History of the Soviet Union (1985-1991)

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The rise of Gorbachev

Although reform stalled between 19641982, the generational shift gave new momentum for reform. Changing relations with the United States might also have been an impetus for reform. While it was Jimmy Carter who had officially ended the policy of Détente following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, East-West tensions during the first term of U.S. President Ronald Reagan (19811985) increased to levels not seen since the 1961 Cuban missile crisis.

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in the process that would lead to the political collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant dismantling of the Soviet administrative command economy through his programs of glasnost (political openness), perestroika (economic restructuring), and uskorenie (speed-up of economic development) the Soviet economy suffered from both hidden inflation and pervasive supply shortages.

Perestroika and Glasnost

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev

For further details see perestroika and glasnost.

Mikhail Gorbachev took office in March 1985, shortly after Konstantin Chernenko's death. At 54, he was the youngest leader since Stalin. He was also capable of creating new ideas, something that was discouraged after Khrushchev was ousted in 1964. Gorbachev instituted a number of political reforms under the name of glasnost; these included relaxing censorship and political repression, reducing the powers of the KGB and democratisation. The reforms were intended to break down resistance to Gorbachev's economic reforms by conservative elements within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Under these reforms, much to the alarm of party conservatives, competitive elections were introduced for the posts of officials (by people within the Communist Party).

However, Gorbachev's relaxation of censorship and attempts to create more political openness had the unintended effect of re-awakening long suppressed nationalist and anti-Russian feelings in the Soviet Union's constituent republics. During the 1980s calls for greater independence from Moscow's rule grew louder. This was especially marked in the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in other Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan. These nationalist movements were strengthened greatly by the declining Soviet economy, whereby Moscow's rule became a convenient scapegoat for economic troubles. Gorbachev had accidentally unleashed a force that would ultimately destroy the Soviet Union.

Domestically, Gorbachev implemented economic reforms that he hoped would improve living standards and worker productivity as part of his perestroika program. The Law on Cooperatives enacted in May 1987 was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms during the early part of the Gorbachev era. For the first time since Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Policy, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. The law initially imposed high taxes and employment restrictions, but these were later revised to avoid discouraging private-sector activity. Under this provision, cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers became part of the Soviet scene.

A perestroika poster featuring Gorbachev.
A perestroika poster featuring Gorbachev.

Gorbachev also brought perestroika to the Soviet Union's foreign economic sector with measures that Soviet economists considered bold at that time. His program virtually eliminated the monopoly that the Ministry of Foreign Trade had had on most trade operations. It permitted the ministries of the various industrial and agricultural branches to conduct foreign trade in sectors under their responsibility rather than having to operate indirectly through the bureaucracy of trade ministry organizations. In addition, regional and local organizations and individual state enterprises were permitted to conduct foreign trade. This change was an attempt to redress a major imperfection in the Soviet foreign trade regime: the lack of contact between Soviet end users and suppliers and their foreign partners.

The introduction of glasnost gave new freedoms to the people, such as a greater freedom of speech. This was a radical change, as control of speech and suppression of government criticism had previously been a central part of the Soviet system. The press became far less controlled, and thousands of political prisoners and most (but not all) dissidents were released. Gorbachev's goal in undertaking glasnost was to pressure conservatives within the CPSU who opposed his policies of economic restructuring, and he also hoped that through different ranges of openness, debate and participation, the Soviet people would support his reform initiatives.

In January 1987, Gorbachev called for democratization: the infusion of democratic elements such as multi-candidate elections into the Soviet political process. In June 1988, at the CPSU's Nineteenth Party Conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms meant to reduce party control of the government apparatus. In December 1988, the Supreme Soviet approved the establishment of a Congress of People's Deputies, which constitutional amendments had established as the Soviet Union's new legislative body. Elections to the congress were held throughout the USSR in March and April 1989. On March 15, 1990, Gorbachev was elected as the first executive President of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev with political ally Alexander Yakovlev.
Gorbachev with political ally Alexander Yakovlev.

Internationally, the pressures of fighting the Cold War continued to strain the Soviet economy, prompting Gorbachev and his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, to develop a conciliatory foreign policy toward the West. On February 15, 1989, Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, nine years after they swept into the country. The Soviet Union continued to support the communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with substantial aid until the end of 1991.

The most far-reaching changes, however, occurred in 1989 when the Communist governments of Eastern Europe were overthrown one by one with feeble resistance from Moscow. The popular uprisings against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were partly inspired by Gorbachev's announcement in 1988 that the Soviet Union would abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine, and allow the Eastern bloc nations to determine their own internal affairs. The relatively peaceful collapse of communism in Eastern Europe led to German reunification in 1990, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Comecon in 1991.

