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The last few years of the Soviet Union were characterized by the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev to revive the flagging Soviet economy and turn around years of political and social stagnation, but ultimately to no avail. With the passing of Yuri Andropov (1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1985), Gorbachev attempted a variety of reforms aimed at allowing socialism to succeed. Glasnost, the best known of these, enhanced freedom of expression, including religious expression and led to a more open press, the emergence of alternative media, access to the Western press and eventually the creation of political unions in opposition to communism and in support of certain republics' independence from the Soviet Union. Glasnost underscored the failings of the Soviet system and did little to bring about the needed economic improvements that were sought. In the end, Gorbachev's attempts to make socialism work were unsuccessful. They led to an unsuccessful hard-line coup d'etat in August 1991, which was followed by Boris Yeltsin's declaring that the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991.
Although reform in the Soviet Union stalled between 1965 and 1982, a generational shift in Soviet leadership gave new momentum for reform. One key factor was changing relations with the United States due to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan was convinced that he could put pressure on the Soviets through an enhanced and updated military build-up including a focused initiative to develop a Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as "Star Wars") to defend against Soviet missile-based nuclear offensive. Reagan and a number of his cabinet members, including CIA Director William Casey and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, were aware that the weakened state of the Soviet economy as well as the West's technological edge placed the United States in a strong position. Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as "an evil empire" gave further insight into Reagan's assessment of the Soviet Union. The cataclysmic failures of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which the Soviets attempted to conceal and downplay, added impetus for reform.
Jimmy Carter who had scoffed about America's "inordinate fear of communism" underwent a change of opinion following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979. East-West tensions during the first term of U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981–1985) increased to levels not seen since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
After years of stagnation, the "new thinking" of younger communist apparatchiks began to emerge. Following the death of the elderly Konstantin Chernenko, the Politburo elected Mikhail Gorbachev to the position of General Secretary of the Soviet Union in March 1985, marking the rise of a new generation of leadership. Under Gorbachev, relatively young, reform-oriented technocrats who had begun their careers in the heyday of "de-Stalinization" under Nikita Khrushchev (1953–1964), rapidly consolidated power within the CPSU, providing new momentum for political and economic liberalization, and the impetus for cultivating warmer relations and trade with the West.
By the time Gorbachev ushered in the process that would lead to the dismantling of the Soviet administrative command economy through his programs of glasnost (political openness), perestroika (economic restructuring), and uskoreniye (speed-up of economic development) announced in 1986, the Soviet economy suffered from both hidden inflation and pervasive supply shortages aggravated by an increasingly open black market that undermined the official economy. Additionally, the costs of superpower status—the military, KGB, and subsidies to client states—were out of proportion to the Soviet economy. The new wave of industrialization based upon information technology had left the Soviet Union desperate for Western technology and credit to address its increasing technical backwardness.
The Law on Cooperatives enacted in May 1988 was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms during the early part of the Gorbachev era. For the first time since Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Policy, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. Under this provision, cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers became part of the Soviet scene.
A 1987 conference convened by Soviet economist Leonid Abalkin, an advisor to Gorbachev, concluded, "Deep transformations in the management of the economy cannot be realized without corresponding changes in the political system." It is therefore likely that Gorbachev's primary goal in undertaking glasnost was to pressure conservatives who opposed his policies of economic restructuring, although he also hoped that through different ranges of openness, debate, and participation, the Soviet people as a whole would support his reform initiatives.
Glasnost resulted in greater freedom of speech and greater freedom of the press. Thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were released. Soviet social science became free to explore and publish on many subjects that had previously been off limits, including conducting public opinion polls. The All-Union Center for Public Opinion Research (VCIOM)—the most prominent of several polling organizations that were started then—was opened. State archives became more accessible, and some social statistics that had been embargoed or kept secret became open for research and publication on sensitive subjects such as income disparities, crime, suicide, abortion, and infant mortality. The first center for gender studies was opened within a newly formed Institute for the Socio-Economic Study of Human Population.
