Gorbachev and the Collapse of the Soviet Empire

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev

The USSR, stretching from the Pacific coast in the East all the way to central Europe, looked to be in a strong position in 1980. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, an energetic man in his fifties, took over leadership of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was clearly different from his predecessors and he had decided that the Soviet Union needed to change in many aspects. The two slogans, now so well known, perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were coined under Gorbachev’s leadership, who wanted to achieve both.

The Soviet Union was facing a number of pressing problems towards the end of the 20th century. Living standards as well as technological advance were two aspects in which the Soviet Union were falling behind in the Western world. Also, the new arms race, which had been initiated by American President Ronald Reagan with his Strategic Defence Initiative, was quickly draining vital resources which were desperately needed in other areas, such as the development of the economy and agriculture. The planned economy in place in the Soviet Union had proven to be unable to compete with the free markets of the west, and, by the 1980’s, the Soviet Union relied increasingly on Western aid, such as grain imports from the USA. The Soviet economy was experiencing a crisis, with aging (and polluting) heavy industry and inability to compete with the West in new industries, such as telecommunications and computers. Agricultural output in the Soviet Union was abysmal compared to that of the West; one American farmer was seven times more productive than his/her Soviet counterpart. The Soviet military had also become bogged down in their own version of Vietnam, a war of attrition against Muslim fundamentalists (armed, trained and supplied to some extent by the Americans) in Afghanistan. This was a war which angered the Muslim world, and was a problem for the Soviet Union as there were large Muslim populations living within its borders. The people of eastern Europe were ruled by despots and lived in totalitarian states with little access to the outside. Yet, awareness of the disparities in living standards and such grew, with West German television (illegally) available in parts of the DDR and Finnish television in Estonia, for example.

As we can see, Gorbachev was faced with the very difficult task of restructuring the economically and politically stagnated Soviet system. He had a dream of transforming the Soviet system to what it had claimed to be and what it, in his opinion, was supposed to be. Gorbachev began to allow open discussion of national problems, openness in the arts and literature, he restored religious freedom in 1988, he wanted to introduce democracy into the Soviet Union as well as a market economy, as opposed to a planned economy. He also wanted to integrate the Soviet Union, until now a rival of the ‘Free World’, into modern international politics. Foreign policy was revised, anti-Western attitudes dropped and this was noticed by the West as well. Contacts and relations with the West improved, and Gorbachev was seen by many as a reliable man, clearly deviating from the traditional Soviet line. Gorbachev wanted to encourage civic activity and responsibility, in other words, for the ordinary citizens to take part in the perestroika.

Even though the reforms were accepted enthusiastically by the populace, it also allowed for dissent, of which there was to be plenty. Because of the vast layers of bureaucracy and the corruption that invested them, the economic reforms led to further deterioration of the Soviet economy. As the economy plummeted, so did living standards and satisfaction of the population with them. However, unlike in earlier periods of difficulty, dissent and freedom of speech was now allowed. The bitterness harboured by eastern Europeans was now allowed to flow free, and this led to revolution. The revolution began in Poland during the early 1980’s with the Solidarity movement, and, with Gorbachev’s reforms, it erupted with renewed vigor in the late 1980’s. Free elections were held in Poland in 1989, and the Solidarity movement gained 99 out of 100 seats in the Polish Senate. The Iron Curtain was being lifted. As it was noticed that the Soviet Union was not prepared to intervene militarily to put a stop to the civic unrest, the revolution spread quickly. Demands of independence were being voiced by all of the people that had suffered oppression at the hands of the Soviets, and ethnic disunity and conflict erupted all over the Union.

Gorbachev had become stuck between the more hard-lined communists, who complained that he had taken his reforms too far, and the more radical, such as Boris Yeltsin, who thought that Gorbachev hadn’t gone far enough. In 1990, Gorbachev attempted to halt the rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union by using force against Baltic nationalists and by appointing hard-lined communists into key positions in the government. However, it was too late. Gorbachev still attempted to compromise between the interests of the various factions and parties within the Soviet Union by granting a degree of autonomy to the republics, but still keeping them within the Union. Boris Yeltsin became president of the Russian Republic, which had declared itself independent from the Soviet Union in 1990. When the Soviet Union finally ceased to exist in 1991, Gorbachev became a private citizen and Yeltsin continued as president of the Russian Republic.

In hindsight, it is quite clear that the Soviet Union was already doomed in the early 1980’s. It could not keep up with the West militarily nor economically, and it was increasingly unable to keep its populace blind from the outside world. The key factor holding the Empire together was the Red Army, and the threat of force. Gorbachev must have realized this and understood the need for major reforms. However, there was simply too much bitterness from years of oppression and brutality conducted by the regime. There were still generations which remembered those years, and the reforms, although probably in the right direction, came too fast and went too far. Had Gorbachev done nothing but simply towed the traditional party line, the USSR would have eventually collapsed because of its own impossibility. It can be argued that had he been more cautious with his reforms and introduced them more gradually, the Soviet Union could have survived intact, but that would have required a major reform of the bureaucracy and a crackdown of the rampant corruption, which the Soviet system had created and was infested with. The economic reforms failed and played into the hands of those who could best utilize them towards their own goals, and the situation of the ordinary people worsened even further. Gorbachev was responsible for the fact that the Soviet Empire disintegrated when it did. However, had he done nothing.  The result might have been the same, except with more bloodshed and more chaos.