One of the most influential figures of the 20th century, former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev celebrated his 90th birthday recently. Gorbachev, who still resides in Moscow, is best known for the five years he led and dismantled one of the most powerful federations to have existed. In commemoration of the occasion, it is only prudent to dive into history and figure out how and why he killed the Soviet Union.
As Mikhail Gorbachev exited the Soviet-owned Aeroflot jet in Washington D.C. in 1988, two weeks before Christmas, all around him on the drive to meet former President Ronald Reagan at the White House he saw a guise of smiles, laughing, stores stocked with food, and an abundance of consumerism. He gazed at American wealth in awe. He had similar experiences on his earlier trips to France in 1985 where he met with President François Mitterrand where he discussed de-escalation of the nuclear arms race.
To any American citizen, obvious fissures of racial, gender, and economic inequality broiled underneath the surface of this Western facade, nonetheless, an idea was implanted into Gorbechev’s mind- a costly idea, one that would dissolve the state he was proud of, the one he called home. He wanted to emulate the West and populate the Soviet Union with their own happy people. Like the literary figure in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he saw past the propaganda and beyond the curtain of fear that divided the East and West. But like the Greek philosopher, he was ridiculed by both political corners; the hardlined communists who resisted any deviation from the authoritarian standard and the reformers who wanted to liquidate the Soviet Union. Caught between a rock and a hard place, this is a story of Gorbachev’s failed attempt to westernize but preserve the structure of the Soviet Union through the policies of uskorenie, perestroika and glasnost.
The Soviet economy Mikhail Gorbachev inherited in 1985 was not doomed to fail, at least not as quickly as it did after he assumed leadership of the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet state had been plagued by more than seventy years of brash economic policy and an incompetent Politburo (the central government of the Soviet Union), it was the incompatibility of Gorbachev’s own policies meshed with the Soviet system that cemented this failure.
While it is worth noting that the Soviet society had some miraculous breakthroughs over the course of its seventy-year history, such as transforming a barely industrialized society into a nuclear superpower in the span of a few decades, this image was largely exhausted by the 1980s. Following a roaring decade in the 1970s, the Soviet Union once again faced a period of stagnation. The illusion among senior party officials that the economy was in better shape than it was made proactive reforms impossible to achieve. For example, under Brezhnev, his ‘BAM’ campaign to build the Siberian railway failed to produce any enthusiasm from the Soviet populace, a sign that the Soviet message was failing. Gorbachev repeatedly warned Brezhnev to alter the economic course of the Soviet Union, to which his predecessor would delusionally reply “is it really that bad?” Paired with this incompetency was a shortage of market competition. Without it, the Soviet Union was a sluggish, excess driven economy. Since its foundation, the Soviet economy lagged behind their Western counterparts in every industry.
Despite how dire the circumstances might have been, the Soviet Union was not necessarily facing a crisis. While even its planners admitted it was inefficient, it was not until the 1990s that output started to fall. Planners forecasted minute but positive growth through 2000. Even the per capita consumption of consumer goods rose steadily throughout the first half of the 1980s. The long lines at grocery stores, food shortages, poverty, and frequent rationing were nothing new. However, when disillusionment did start to form, fear and repression were both well tested mechanisms for maintaining control. Rarely did reformers emerge to criticize the government, for authorities still had overwhelming power which pounced on any political movement. This is the norm Gorbachev disrupted when he began instituting his policies.
In a failed attempt to speed up production, Gorbachev implemented a reform called uskorenie, or acceleration. As discussed before, the Soviet Union was facing a period of stagnation, and after assuming power, Gorbachev tried to create growth through various methods. He promoted productivity, increased investment into the economy, and cracked down on alcohol sales. All three failed spectacularly. Besides a surge in propaganda campaigns and a crackdown on absences and corruption, these policies had little impact on worker productivity. Instead, the injection of money into the economy produced high inflation rates. Hundreds of construction projects were started but never finished. And the ban on alcohol, although it did lower the mortality rate, only intensified discontent.
Befuddled by his first try at reform, Gorbachev set out creating economic policy known as perestroika to modernize the Soviet system. Perestroika included both economic and political reforms, intended to wean the mechanisms of a market economy into the Soviet Union, and introduce accountability for the Communist Party. Similar to uskorenie, it focused on limiting corruption. More significantly, he gradually liberalized the economy through a series of measures including: allowing state enterprises to choose what they wanted to produce, enterprises to pocket additional profits, worker-elected directors, and legalization of cooperatives, which were semi-private enterprises able to produce what the market demands. But these reforms had their shortcomings as well.