In January 1987 Gorbachev called for the infusion of democratic elements, such as multi-candidate elections, into the Soviet political process. In June 1988 at the CPSU's Nineteenth Party Conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms meant to reduce party control of the government apparatus. In December 1988, the Supreme Soviet approved the establishment of a Congress of People's Deputies, which constitutional amendments had established as the Soviet Union's new legislative body. Elections to the congress were held throughout the U.S.S.R. in March and April 1989. On March 15, 1990, Gorbachev was elected as the first executive President of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev's efforts to streamline the Communist system offered promise, but ultimately only exacerbated tensions within the system, resulting in a cascade of events that eventually concluded with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Initially intended as tools to bolster the Soviet economy, the policies of perestroika and glasnost soon led to unintended negative consequences.
Relaxation of censorship under glasnost resulted in the Communist Party losing its absolute grip on the media. Before long, and much to the embarrassment of the authorities, the media began to expose severe social and economic problems the Soviet government had long denied existed and actively concealed. Problems receiving increased attention included poor housing, alcoholism, drug abuse, pollution, outdated Stalinist-era factories, and petty- to large-scale corruption. Media reports also exposed crimes committed by Stalin and the Soviet regime, such as the gulags, his treaty with Adolf Hitler, and the Great Purges ignored by the official media. Moreover, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the mishandling of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster further damaged the credibility of the Soviet government at a time when dissatisfaction was increasing.
In all, the very positive view of Soviet life which had long been presented to the public by the official media was being rapidly dismantled, and the negative aspects of life in the Soviet Union were brought into the spotlight. This undermined the faith of the public in the Soviet system and eroded the Communist Party's social power base, threatening the identity and integrity of the Soviet Union itself.
Fraying among the nations included in the Warsaw Pact and instability of the Soviet Union’s western allies, first indicated by Lech Wałęsa's 1980 rise to leadership of the trade union Solidarity, accelerated—leaving the Soviet Union unable to depend upon its Eastern European satellite states for protection as a buffer zone. By 1988 Moscow had repudiated the Brezhnev Doctrine in favor of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its Warsaw Pact allies; Gorbachev also renounced Soviet support for wars of national liberation in the developing world and calling for greater United Nations involvement in resolving such matters. Gradually, each of the Warsaw Pact nations saw their communist governments fall to popular elections and, in the case of Romania, a violent uprising. By 1991 the communist governments of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania, all of which had been imposed after World War II, were brought down as revolution swept Eastern Europe.
While the policy of glasnost was working to undermine Soviet authority, the policy of perestroika and uskoreniye were not.
Emboldened by the liberalized atmosphere of glasnost, public dissatisfaction with economic conditions was more overt than ever before in the Soviet Union. Although perestroika was considered bold in the context of Soviet history, Gorbachev's attempts at economic reform were not radical enough to restart the country's chronically sluggish economy in the late 1980s. The reforms made some inroads in decentralization, but Gorbachev and his team left intact most of the fundamental elements of the Stalinist system, including price controls, inconvertibility of the ruble, exclusion of private property ownership, and the government monopoly over most means of production.
By 1990 the Soviet government had virtually lost control over economic conditions. Government spending increased sharply as an increasing number of unprofitable enterprises required state support and consumer price subsidies continued. Tax revenues declined as revenues from the sales of vodka plummeted during the anti-alcohol campaign. Furthermore, republic-level and municipal governments withheld tax revenues from the central government under the growing spirit of regional autonomy. The elimination of central control over production decisions, especially in the consumer goods sector, led to the breakdown of traditional supplier-producer relationships without contributing to the formation of new ones. Thus, instead of streamlining the system, Gorbachev's decentralization caused new production bottlenecks.
The Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural entity. By 1988 it began experiencing upheaval as the political consequences of glasnost reverberated throughout the country, especially inside the fifteen republics making up the Soviet Union. Despite efforts at containment, the upheaval in Eastern Europe inevitably spread to nationalities within the U.S.S.R. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union's constituent republics, nationalists as well as radical reformers swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the U.S.S.R.'s central Moscow government to impose its will on the U.S.S.R.'s constituent republics had been largely undermined. Massive peaceful protests in the Baltic Republics such as The Baltic Way and the Singing Revolution drew international attention and bolstered independence movements in various other regions.
