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Assessing the Impact of Gorbachev's Policy Changes from 1985-1991

Essay By: Victoria Klis
Non-fiction


In the twenty-two years since the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union, there has been much debate concerning the impact of Gorbachev’s policy changes in the final years of the Soviet Empire. With the fall of authoritarianism in the Soviet Union only 6 years after the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were reintroduced into the Eastern European lexicon, one might conclude that these policies of “openness” and “restructuring” may have contributed heavily to the undermining of the regime. As Deng Xiaoping suggested in 1988, opening up the political sphere in any growing Communist state without supporting and growing a stable economy could result in chaos.[1] Indeed, the dramatic reformation called for by Glasnost and Perestroika would most affect two aspects integral to the Soviet Party-state, namely its command economy as well as its intensive centralization.[2] The impacts of Glasnost and Perestroika had a tremendous effect on the flow of information within the Soviet Union, the command economy and centralized state, and finally the methods of subjugation that had become characteristic of the Soviet Communist Party since the early years of Josef Stalin.[3] Thus, the very policies chosen by Gorbachev to revitalize the Soviet State undermined the foundation of the Empire, hastening its downfall. This essay will explore the impact of Glasnost on the information culture in the late 1980s, as well as the impact of both Glasnost and Perestroika on the economy and governing style of the Communist party in the same period.


Submitted:Apr 10, 2013    Reads: 178    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


In the twenty-two years since the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union, there has been much debate concerning the impact of Gorbachev's policy changes in the final years of the Soviet Empire. With the fall of authoritarianism in the Soviet Union only 6 years after the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were reintroduced into the Eastern European lexicon, one might conclude that these policies of "openness" and "restructuring" may have contributed heavily to the undermining of the regime. As Deng Xiaoping suggested in 1988, opening up the political sphere in any growing Communist state without supporting and growing a stable economy could result in chaos.[1] Indeed, the dramatic reformation called for by Glasnost and Perestroika would most affect two aspects integral to the Soviet Party-state, namely its command economy as well as its intensive centralization.[2] The impacts of Glasnost and Perestroika had a tremendous effect on the flow of information within the Soviet Union, the command economy and centralized state, and finally the methods of subjugation that had become characteristic of the Soviet Communist Party since the early years of Josef Stalin.[3] Thus, the very policies chosen by Gorbachev to revitalize the Soviet State undermined the foundation of the Empire, hastening its downfall. This essay will explore the impact of Glasnost on the information culture in the late 1980s, as well as the impact of both Glasnost and Perestroika on the economy and governing style of the Communist party in the same period.

Gorbachev's Glasnost in the mid nineteen-eighties facilitated an age of intellectualism and political debate akin to the Age of Enlightenment centuries prior, culminating in a similarly revolutionary end, in this case the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union. Glasnost would see a lift on media bans, and a marked increase in citizens' abilities to express their opinion.[4] No event characterizes this freedom better than the American-Soviet walks organized by the International Peace Walk Inc. (IPW) non-profit organization in 1987.[5] The Americans worked with Soviet citizens in the Soviet Union on the issue of bilateral nuclear disarmament, encouraging discussion and debate.[6] After great interest was shown by citizens of Novgorod, PR for the walks was extremely limited by the government officials monitoring the situation, demonstrating the growing fear of the widespread possibilities of Glasnost on behalf of the government still not ready to break away from centralized, authoritarian control.[7] While greater freedom of political expression was burgeoning, the newspaper realm was also giving way to allow for greater coverage of domestic events such as natural and man-made disasters (such as Chernobyl).[8] This seemingly innocuous development lent to harsh criticisms of government actions or inactions, bringing the possibility of political accountability to the table for the first time in the history of the Soviet Union. Additionally, views were being published in Soviet newspapers the expressed views not always consistent with those of the Communist party, as evidenced by a series of letters published in Pravda magazine in 1988 concerning civil rights in the East, and in the West.[9] Mediated and unmediated access for Western sources was becoming a part of the information culture of the late nineteen-eighties, adding to the era of openness Gorbachev's government was becoming known for, albeit to a degree they hadn't anticipated.[10]

Gorbachev's Perestroika was concerned with restructuring the stagnating Soviet economy that was ill-suited to supporting its citizenry or competing in global markets, necessitating the transition from a command economy to a free market economy.[11] The decision to privatize many previously nationalized industries, such as the coal and oil industries, carried the notion of a decentralized state, something completely at odds with the Leninist supposition that a centralized, authoritarian style of control was the best for both the citizenry and the economy.[12] While initially there was frustration amongst the citizens of the Soviet Union who had depended heavily on the guarantee and safety of nationalized industries for jobs, towards the final several years of the Soviet Union, citizens began connecting their desires for increased living standards with the need for economic reforms.[13] However, these sentiments came at the exact time that the government, fearful of the growing and widespread public dissent, began to reign in the openness of Glasnost and hold off on plans to continue restructuring the economy.[14] Thus by restructuring the Soviet economy with the policies of Perestroika, Gorbachev's government succeeded in equating a higher standard of living potential with the decentralized state and free market economy of their democratic opponents, setting the stage for ultimate decentralization that would come with the breakup of the Soviet Empire in 1991.

