Gorbachev (1985-1991)


Weaknesses in the Soviet bloc

  • West did not realise the USSR was on the edge of disaster
  • Soviets spending too much money on the Arms Race & Afghanistan (25% GNP- USA was only 7%)
  • Soviet industry was lazy and inefficient
  • Quantity and quality was failing
  • Détente- had left the USSR in huge debt to the West
  • Communist Party= corrupt- selling materials on the black market rather than sharing it
  • Lack of Consumer goods
  • Struggling economy
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Gorbachev's biggest problem

Gorbachev's biggest problem- no money!:

  • Supporting communist regimes around the world (USSR spent 3 billion rubbles a year keeping troops in Cuba)
  • Space race programme
  • The Brezhnev era arms race had cost huge sums and there was almost no industrial growth in the USSR
  • Prices controlled and subsidised (kept cheap with government money) by Russian government
  • Soviet exports were low quality- consumer goods e.g. cars, which then no one wanted to buy
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Further Issues in Soviet Bloc & Communism

 Further issues in the Soviet Bloc:

  • Soviet bloc- very polluted
  • Aral sea had dried up - overuse of water for farmlands
  • Communist party officials lived in luxury
  • People were fed up - 1/5 of soldiers were alcoholics- people made jokes of the system

Gorbachev and Communism:

  • Gorbachev wanted economic reforms, the USA's economy was far more efficient than USSR
  • Russia was constantly facing food shortages, most of the food was grown in Ukraine
  • Many Russians were no longer confident in communism as their quality of life continued to languish behind the west
  • The USSR had to rely on force, such as the secret police (KGB), to maintain control of its populace
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Chernobyl Disaster- causes

  • One of the nuclear reactors at the power station exploded. The explosion blasted radioactive steam into the air. It contained 100 times the radiation of the Hiroshima atomic bomb
  • Causes of the disaster
    • Inexperienced staff
    • Disabled all safety systems
    • Poor quality. It was a rushed design and a lot of corners were cut to meet deadline. The reactor only had partial containment (to save money)
  • Bonus for meeting construction deadline
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Chernobyl disaster - Reaction & impact

Soviet reaction:

  • The Soviet Union tried to cover the whole thing up, making only  a vague announcement about the explosion after two days had passed
  • The world only became aware of the true horror of the accident once a radioactive cloud that had drifted into Sweden was sourced back to Chernobyl
  • Just six years later the Soviet Union ceased to exist, as dissent amongst citizens, once completely satisfied with, and trusting of their government, grew over issues such as public safety and political transparency 


  • At the time only 31 people died
  • 350,000 people had to be evacuated and re-homed
  • Greenpeace estimates that 93,000 people have died of cancer directly because of the leak and its impact on the food chain
  • The disaster has placed a huge burden on national budgets.In Ukraine, 5-7% of government spending each year is still devoted to Chernobyl-related benefits and programmes
  • In Belarus, government spending on Chernobyl amounted to 22.3% of the national budget in 1991, declining gradually to 6.1% in 2002
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New thinking + policies

Perestroika, 1986-1989

  • In February 1986, at the 27th Congress of the CPSU, precise details of Gorbachev's plans were lacking. Nevertheless, he made it clear that adminstrators who adopted a 'wait and see' approach to implementing the new changes would not keep their jobs
  • Factory and farm managers were given a greater say in what they produced and whom they employed.
  • Eventually, from 1987 to 1989, self-financing was phased in, with enterprises paying for their operating costs out of their profits
  • In April 1987, Ryzhkow, the new prime minister, reported a decline in economic growth, while a drop in world oil and gas prices had led to increased foreign debt with the West. The result was a large and increasing budget deficit. In 1985, it had been 3% of national income, but by 1989 it had grown to 14%
  • As a result of encouraging greater use of private plots and cooperatives, these sectors soon accounted for 25% of all agricultural production in the Soviet Union. In November 1986, the law on Individual Labour Activity allowed individuals in the service sector to start private enterprise concerns- such as private taxi services. Further legislation 
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New thinking + Policies