The rise of nationalism under glasnost soon reawakened simmering ethnic tensions in various Soviet republics, further discrediting the ideal of a unified Soviet people. One instance occurred in February 1988, when the government in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in the Azerbaijan SSR, passed a resolution calling for unification with the Armenian S.S.R. Violence against local Azerbaijanis was reported on Soviet television, provoking massacres of Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait.
On February 7, 1990, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union agreed to give up its monopoly of power. The U.S.S.R.'s constituent republics began to assert their national sovereignty over Moscow, and started a "war of laws" with the central Moscow government, in which the governments of the constituent republics repudiated all-union legislation where it conflicted with local laws, asserting control over their local economies and refusing to pay tax revenue to the central Moscow government. This strife caused economic dislocation, as supply lines in the economy were broken, and caused the Soviet economy to decline further.
The pro-independence movement in Lithuania, Sąjūdis, established on June 3, 1988, warranted a visit by Gorbachev in January 1990 to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, which provoked a pro-independence rally of around 250,000 people. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania, led by Chairman of the Supreme Council Vytautas Landsbergis, declared independence. However, the Soviet Army had a strong presence in Lithuania. The Soviet Union initiated an economic blockade of Lithuania and kept troops there "to secure the rights of ethnic Russians."
On March 30, 1990, the Estonian Supreme Council declared Soviet power in Estonia since 1940 to have been illegal, and started a process to reestablish Estonia as an independent state. The process of restoration of independence of Latvia began on May 4, 1990, with a Latvian Supreme Council vote stipulating a transitional period to complete independence.
On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops, along with KGB Spetsnaz group Alfa, stormed the Vilnius TV Tower in Vilnius to suppress the free media. This ended with 14 unarmed Lithuanian civilians dead and hundreds more injured. On the night of July 31, 1991, Russian OMON from Riga, the Soviet military headquarters in the Baltics, assaulted the Lithuanian border post in Medininkai and killed seven Lithuanian servicemen. This further weakened the Soviet Union's position, internationally and domestically.
On March 17, 1991, in a Union-wide referendum, 78 percent of all voters voted for the retention of the Soviet Union in a reformed form. The Baltics, Armenia, Soviet Georgia, and Moldova boycotted the referendum. In each of the other nine republics, a majority of the voters supported the retention of a revitalized Soviet Union.
On June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin won 57 percent of the popular vote in the democratic elections for president of the Russian S.F.S.R., defeating Gorbachev's preferred candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who won 16 percent of the vote. In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the "dictatorship of the center," but did not suggest the introduction of a market economy. Instead, he said that he would put his head on the rail track in the event of increased prices. Yeltsin took office on July 10, 1991.
Faced with growing republic separatism, Gorbachev attempted to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 2, 1991, the Russian S.F.S.R. was scheduled to sign the New Union Treaty, which was to convert the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy, and military. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, which needed the economic power and common markets of the Soviet Union to prosper. However, the more radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required, even if the eventual outcome included the disintegration of the Soviet state. Disintegration of the U.S.S.R. also resonated with the desire of local authorities, including Boris Yeltsin, to establish full power over their territories. In contrast to the reformers' lukewarm approach to the new treaty, the conservatives, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were completely opposed to anything which might contribute to the weakening of the Soviet state.
On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev's vice president Gennadi Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov, KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the signing of the union treaty by forming the State Committee on the State Emergency. The "Committee" put Gorbachev (vacationing in Foros, Crimea) under house arrest and attempted to restore the union state. The coup leaders quickly issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers.
While coup organizers expected some popular support for their actions, the public sympathy in Moscow was largely against them. Thousands of people came out to defend the "White House" (Yeltsin's office), then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin, who rallied mass opposition to the coup.
After three days, on August 21, the coup collapsed, the organizers were detained, and Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev's powers were now fatally compromised as neither the Union nor the Russian power structures heeded his commands. Through the autumn of 1991 the Russian government took over the Union government, ministry by ministry. In November 1991 Yeltsin issued a decree banning the CPSU throughout the Russian republic. As a result, many former apparatchiks abandoned the Communist Party in favor of positions in new government structures.
