In this lesson, we will examine Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies of glasnost and perestroika. We will learn what led to these developments and see how they impacted the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union After 1945
After World War II, the Soviet Union emerged as one of the most powerful states in the world (the other, of course, was the United States). Although the Soviet Union suffered unimaginable casualties and enormous economic devastation during the war, by the 1950s, it was well on its way to recovery.
Eastern Europe had fallen under the control of the Soviet Union, further aiding the Soviet recovery and boosting Soviet nationalism. In the resource-laden Ukraine, agricultural and industrial output was particularly important. Soviet economics, of course, proceeded according to Joseph Stalin's Five-Year Plan.
The Soviet Union had also acquired nuclear weapons technology, leading to the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers. The 1950s and 1960s were particularly tense because both countries competed for military superiority as well as cultural prominence. The Berlin Airlifts, the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis were just a few of the highlights of the Cold War.
The 1970s were characterized by détente, which is a French word meaning the 'relaxation of tensions.' Throughout the 1970s, both countries worked to improve relations.
The Cold War heated up again throughout the 1980s as President Ronald Reagan took a strong stance against communism and increased defense spending. See, President Reagan was not content with the Cold War as it had been waged for decades; he wanted to win it. The largest peacetime defense buildup in American history took place under his administration.
The Soviet Union's economy was not nearly as robust as the American economy, and when the Soviets increased defense spending to counter American expenditures, it severely hurt their economy. The arms race was basically bankrupting the Soviet Union. The Soviet War in Afghanistan, which began in 1979, also proved to be a drain on the Soviet economy, even as it highlighted the general decay of Soviet power.
Something had to be done. Enter Mikhail Gorbachev. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as General Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1985. Reform-minded, he realized he had to take drastic measures to revive the stagnant Soviet economy. Let's take a look at the reforms he put in place.
The Russian word glasnost means 'openness' or 'publicity.' Upon coming to power in 1985, Gorbachev called for transparency in government dealings. He wanted government actions to be more open, more transparent for the Soviet people to observe. Practically, this meant limiting strict government censorship, granting freedoms of speech and expression to a greater degree and improving human rights. Under glasnost, the Soviet people were also able to learn about the corrupt actions of former leader Joseph Stalin.
The Russian media was particularly affected by glasnost. Gorbachev's reforms allowed for greater media critique of government. For the first time, the full extent of the Soviet Union's brutal past was exposed, causing many Russians to lose faith in communist ideology. Many Soviet citizens were shocked to find out the high standards of living enjoyed by Americans and Western European citizens. The bottom line is glasnost helped fuel disillusionment with the Soviet system.
Perestroika literally means 'restructuring.' Another of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, perestroika refers to the restructuring of Soviet political and economic systems. Under perestroika, Gorbachev implemented political reform and introduced elements of free market economics.
For example, he called for multi-candidate elections within the communist party to replace single-candidate elections. This reform, called 'democratization' in the Soviet Union, gave the people a degree of choice in whom they elected, although technically all candidates were still members of a single-party system: the communist party. Hey, baby steps, right?
Perestroika was also economic. In 1988, Gorbachev allowed limited ownership of private business under the Law on Cooperatives. This was a radical departure from decades of planned Marxist economics. We should understand Gorbachev's plan was not to completely do away with the Marxist planned economy but rather to tweak it. He wanted to make socialism more efficient by implementing certain elements of free market economics.
Effects of Glasnost and Perestroika
Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika had profound and unintended effects on the Soviet Union. In fact, many historians suggest these reforms led directly to the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, faced with widespread opposition in the wake of Gorbachev's reforms, officially ceased to exist on December 26, 1991.
While the dissolution of the Soviet Union is complex and resulted from a multitude of factors, glasnost and perestroika undoubtedly played a major role in bringing about this 'democratic revolution.' Glasnost and perestroika allowed Soviet citizens to have a taste of the freedoms enjoyed by Western democratic states. Once the Soviet people tasted freedom, they craved more. Having the corruption of the Soviet government exposed by a free press and having greater economic flexibility caused Soviet citizens to realize what they had been missing for so many years.
Let's review. In 1985, reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as General Secretary of the Soviet Union. He introduced reforms along liberal lines. The two reforms most commonly associated with him are glasnost and perestroika.
Glasnost means 'openness' and refers to government transparency and increased freedom of expression. Perestroika means 'restructuring.' Under perestroika, Gorbachev introduced elements of free market economics and implemented minor democratic reforms. These reforms allowed Soviet citizens a taste of freedom and led directly to the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Understand the early history of the Soviet Union after WWII
- Identify the new tensions created by the Reagan administrations military spending
- Recognize the work by General Secretary Gorbachev and his reforms through glasnost and perestroika