Russian Politics Essay – Perestroika and Glasnost | Critical Essays

Russian Politics Essay – Perestroika and Glasnost

Why did perestroika and glasnost become such important policies in the Gorbachev era? What was their effect on Soviet society and politics?

This essay will discuss the importance of the policies of perestroika and glasnost and what effects these had on Soviet society and politics during the Gorbachev era. The writer sets out to prove that Gorbachev was not a communist reformer as is widely reported, but instead wanted to implement a market economy as well as a free and openly democratic society. But that because of the political climate in Moscow and the memory of previously failed attempts at reform by his predecessors, his true motives would need to be veiled. It is the author's belief that Gorbachev's ultimate aim was to create a democratic confederation of the USSR with voluntary membership, which would eventually merge with the European Union (EU).

The accession of the first Polish Pope, John Paul II, to the papacy on 16 October 1978 marked the start of the collapse of the old order. During 1979 he made three visits to Poland where he implored the large Catholic community to become resistors against Marxism's atheist ideals and not merely silent collaborators. At the same time, workers across Poland began organising non-Party Trade Unions, albeit illegally, whilst establishing links with the country's intelligentsia. After the end of Martial Law Solidarity was the first Trade Union to be officially recognised within a communist country and held an estimated ten million members.[1]

The invasion of Afghanistan by the Russians to secure their fragile southern borders caused a Second Cold War to gather momentum after the apparent stand-off between Washington and Moscow following the Helsinki Accords. New Cruise and Pershing missiles were to be deployed in Western Germany by NATO which hit fierce opposition from the growing groups of environmentalists, feminists and anarchists across Western Europe. The conflict in Afghanistan was widely regarded as a mistake and left many USSR war veterans with mental health issues.[2] Meanwhile, in the USSR, the long-standing arms race with the US brought it to near bankruptcy with 30-40% of Soviet resources being channelled into the empire's military objectives.[3]

When Gorbachev announced perestroika and glasnost he also declared the end of the Brezhnev Doctrine, also referred to as 'the doctrine of limited sovereignty'. Ouimet argues that it had been dead since 1980-81, shown by the Soviets not sending troops into Poland during the uprisings mentioned earlier in this essay. However, the Russians had always been reluctant to send military force into Eastern Europe as was the case in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Brezhnev Doctrine had been in place because Eastern Europe being incorporated within the Soviet bloc was deemed to have been crucial to Russian interests. So, with the relaxation of the iron grip on the satellite states, they started to believe that independence was possible.[4]

During the early 1980's, three leaders of the old communist era were to pass away - Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. In 1985 a new reformist was to come to power who would radically alter the Soviet system forever and ultimately bring about its downfall - Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev had been impressed during his previous visits to Western Europe and became committed to reforming the USSR's failing economy. It had long been obvious to economists that market reform within the USSR must begin with the decentralization of pricing and decision-making. Nevertheless, Gorbachev refrained from using the phrase 'market economy' until 1987 and even then only referred to a 'socialist market'. Capitalism had been officially abhorred in the East for decades and Gorbachev therefore had to tread very carefully.[5] An amusing incident happened at the fortieth anniversary celebrations of the GDR in October 1989. During Honecker's speech he declared that the GDR's economy was one of the top ten in the world, to which Gorbachev gave an audible snort.[6] Hardly the reaction of a true communist! In retrospect, Gorbachev went on to say that, 'Russia's problems are not caused by democracy, but by the lack of it. They have happened because democratic checks and balances, democratic institutions, have not taken hold. Independent courts have not yet evolved.'[7]