1988 laws on state enterprises and cooperatives:

  • The law of state enterprises
    • In total, 60% of state enterprises were shifted from tight central control to control by their managements. This meant among other things, that they could set their own prcies, and negotiate and trade with other firms for the products they needed.
  • The Law of state cooperatives
    • This built on the 1986 law on Individual Activity, by allowing small and medium sized private cooperative enterprises to operate not only in the service sector, but also now in manufacturing and even foreign trade.
    • In Addition, workers cooperatives and even small private businesses could be set up. They also faced tight employment restrictions and heavy taxes, though the latter were later reduced.
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Economic Issues facing Gorbachev

  • By the mid-1980s, the centralised economy had managed to deliver- for most people- full employment; cheap housing, fuel and transport; and subsidised food policies. Given that only 70 years had passed since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, this was perhaps no mean achievement
  • Yet these successes hid some fundamental underlying problems in the economy. By 1985, according to some estimates, the average annual growth rate of the Soviet gross national product was down to 2% a year- not enough to do all that was necessary or expected by consumers.
  • Consumer demands and expectations were rising just when it became increasingly clear that the Soviet economy was showing serious signs of stagnation. These signs included labour shortages and low productivity, along with poor-quality goods in certain areas
  • It was estimated that a rate of growth of 4% or 4.5% was the minimum needed to ensure the soviet economy would fulfil its main three objectives: investment to improve industrialisation and modernisation;  military spending to maintain 'parity' with the West; and improving living standards for the general population. Any drop below these figures would mean that the USSR would no longer be able to meet these three objectives, which had been more of less achieved following the death of Stalin 1953
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Historians View - Jacques Sair

  • Argued that the worrying figures understated the real economic decline in the Soviet economy. According to him, the true average percentage of annual growth rates was much lower than the official figures showed
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Background to Political reforms

  • At first, reforms were limited and gradual
  • From 1986, when it became increasingly clear that perestroika would not benefit the mass of Soviet workers in the short term- he began to push for more far-reaching political reforms
    • Likely to lead to higher prices and temporary unemployment
  • Political reforms built on twin policies of Glasnost and Demokratizatsiya
    • Glasnost was intially about greater openness in government policy, but Gorbachev gave people the right to be able to voice criticisms of CPSU leadership and government policies
    • Demokratizatsiya was intended to make the Soviet system more democratic, by reforming election procedures and allowing political clubs to exist outside party control, and to make the state more independent of party control
  • Gorbachev and his supporters concluded that economic reform would not succeed without significant democratisation
    • They realised that shaking up the upper levels of Soviet society by encouraging a partial re-politicisation and mobilisation of the lower levels would be very risky. 
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Background to political Reforms

  • His early aims
    • No sign of political crisis, when he came to power
    • No internal opposition of any significance; the dissident movement was isolated and defeated by 1980, and many leaders were in exile
    • Soviet economy was still growing, although at much slower and smaller rates than previous decades
    • Crisis within political leadership of CPSU
    • Soviet system had to devise positive incentives to encourage workers to achieve higher productivity
    • Gorbachev realised perestroika would have negative short-term economic effects, he felt the need to improve the political position for soviet citizens by giving them more influence over how the country was governed.
    • Changes to leadership, as old framework was bankrupt. Gorbachev and his reformers drew up political strategy involving three elements:
      • Liberalisation of media and citizens right to criticise
      • Purging and modernisation of all branches of political apparatus
      • Greater freedom and flexibility for political institutions which exercised power
    • Determination to challenge the ideological basis of the party and the state ultimately split the superstructure of the Soviet state
      • At the 27th party congress of CPSU, Gorbachev made intentions clear against the leadership of Russian Bolsheviks
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Political Reform- 27th Congress of CPSU

