“Perestroika is a pressing necessity that has arisen out of the profound processes taking place in the course of the development of our socialist society. That society is ripe for change-one might say it has suffered enough. Any delay in pursuing Perestroika could lead in the very near future to a deterioration in the situation in Russia.” (Gorbachev, in a public address in 1987, as quoted in Hylarides, 2008, p.379)
These words of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev underlined the pressing need for reform in the Russia of 1980s. Gorbachev is one of the most influential leaders of Soviet Russia during the Cold War era. Both his personal qualities and political policies endeared him to the Western leadership during the final years of the Cold War. The key operative words during his reformative regime were perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya. Perestroika was intended to bring sweeping changes to the economy, “including efforts to stamp out corruption at the management level, more stringent labor discipline, a greater role for the market and more consumer goods. The grandiose goal was the doubling of output by the year 2000, with the emphasis moved from the quantity to the quality and diversity of goods. Humanizing the political system and delivering higher living standards were key objectives.” (Morewood, 1998, p.33) Ideal and noble as these guiding principles were, they also contributed to the weakening of Soviet state fabric and its eventual collapse. The rest of this essay is an elaboration on these vibrant yet controversial reform initiatives and evaluate whether these remedies proved counter-productive and ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When Gorbachev came to power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1985, the economy of USSR was dysfunctional and unproductive. So it was expected of the new leader to resurrect the economy by way of meaningful reforms, thereby retaining the Cold War equilibrium. At the time, living standards in Russia was plummeting, war in Afghanistan was draining the country’s resources and his counterpart Ronald Reagan’s posturing was aggressive and hawkish. Reforms were a dire necessity at this stage – a view expressed even by Gorbachev’s predecessor Yuri Andropov. (Hylarides, 2008, p.378) Despite reform initiatives eventually backfiring, the system was badly in need of change, as the economic growth had settled at near-zero, corruption at high-office was rampant, the parallel black economy creating havoc to economic planning and productivity of workers declining sharply. Further, “the neglected services sector contributed to a shortage of consumer goods and falling living standards, the social infrastructure was decaying and technological backwardness widened the performance gap with the West”. (Morewood, 1998, p.33) Beyond Soviet Russia, the Soviet bloc as a whole suffered from these problems to varying degrees.
The reforms were thus designed to overcome or ease some of these obstacles through “guided political decentralization and openness, with an expectation that central political executive policymaking prerogatives would be reinforced.” (Willerton, et.al, 2005, p.219) Perestroika, in particular, was based on four key objectives:
“1. creating a new superpower structure that would stand above the communist party apparatus, 2. establishing order in the country by harnessing the masses and compelling them to cooperate with the leadership, 3. overcoming economic difficulties, and 4. modernizing Soviet industry, especially its military component. The overriding end was to restore political and economic order, with such order designed to infuse dynamism to the economy and society.” (Willerton, et.al, 2005, p.219)
But, Gorbachev’s solutions perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness), the main pillars of his reform agenda, broke open a Pandora’s box. Under the reform regime, all aspects of policy-making underwent an upheaval. This includes radical changes in economic, social, political and foreign policy domains. Each fed off the other, so that the reform process assumed a will of its own, so much so that it eventually overwhelmed central institutions. In other words, Gorbachev’s program to salvage the socialist system also brought its collapse. This was first manifest in Eastern European countries of the outer empire in 1989, and two years later it triggered the collapse of the USSR, taking out Gorbachev from power and creating 15 newly independent states. (Morewood, 1998, p.33)
It later emerged that despite articulating right ideas of radical reform, there was no overall strategy to implement those ideas. In other words, there was no road map to adhere and verify with. The internal political maneuverings within the Communist Party was also distracting Gorbachev. For example, Gorbachev needed to deceive the conservatives lest they depose him before his programs took effect and started showing results.
“He thus began cautiously: a slogan, `Acceleration’, to revitalise the economy; all anti-alcohol campaign intended to improve worker productivity; new superstructures, like Agroprom, to inject life into the command economy’s over-bureaucratic system. More significant reforms only began in 1987 after the early initiatives were deemed to have failed. The anti-vodka campaign, for example, proved a disaster: it served only to fuel the black economy which produced illicit liquor to meet demand and led to Gorbachev being derided as `Lemonade Joe’ and `the Mineral Water Secretary.’ Tile campaign, however, was only abandoned in 1990. Nor were consumer goods becoming more available. In fact they became scarcer and queues at shops lengthened.” (Hylarides, 2008, p.378)
Political analysts such as Mark Almond have hinted that a slightly different approach to the reform process could have fetched very different results. In hindsight, Gorbachev would have been prudent to have adopted the Chinese framework for liberalizing the economy, which would have given him greater control over the political change process (glasnost). Instead, what actually happened was that perestroika and glasnost were at conflict at several places: while the economy stuttered and stopped growing, political reform took on a life of its own and got out of control. Gorbachev was pressurized for true democracy and religious freedom, even as calls for national sovereignty became more vocal. The latter eventually gained sufficient momentum that the Soviet Union was dismantled in 1989.
Hylarides, Peter. “Mikhail Gorbachev and Perestroika.” Contemporary Review Autumn 2008: 377+.
Morewood, Steven. “Gorbachev and the Collapse of Communism.” History Review (1998): 33+.
Willerton, John P., Mikhail Beznosov, and Martin Carrier. “Addressing the Challenges of Russia’s “failing State”: the Legacy of Gorbachev and the Promise of Putin.” Demokratizatsiya 13.2 (2005): 219+.