Gorbachev's reformist tactics were that of a seeming compromise. He experimented by loosening control over a few farms and mills,[8] in the hope that change in a few small areas would precipitate a spilling over into other areas. This is a neo-functionalist idea most commonly used with reference to the integration of the EU.[9] However, Gorbachev knew that in order for the communist order to relinquish control, any control, reform would have to take place from within the system itself. This came in the form of glasnost, or openness. This policy allowed free discussion over a limited range of topics. In April 1986, an incident happened which provided the final impetus for change and that was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The incompetence of the Party in allowing the disaster to happen in the first place combined with their bungling efforts at covering up the incident convinced the General Secretary of the need to work with foreign experts and for legitimate criticism of the Soviet system to be endorsed. During '86-'87 many political prisoners were released from penury and media censorship was greatly relaxed.[10]

Perestroika has been described by many as the last great attempt to preserve communism. In spite of this, the author considers that Gorbachev very cleverly used the reform period of perestroika from January 1987 to March 1990 to exhaust all efforts to exhume the decaying communist system. If he had not smashed the illusion in the minds of the ruling elite and the general public of the validity of the Soviet approach then a program of reform would have been impossible to consider, let alone to implement. The revelations made possible through glasnost about the atrocities of the past and the inadequacies of the present only served to undermine the system as a whole. The January 1987 plenum of the Central Committee (CC) was a bold move towards real democracy including the right of workers to elect their managers and greater autonomy was given to enterprises. At the Nineteenth Party Conference (28 June - 1 July 1988) discussions were made concerning the democratising of the main political system. Multi-candidate elections were a predominate feature of this rearrangement; however, crucially the CPSU was to retain a dominant role within a one-Party democracy. This was, of course, a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, this was to be the beginning of the creation of a viable representative parliamentary system with authoritative executive institutions.[11] Whilst the republics were regaining their national identities there was also a renewed enthusiasm to bring back Russian character and sovereignty separate from that of the former USSR. On 12 June 1990 the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the RSFSR meant that Russian laws were to supersede old Soviet laws.[12]

During the transitional phase of perestroika, and certainly during the reform period, Gorbachev had to appear centric otherwise he would have been ousted like his reformist predecessors. The military and the KGB realised the need for economic reform and were initially onside with Gorbachev, but by 1990 his centrism was being eroded from both sides. Gorbachev wanted a slow transition period that would last over approximately 30 years so as to avoid anarchy. He was later to greatly criticise Yeltsin's 'shock therapy' for trying to move things forward too quickly and which resulted in a temporary set-back.[13]

Glasnost was vitally important because the exposures destroyed the people's ideas of their own history and their belief systems. It left a blank page in the minds of the citizens on which to plant new ideas. Glasnost allowed the corruption of many of the officials to be brought out into the open.[14] The fact that only a limited number of topics were allowed to be discussed freely initially in addition to the ability of the population to listen to foreign news stations was important because the Soviet peoples had had every area of their lives controlled for decades that free thought was almost unimaginable. It was not until 1990 that Gorbachev allowed the publication of overtly anti-Leninist writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,[15] this of course being in line with his vision of a gradual transition.

Gorbachev's reforms obviously had an enormous impact on society. Particularly affected were those who had derived their status in society from their positions in the Party apparatus. It is interesting that many of the Party elites started aligning themselves with the reformers once they saw the system beginning to decay. This happened in the satellite states as well as within Russia itself. There was therefore a decline in the nomenklatura class and a rise in the new middle class of which Milovan Djilas had spoken. 'Born under Stalin, freed from terror under Khrushchev, given job security under Brezhnev, harangued by Gorbachev in the cause of a restructured humane socialism, this class now cast aside the final shreds of communist ideology and claimed the role of the universal (middle) class of modernity'.[16]

Educational institutions were included under perestroika. The 'reform of the reform' programme was designed to encourage freedom of thinking as well as improving technology, especially within science and IT. Teaching standards were to be raised overall and class sizes were to be reduced. Secondary establishments were aligned with local factories and other parts of the economic machine which required more labour in order to increase production. However, towards the end of the eighties, because the country's general economic and social conditions had continued to deteriorate, educational reforms became instigated more from regional rather than from centralised bodies. There was also disagreement amongst educators as to the reason for the listless education system. Some blamed the 'period of stagnation' whilst others thought it was Gorbachev and his policies of glasnost and perestroika that were at fault.[17]