  • Gorbachev announced his intention to push ahead with party reform.
  • Congress approved a new Party Programme, which publicly stated that progress to communism would be difficult, and criticised the years of 'inertness'
  • Gorbachev was determined to push ahead with party reform: after making some changes to the leadership bodies, he insisted on the calling of a Party conference in order to gain approval for a new set of guidelines
  • At a central committee meeting, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet economy and society were in crisis- and that to solve these problems, the party and state political systems needed to be democratised
  • Gorbachev reiterated his determination to press ahead with his democratisation policies- by then, under heavy criticism from sections of the bureaucracy
  • In June 1987, some multi-candidate elections were held in some constituencies. Then, at a meeting of the Central Committee on 27-28 January 1988, further reforms were proposed. These included a choice of candidates for elections to all local and regional soviets, and this was eventually established by a new electoral law in December 1988.
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Political Reform- 19th Party conference

  • On 28 June 1988, the CPSU's party conference was held in Moscow- this took place at Gorbachev's insistence, and was the first time since 1941 that a party conference had been held. At this conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms meant to further reduce party control of the government apparatus. He successfully proposed a new executive in the form of a presidential system, as well as a new all-union legislative body, to be called the Congress of People's Deputies. This would have 2250 seats to be directly elected by the people.
  • Two thirds of this congress was to be elected by universal suffrage, and one-third from 'people's organisations' - of which the CPSU (which had 100 seats allocated) was to be only one. Only Congress would be allowed to amend the constitution.
  • Congress would then elect from among its members deputies to sit in a new permanent 400 member all union supreme soviet- the congress would have the power to ratify or amend any laws coming from the supreme soviet.
  • Gorbachev also proposed making all party officials accountable to the law. This was to be achieved by making judges and the legal system independent of the CPSU. There would also be a new constitution that would guarantee civil rights, and separate party and state organisations. 
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Political reform - 1989 elections

Elections to the congress of people's deputies were held throughout the soviet union in March and April 1989. This was the first semi-free election in the Soviet Union since 1921, with some non-CPSU candidates allowed to stand for election- including dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov. Almost 90% of registered voters turned out to vote. About 50 senior regional party secretaries who did not have reserved seats were defeated, as many local government officials and military candidates. These elections marked a weakening of party control - this was noted in many of the Eastern European states. Congress met on 25th May 1989, to elect representatives from its members to sit on the supreme soviet of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was elected chairman-or head of state- of this supreme soviet. Nonetheless, the congress posed problems for Gorbachev: its sessions were televised, airing more criticism and encouraging people to expect ever more rapid reform. In the elections, many communist party candidates were defeated. Furthermore, Yeltsin- who, in November 1987, had been sacked as Moscow party leader and had not been nominated for one of the CPSU's reserved seats- was elected in Moscow for one of its territorial seats. He then returned to political prominence and became an increasingly vocal critic of Gorbachev. Other deputies also proved to be critics of the government, the Supreme soviet and the CPSU. In July 1989, Yeltsin and some of these other opponents of Gorbachev, created the Inter-Regional Deputies' Group. Yeltsin then managed to get into the new Supreme Soviet, when one of the elected members stood down to let him have the seat. These developments encouraged the formation of political clubs outside the Congress- the first of which had emerged as early as 1987. For the first time since the 1921 ban, there were in effect organised factions, if not opposition political parties. While most of these political groups were either centrist or right wing, there were also left-wing socialist, green and anarchist groups. These included the Popular front for Perestroika, the soviet communist party of Bolsheviks; and the Moscow People's Front, whose co-ordinator was Boris Kargarlitsky

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Political Reform- reforming the CPSU

Gorbachev wanted the party to retain its leading political role; however he realised it would have to reform itself. He wanted it to be more open, more tolerant of differing viewpoints, and less interfering and autocratic. As early as January 1987, when Gorbachev had first proposed holding a party conference, he had said that he envisaged this as coming up with ways 'to further democratise the life of the Party and society as a whole'; and that he saw it as 'a serious step toward making our party life more democratic in practice and developing the activity of communists'.Yet he made it clear that there would not be multi-party elections. His reforms within the party, though, included genuine elections, with competing candidates, for party officials and conference delegates. The 19th Party conference, in June 1988, decided that the party was to lose its control of economic policy, with the Politburo now dealing only with internal party affairs. However it retained its leading position in the military and the KGB. The conference also decided that party positions could not be held for more than two consecutive terms of five years. To help separate party and state, it was agreeed that nobody could hold both a party and a state position at the top levels- though Gorbachev did not at first apply this restriction to himself.

