In 1985, MIKHAIL SERGEYEVICH GORBACHEV took over. Unlike Brezhnev, who need tanks of oxygen at his side, Gorbachev had good health and relative youth on his side. At 54 years of age, Gorbachev represented a generation which had begun their political and party careers after 1953. So although they were born and raised in the Stalin years, Stalin was gone by the time they begun their political lives. A self-confident and energetic man, Gorbachev talked freely to people from all walks of life. He was keenly aware of the problems facing the Soviet Union and knew that the Party had stagnated over time. Much of this stagnation as well as inefficiency was made readily apparent in April of 1986 when a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded and sent radiation 300 times normal levels into the atmosphere. The Soviet government denied any such accident and denounced it as a creation of the western media. Seventeen days after the fact, Gorbachev appeared on Soviet television and gave a speech that was wholly uncharacteristic of Soviet leadership and presented a sharp break with the way the Kremlin had always handled such issues. Instead of propaganda, he delivered a serious admission of the facts of the accident.
“For our internal progress,” Gorbachev wrote in 1987, “we need normal international relations.” The Soviets had to catch up to the rising prosperity and high technology of the Europe and North America. The Soviet Union had to concentrate on domestic development and promote international peace whenever possible. However, it could only accomplish such a goal by giving up any global ambitions. So Gorbachev abandoned the traditional Soviet anti-western orientation. He wanted to integrate the Soviet Union into the main currents of modern life and that meant democracy, free enterprise and a market economy. Time magazine went on the vote “Gorby” Man of the Year and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pronounced that Gorbachev was “a man with whom we can do business.”
Gorbachev gave the Soviet Union and the World two slogans: perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). PERESTROIKA held out the promise of reorganizing the State and society. For instance, individual initiative would be revived and there would be more technology and a higher standard of living. Soviet citizens were to become more involved at the grass roots level and participate in national affairs. Glasnost was the corrective held up to Stalinist excesses. Openness would permit the open discussion of the nation’s problems and it would rid public thinking of propaganda and lies. Both perestroika and glasnost, as Gorbachev understood them, would transform Soviet society into a true democracy.
Academics, writers, intellectuals and artists responded enthusiastically, as did most western politicians. Sakharov rose to political prominence and Solzhenitsyn was invited home. Soviet fiction that was produced and subsequently banned in the 1920s and 30s was now published for the first time. George Orwell’s novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were now published by Soviet printing houses. Some new novels not only told the truth about the past, but also tried to explain it. In many cases this amounted to speculation about Stalin’s real nature and motivation, as in Anatoli Rybakov’s celebrated novel, Children of the Arbat. Rybakov, who had won a Stalin Prize in 1951, tried to get the book published in the 1960s but failed. It was finally published in Russian in 1987. Meanwhile, historians who depended on archives had always had a more difficult time in telling the truth. Nevertheless, after a slow start, new histories began to appear and new light was shed on the recent past. In some cases, surviving participants of the Stalinist purges were interviewed, and in other cases, long-suppressed documents were published for the first time. Trotsky’s works were now publicly examined but not unsurprisingly, they were condemned. Bukharin, on the other hand, was finally exonerated by Gorbachev. A good deal of archival material on the Stalinist purges and the Great Terror was unearthed and published. Some statistics were located but an accurate count of those who suffered will probably never be known. And in 1989, Soviet responsibility was finally acknowledged for the Katyn mass murders of Polish soldiers in 1939. Despite all of this, not everything was cleared up. Past manifestations of anti-Semitism were revealed but in an incomplete way. Whether Kirov had been murdered at Stalin’s order remained unsettled and it was revealed that some of the documents seen by Khrushchev’s commission on the Kirov affair had since disappeared.