Perestroika failed because of external influences, lack of concrete vision, and market negligence. First, oil in the 1980s became an unstable and unreliable commodity due to the plummet of worldwide prices. Because of this, the Soviet Union had to borrow money it would have never been able to repay. This debt, coupled with crumbling trade relationships with outer blocs of the Soviet Union due to a decentralization of power, put an immense amount of economic strain on the government. Furthermore, Gorbachev’s shortsightedness led to economic loopholes, such as individuals being able to monopolize supplies. However, market negligence proved to be the fatal blow. Less significantly, cooperatives were already part of an existing shadow economy, so legalizing them had little effect. On the other hand, as the Soviet Union was bleeding cash, more had to be printed to keep up with demand. This plummeted the ruble and consumer shortages. Because existing tax reform was inadequate to restrain inflation, the value of the ruble depreciated even more dramatically.
Paired with the embracement of entrepreneurship , Gorbachev also pioneered glasnost, or the ‘encouragement of greater discussion’, denoting a seismic departure from traditional communist thought. While perestroika was an initiative meant to boost technological advancement to compete with the West, glasnost was meant to expedite that process through the liberation of free thought. Gorbachev believed that new ideas would stimulate growth in the economy. He set out by liberating free speech, the press, and holding elections.
In permitting glasnost, Gorbachev completely undermined the Soviet system. He mistakenly believed the population would rally behind his policies to further Soviet advancement. Instead, it became a platform for dissent and grievances about the widening fissures in the economy. Quickly, the economic shortcomings began to unravel the Soviet system, and the Politburo was faced with something they had never encountered before: a form of democratic enlightenment. Even though glasnost can be seen as a political reform, it was intended to bring fresh eyes to a decrepit Soviet leadership. However, the leadership underestimated just how miserable the populace was, and decades of repression had shielded them from this reality. They had also never struggled with the same social pressures as most Western societies, such as scrutiny into racism and feminism, for which glasnost became a microscope. Freedom of the press undermined confidence in government, which undermined confidence in the economy. Because glasnost had essentially eliminated the central authority’s ability to assert repression and control information, nationalist movements started to swell. These nationalist movements would in turn become a rallying cry for secession from the Soviet Union.
Despite the USSR’s collapse, the Union could have been economically reformed, at least enough to survive for a few more decades. While enterprises were extremely wasteful, from their inconvenient locations to use of ecologically harmful technology and inefficient work ethics, one solution would have been to just cut these enterprises off, and allocate more resources to consumer-devoted goods the population was willing to buy. Yeltsin´s and Gorbachev’s 500 day plan to radically reform the controlled economy into a market economy could have worked if Gorbachev had not abandoned it and instead tried to save the planned economy at the last minute.
Even when the economy was in free fall, Gorbachev could have pursued price stabilization, at a time when he still had the respect of the military and compliant citizenry. Also, Gorbachev simply reformed the wrong things. Using China as an example, which successfully reformed a communist economy by introducing capitalistic features that fit with an authoritative political sphere, political freedoms should not have been introduced with a liberalized market. Authoritarian regimes, which the Soviet Union still very much was, rely on controlling information, crackdowns on dissent, and sustained ignorance about growing problems. Instead, glasnost gave people a microphone. It begs the question of whether reform was really necessary at all, if no reform would have been ‘successful’ reform. According to historian Adam Ulam “…in 1985, no government of a major state appeared to be as firmly in power, its policies as clearly set in their course, as that of the USSR.” But Gorbachev wanted to create “socialism with a human face,” an incompatibility, at least in authoritarian republics.
So if there was little need for any reform, I believe it was Gorbachev’s moral imperative that led him to reform the economy. The USSR could have continued living under the illusion that life, as uncomfortable as it was, was still stable. And yet, Gorbachev disrupted this system by wanting to give Soviet citizens the ‘good life’ he witnessed in the Western world. He wanted to end the “amorality of the regime.” Gorbachev had seen beyond the shadows in his many trips to the Western world, and saw how poor the Soviet Union really was. In an attempt to save his own country, he was squashed by both his former allies of hardlined communists, and by the new reformers. Uskorenie, perestroika, and glasnost simply pulled away the fragile veil that kept society stifled. With a lack of democratic history, Gorbachev’s shock of democratic policies has left the new Russian Federation struggling to consolidate democractic power, and shifted Russia from a communist-authoritarian state to distinctly authoritarian under Vladimir Putin.