Gorbachev’s analysis of the problems confronting the USSR

“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)

1 2