Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 11 March 1985, making him the de facto leader of the USSR. On his ascension the Soviet Union appeared to be faltering, losing its grip as a superpower. The economy was in turmoil, Soviet forces were entangled in Afghanistan and, of course, the country was engaged in the Cold War against the USA, with Ronald Reagan having just been sworn in for a second term in January.
It was clear at this point that reform was direly needed if the USSR was to survive. Gorbachev put forward what many regarded as radical ideas to promote a liberalisation of the political and economic landscape. As a result of the stagnant Brezhnev years the USSR faced great financial difficulties and Gorbachev considered widespread reform to be the only solution. Hence in 1986 he introduced new policies of glasnost (‘openness’), restructuring, democratisation and attempts to stimulate the economy by introducing more capitalist elements. Gorbachev’s first couple of years in power saw a thawing of Cold War tensions, with the negotiation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which resulted in the destruction of 2700 missiles.
Despite Gorbachev’s attempts to stabilise the Soviet economy and political standing, his implementation of more liberal reforms failed to comprehensively address major issues. Serious shortages forced the USSR to revert back to a wartime system of rationing. A growth in the state deficit was not helped by economic liberalisation. Most crucially however, glasnost and the loosening of censorship that came with it led to a resurfacing of desire for self-determination and anti-Russian sentiment in the Warsaw Pact states. Loud calls for independence from Moscow resounded particularly in the Baltic republics, leading to a series of largely peaceful revolutions, which began in 1989. The combined effect of these popular uprisings, together with the failure of the 1991 August Putsch by communist hardliners, severely destabilised the USSR and led to its collapse by the end of the year. In spite of Gorbachev’s well-meaning attempts to reform and reinforce the Soviet Union’s world status, these same policies arguably resulted in the nation’s collapse.
Image: Wikimedia Commons