To what extent was Mikhail Gorbachev responsible for the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union?
Many Historians contributed the fall of Soviet Union directly to Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms. They argued that Gorbachev’s Glasnost, (openness) and Perestroika, (restructuring) directly led to uprisings within the Soviet Union, and its Soviet republics that brought the downfall of Soviet Union. This is however a very shallow analysis of the downfall of the Soviet Union. For one to truly understand the fall of the Soviet Union one must understand the history of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the political and economic situation of the former empire when Gorbachev took reign.
For example the USSR’s stagnating economy compounded with the arms race, ethnic tensions, war in Afghanistan, as well as the communism ideology itself, all played great roles in the downfall of USSR. Gorbachev’s reforms merely torpedoed an already sinking ship, as the Soviet Union was doomed to fail at the moment Stalin took over. Gorbachev’s reforms also played a part in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He tried to combat all these problems with glasnost and perestroika, however it was too radical at the time and was too little too late.
The reforms themselves were flawed, as they were too radical and not properly implemented. Gorbachev’s reforms were literally the polar opposite of the policies of his predecessors. This radical change plunged the USSR into chaos and eventually the fall of the Soviet Union. If one were to truly comprehend the cause of the Soviet Union’s downfall one needs to understand the economic and political situation of USSR before Gorbachev came into power. One may argue that the Soviet Union was doomed to fail from the moment Stalin took power.
The command economy under Stalin took the capitalist world by surprise. Large scales of industrialization, and economic growth had many critical flaws as one Polish economist states, “state socialism was not a good idea badly implemented, but a bad idea which was implemented surprisingly well” (Mazower, 329). The command economy model produced a ratchet effect: over production by an institution in a given plan cycle, causing even more over production in the next plan cycle to match the new expected standard (Jefferies, 15).
This is very problematic as it reduced the quality of Soviet goods as workers were rushed to complete the plan at the end of a planning cycle. This in turn had two detrimental effects. First Soviet goods were shielded from the world economy, as the quality was too poor. Second, when Soviet goods were rejected from the world market, citizens of the Soviet Union were targeted as consumers (Jefferies, 22). This meant that the consumers were neglected, and as information technology progressed the people of USSR began to see the gap between their standard of living, and that of the West. This caused citizens to become disgruntled.
Another critical flaw that command economy possessed was its inability to adapt to the dynamic world economy as it was run according to state plan not to the market as it was supposed to. This can be seen very clearly in the Soviet Union’s economy. A prominent example to illustrate this point is the effect of the arms race on the Soviet economy. By 1980 Soviet Union’s defense budget raised from an already horrifying 22 percent to 27 percent its GDP compared to 7% of the U. S. (Hilton). The United Stated solved its problem by amalgamating a unique relation with its private defense sectors.
The Soviet Union however did not have such option as everything was run by the state, and the defense budget continued to sap an already crumpling economy, eventually to its grave. The political situation of the Soviet Union when Gorbachev came to power in 1982 was dire. There had been much history of tension between the people of the satellite states, and the installed governments of the Soviet satellite states. A prime example of this was the failed Hungarian revolution. In October 1956 hundreds of thousands of people rose up against Erno Gero’s regime.
The people succeeded in toppling Erno Gero’s rule, but despite their success, the unfortunately met with Soviet tank columns. After the Soviet intervention a new government under Janos Kadar was installed. Wide oppression soon followed, and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country, tens of thousands were imprisoned, and hundreds were executed (Holodkov, 1956). One decade later in 1968, Prague Spring saw the invasion of 200,000 Warsaw pact troops. Although there was not much bloodshed, the message was clear, radical democratization will be replied in force by the Soviet Union (Zaninovich, 1973).
From these two failed uprisings one thing was clear, the oppressive governments of the Eastern bloc were doomed to fail. These regimes were installed and backed by the Soviet Military instead of the people. These governments had no public support, and at worst they were not even considered legitimate by the people. Instantly, when the progressive leader came into power, all citizens were soon silenced. With all the oppression, bloodshed and historical grievances, there had ought to be tremendous animosity between the people of the satellite states and the USSR.
When the economy of the Soviet Union began to crumble, and when it could no longer afford backup by the dictators they had installed, Eastern Europe was a powder keg waiting to explode. When Gorbachev came into power he initiated a series of economic and political reforms known as Perestroika (restructuring). Perestroika granted a great degree of autonomy to state enterprises. These enterprises for example were free to determine output levels (they still had to fulfill state orders), sell their own goods and the freedom to import their own material (Rogers, 1987).
Essentially managers could run their enterprises however they saw fit without much state intervention. Perestroika allowed foreign capital to flow into the Soviet Union, and even permitted ownership of private property (David, 1987). These reforms seemed like a huge step toward repairing the sluggish Soviet economy, however in practice it created much chaos and eventually put the final nails in the economy of USSR. There were numerous reasons of how Gorbachev’s perestroika failed to keep the Soviet Union intact.
