Hello, Comrades! This is our video for Week 11, Day 2. Our subject is the Gorbachev Era, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
As you know, we have a deadline coming up for your final papers. Please remember to submit your one-paragraph Introduction and detailed Outline on Sakai by Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. It looks like about 2/3 of you have signed up for a virtual office hours meeting to discuss those materials on Thursday, April 23 and Friday April 24. If you have not yet signed up, please do so. Those meetings will take place on Teams. I’m looking forward to discussing your ideas with you! One more announcement: next week, we only have one day of new material. We are NOT going to discuss the Week 12, Day 2 materials. I’m sorry to miss out on these primary sources, but I think it’s more important for you to have time to work on your final papers. The materials are up on the course website, if you want to read them on your own. I WILL make you a video on the film My Perestroika, and I look forward to your comments on that.
Today, we’re exploring the tumultuous decade from Brezhnev’s death in 1982 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As our textbook authors point out, when Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985, no one had any idea that within a few years the Soviet Union would be done. Like so many other significant historical moments, this was an entirely contingent event—not the inevitable result of the laws of history (there are none!), but something that took place because particular people made particular decisions.
To be sure, the Soviet Union had a lot of problems under Brezhnev. But Western Europe wasn’t looking so hot at that point, either. In the West, the 1970s and 1980s were a time of economic stagnation, unemployment, and general malaise. Communism and capitalism both seemed to be foundering, but there was no serious reason to believe that either system was going to actually fall apart. And the Soviet Union didn’t collapse because it just couldn’t continue as it had been any longer. If Brezhnev had been replaced by someone with a similar mindset to his, who knows how long it would have continued. But he was replaced by Gorbachev, a young, energetic, innovative thinker who wanted to revitalize the Soviet system by instituting radical reforms. Gorbachev was trying to fix the Soviet Union, but instead, he broke it. Today we’re going to think through how that happened.
By the time Brezhnev died, the Soviet Union was being run by a gerontocracy. You may remember that Brezhnev got his start with the vydvizhentsy, the workers promoted into higher education during Stalin’s First Five Year Plan. Well, so did most of the Politburo, which meant the average age was around 70. Gorbachev was considered “young” because he was only 54! He was actually the third choice for the job. The two men who held the post of General Secretary between 1982 and 1985 each died so quickly that it became a running joke among Soviet citizens. Clearly, it was time for new blood.
The textbook gives you a good idea of Gorbachev’s biography and his mindset. In many ways, Gorbachev’s real tragedy is that was able to think outside box, but not far enough. Most of his reforms were good ideas, even necessary ideas. But his failure to think through the consequences, and to deal with them constructively when they arose, is a big part of why they resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev’s two signature policies were perestroika (restructuring, which gave its name to the era) and glasnost (openness). Perestroika proceeded on two fronts. Economically, it involved massive new investment in modernizing Soviet industry, the creation of limited private cooperative enterprises for the first time since NEP, and an effort to increase efficiency though cash incentives. Gorbachev seemed to believe that Soviet citizens would immediately embrace these innovations and work zealously for their implementation. As you read, that didn’t happen, and the massive foreign loans Gorbachev took out to finance his new investments only left the economy in a worse situation than ever. Politically, perestroika involved opening up Soviet elections to multiple candidates, also for the first time since the 1920s. But here again, Gorbachev was shocked when the Party’s chosen candidates mostly didn’t win.
Glasnost, as you read, meant embracing a new level of transparency about the past and the present. Dissidents like Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Andrei Sakharov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were ahead of the curve on this, but they were a small portion of society. For the majority of citizens, new revelations about the horrors of the Stalin Era and open discussion of contemporary social problems were deeply shocking and unsettling. Gorbachev wanted these conversations to happen; he thought they would be a necessary act of collective reckoning. But he also expected people to move on quickly and retain their faith in the Party, which many could not do.
As if all this weren’t enough, Gorbachev faced many other challenges. He inherited the Afghan War from Brezhnev, and his effort to withdraw while saving face caused the war to drag on until 1989. (This may sound familiar from our own war in Afghanistan, which began in 1999, before most of you were born, and is still ongoing.) The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in April 1986, in which a nuclear power station melted down, had a major environmental and public health consequences, while the state’s bungling of the relief effort further eroded faith in the state. Many citizens learned about the meltdown from Western radio stations like the Voice of America before their own, and the limited, disorganized evacuation left many people vulnerable. Chernobyl did convince Gorbachev of the need to pursue nuclear disarmament more seriously, but unfortunately his American counterpart, Ronald Reagan, was not interested. Finally, in 1989, the countries of the Eastern Bloc experienced a wave of peaceful revolutions that overthrew their communist governments. To his credit, Gorbachev set aside the Brezhnev Doctrine and did not invade, which saved Eastern Europe from potential violence.
