Gorbachev’s revolution of Perestroika and Glasnost had been arguably the most important change in Russia and Soviet Union history since the October Revolution in 1917. Never before had the Soviet Union had such a profound change in it’s foundational system of socialism. The Soviet-Marxist ideology which was previously irrefutable was perceived to be abandoned by the Soviet Party. Through these two major campaigns of reform, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev drastically changed the direction of the Soviet Union, both economically and politically. The Soviet economy through perestroika was organized under a relatively more free system that was a shift towards a somewhat free market. Through Glasnost, a more diverse Soviet culture emerged with the arts and press given unprecedented freedoms that would be unheard of less than a decade before. Perestroika and Glasnost were revolutionary reforms which destabilized the Soviet bloc leading to its eventual fall years later.
The word Perestroika is a transliteration of a Russian term which literally means “ restructuring” or “ rebuilding.” The starting point of the program began with the ideas General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. It began as an attempt to rout recent economic stagnation with the plan of effectively accelerating economic progress. At its roots, it was another five year plan. However, it began to exist as a greatly different plan than the other eleven preceding five year plans instituted by the Communist party. The plan was true to the idea of restructuring. Vast changes were implemented within the Soviet economy. The Communist party even began to allow certain elements of the free market into the economy, a great shook to those who held to the conservative wing of Lenin-Marxist economic ideology.
Why was such a great change necessary? The answer lies in the state of the Soviet economy before the ascension of Gorbachev. In the mid-1970s, a period of economic stagnation began under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev. The consumer market was hurt badly. While the government was able to pay for projects such as the Tu-144 supersonic plane, the Mir space station and the N1 Moon rocket, certain consumer goods were not available intermittently. When these goods would disappear, one would have to travel to an area where they could be found if they were necessary enough. In addition, the work force became partially unbalanced. For example, the agricultural sector experienced a lack of farmers which was rectified by the government by forcing students and soldiers to assist in farming work.
The efficiency of raw materials was vastly less than western nations. This is notably true in farming. While the east used to be known as the breadbasket of the world, the USSR had to import grain from the United States in order to feed its population. While the USSR was the world’s biggest producer of steel, raw materials, fuel and energy, there were notable shortfalls which Gorbachev personally blamed on inefficient use. Notably, under Brezhnev, Post-Stalinist reforms in the form of five-year pans were largely discontinued. As the commanders of the economy were unable to do much as the economy became more complex, the economy lacked the ability to adapt, leaving the Soviet union with an impediment. From 1980 to 1985, the Soviet economy experienced a net change in per capita GDP of -0. 9%.
By the time Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet society was desperately in need of change. Gorbachev and the Soviet Plenary committee began work as early as 1985. The result of that planning was presented in official work to the party in the April 1985 Plenary meeting. What resulted was the outline of Perestroika. Gorbachev believed “ that cosmetic repairs and patching would not do; a major overhaul was required.” In addition, time was of the essence. The economy needed to get back on track as swiftly as possible.
The first priority Gorbachev outlined was the acceleration of the scientific and technological process. A sub priority of this was the goal of increase in product quality. Up into the mid 1980s, the dogmatisms of the time caused the expansion of the “ spend-away” economy which is summarized as when “ growth is achieved mostly through the construction of new plants and factories and the employment of more workers.” This is harmful as production costs increase while there is no rise in quality. This was the result of the “ gross-output approach.” This thought dominated the Soviet economy negatively. Emphasis was placed on the simple quantity of products. Quality was ignored in addition to demand. Examples of products hurt by quality include color TVs. Consumers were highly likely to need to repair their TVs within the first year. In addition some had the tendency to explode.
One of the more profound implements of Gorbachev was the institution of the law on cooperatives. This law enabled citizens to open up private businesses in sectors such as foreign-trade, certain services and light manufacturing. It gave the owners of the business the legal right to an independent budget. Being under a private business meant relative independence from the Gosplan. Cooperatives were authorized to make business decisions provided they did not contradict other laws. This was unprecedented. All private business since had been made illegal since Stalin had repressed them in the 1930s. However, these Cooperatives were highly regulated. The purpose of the Cooperative needed to be clearly stated and in the early years high taxes were implemented.
With Gorbachev, the importance of exports to the economy rose. As a result, changes were made to the laws governing exportation, making them more compatible with the free market. One of the major reforms was the elimination of the Ministry of Foreign Trade’s monopoly on imports and exports. With this, businesses were able to more efficiently trade with foreign businesses. In addition, private businesses were given the ability to have up to a 49% foreign ownership in order to increase foreign investment. However this was stifled by the demand that profits be repatriated within the Soviet Union.
The reforms of Glasnost were official instituted in 1988 by Mikhail Gorbachev. The term Glasnost itself means “ openness” or “ publicity.” More specifically, it refers to the opening of the press to more free speech. The initial foundation of Glasnost began with the dialogue of economic issues. However, gradually, the topics became more broad. Openness developed in areas such the arts, history and politics including foreign affairs.
The introduction of Glasnost was a massive shift in affairs. For centuries, Russian and Soviet citizens faced the censorship of the government. Tsars controlled press censorship at will. After the 1917 Revolution, the government made it a priority to eliminate newspapers which were against the revolution and censorship laws were established keeping with tradition. Under Stalin, the press held virtually no freedom and was nothing more than an instrument of the Communist Party. Later, some censorship was relieved up to the 1970s. However, recusant writers were imprisoned in the 1960s-70s. Until the later half of the 1980s, the press was heavily under the auspice of the government.
The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 became an excellent test case for the implementation of Glasnost. The media coverage for the Chernobyl disaster was a breakthrough for the Soviet Press. The dangers of nuclear power were discussed and the imperfection of the Soviet state was introduced. Many were notified of the extend of the danger and rumors were largely prevented. With the extend of the disaster, other problems were able to be discussed. In 1988, the Armenian earthquake was covered. The mass media was able to cover the event sufficiently. As side effect, the press uncovered and lambasted the poor construction of the buildings in the area.
As an unintended affect, the Soviet government was criticized more heavily than anticipated. Throughout its history, the Soviet government had the policy of covering up its mistakes in the name of saving face. However, the openness of Glasnost allowed the secrets of the government to be revealed. For example, the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin were uncovered. In general, the view of Soviet life was changed as the common people were given the truth. This had serious ramifications for the Communist party as they lost the support of the people. This allowed nationalist regional leaders to take control on the local level during elections and undermine the Soviet system leading to the breakup of the USSR.