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Gorbachev, Perestroika and the Fall of the Soviet Union Essay

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, Gorbachev sought to end the stagnation of the Soviet system.

The establishment of first McDonalds was a harbinger of the end of the Soviet economic structure as the Soviet people flocked to McDonalds in droves. But it wasn’t just food, American music, fashion and other aspects of popular culture were flooding the Soviet Union. A larger aspect of perestroika was the restructuring of the political system itself. Perestroika allowed for multi-candidate elections, though this inadvertently widened political unity in the Soviet Union and set the stage for different political parties to emerge. The government now had little ability to suppress the new views taken on by many young Soviets. James A. Dorn wrote on Gorbachev’s change in Soviet information policies “When Gorbachev became head of the Soviet Communist party, he recognized the crisis that confronted the rigid system of central planning in a world that was becoming increasingly competitive and in which information technology was changing economic and social realities.

He persuaded the party elite that if socialism were to survive, economic restructuring (perestroika) would be necessary along with greater openness (glasnost) so that information could be better utilized. What he failed to realize, however, was that once his policy of glasnost took effect, there would be no turning back–people could see for themselves that the only way toward a normal life and improved living standards was to end communism and let markets deliver what consumers wanted rather than what the state dictated.” (Dorn) This was part of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or transparency. This meant that many of the hidden crimes of the Soviet Union’s past would be open to the people. They could now learn the full extent of what was done by leaders like Stalin. Also, they were able to more easily see the countries of the Western world.

Even more important was the access to international news sources and entertainment. This brought into question the efficacy of the Soviet government’s ability to provide long-term economic growth and stability. In a nation which relied upon controlling the way people live and influencing the way they think for so long, the sudden surge of free information came like a tidal wave.The freedom of information and decreased power of the Politburo (economically and politically), were major parts in the ending of the Cold War. These policies led to increased independent nationalism in the farther reaches of the Soviet Union, and growing desires for democratic leadership of the Soviet Union.

Apart from just the domestic policies that led to the end of the Cold War, there were many international policies that were implemented by both the United States and Soviet Union that eased tensions. One of Gorbachev’s ultimate goals was eliminating nuclear weapons from the world. Since the failed attempts at significant arms reductions over the past decades, Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to successfully do this. His growingly friendly relationship with Reagan showed the world that peace could be achieved if leaders would simply put aside their ideological differences and focus on the real problems they face. Reagan, however, was at first a major problem in bringing about the end of the Cold War.

His early years were marked with inflammatory rhetoric, including his referring to the Soviet Union as “the evil empire”. Also one his most favored plans, the Strategic Defense Initiative, blocked several attempts to reach disarmament agreements. He staunchly believed that by the space defense grid would only be used defensively, but the Soviets felt differently. The SDI was seen as only emboldening the arms race mentality. If the United States was completely protected from a nuclear attack, they could obliterate the Soviets with impunity. Space was not a sanctuary of peace, but becoming a new area for nations to build their weapons.

These opposing views hindered their talks early on, but eventually Reagan refused to even allow SDI to be kept in the laboratory. Despite this setback, the talks on arms decreases eventually blossomed into constructive discussions between the two leaders on ending the Cold War. Neither Reagan nor Gorbachev had the goal of eliminating the other’s country and both could envision a world in which both powers could coexist. The Chernobyl incident added favor to the United States in that the Soviets needed to change. With the ending of Reagan’s term in office, Gorbachev was now to work with George Bush on ending the Cold War. Bush proved to be more cautious than Reagan, and his administration was marked with

The proxy wars fought during the Cold War became a method of avoiding nuclear war. By having other groups fight wars for your nation while trying to hide your own involvement, you can indirectly achieve victory. The Reagan Doctrine was defined by giving aid to any groups that would oppose Communist regimes. Afghanistan was the most effective example of this strategy. The Soviets attempts to quash the guerilla Mujahideen movement there was stymied by US support. Anti-air missiles that were given to the guerillas ruined air superiority, which was their main advantage. They also lost control in Nicaragua and were forced to pull troops from Angola due to this strategy. These policies helped back the Soviets into a corner which lessened their involvement in the Third World. “The ‘resource crisis’ that the Soviet leadership faced in the 1980s was not caused by American policy; it was inherent in the system. But what is only now emerging is the fact that the United States had a policy to exacerbate this crisis.