After the coup, the Soviet republics accelerated their process towards independence, declaring their sovereignty one by one. Their local authorities started to seize property located on their territory. On September 6, 1991, the Soviet government recognized the independence of the three Baltic States, which the western powers had always held to be sovereign. Yet, in the battle for power on October 18, Gorbachev and the representatives of eight republics (excluding Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldavia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States) signed an agreement on forming a new economic community. Then on December 1, 1991, Ukraine reaffirmed its independence after a popular referendum wherein 90 percent of voters opted for independence.
Meanwhile, the situation of the Soviet economy continued to deteriorate. By December 1991 food shortages in central Russia resulted in the introduction of food rationing in the Moscow area for the first time since World War II. However, Gorbachev, as president of the U.S.S.R., and his government were still opposed to any rapid market reforms in the country's collapsing economy, such as Gregory Yavlinsky's "500 Days" economic program.
To break Gorbachev's opposition, Yeltsin decided to disband the Soviet Union in accordance with the Treaty of the Union of 1922 and therefore to remove Gorbachev and the government of the U.S.S.R. from power. This was seen as a forced measure to save the country from a complete economic collapse and was at the time widely supported by Russia's population. The step was also enthusiastically supported by the governments of Ukraine and Belarus, which were parties of the Treaty of 1922 along with Russia.
On December 8, 1991, the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian republics met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha to issue the Belavezha Accords, declaring the Soviet Union officially dissolved and replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.). Gorbachev described this as a constitutional coup, but it soon became clear that the development could not be halted.
Of the 15 republics, 12 signed the European Energy Charter in the Hague on December 17, 1991, as if they were sovereign states, along with 28 other European countries, the European Community, and four non-European countries.
On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the U.S.S.R. A day later, December 26, 1991, the Supreme Soviet dissolved itself. By December 31, 1991, all official Soviet institutions had ceased operations and individual republics assumed the central government's role. The Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin.
The four principal elements of the old Soviet system were the hierarchy of Soviets, ethnic federalism, state socialism, and Communist Party dominance. Gorbachev's programs of perestroika and glasnost produced radical unforeseen effects that brought that system down. As a means of reviving the Soviet state, Gorbachev repeatedly attempted to build a coalition of political leaders supportive of reform and created new arenas and bases of power. He implemented these measures because he wanted to resolve serious economic problems and political inertia that clearly threatened to put the Soviet Union into a state of long-term stagnation.
But by using structural reforms to widen opportunities for leaders and using popular movements in the Union republics to gain influence, Gorbachev also made it possible for nationalist, orthodox communist, and populist forces to oppose his attempts to liberalize and revitalize Soviet communism. Although some of the new movements aspired to replace the Soviet system altogether with a liberal democratic one, others demanded independence for the national republics. Still others insisted on the restoration of the old Soviet ways. Ultimately, Gorbachev could not forge a compromise among these forces and the consequence was the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In order to restructure the Soviet administrative command system and implement transition to a market-based economy, Yeltsin introduced a "shock therapy" program in the days following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The subsidies to money-losing farms and industries were cut, price controls were abolished, and the ruble was moved toward convertibility.
New opportunities for Yeltsin's circle and other entrepreneurs to seize the former state property had been created, thus restructuring the old state-owned economy within a few months. After obtaining power, the vast majority of "idealistic" reformers gained huge areas of state property using their positions in the government and became business oligarchs, thus discrediting ideas of democracy. Existing institutions had been conspicuously abandoned before the new legal structures of the market economy that governed private property, oversaw financial markets, and enforced taxation.
Market economists believed that the dismantling of the administrative command system in Russia would raise the GDP and living standards by allocating resources more efficiently. They also thought the collapse would create new production possibilities by eliminating central planning, substituting a decentralized market system, eliminating huge macroeconomic and structural distortions through liberalization, and providing incentives through privatization. Since the U.S.S.R.'s collapse, Russia has been facing many problems that the free-market proponents in 1992 did not anticipate: among other things, 25 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line, life expectancy has dropped, birthrates are low, and the GDP has plunged by half. In the eyes of many of the older generations in Russia, life under the old Soviet system was better than what followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. However, most saw revived opportunity for economic improvements and greater freedom with the changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
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