It was not all that long ago that the world was infatuated with the dynamic new leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-). Less than twenty years ago! What is weird for me is that I remember so little specifically of what went on in Russia; partly because I was so immersed in my graduate studies at the University of Virginia and writing my dissertation; partly because I was trying to earn a living; partly because I was getting ready to get married; partly because while I kept a corner of my eye's attention on what was happening there, I also remained suspicious about what could be achieved by a reformer within the Soviet context.
Mikhail Gorbachev had joined the communist party in 1952 after studying law at Moscow State University. When he became the new general secretary of the CPSU on 11 March 1985 after the death of Konstantin Chernenko (1911-1985), political experts had little really to say about Gorbachev other than that he had a reputation for expertise in agriculture. It was also noted that at age 54 he was the youngest general secretary of the CPSU since Lenin. He was also the first leader not to have served in World War II, not to have worked under Stalin in some capacity and not to have been born before 1917.
When he became general secretary, Gorbachev confronted a stagnant economy (one could say that society had stagnated too), an extremely bureaucratic regime and the complete lack of any technological progress in the consumer sector. There were also some serious environmental problems that had to be dealt with. During the Brezhnev era the communist party elite had entrenched their power and status; communist leaders had grown comfortable.
So Gorbachev tried to walk a fine line between meaningful reform while maintaining the hegemony of the communist party and the structure of the Soviet Union; he found out the hard way that he could not do it. Throughout his six years in office, Gorbachev always seemed to be moving too fast for the party, which saw its privileged position threatened, and too slow for more democratically-inclined reformers, who hoped to do away with the one-party state and the command economy.
Some of the measures to increase economic productivity could be done on the "cheap." For example, Gorbachev extended an earlier crackdown on alcohol use that had been started by his mentor, Iurii Andropov (1914-1984). The consumption of alcohol had reached sky-rocketing levels by the early 1980s and was dramatically depressing industrial production because of the number of drunk workers on the job. The standard fifteen minute break for workers had turned into: Three workers pool their money and buy a liter of vodka. Worker A takes a swig, worker B takes his turn and then worker C. Bottle is empty and discarded. Fifteen minute break over. Workers go back to work. Gorbachev banned the sale of alcohol before 2:00 pm and limited the number of liquor stores. This had some impact on industrial growth, which recovered a bit, but it also lead to an underground market for alcohol and all kinds of "home brew," most of which could be quite deadly when consumed. (There were really terrible stories about some of the "substitutes" that were being used for alcohol in the late 1980s.)
The alcohol problem was just one of many factors that lead to quite startling mortality figures in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s. Life expectancy at birth fell (and continues to do so). Male life expectancy in 1985 was 63.8 (female 74); 58.3 by 1995 (female 71.7); in 2001 the numbers were 58.6 and 72.1. (I talk more about this in my remarks on Post-Gorbachev Russia). But the bottom line was that the Russian population has actually been decreasing in size since the late 1980s (Demographic Trends in Russia, 1985–2001).
Gorbachev's major reform effort centered on two pillars: perestroika (economic restructuring; look for definitions of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost' (public criticism or openness).
To revitalize the economy, i.e., perestroika, Gorbachev tried to decentralize economic control/planning and make enterprises more accountable, i.e., actually produce a profit. He initiated a new law that permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. This helped to spur a dramatic increase in the number of cooperative restaurants, shops and small industries.
But to really change the essence of the planned economy system, Gorbachev needed public discussion of what had to be done, and he also wanted criticism of how things worked, or did not work, so that reformers could figure out what to change. So glasnost, in which the press became far less-controlled and thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were released, was going to be used to mobilize public opinion to support the reforms.
Just glancing at a list of some of Gorbachev's measures, you can see how he moved in an ever more radical direction.
- January 1987, calls for democratization and multi-candidate elections (as if that was not a dagger aimed at the heart of the communist party!)
- June 1988 reforms aimed at reducing party control of the government
- December 1988, a new Congress of People's Deputies as the Soviet Union's legislative body. Spring 1989 elections to the new congress
- March 1990, Gorbachev became first executive President of the Soviet Union.
