Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Tightrope Act

This week (March 11) in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).  His six-year reign as Soviet leader was a fascinating high-wire act in which he precariously balanced between triumph and failure, reform and reaction, and liberalization and retrenchment — all under the guise of economic, political and social experimentation.  Yet in the end, he came crashing down, not only losing his job, but also an empire and nation.  When he resigned in 1991, the Soviet Union’s control over the Communist bloc countries of Eastern Europe had ended, as had the Soviet Union itself.

Right from the start Gorbachev was a stark contrast to his predecessors. Younger, more vigorous, modern and liberal, he had not — as had the others — gained power through Stalin’s military ranks or the KGB network.  This afforded him unparalleled freedom to initiate change.

He also rightly sensed that the Soviet Union’s position in the world was growing increasingly perilous.  A rotting political system based on fear and repression, and a stagnant, state-run, command-and-control economy had brought his country to the brink of ruin.

To combat this Gorbachev instituted two reforms that quickly became familiar words in America — glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).  Through glasnost, Gorbachev loosened government control of the media, allowed unprecedented freedom within the various party organizations, and even called for demokratizatsiia (democratization) in which free elections would be held.  Through perestroika he tried to reform the economy by mixing socialist principles with limited amounts of private enterprise and property ownership.

In foreign policy, Gorbachev sought closer cooperation with the America and Western Europe.  He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, loosened the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe, and signed agreements with both President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush prescribing reductions in the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals. 

In the West Gorbachev’s reforms won rave reviews, pledges of closer economic ties and increased western investment, but in his own country there was a strong backlash led by conservative party apparatchiks and members of the military.  Gorbachev was also frustrated by the inertia that was the product of 60 years of government bureaucratization and the public’s cradle-to-grave dependence on the state.  That backlash culminated in a coup against Gorbachev by conservatives in the government and military, and although the coup failed, it spelled the end of Gorbachev’s career.  He resigned as leader of the CPSU soon after.

Although Gorbachev failed to achieve his (probably impossible) goal of reforming the system “from within,” he helped set in motion forces that resulted in both the end of the post-World War II division of Europe and the Cold War.  For this he was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.