Unintended consequences of reform

By 1989, the process of openness and democratization began to run out of control, and went far beyond what Gorbachev had intended. Perestroika and glasnost were exposing how a once revolutionary Communist Party had become moribund at the very centre of the system.

Relaxation of censorship under glasnost resulted in the Communist Party losing its absolute grip on the media. Before long, much to the embarrassment of the authorities, the media began to expose severe social and economic problems which the Soviet government had long denied existed and covered up. Problems such as poor housing, alcoholism, drug abuse, pollution from outdated Stalinist-era factories that were seldom updated, and petty to large-scale corruption, all of which the official media had ignored, were now receiving increasing attention. Media attention also exposed crimes committed by Stalin and the Soviet regime, such as Gulags and the Great Purges. Moreover, the mishandling of the 1986 Chernobyl accident further damaged the credibility of the Soviet government at a time when dissatisfaction was increasing.

In all, the very positive view of Soviet life which had long been presented to the public by the official media was being rapidly dismantled, and the negative aspects of life in the Soviet Union were brought into the spotlight. This undermined the faith of the public in the Soviet system and eroded the Communist Party's social power base, threatening the identity and integrity of the Soviet Union itself.

The unintended political consequenses of glasnost reverberated throughout the union. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union's constituent republics, nationalists as well as radical reformers swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR's central Moscow government to impose its will on the USSR's constituent republics had been largely undermined.

The rise of nationalism under glasnost soon reawakened simmering ethnic tensions in various Soviet republics, further discrediting the ideal of a unified Soviet people. For example, in February 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in the Azerbaijan SSR, passed a resolution calling for unification with the Armenian SSR. Violence against local Azeris was then reported on Soviet television, which provoked massacres of Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait.

Fueled by the liberalized atmosphere of glasnost, public dissatisfaction with economic conditions was much more overt than ever before in the Soviet period. Although perestroika was considered bold in the context of Soviet history, Gorbachev's attempts at economic reform were not radical enough to restart the country's chronically sluggish economy in the late 1980s. The reforms made some inroads in decentralization, but Gorbachev and his team left intact most of the fundamental elements of the Stalinist system--price controls, inconvertibility of the ruble, exclusion of private property ownership, and the government monopoly over most means of production.

By 1990 the Soviet government had virtually lost control over economic conditions. Government spending increased sharply as an increasing number of unprofitable enterprises required state support and consumer price subsidies continued. Tax revenues declined because revenues from the sales of vodka plummeted during the anti-alcohol campaign and because republic and local governments withheld tax revenues from the central government under the growing spirit of regional autonomy. The elimination of central control over production decisions, especially in the consumer goods sector, led to the breakdown in traditional supplier-producer relationships without contributing to the formation of new ones. Thus, instead of streamlining the system, Gorbachev's decentralization caused new production bottlenecks.

Yeltsin and the dissolution of the USSR

Gorbachev has accused Boris Yeltsin, his old rival and Russia's first post-Soviet president, of tearing the country apart out of a desire to advance his own personal interests.
Gorbachev has accused Boris Yeltsin, his old rival and Russia's first post-Soviet president, of tearing the country apart out of a desire to advance his own personal interests.

On February 7, 1990 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union agreed to give up its monopoly of power. The USSR's constituent republics began to assert their national sovereignty over Moscow, and started a "war of laws" with the central Moscow government, in which the governments of the constituent republics repudiated all-union legislation where it conflicted with local laws, asserting control over their local economies and refusing to pay tax revenue to the central Moscow government. This strife caused economic dislocation, as supply lines in the economy were broken, and caused the Soviet economy to decline further.

Gorbachev made desperate and ill-fated attempts to assert control, notably in the Baltic Republics, but the power and authority of the central government had been dramatically and irreversibly undermined. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared the restitution of independence and announced that it was pulling out of the Soviet Union. However, the Red Army had a strong presence there. The Soviet Union initiated an economic blockade of Lithuania and kept troops there "to secure the rights of ethnic Russians." In January of 1991, clashes between Soviet troops and Lithuanian civilians occurred, leaving 20 dead. This further weakened the Soviet Union's legitimacy, internationally and domestically. On March 30, 1990, the Estonian supreme council declared Soviet power in Estonia since 1940 to have been illegal, and started a process to reestablish Estonia as an independent state.

On March 17, 1991, in an all-Union referendum 78% of all voters voted for the retention of the Soviet Union in a reformed form. The Baltics, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova boycotted the referendum. In each of the other 9 republics, a majority of the voters supported the retention of the Soviet Union.

In June 1991, direct elections were held for the post of president of the Russian SFSR. The populist candidate Boris Yeltsin, who was an outspoken critic of Mikhail Gorbachev, won 57% percent of the vote, defeating Gorbachev's preferred candidate, former Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, who won 16% of the vote.

The August Coup

For further details see Soviet coup attempt of 1991.