Now all that was well and good, but the genie was about to be let out of the bottle. In February 1988, Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. That was a huge blow to Russian prestige; the fact that the long mission in Afghanistan had led to nothing, that a lot of Russian soldiers had died needlessly--Boy was there ever a lot of triumphant finger-pointing in Washington, DC when the Russians withdrew, and a lot of proud smiles on the faces of the CIA who had helped to arm the Afghan rebels--That I do remember.
The admission of error did not end with Afghanistan. That same year Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine (the assertion of the Soviet Union's right to intervene in the affairs of the communist countries of Eastern Europe to prevent them from becoming non-communist). This meant that there would be no Red Army support for the assortment of dictators inhabiting Eastern/Central Europe. Gorbachev even began the withdrawal of the Red Army from Europe. These actions meant that the Berlin Wall could fall and that Germany could be re-united. (Remember that it was only 35 years after the end of World War II, a conflict in which Russia probably lost close to fifty million casualties in the war against Germany.)
Eastern Europe and Central Europe were one thing, but the integrity of the Soviet Union was quite another matter. The glasnost policy of relaxed press controls and the events in Europe caused long-suppressed nationalist and anti-Russian feelings to start rumbling in the Soviet republics. Calls for greater independence from Moscow's rule grew louder, especially in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which had been annexed by Stalin in 1940; need I add that the annexation took place without the express desire for that on the part of the Baltic populations. Nationalist feeling also emerged in the Caucasus, especially in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ukraine also began to reconsider its relationship in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had accidentally unleashed a force that would ultimately destroy the Soviet Union.
So what happened in August 1991? In a nutshell, while Gorbachev was vacationing, a group of eight very high ranking party/state members declared themselves to be a Committee for the State of Emergency and attempted to seize power. The rebels hoped to prevent the signing of a new union treaty (The treaty was intended to create a truly voluntary federation in an increasingly democratized USSR.). The members of the coup included, among others, the head of the KGB, minister of defense, prime minister, minister of interior, vice president, etc. On 18 August some of the members of the conspiracy arrived at the presidential retreat in the Crimea to persuade Gorbachev to declare a state of emergency and let the committee assume extraordinary powers. Gorbachev refused. While Gorbachev was held prisoner, the State Committee ordered tanks into the streets of Moscow and announced that they had to take action because Gorbachev was incapacitated. It was Boris Eltsin who rose to the occasion. He made his way to the White House, the Russian parliament building in Moscow, and mounted a disabled tank to rally supporters of democracy (Those images were on TV a lot then.). Soldiers and KGB units refused to fire on or disperse Eltsin and his supporters; it was a dramatic confrontation caught on TV. By 21 August the coup was over. When Gorbachev finally returned to Moscow, all was lost. It was Eltsin now calling the political shots. Reluctantly, Gorbachev agreed to Eltsin's demand for the dissolution of the Communist Party which was held responsible for the coup. Gorbachev resigned as the party's General Secretary. The Gorbachev era was over; the Soviet era was over; the CPSU era was over.
Some recommended books
- Timothy Colton, The Dilemma of Reform in the Soviet Union (1986)
- Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (1996)
- Anatoly Chernyaev, My Six Years with Gorbachev (2000)
- Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (1996)
- Jack Matlock, Jr., Autopsy of an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (1995)
- Zhores Medvedev, Andropov (1983)
- Zhores Medvedev, The Legacy of Chernobyl (1992)
Some recommended websites
- Gorbachev's statements
- Statement Made by President Mikhail Gorbachev on Soviet Television, Moscow (5 October 1991)
- Resolution of the 3rd All-Union Conference of the Society "Unity, for Leninism and Communistic Ideals", October 28, 1990, Leningrad, On the Lack of Confidence in the Policies of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [CC CPSU] M.S. Gorbachev
- Excerpts from Chernyaev's Theses Prepared for Gorbachev's Report to the Defense Council (17 November 1989)
- Gorbachev's Pizza Hut commercial (1997); also on YouTube.