That policy took many forms: hidden diplomacy, covert operations, a technologically intense and sustained defense buildup, as well as a series of actions designed to throw sand in the gears of the Soviet economy.” Schweizer argues that Reagan’s policies almost singlehandedly took down the Soviet Union and won the Cold War. While his views on the effectiveness of Reagan’s policies of covert operations are accurate, he plays into the belief that our ever-increasing arms programs frightened the Soviets into submission is inaccurate. These policies only caused more build up by Soviets, rather it was agreements on nuclear disarmament that brought the Cold War closer to ending.

The Soviets weakening influence and reputation abroad led to much resentment from the people. Also, with less international concerns, they began to focus more on their restructuring of what had become an inefficient system. They also began to loosen the grip they had on Eastern Europe and Germany. Gorbachev wanted to avoid any military interference and allow those nations to choose for themselves. When he stated that he had no problem in allowing Germany to reunify and join NATO, although hesitant he said it would be fine if that’s what all of Germany wanted.

In addition to all of these factors, China’s new policy of economic freedom was showing prosperity in a once totalitarian nation. Combined these events caused the USSR to undergo changes faster than Gorbachev may have intended. He had hoped that the Communist Party would remain in power even if there were free elections, and did not think that the Soviet people’s growing resentment towards the party would create such tumultuous change. As the Soviets began backing out of the affairs of other nations near and far, parts of the Soviet Union began to unite in nationalistic desire. Not for the Soviet Union, but for an independent Ukraine or Latvia or Kazakhstan.

The Soviet Union was unable to live long enough to see the end of the 20th century. The Cold War had taken its toll and the United States emerged as the winner, but that victory was short lived, as many steps needed to be taken in order to maintain peace and stability within what used to be the Soviet Union. Through Ronald Reagan’s policies of rolling back Communism and Gorbachev’s focus on liberalizing the Soviet Union politically and economically, as well as the amicability that grew between the two nations, the Cold War reached an end. The fact that such a long conflict, with fifty decades of built up tension could end with so little violence between the two main nations became a symbol of the duality of modern politics. “Seen from a Third World perspective, the results of America’s interventions are truly dismal.

Instead of being a force for good – which they were no doubt intended to be – these incursions have devastated many societies and left them more vulnerable to further disasters of their own making.” Westad proposes the idea that the reason the Cold War came to a close was due to interventions by the two superpowers in the Third World. While his views on how proxy wars being important to the Soviet Union’s collapse are right, he doesn’t properly acknowledge how Gorbachev’s policies and the economic failures which were already present in the Soviet Union led to its destabilization and weakened their overseas efforts to spread communism.

He is right in the lasting effects of these operations in Third World nations and how they were used as pawns by the US and USSR alike. While modernized nations avoid armed conflict between one another, they manipulate smaller less developed nations into fighting for them. Wars do not disappear; they are simply moved to other places. If the proxy nations are not taken care of, then resentment grows, and a divide forms between the first and third worlds. The hatred felt in many nations around the world towards America is a result of this blowback, and we must consider whether fighting this way was worth the quickened defeat of the Soviet Union.

Works Cited

1. Melvyn P. Leffler. For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. Hill and Wang. 2007. 2. “Part Seven: The Meaning of Perestroika.” In Defence of Marxism. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. . 3. Dorn, James A. “Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union (Book Review).” The Cato Institute. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. . 4. Peter Schweizer. Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union.The Atlantic Monthly Press. 1996.

5. Odd Arne Westad. The Global Cold War. Cambridge University Press. 2007.

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