When Gorbachev came to power he promoted many reformers to high ranking positions, most notably he gave the post of Foreign Minister to Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian First Party Secretary with almost no experience of international affairs. He also relegated many of the reactionaries within the system. Together they brought an end to the Cold War. This ended the extremely expensive and ultimately pointless arms race. What was the point of spending huge sums of money on weapons that could never realistically be used when huge stockpiles already existed on both sides?[18] Zero-sum strategists took Gorbachev's 'retreat' as a triumph for the West, but this was not the case. The ending of the Cold War evidently meant warmed relations with the West. Judt observes that, 'Gorbachev placed at least as much importance on his relations with western Europe as he did with the US - he made frequent visits there and established good relations with González, Kohl and Thatcher (who famously regarded him as a man with whom she 'could do business'). Indeed, in important respects Gorbachev thought of himself above all as a European statesman, with European priorities.'[19] With the termination of the Warsaw Pact, NATO has since held world hegemony over military issues (or rather the US under the banner of NATO), commonly intervening on 'humanitarian grounds', without the consent of the United Nations such as in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. Gorbachev now believes that the US needs its own perestroika.[20]

The main outcome of perestroika and glasnost was the dissolution of communism. Right from the beginning of the Gorbachev era, Party membership diminished until he resigned as General Secretary and called for the CPSU's eventual demise on 24 August 1991. This act proves his motives were not to instigate communist reform, unlike those involved in the August 1991 coup. The earlier Decree on Power had split the Communist Party from the state institutions ending the party-political system of leadership in the state, enterprises, the KGB and the army.[21] In the free elections following the disintegration of the Soviet empire, all of the satellite states were to select non-communist leaders to take them forward.[22] The split from one-Party rule brought about a break from Lenin's 1921 'ban on factions' which allowed an upsurge in interest groups, including Trade Unions as well as racist and ethnic societies.[23]

Disintegration of the USSR had, arguably, been ripening since the late '70's. However, in his famous speech at the Nineteenth Party Conference, Gorbachev stated that each country must decide for itself what kind of political and economic system it wanted. The great statesman thus allowed for the defragmentation of satellite states without the area turning into Balkan-style conflicts.[24] There were, however, large clashes between civilians and authorities across Eastern and Central Europe during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, although the anti-communists were by and large committed to methods of non-violence forming groups such as Civic Forum and Public Against Violence.[25]

Perhaps the most symbolic gesture of the period was the impromptu tearing down of the Berlin Wall. German re-unification was feared by Mitterrand who was concerned with territorial issues and unwelcomed by Thatcher who disliked the large size of a unified Germany. It is Thatcher's view that Germany now holds too much sway over European policy, that what has been created is a German Europe rather than a European Germany. Despite the re-united Germany being made to sign treaties regarding international behaviour, violent clashes with migrants brought back memories of Germany's dark past.[26] But it must be remembered that it has not only been Germany that has seen a rise in the Far Right. The whole of Europe has seen a trend in rising popularity of Fascist organisations over the past two decades.[27]

The Soviet collapse provoked conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulting in a huge refugee crisis. In addition, Soviet policy of improving backward areas involved involuntary displacement of many Russians to Central Asia, e.g. to Kazakhstan where locals encouraged the Russians to leave. Russians in other satellite states were forced to go back to Russia despite many of them never having lived in Russia before. Many of the people forced into the Soviet Union by Stalin at the end of the Second World War wanted reparations.[28] The relaxation of Soviet control saw a large migration from East Germany to Hungary and Czechoslovakia and later to Western Europe.[29] By early October 1989, 200 people an hour were fleeing East Germany.[30]