  • The problem was that, though his reforms did indeed weaken the party's economic control, the seperation of party and state also weakened Gorbachev's position, as being General-Secretary of a weakened CPSU was no longer so important, while the new state structures had yet to establish their authority.
  • In addition, contrary to Gorbachev's expectations, the introduction of greater democracy led many to leave the party. Though those leaving in 1988 and 1989 only numbered just over 150000- out of a total membership of 20 million- it was a worrying sign that many were confused about the significance of the party after these reforms. In 1990, over 3 million left the CPSU. 
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Political reform- Nationalism and the Union

  • At the same time that Gorbachev was reforming party and state structures, the unrest which had been building in many of the Soviet republics led to calls for greater autonomy and even full independence from 1987 onwards. As in Brezhnev's time, nationalism was also particularly strong in the Baltic republics, where many people disliked the number of Russians who migrated there because of the relatively higher standards of living- and the closeness to western Europe.
  • Soviet Union had been set up as a much tighter system than the original federation which had existed under Lenin. It had been growing awareness of the nature of the new Soviet constitution, and Stalin's treatment of non-Russian nationalities, which had led Lenin to recommend that Stalin be deprived of his offices, including that of Minister for Nationalities.
  • Lenin and Trotsky feared that Stalin was resurrecting the old Tsarist policy of Russification- trying to make all the states the same, with Russia dominant. Lenin, in fact, had said that 'Great Russian' chauvinism was wrong and that former parts of Tsarist Russia should be free to secede. Finland had actually been allowed to do so.
  • Brezhnev had tried to create a 'Soviet' identity, to replace the various national identities- for instance, the Russian language was prioritised, and was needed for promotion anywhere in the USSR. Yet, in 1971, only 54% of the 240 million population was Russian. 
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Political Reform- Nationalism and the Union

  • The CPSU in Moscow was dominant, but each republic had its own party structure: provided they were loyal to the centre, they were allowed considerable leeway- which often resulted in corruption. Gorbachev had hoped that freer elections would see more reformers come to power- instead, nationalists were elected in many Soviet republics. Many of these were extremely right-wing, and often prejudiced against ethnic minorities- several was also anti-Semitic. Previously, the CPSU had managed to keep such attitudes under control. In 1988 and 1989, ethnic tensions led to clashes between Azeris and Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. A speaker in the new Supreme Soviet referred to this crisis as a 'landmine under perestroika', while Gorbachev stated that if a solution was not found, it could have 'far-reaching consequences for all of perestroika'
  • In addition, a popular movement calling for independence also began to emerge in Georgia in 1988. In April 1989, demonstrations turned to violence in which Interior Ministry special troops killed 23 people. In elections in October, the Georgian communists did badly, while a coalition of pro-independence groups won 54% of the vote. Later, in November 1989, the new Supreme Soviet of Georgia declared itself sovereign. However, given the amount of subsidized the republics received from the centre- even if some did not benefit as much as others- this was no likely elsewhere. Many of these republics, in fact, suffered real economic hardship once the Soviet Union had collapsed. Meanwhile, in the Baltic states, nationalist Popular Front movements- such as the Sajudis in Lithuania- were established during 1988, and began to demand greater sovereignty.
  • Consequently from September 1989, the CPSU began to consider changes to its nationalities policies- including a looser federation, with more respect for the rights and cultures of the different republics.
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