One main and most prominent reason of how perestroika failed to repair the USSR’s economy is that the economy needed fundamental changes not just some modifications (Hosking, 207). Gorbachev merely wanted a human face on socialism so that it would make it more efficient. He never desired to transform the system to free market economy. For example, perestroika gave enterprise managers control over their plants and provided them incentives to produce better quality goods which would translate to a profit for the plant, and in return boost the Soviet economy. However in practice it yielded opposite results.
Most managers were incompetent to run their respective enterprises, as they were inexperienced with such degree of freedom. What they often did was they ran their plants the same as before, which resulted inevitable bankruptcy (Hosking, 209). Instead of boosting the economy successfully, perestroika essentially drained the economy. The government’s spending increased drastically as they had to bail out an increasingly number of failed enterprises. This coupled with two decades of stagnation, the war of Afghanistan and a horrifying defense budget, the economy of the Soviet Union soon collapsed.
Perestroika also had a huge impact on the moral of the Soviet citizens. In perestroika Gorbachev introduced the concept of privatization for the first time since Lenin’s New Democratic Party (NDP). Although this seemed like a step toward a brighter future for the Soviet Union it created much tension between the government and its people. Gorbachev’s introduction of such a concept contradicted his vehemently commitment to preserve Marxist- Leninist principles which he clearly stated in his speech to the CPSU in 1985 (Rogers, 1987).
In retrospect he was trying to maintain the socialist ideology while moving toward a market approach economy. This proved disastrous, as the two economic systems could have never been compatible with each other. Free market economy inevitably led to inequality of wealth and the creation of a capitalist class who exploited the proletariat. This is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union after perestroika was implemented. A small number of enterprises did become successful and their profiteering was much resented by the general population (Hosking, 215).
This resentment along with the failure of perestroika, as well as shortage in basic essential items (bread and milk) much discredited Gorbachev’s rule among the Soviet people. The citizens of the USSR became increasingly more demoralized as shelves were empty and saw the grim picture that perestroika painted for the ordinary folk. Elena Bonner the widow of Andrei Sakarov in November 1988 said that she lost all faith in perestroika as she stated “I was always was a believer… but today my faith in Perestroika is waning. ” (Hewitt, Winston 145).
Along with Perestroika, Glasnost (openness) was also introduced within the Soviet Union. The goal of glasnost was to make Soviet Union more transparent by allowing freedom of speech, press, basically opening the country for debates and criticisms (Rogers, 1987). This meant Soviet citizens no longer had to fear neighbors turning them into the KGB or arrested and exiled for negative thoughts against the state. Gorbachev even allowed some form of democracy within the Soviet Union by allowing the people to vote for CPSU candidates. Glasnost had unintended consequences however.
In a regime based on oppression and propaganda, allowing freedom in any sort will discredit the regime. By removing ideology control the party (CPSU) had to depend on the people’s support in order to stay in power (Rogers, 1987). This however was unachievable as Perestroika was moving the country toward a more bourgeoisie, capitalist society. In addition giving the people freedom of speech and removing media censorship all the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union were realized. It was inevitable that there will be extreme hostility toward those who were responsible,
Namely the USSR who has been oppressing the people of Eastern Europe for more than 40 years (Kagarlitsky, 103). The tension between the people of the satellite states and the Soviet Union will no doubt intensify and eventually there will be nothing the Soviet Union could do to control the people of Eastern Europe. Nationalist movements swept across the Soviet satellite states like a storm and one by one these states declared independence. This time without the backing of the Soviet military the communist dictators fell like dominoes.
Gorbachev could do nothing but watch as the Soviet Union was in no shape to intervene especially after its defeat in Afghanistan. Glasnost was too sudden and too radical and it isolated Gorbachev from the people instead of bringing him closer to the public. One important point worth mentioning that contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union was the communism ideology itself. Gorbachev unlike his predecessors was born and raised under the communist ideology. He was educated within the Soviet system ad had no recollection of the past.
So in theory he should be the fruit of communist propaganda. However the fact that Gorbachev chose to implement reforms and move the country toward democracy revealed the incompatibility of communism and human nature. Karl Marx’s idea that with time communism would led to the creation of an utopia where everyone is equal and there will be no incentive to compete was proven false. Inequality and competition are embedded in the human nature and to ignore this is to ignore oneself. It is true that Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms played great parts in the downfall of the Soviet Union.
However one cannot ignore other aspects that brought down the USSR namely the obsolete command economic model and the repression imposed on the people for more than 70 years. Perestroika failed to restructure the economy as it merely sought to modify it instead of replacing it. Glasnost failed to keep the Soviet empire together as it was too sudden and radical. Finally the communism ideology itself proved to be incompatible with human nature. All of this coupled with some bad decisions made by Gorbachev’s predecessors e. g. the war in Afghanistan ultimately brought down the Soviet Union that ruled Russia for more than 70 years.