When Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, he took command of a nation in crisis. The Soviet Union was a Potemkin village, not a powerful nation-state.
Seventy years after the Bolshevik Revolution, economic growth was stagnant, collective farms were unable to feed the population, most factories were not meeting their quotas, consumers were lining up for blocks in Moscow and other other cities for bare necessities, and the war in Afghanistan dragged on with no end in sight for the fighting or the death of thousands of young Soviet soldiers.
Gorbachev reassured Communist Party officials that his goal was to have the Soviet Union begin on the 21st century “in a manner worthy of a great power”. Under the rubric “uskorenye” (acceleration), he attempted to accelerate socialism by improving product quality, re-equipping industry, and even reducing alcoholism through central planning. Uskorenye quickly ran out of gas, but a stubborn Gorbachev insisted: “We are not abandoning socialism; we want to improve it. The Secretary General was never a budding capitalist. As late as 1988, he quoted “The Communist Manifesto” when asked about his position on private property.
He then sought reform at the top through “perestroika” (restructuring). Ever a proud Leninist, Gorbachev instituted a new economic plan, but the Soviet Union had neither entrepreneurs nor free market experience from a capitalist past. Then Gorbachev attempted to open the system from below through “glasnost” (opening). He encouraged more public discussion of issues, including Communist Party corruption. To his surprise, the Soviet people did not express their gratitude but demanded more openness. Glasnost made it easier for citizens of Soviet satellites and republics of the USSR to express their nationalism and further weaken communism.
For his reforms to work, Gorbachev had to replace old ways with new ways of thinking, and this required diversity, debate and freedom, all unknown in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev probably hadn’t read Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote: “Experience teaches us that the most critical moment for bad governments is when the first steps toward reform are seen. In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was a very bad government attempting very radical reform.
Through his long study of communism and his intelligence reports, President Ronald Reagan realized how seriously weakened the Soviet Union was. He insisted at his four summits with Gorbachev to end the Cold War at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. “Gorbachev saw the writing on the [Berlin] Wall,” Reagan wrote, “and opted for change,” a change that would end Soviet communism.
Gorbachev was never able to anticipate the inevitable outcome of the mighty forces he unleashed. However, he deserves credit (but not the Nobel Prize) for finally acknowledging the failures of Marxism-Leninism and the futility of Russian imperialism.
Biography of the expert: Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow of Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation, is a distinguished historian of American conservatism, who has published more than 25 books. Edwards is also an assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, where he was named a Distinguished Lecturer. Edwards is co-founder of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, DC, which plans to open the Victims of Communism Museum later this year. His books include biographies of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Edwin Meese III as well as histories of The Heritage Foundation and the American conservative movement. His works have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, French, Hungarian, Polish and Swedish.
This essay is taken from her book “A Brief History of the Cold War”, co-authored by Elizabeth Edwards Spalding.