Historical archives stolen from the Gorbachev Foundation have revealed that during the eighties, Mitterrand and Gorbachev spoke regularly regarding the formation of a United Socialist Europe. Russia, along with Central and Eastern Europe would become more and more democratised and the West would become progressively more socialist.[31] In the event, Russia never joined the EU but an economic community with moderately socialist ideals is basically what the EU has become. According to documents obtained, the revolutions across Eastern Europe during 1989 were under the control of the KGB in order to overthrow Gorbachev's enemies and replace them with trusted and like-minded leaders. One such example was the intended overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania by Gorbachev's university friend, Iliescu.[32] Notwithstanding the eventual outcome, during the early 'post-coup days of 1991 leaders of the republics managed to reach agreements of cooperation over economic, scientific, ecological, human rights matters and, above all, the principles of collective security and defence.'[33] This was a pretty remarkable feat considering this is something which has taken members of the EU decades to achieve and indeed is still ongoing.[34] Unfortunately, due to Gorbachev's decline in popularity and Yeltsin's rise to prominence, the Union could only realize as much as Yeltsin would allow. Consequently, the republics refused to cooperate with the Union as it was becoming too controlled from within the central Russian government.[35] As has shown to be the case, Gorbachev wanted these states to participate voluntarily and therefore the Union failed to develop.[36]

Although the confederation of the USSR was not to be, the implementation of perestroika and glasnost led to 'a rejuvenated Russia 'rising from her knees' and drawing on its cultural and spiritual heritage and its great past, re-entering the world community freed of imperialist ambitions and embracing the principles of freedom, property, the rule of law and openness to the world'.[37] These policies paved the way for a more peaceful world with the ending of the Cold War and improved relations with the West. They led to the dissolution of communism and the disintegration of the USSR and ultimately to the wider European Union that exists today. On reflection, Gorbachev's belief is that 'Perestroika's greatest achievement was to awaken and liberate the mind. People were freed to think without the constraint of fear of the authorities or of nuclear war. For the first time, they had the right to choose. The effect of that is long term and not yet over.'[38] The final word will be left to Tony Judt: 'No other territorial empire in history ever abandoned its dominions so rapidly, with such good grace and so little bloodshed... It was Mr Gorbachev's revolution.'[39]

Bibliography

Beck, S. 'Gorbachev and Ending the Cold War', Sanderson Beck, 2003. Available at http://www.san.beck.org/GPJ31-Gorbachev.html [accessed 14/03/2010]

Boros, C. 'Russian dissident who copied the Gorbachev Foundation's archive: Mitterrand and Gorbachev wanted the European Socialist Union, Thatcher opposed Germany's reunification', HotNews.ro, 28 September 2009. Available at http://english.hotnews.ro/stiri-top_news-6209804-russian-dissident-who-copied-the-gorbachev-foundations-archive-mitterrand-and-gorbachev-wanted-the-european-socialist-union-thatcher-opposed-germanys-reunification.htm [accessed 14/03/2010]

Brown, A. 'Perestroika and the End of the Cold War', Cold War History, 7 (1), 8 March 2010, pp.1-17

Cini, M. European Union Politics (2nd edn.) Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 2007

Domber, G. 'The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy (review)', Journal of Cold War Studies, 7 (3), 2005, pp.186-188

Gatrell, P. 'Crossing borders: migration in Russia and Eastern Europe during the twentieth century', History In Focus, Autumn 2006. Available at http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Migration/articles/gatrell.html [accessed 14/03/2010]

Gorbachev, M. 'Perestroika 20 Years Later: A Reflection', New Perspectives Quarterly, 22 (4), Fall 2005, pp.21-26

Gorbachev, M. et al. 'Recalling the Fall of the Berlin Wall', New Perspectives Quarterly, 27 (1), Winter 2010, pp.14-21

Judt, T. Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. Pimlico, London, 2007

Mayer, C. 'The March to the Far Right', Time, 10 August 2009. Available at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1913651,00.html [accessed 14/03/2010]

Satwa, R. Russian Politics and Society (4th edn.) Routledge, Abingdon, 2008,

Sweeney, C. 'Impact of Perestroika and Glasnost on Soviet Education: A Historical Perspective for Follow-on Research', Friends & Partners, July 1993. Available at http://www.friends-partners.org/oldfriends/education/russian.education.research.html [accessed 14/03/2010]

Yeltsin, B. Isvestiya, 10 July 1991

[1] Judt, T. Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. Pimlico, London, 2007, Ch.19

[2] Ibid.

