GORBACHEV and DEMOCRATIC REFORMS:
After Brezhnev’s death in 1982, he was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who was in power for fifteen months before his death from illness in 1984. His former rival Konstatin Chernenko seized power and ruled until 1985, when he also died of ill health. Upon the death of Chernenko, the Politburo chose Mikhail Gorbachev, a young reformer, who, in pursuing democratic reforms, would cause the downfall of the entire Soviet system.
Gorbachev realized that the stagnation of Russia during Brezhnev’s period was caused by a lack of new ideas and wide participation of the citizens in government affairs. In 1985, Gorbachev announced glasnost, a policy of openness. The effect of the glasnost was seen immediately. Christian churches, which had previously been shut down, were opened. Many political prisoners were released from jail or called back from exile and labor camps. Restrictions on publication of all books were lifted, and the media could now criticize the government without fearing brutal retaliation by the KGB.
Next, Gorbachev gave more power to private businesses and farms; new business owners no longer had to produce goods by a set government quota, but could produce more in order to make profit. He also encouraged democratization in the government, allowing the people to vote on different candidates that they themselves selected for government positions. Gorbachev also gave more power to the individual republics under the Soviet Union.
The West realized Gorbachev’s attempts at reforming Russia and encouraged them. In 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (NIF), which banned the development of nuclear weapons with a range of 300 – 3400 miles, thus removing the threat of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“Freedom is not without difficulties,” as former American President John F. Kennedy said; As democratic changes swept the Soviet Union, unrest stirred within. The Soviet Union was made up of more than 100 ethnic groups and fifteen republics, more than half of which were not ethnically Russian. At the first spark of freedom, after nearly a half century of dictatorship and submission to Soviet rule, many of these, such as the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, would seize the chance to secede from the Soviet Union.
By 1990, Gorbachev no longer had enough control to lead the Soviet States or his people; he lost popularity in Russia because of slow economic progress under his new program. In August of 1991, an attempt to take over the government further weakened Gorbachev’s control of the other republics and shifted power to Boris Yeltsin, a member of the Parliament. Estonia and Latvia quickly revolted and declared independence; within several months, the Soviet Union had broken up into fifteen small states, called the Confederation of Independent States (CIS)
Gradual change is often the best way for effective reform. In speeding Russia into a whirl of democracy and conceding power too quickly, Gorbachev undermined the rule of the central government, which kept the republics of the Soviet Union together. He realized his mistake too late: power given away could never be taken back. Although Gorbachev did much to improve the state of human rights in Russia, he ultimately contributed to reducing Russia’s economy to the desperate state it is in today. By granting freedom too rashly, Gorbachev had caused the death of the Soviet Union.