One of the most significant outcomes of both Glasnost and Perestroika was the undermining of one of the main methods of state subjugation. The strong party-state and firm control of mass media having been eroded by the decentralization of the economy and the growing freedom of information, the last remaining bastion of the Soviet era was the fear and terror that had characterized Soviet Russia, and it was being done away with as well. From the Russian Revolution in 1917 and onwards, the various secret police organizations of the Soviet government (e.g. the Cheka or the later KGB) had inflicted fear and terror into the hearts of its citizens through illegitimate judiciaries, secret police forces.[15] Threats of exile, especially to Siberia, and even death were common sentences, and for much of the mid-twentieth century, citizens of the Russian Empire, especially in Soviet Russia where the focus of these secret police forces was especially strong, were subjugated through terror and coercion.[16] With the "secret speech" by Khrushchev in 1956 at the Twentieth Party Congress, Stalin's severe methodologies were denounced and Khrushchev, despite sticking to the authoritarianism that would characterize Eastern Europe for most of the twentieth century, would become a symbol for the expression of political debates.[17] The era of Glasnost and Perestroika represented then, the "dawn of freedom"[18] from the terrorizing oppression of the former Soviet regime. In the summer of 1987, Soviet Russia's Crimean Tatar population protested their relocation from their ancestral homes.[19] While the protests were eventually halted, they were allowed to continue for an inordinate length of time before being quelled, and the extreme measures traditionally used for dissenters and protestors were absent from the methods used to stop the movement.[20] The fear and terror tactics were no long a part of the Soviet Union to the extent that they would subjugate their citizenry. This example of Glasnost represented a shift away from one of the final characteristics that had defined Soviet authoritarianism in the twentieth century, namely the use of fear to produce a subservient public body. Through increased media freedom and the general opening of political freedoms, Gorbachev's government inadvertently succeeded in creating an environment that would not be hospitable to a strong, controlling state for much longer. The leadership within Gorbachev's government itself was divided on the issue of Glasnost, alternately supporting it and condemning it for bringing the Soviet Union away from it's more stable roots in Leninism and Stalinism.[21] This internal division was catalogued by the Sovietskaya Rossiya and Pravda Soviet newspapers via several letters submitted, purportedly from high-ranking members within the Soviet party.[22] Thus, the strong united front that the Soviet party had once used to inflict terror on its citizens was now divided on an issue that would decide the fate of state communism in the Soviet Empire. Through the openness and restructuring that would become Gorbachev's legacy, the control the Soviet party desired to maintain was undermined from within.

While the undermining of authoritarianism in the waning years of the Soviet Empire hastened its downfall, some academics have argued that the legacies of the Gorbachev era have yet to be fully realized. In 2010, Gordon Hahn suggested that President Dmitry Medvedev would be given true power in the government by Vladimir Putin in the 2012 Russian federal elections, hastening in a sort of "Perestroika 2.0", a transfer of power that would see the more liberal policies of Medvedev translate into a Russian state with greater privatization of industry and less government centralization.[23] He points to Medvedev's assertion that corruption was a top priority, and the fact that in Medvedev's presidency, indictments and convictions for corruption charges have indeed increased.[24] However, far from bringing about a "Perestroika 2.0", as Gordon prematurely calls for, Hahn fails to address the legitimacy of these indictments and convictions. Moreover, time has shown that Putin had no interest in relinquishing power, or indeed liberalizing the Russian state.[25] The Oligarchs initially ousted by Putin have been replaced by new, younger oligarchs loyal to Putin, not Medvedev.[26] The notion that the legacies of Gorbachev's era have a place in twenty-first century politics remains to be seen, as for the time being, the economy is tightly in the hands of an extremely powerful central government, information flows have slowed immensely, with Russia reporting a dismally low rating for civil liberties and political rights.[27] With attacks on dissenting media personnel a relatively regular occurrence[28], contemporary Russia has certainly taken a step back towards Soviet-style authoritarianism.

