986 the plant was rocked by a series of explosions, followed by a major fire. The accident, caused by a combination of human error and faulty design, released large amounts of radioactive material over more than 100,000 square kilometres, mostly in the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. With Chernobyl’s nuclear core in danger of complete meltdown, the Kremlin was faced with a human and environmental disaster of immense proportions. A concrete sarcophagus was hastily constructed around the damaged reactor, to prevent the escape of further radioactivity. Contaminated agricultural land around the site was cleared, while thousands of livestock were destroyed. The economic costs of Chernobyl are believed to have approached 20 billion roubles – a price that the Soviet government of the late 1980s simply could not afford.
The USSR’s economic slump and its urgent need for reform was also compounded by changes in the Soviet leadership. Three Soviet leaders – Brezhnev (1983) Andropov (1984) and Chernenko (1985) – all died within the space of three years. The Politburo, needing a younger leader to implement and see through effective economic reforms, turned to Mikhael Gorbachev. A comparatively youthful 54-year-old, Gorbachev had long been considered a rising star of the Communist Party. Born into a family of peasant farmers in south Russia, he completed a law degree then ascended through party ranks, becoming a member of the Central Committee before his 40th birthday. In the 1970s Gorbachev sought to improve agricultural productivity by improving living and working standards for Russian farmers. He was promoted to the Politburo in 1979. Gorbachev traveled widely during the early 1980s, visiting more Western nations and meeting more foreign leaders than any other Politburo member.
Gorbachev the reformer
John G. Garrard, writer
Gorbachev’s leadership began with immediate discussion, both public and private, about the need for major economic reform. Realising that meaningful economic reform was not possible without political change, Gorbachev announced a policy of perestroika, or ‘restructuring’ (1986). Perestroika was a program of political liberalisation and democratisation – within the constraints of a one-party state. Its major change was to end Communist Party interference in the selection of government bodies. Elections for party nominations were to be competitive, allowing Soviet citizens to select their own representatives, rather than those assigned to them by the party hierarchy. In the March 1989 elections for the country’s legislature, around 300 reformist candidates were elected. Many ‘old communists’ were removed from the government, including Andrey Gromyko, who had been foreign minister for a staggering 38 years. While perestroika left the Soviet Union far from democratic, it at least encouraged political participation and freedom of thought.
Perestroika reforms also reduced Moscow’s centralised stranglehold on the economy. In July 1987 Gorbachev effectively abolished production quotas, passing a law that allowed factories and manufacturers to determine their own output. These industries could now function in a similar manner to private businesses, setting production levels, sourcing materials, paying expenses and wages, even selling surplus goods. The only difference is that they were to be controlled by workers’ collectives, not private owners. More reforms in May 1988 legalised the private ownership of most businesses, as well as removing barriers for foreign trade. The Kremlin also permitted foreign companies to invest in Russia’s economy – provided that majority ownership and administrative control remained with Russian citizens. As sweeping as they were, these economic reforms did not solve Russia’s problems. Some aspects of the Russian economy remained centrally managed, such as price controls and the regulation of foreign exchange. Yet perestroika still represented a genuine attempt to slowly transform the USSR into a free market economy.
The closed state opens
The second phase of Gorbachev’s reforms was glasnost, or ‘openness’. This lifted the severe restrictions on information and debate which had been part of Soviet life since the 1920s. Gorbachev hoped that glasnost would expose the errors of previous governments, so the people would support more extensive economic reforms. Media censorship was relaxed, though not completely abolished; literature once banned in the USSR was now permitted. The Soviet people – who believed they were living in a successful communist state – began to learn just how dismal their lives were, in comparison to those in the capitalist West. The horrors of the Stalinist regime, once suppressed and only whispered about in private, were revealed and discussed in the public domain. In 1989, Russian viewers tuned in to live broadcasts from the Congress of People’s Deputies, meeting for the first time with democratically elected members. What they saw astonished them, as delegates spent weeks criticising leaders past and present, the government, bureaucracy, the military, even the much-feared KGB.
These changes were, of course, too radical for hardline communists in the Kremlin and the military. They loathed the outcomes of glasnost and perestroika – not just the quasi-capitalist reforms, but also the rise of nationalism in nations once part of the Soviet empire. The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Georgia all broke away from Moscow, declaring their independence in 1989 or 1990. In 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall had sounded the death knell for Soviet communism, there was one last concerted attempt to restore the communist status quo. A clique of military officers and KGB agents captured Gorbachev at his dacha (holiday house) in the Crimea, holding him under house arrest for four days; meanwhile, troops loyal to the coup leaders moved into Moscow, with orders to arrest reformist politicians. But their gambit was thwarted by the popular Boris Yeltsin, then president of Russia, who addressed crowds from the nation’s parliament and called on them to resist the coup. The subsequent public unrest, along with the wavering loyalty of the military, caused the attempted coup to collapse after a few days.
1. The 1980s were generally a miserable period for Soviet citizens, who endured war, disaster and chronic shortages.
2. The death of Brezhnev led to a succession of ageing Soviet leaders, none of whom was prepared to initiate reform.
3. In 1985 the USSR turned to Mikhail Gorbachev, who had a history of reform and engagement with the West.
4. Gorbachev implemented two reform agendas: glasnost (‘openness’) and perestroika (‘restructuring’).
5. These reforms led to a relaxation in censorship and some political liberalisation, which increased public debate, criticism and, eventually, a dissolution of the Soviet Union.