In Gorbachev’s way of thinking, it was to be the Russian Communist Party that was to serve as the vanguard of perestroika. It was the party that would stimulate civic activity and responsibility. In 1988, a Soviet Congress was formed, including elected members, which in 1989 chose the smaller Supreme Soviet. In 1990, the Supreme Soviet elected Gorbachev as the country’s president for a term of five years. At the time, Gorbachev was still the leader of the increasingly unpopular Communist Party. Economic changes accompanied these political reforms. Industrial enterprise was encouraged which in turn would foster private initiative and loosed the stranglehold of decades of central planning.
By 1990, Gorbachev was cautiously promoting a market economy including the individual’s right to possess private property. Religious freedoms were restored and in 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated its 1000th anniversary. Meanwhile, contacts with the outside world, especially the west, began to intensify. However, all this seemingly good stuff — especially from the western perspective — had its downside as well. For instance, glasnost released decades of bitterness which had accumulated over the fifty years of Stalinist repression and terror. Perestroika and glasnost also revealed the widespread ecological damage the Soviets had caused on the environment. Gorbachev’s reforms also polarized opinion in ways that even Gorbachev and his stalwart supporters could never have foreseen. All that restructuring and all that openness had increased the diversity of opinions and in the end, led to little more than nationalist and ethnic in-fighting. According to Anatoly Sobchak, liberal mayor of St. Petersberg:
A totalitarian system leaves behind it a minefield built into both the country’s social structure and the individual psychology of its citizens. And mines explode each time the system faces the danger of being dismantled and the country sees the prospect of genuine renewal.
In an effort to preserve unity by compromise, Gorbachev entered a bitter quarrel with his more radical rival, Boris Yeltsin. The weakening of traditional Soviet authority and the release of “history” brought about by the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, in the end, brought disunity. Meanwhile, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians all demanded independence which in turn set off similar demands among Ukrainians, Georgians, Beylorussians, Armenians and the various peoples of central Asia. By the late 1980s, inter-ethnic violence had escalated. And in 1990, the Russian Republic, the largest republic of the Soviet Union, declared its limited independence under Yeltsin, and an Anti-Reform Russian Communist Party broke off from the reformist party faction led by Gorbachev.
Gorbachev, caught in an avalanche he himself had helped to create, was willing to establish a new federal union of Soviet sovereign republics but remained opposed to the outright dissolution of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the transition to a market economy was too complex for ready and easy solutions. The production and distribution of consumer goods collapsed. Local governments hoarded essential commodities and the black market flourished as did the Russian Mafia. As the journalist David Remnick has written:
the Communist Party apparatus was the most gigantic Mafia the world has ever known. It guarded its monopoly on power with a sham consensus and constitution and backed it up with the force of the KGB and the Interior Ministry police.
Obviously, the spiritual rebirth and the revolution that Gorbachev had hoped for had not materialized. In October 1990, Gorbachev sadly remarked that “unfortunately, our society is not ready for the procedures of a law-based state.”
In response to a crisis produced by Gorbachev, the liberals of Moscow and Leningrad pressed Yeltsin for even quicker modernization. This included a multi-party system, a flourishing market economy and increased civil liberties for all Soviet citizens. But, on the opposite side, were the Communist hardliners who were willing and eager to revive the old order, the Stalinist order, which depended on the army for restoring order. Gorbachev viewed all this with an eye toward compromise. But by early 1991, it was clear that Gorbachev had sided with the conservatives. On August 19, 1991, the conservative acted. They imprisoned Gorbachev in his Crimean vacation home and deposed him as president of the Soviet Union. They declared a state of emergency and began preparations for a new communist dictatorship. The problem was, the conservative faction was completely out of touch with popular opinion. Most citizens had enough of the party and thanks to glasnost and perestroika, had no intention of a Stalinist revival. Even the KGB defected over to Yeltsin’s side. Emotions were high and the outburst spread to Moscow, Leningrad and other cities. The coup collapsed in three days and the chief victims, never to recover, were the Communist Party and the unity and existence of the Soviet Union.