The weak Soviet state on the eve of Gorbachev's arrival into power desperately needed revitalizing. However, the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika clearly undermined the command economy and centralized government that would ensure the Soviet regime's ability to continue forward in an authoritarian manner. The influx of information allowed tensions to be aired, and dissent to grow. Gorbachev's restructuring efforts brought the public into the realization that a free market economy, in the truest sense, was the best way for their lives to improve. The internal dissension within the Soviet party, coupled with relaxing attitudes towards public expression produced an atmosphere conducive to change, standing in stark contrast to the fearfully oppressive Soviet Union of the mid-twentieth century. Thus, the very policies outlined by Gorbachev as a means of revitalizing the Soviet Union, revitalizing but certainly preserving, became the means of its own destruction as it undermined the bastions of the Communist State. In terms of the legacies of Gorbachev's era, the early years of the twenty-first century hint at dark futures for Russia as the more liberal-minded Dmitry Medvedev has been reigned in by Vladimir Putin, and Russia's freedom ratings remain dismally low, a testament to the oppressive media culture. Indeed, the policies of Gorbachev, forward-thinking as they were, seem to be far away from Putin's Russia, suggesting that while there may be a time in the future when Russia will liberalize and exhibit truly democratic characteristics, that time is not now.

Bibliography

Brigham, Steve. "The American-Soviet Walks: Large-Scale Citizen Diplomacy at Glasnost's Outset." Peace and Change 35, no. 4 (2010): 594-620. http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 15, 2013).

"Freedom in the World: Russia." Freedom House, 2012. http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2012/russia-0. (accessed February 20, 2013).

Hahn, Gordon M. "Medvedev, Putin, and Perestroika 2.0." Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 18, no. 3 (Summer 2010): 228-253. http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 15, 2013).

Hauss, Charles and Melissa Haussman. Comparative Politics: Domestic Responses to Global Challenges. Wadsworth Publishing Company; 8th edition, (2012).

McNair, Brian. Glasnost, Perestroika and the Soviet Media. Routledge, 1991; http://site.ebrary.com/id/10166094?ppg=65 (accessed February 15, 2013). 54-74.

Norlander, David. "Khrushchev's Image in the Light of Glasnost and Perestroika." Russian Review 52, no. 2 (Apr., 1993): 248-264. http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 15, 2013).

Rowen, Henry S. "When Will the Chinese People be Free?." Journal of Democracy 18, no. 3 (July 2007): 38-52. http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 14, 2013).

Schifter, Richard. "Glasnost - The Dawn of Freedom?." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 506, Human Rights around the World (Nov., 1989): 85-97. http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 15, 2013).

Smirnov, Alexander D. and Emil B. Ershov. "Perestroika: A Catastrophic Change of Economic Reform Policy." The Journal of Conflict Resolution 36, no. 3 (Sep., 1992): 415-453. http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 14, 2013).


[1] Henry S. Rowen. "When Will the Chinese People be Free?." Journal of Democracy 18, no. 3 (July 2007) http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 14, 2013). 47.

[2] Alexander D. Smirnov and Emil B. Ershov, "Perestroika: A Catastrophic Change of Economic Reform Policy," The Journal of Conflict Resolution 36, no. 3 (Sep., 1992) http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 14, 2013). 418-419.

[3] Richard Schifter, "Glasnost - The Dawn of Freedom?" Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 506, Human Rights around the World (Nov., 1989) http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 15, 2013). 85-87.

[4] Steve Brigham, "The American-Soviet Walks: Large-Scale Citizen Diplomacy at Glasnost's Outset," Peace and Change 35, no. 4 (2010) http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 15, 2013). 595-596.

[5] Ibid., 596-597.

[6] Ibid., 601.

[7] Ibid., 608.

[8] Brian McNair, "Glasnost, Perestroika and the Soviet Media," Routledge, 1991; http://site.ebrary.com/id/10166094?ppg=65 (accessed February 15, 2013). 54-55.

[9] Ibid., 68-69.

[10] McNair, 68.

[11] Smirnov and Ershov, 416.

[12] Ibid., 418.

[13] Ibid., 419.

[14] Ibid., 419-420.

[15] Schifter, 91.

[16] Ibid., 89-91.

[17] David Norlander, "Khrushchev's Image in the Light of Glasnost and Perestroika," Russian Review 52, no. 2 (Apr., 1993) http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 15, 2013). 249.

[18] Schifter, 85.

[19] Ibid., 91.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Schifter, 92-93.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Gordon M. Hahn, "Medvedev, Putin, and Perestroika 2.0," Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 18, no. 3 (Summer 2010) http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed February 15, 2013). 238-243.

[24] Hahn, 243.

[25] "Freedom in the World: Russia." Freedom House, 2012. http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2012/russia-0. (accessed February 20, 2013).

[26] Charles Hauss and Melissa Haussman, Comparative Politics: Domestic Responses to Global Challenges. Wadsworth Publishing Company; 8th edition, (2012). 242-243.

[27] "Freedom in the World."

[28] Ibid.





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