[3] Brown, A. 'Perestroika and the End of the Cold War', Cold War History, 7 (1), 8 March 2010, pp.1-17

[4] Domber, G. 'The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy (review)', Journal of Cold War Studies, 7 (3), 2005, pp.186-188

[5] Brown, A., op.cit.

[6] Judt, T., op.cit., p.611

[7] Gorbachev, M. 'Perestroika 20 Years Later: A Reflection', New Perspectives Quarterly, 22 (4), Fall 2005, pp.21-26

[8] Judt, T., op.cit., Ch.19

[9] Cini, M. European Union Politics (2nd edn.) Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 2007, Ch.6

[10] Judt, T., op.cit., Ch.19

[11] Satwa, R. Russian Politics and Society (4th edn.) Routledge, Abingdon, 2008, Ch.1

[12] Ibid., p.18

[13] Gorbachev, M., op.cit.

[14] Satwa, R., op.cit., Ch.1

[15] Judt, T., op.cit., p.602

[16] Satwa, R. op.cit., p.15

[17] Sweeney, C. 'Impact of Perestroika and Glasnost on Soviet Education: A Historical Perspective for Follow-on Research', Friends & Partners, July 1993. Available at http://www.friends-partners.org/oldfriends/education/russian.education.research.html [accessed 14/03/2010]

[18] Brown, A. op.cit., & Gorbachev, M. et al. 'Recalling the Fall of the Berlin Wall', New Perspectives Quarterly, 27 (1), Winter 2010, pp.14-21

[19] Judt, T., op.cit., p.601

[20] Gorbachev, M. 'Perestroika 20 Years Later: A Reflection', op.cit.

[21] Satwa, R., op.cit., pp.18-29

[22] Beck, S. 'Gorbachev and Ending the Cold War', Sanderson Beck, 2003. Available at http://www.san.beck.org/GPJ31-Gorbachev.html [accessed 14/03/2010]

[23] Satwa, R., op.cit., pp.19-20

[24] Brown, A., op.cit.

[25] Beck, S., op.cit.

[26] Gorbachev, M. et al. 'Recalling the Fall of the Berlin Wall', op.cit.

[27] Mayer, C. 'The March to the Far Right', Time, 10 August 2009. Available at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1913651,00.html [accessed 14/03/2010]

[28] Gatrell, P. 'Crossing borders: migration in Russia and Eastern Europe during the twentieth century', History In Focus, Autumn 2006. Available at http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Migration/articles/gatrell.html [accessed 14/03/2010]

[29] Gorbachev, M. et al. 'Recalling the Fall of the Berlin Wall', op.cit.

[30] Beck, S., op.cit.

[31] Boros, C. 'Russian dissident who copied the Gorbachev Foundation's archive: Mitterrand and Gorbachev wanted the European Socialist Union, Thatcher opposed Germany's reunification', HotNews.ro, 28 September 2009. Available at http://english.hotnews.ro/stiri-top_news-6209804-russian-dissident-who-copied-the-gorbachev-foundations-archive-mitterrand-and-gorbachev-wanted-the-european-socialist-union-thatcher-opposed-germanys-reunification.htm [accessed 14/03/2010]

[32] Ibid.

[33] Satwa, R., op.cit., pp.31-32

[34] Cini, M., op.cit., Ch.15

[35] Satwa, R., op.cit., pp.31-32

[36] Gorbachev, M. et al. 'Recalling the Fall of the Berlin Wall', op.cit.

[37] Yeltsin, B. Isvestiya, 10 July 1991, pp. 1 & 3

[38] Gorbachev, M. 'Perestroika 20 Years Later: A Reflection', op.cit.

[39] Judt, T., op.cit., p.633

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