By 1990, just five years after he took office, Gorbachev was universally hated in the Soviet Union. The extent of his reforms angered hardliners, while their limits alienated potential allies among the progressive parts of society. Meanwhile, a new politician, Boris Yeltsin, came to the fore. Gorbachev actually brought Yeltsin into his government, in the new post of president of the RSFSR. This post was largely titular, but Yeltsin decided to make it real. Between 1988 and 1990, the Baltic SSRs, which had the most developed nationalist movements, declared their independence, which Gorbachev didn’t contest. Seeing that Gorbachev was spinning out, Yeltsin took a cue from the Baltics and declared the sovereignty (not independence) of the RSFSR. This was enough to really freak out hardliners in the government, and when Gorbachev went on vacation in August 1991, they put him under house arrest and tried to stage a coup. It didn’t work, because they had no real support. But it fundamentally altered the relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, because Yeltsin was in Moscow making speeches about democracy while standing on a disabled tank, while Gorbachev was out of sight.
After the coup, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but it was basically all over for him. Yeltsin went behind his back and signed the Minsk Agreement, forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most of the Soviet Republics join, and then tells Gorbachev that it’s a done deal. That brings us to the moment with which the textbook chapter starts and ends: Gorbachev’s resignation and the formal, surprisingly peaceful, end of the Soviet Union.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. In explaining the collapse of the Soviet Union, our textbook makes the claim that Gorbachev simply tried to do too much at once. In your analysis, if Gorbachev had moved at a slower pace, or implemented his reforms one by one, would he have succeeded in revitalizing the Soviet system? Were some or all of the reforms good ideas individually? Which one would you have started with and why?
2. Gorbachev’s biography gives us a sense of where he was coming from as General Secretary. On one hand, he was a classic Soviet success story, a guy from a rural village who benefitted from educational opportunities and rose through the ranks of the Party to elite status. On the other hand, as a member of the “sixties generation,” he was deeply affected by the ferment of the Khrushchev Thaw and drew on a broad range of experiences and ideas in formulating his approach to governance. One of Gorbachev’s difficulties was that he wanted to make significant changes, but he also wanted to control them. In your analysis, was Gorbachev more a radical reformer or a classic Soviet politician? Ultimately, was he more like Khrushchev or like Brezhnev? Or did he combine those influences in equal measure?
3. As our textbook explains, there are many reasons why Gorbachev’s economic reforms during perestroika didn’t work. Look over the section on the economy on pp. 220-223. Which of the reasons our authors propose do you think was most significant? Was Gorbachev naïve to think he could harness the best of capitalism and socialism at once? Was the economy too far gone down the path of stagnation and corruption? Was the Soviet economy, created for wartime, unworkable in peacetime? Are there other factors you can identify?
4. On the subject of glasnost, our authors assert that while Gorbachev and many in the intelligentsia believed a full accounting of Stalinism was necessary for national renewal, this created problems of its own. They write, “History shows us that the success of any political system is based to a large degree on a widely shared subscription to a version of the past that valorizes certain foundational events and suppresses inconvenient facts about slavery, colonialism, caste systems, genocide, land appropriation, environmental degradation, ethnic conflict, and war.” (Chatterjee et al, 225) In other words, glasnost destroyed the “usable past” the Soviet Union needed. Can you unpack this argument? What does it mean to have a “usable past”? Are you convinced by it? Do we have our own “usable past” in the United States?
5. Read through the primary sources on pp. 229-232 and evaluate them using the questions provided by our authors.
6. Let’s tun to our primary source, “Gorbachev Challenges the Party (Glasnost).” This speech has some similarities with Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” in that Gorbachev has to admit that things are going wrong, and blame somebody for it, in order to argue for his program of reform. In the “Secret Speech,” Khrushchev blamed everything on Stalin, and exonerates the Central Committee. Gorbachev handles this differently. Find the paragraph that begins: “The principal cause—and the Politbiuro considers it necessary to say this…” Read that paragraph and the next one carefully. How does Gorbachev handle the issue of blame? Why do you think he chooses not to name anyone specifically, not even Brezhnev? Do you think Gorbachev’s framing of this issue is wise? Why or why not?
7. Speaking of the “Secret Speech,” once again we find ourselves talking about Lenin. Does Lenin play the same role for Gorbachev as he did for Khrushchev? What are the similarities and differences? Why do we always come back to Lenin? What are the pros and cons of doing so?
8. Gorbachev gives a pretty thorough accounting of the economic problems facing the Soviet Union. But he also talks a lot about social ills and moral ills. What do these terms mean to him? What connections does he draw between these factors and the failures of the Soviet economy? Would you classify his analysis as perceptive, naïve, ideologically driven, something else? If you were a Soviet citizen and you read this speech in the newspaper, how would it make you feel?
9. About halfway through the speech, Gorbachev also addresses the issue of political perestroika. Find the paragraph that begins: “There is also a need to give some thought to changing the procedure for the election…” Read that paragraph and the next one closely. Would you call this democracy? What role does Gorbachev maintain for the Communist Party? If this is not democracy, is it a good intermediate step? How is Gorbachev trying to balance between the old guard and the reformers here? Do you think such a balance is necessary, or should he go all-in from the start? Or, do you think we’re seeing Gorbachev’s own limits at work here?
10. Gorbachev concludes this speech on a hopeful note. Read the last paragraph carefully. How does this shape our understanding of Gorbachev as a political reformer? Do you think it was possible, after 14 years of Brezhnev and stagnation to achieve the goal he sets out here? Do you think Gorbachev believes it, or is he trying to convince himself, too?