Gorbachev, Perestroika and the Fall of the Soviet Union

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Gorbachev, Perestroika and the Fall of the Soviet Union

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was undergoing massive changes in its policies, both domestically and internationally. More and more it seemed that the Cold War was coming to a close, and the Soviets were certainly not winning. The exact ending of the Cold War is a matter of some contention between several historians, but the certain absolute end would be the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The events leading up to this collapse have been argued and speculated about, and a clear consensus as to why the Cold War ended and who was responsible have never been reached. While many argue that one side was more responsible than the other, each superpower contributed a great deal. The policies of perestroika and glasnost, the willingness of Ronald Reagan to make agreements with the Soviet Union, and the Soviet’s fading influence around the world lead to the end of the Cold War.

The 1980s was a time of great change in the Soviet Union. The head party members who had been leading the Communist regime for decades were reaching very old age. Leonid Brezhnev had died in 1982, his successor, Yuri Andropov, had died two years later, and Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko died a little over a year later. These remaining party leaders had been influenced by their younger years in the Soviet Union. The more aggressive Soviet leaders like Stalin and Khrushchev and the Nazi invasion during World War 2 shaped their political views, making them more belligerent and stubborn. The next person to assume leadership was Gorbachev. He was much younger than his predecessors, and filled with a revolutionary spirit. While previous leaders felt that the time for revolutionary changes was over and that focus must be shifted towards defeating the United States, Gorbachev wanted domestic reforms to take place. His view was that the Soviets were losing this Cold War, and that best alternative would be to try and end it. “But much had changed. Gorbachev’s mind-set was not that of Stalin, or Malenkov, or Khrushchev, or Brezhnev. He did not assume that all capitalists were mortal enemies, nor did he regard the United States as a future adversary.” Leffler argues that Gorbachev was the most instrumental in ending the Cold War. While he underscores the Reagan’s third world policy, he is correct in how Gorbachev’s new way of thinking brought about the end of the war. His first attempts at inspiring the Soviet people to become more disciplined were ineffective. Alcoholism had become rampant across the Soviet Union. This was due to the people having money but nothing to spend it on. “The consumption of absolute alcohol quadrupled in the four decades after the second world war: one in seven of the population was classified as alcoholic; heavy drinking was starting in the schools; the numbers of babies born with mental and physical defects increased--which was drink related. In 1985 Izvestia reported that as many as 27 million workers had serious problems with alcohol. They were so drunk, or ill from drinking, that at least two days a week they did not show up for work. An investigation into 800 Moscow factories found that in the last hour of each shift, only 10 per cent of workers were still at their job.” Gorbachev’s attempts to reduce alcohol production led to the formation of underground criminal networks that took up production and distribution. These would later become more powerful with the Soviet Union’s collapse. The Soviet market was influenced by needs, not desires. Rather than use moral suasion, Gorbachev eventually decided that more capitalistic economic reforms would help. Perestroika, translated as restructuring, would invigorate the faltering Soviet economy. This inspiration came from his travels in Western Europe and Canada, where he saw capitalism prevail in societies that were more socialist than the United States. With limited markets in the Soviet Union,...
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