It was on this day, 15 March, 28 years ago, that Mikhail Gorbachev was sworn in as the eighth and last President of the Soviet Union.
Less than a year later, on 25 December 1991, the world witnessed a time-turning event – the dissolution of the Soviet Union or USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), arguably the most powerful communist state in modern history.
While a stream of different factors are said to be responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, international history has quite often placed the blame on Gorbachev.
Rise to Power
Gorbachev was elected the President of the Soviet Union on 15 March 1990 and continued to serve till the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 25 December 1991. Before this, he served as the General Secretary of the Politburo from 1985 to 1991.
By the time Gorbachev assumed power, the Soviet economy was already in a rut. During his predecessor Brezhnev’s rule, the condition of the economy had, in fact, deteriorated to the extent that historians refer to the period as the ‘era of stagnation’.
Due to state monitoring and the government’s insistence on not encouraging trade and business with nations outside the satellite states, innovation had come to a standstill – especially when compared to their number one rival, the United States of America.
Gorbachev wanted to revive the economy.
Gorbachev is famously remembered for introducing two new central policies in the functioning of the Soviet Union. One of these was ‘perestroika’ or restructuring.
He insisted that parts of the centrally planned economy had to be opened up to the idea of privatisation. By introducing market mechanisms, Gorbachev hoped that the economy would be revitalised and that it would encourage joint ventures.
He also believed that it would help foreign companies invest in Soviet businesses, with the funds itself being what the latter’s economy needed to operate.
However, the policy appeared more plausible on paper.
Price control still remained in most businesses, as did government control over the means of production.
‘Glastnost’ or openness was the other policy whose implementation, Gorbachev believed, would help nudge the Soviet Union out of the rut it had dug itself into.
The Communist Party, at this point, was notorious for corruption, with instances like Joseph Stalin’s purge coming to mind.
Gorbachev wanted a change in the ideological identity of the Soviet Union and wanted to assure the rest of the world – the West especially – that it could be trusted.
Glastnost encouraged open conversations and transparency in the dealings of the Soviet Union. This was Gorbachev’s primary step into the democratisation of the socialist state.
Predictably, this policy was a no-go as well. Several powerful leaders making up the Soviet Union resigned in protest, and a wave of criticism aimed at Gorbachev rose up from the masses. The member strength of the central committee, at one point, was reduced from 20 to 9.
19th All-Union Conference
Another initiative undertaken by Gorbachev, this seemed to be the tipping point of the beginning of the end.
Gorbachev extended the principle of multi-candidate elections, opening up the political stage to groups and individuals outside the Communist Party. This later lead to the abolition of Article 6, that ended the Communist Party’s monopoly on power once and for all.
By the end of the year, the Communist Party was powerless, local elections saw Communists lose, and the Opposition got about 60 percent of the seats.
Russian nationalist Boris Yeltsin, who succeeded Gorbachev and became the first President of the Russian Federation (1991-1999), played a significant role in the Communist Party’s demise.
Yeltsin won the mayoral elections in Moscow and used the position to encourage nationalist movements. Nationalists also saw the removal of the Brezhnev doctrine, which was a well-recognised symbol that the dominating and unchallenged power of Russia as the head of the Soviet Union was crumbling.
And that is exactly what happened, when Lithuania became the first state to break away from the Soviet Union on 11 March 1990.
To Gorbachev’s credit, he tried to reform and restructure the rigidified Soviet culture and economy in a way that would make it more favourable to the outside world. So is it fair that we know him only as the man who broke the Soviet Union?