Faced with growing republic separatism, Gorbachev attempted to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 20, 1991, the republics were to sign a new union treaty, making them independent republics in a federation with a common president, foreign policy and military. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, who needed the economic power and markets of the Soviet Union to prosper. However, the more radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required and were more than happy to contemplate the disintegration of the USSR if that was required to achieve their aims. In contrast to the reformers' lukewarm approach to the new treaty, the conservatives, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were completely opposed to anything which might contribute to the weakening of the Soviet state.

On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev's vice president Gennadi Yanayev, prime minister Valentin Pavlov, defense minister Dmitriy Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the signing of the union treaty by forming the "State Committee on the State Emergency." The "Committee" put Gorbachev (vacationing in the Crimea) under house arrest and attempted to restore the union state. The coup leaders quickly issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers.

While coup organizers expected popular support for their actions, the public sympathy in Moscow was largely against them. Thousands of people came out to defend the "White House," then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin, who rallied mass opposition to the coup.

After three days, on August 21, the coup collapsed, the organizers were detained, and Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev's powers were now fatally compromised. Neither union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands. Through the fall of 1991, the Russian government took over the union government, ministry by ministry. In November 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the CPSU throughout the Russian republic.

After the coup, the Soviet republics accelerated their process towards independence, declaring their sovereignty one by one. On September 6, 1991, the Soviet government recognized the independence of the three Baltic states. In December 1, 1991, Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR after a popular referendum in which 90% of voters opted for independence.

Formation of the CIS

Map of the CIS
Map of the CIS

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian republics met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha to issue a declaration that the Soviet Union was dissolved and replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Gorbachev described the declaration as an illegal and dangerous constitutional coup. Yet, he had become a president without a country.

On December 25, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR and was replaced by Boris Yeltsin. The next day, the Supreme Soviet voted to repeal the declaration written in 1922 that had officially established the USSR and dissolve itself. By December 31, all official Soviet institutions had ceased operations.

The four principal elements of the old Soviet system were the hierarchy of soviets, ethnic federalism, state socialism, and Communist Party dominance. Gorbachev's program of perestroika produced radical unanticipated effects that brought that system down. Gorbachev successfully built a coalition of political leaders supportive of reform and created new arenas and bases of power. He implemented these measures because of economic problems and political inertia that clearly threatened to put the Soviet Union into a state of long-term stagnation.

But by using structural reforms to widen opportunities for leaders and popular movements in the union republics to gain influence, Gorbachev also made it possible for nationalist, orthodox communist, and populist forces to oppose his attempts to liberalize and revitalize Soviet socialism. Although some of the new movements aspired to replace the Soviet system altogether with a liberal democratic one, others demanded independence for the national republics. Still others insisted on the restoration of the old Soviet ways. Ultimately, Gorbachev could not forge a compromise among these forces.

End of the Cold War

As the Soviet Union was unraveling, Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush declared a U.S.-Soviet strategic partnership at the summit of July 1991, decisively marking the end of the Cold War. President Bush declared that U.S.-Soviet cooperation during the Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991 had laid the groundwork for a partnership in resolving bilateral and world problems. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation claimed to be the legal successor to the USSR on the international stage.

Post-Soviet restructuring

For details see also History of post-Soviet Russia.

Begging in the streets of post-Soviet Russia became increasingly common in the 1990s.
Begging in the streets of post-Soviet Russia became increasingly common in the 1990s.

To restructure the Soviet administrative command system to effect a transition to capitalism, Yeltsin's shock program, employed days following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, cut subsidies to money-losing farms and industries, decontrolled prices, moved toward convertibility of the ruble, and moved toward restructuring the largely state-owned economy. Existing institutions, however, were abandoned before the legal structures of a market economy that govern private property, oversee the financial market, and enforce taxation were functional, despite the fact that the two major components of a macroeconomy are a banking system and the state budgetary system.

Market economists believed that the dismantling of the administrative command system in Russia would raise GDP and living standards by allocating resources more efficiently. They also thought the collapse would create a movement outward towards production possibilities by eliminating central planning, substituting a decentralized market system, eliminating huge distortions through liberalization, and providing incentives through privatization.

Russia currently faces many problems that the planners in 1992 did not expect, including the 25% of the population that now lives below the poverty line, the drop in life expectancy, a low birthrate, and the drop in GDP, which halved after the USSR's collapse. In the eyes of many of the older generations in Russia, life under the old Soviet system was more secure than it is today. These problems led to a series of crises in the 1990s, which nearly lead to election of Yeltsin's Communist opponent in the 1996 presidential election.

<< History of the Soviet Union (1953-1985)

External links

Further reading

  • Helene Carrere D'Encausse, The End of the Soviet Empire: The Triumph of the Nations, Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0465098185
  • Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Stanford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0804722471

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Soviet Union: 1917-19271927-19531953-19851985-1991
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