Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of Gorbachev
Nicholas Bethell-Collins 02 December 2010
‘Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of Gorbachev’s blunders.’ Discuss
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, into 15 completely separate nation states, was generally perceived to be a great triumph for the west – as well as for democracy and freedom – over a tyrannical socialist state. What actually caused this downfall has plagued historians and speculators and caused massive worldwide debate on the issue. The conventional argument is that issues such as Stalin’s despotic nature and the increasing calls for freedom from the Eastern Bloc satellite states had a major impact; however more recently historians have questioned whether the collapse was doomed from the start due to issues entrenched in the regime from the start, by leaders such as Lenin. More importantly in this case is question of Gorbachev's role in bringing down the USSR and communism in the Eastern Bloc and if indeed: “The culprit to be blamed is Gorbachev”.
Communism formally took hold of Russia in late October 1917 following the success of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. This government was in fact socialist, not strictly communist, - according to Marx’s definition of the word - and within the next decade had unified the other soviet satellite states into one “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’, the USSR, marking the start of Stalin’s rule in April 1922.
Based on the Bolshevik ‘one-party system’, there was no contest for power in Russia, and Stalin was easily able to consolidate power after Lenin placed him at the head of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate - known as the Rabkrin – ousting and outmanoeuvring any threat from within the party. Gorbachev, although a dedicated Leninist, was the first leader fully who committed to establish a free and more liberal regime, untainted by greed.
Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in mid-March, 1985 and is widely seen as Russia’s most talented and dynamic leader for many years. Determined to remedy the problems that years of autocratic rule had ingrained in soviet society, he intended to revitalise and liberalise the face of Russia and the USSR as a whole.
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Mark Mazower encapsulates this feeling seamlessly in this paragraph of his Dark Continent: "The costs were visible on people's skins and in their lungs. Pollution by the 1980s had become a frightening reminder of Communism's failed attempt to master nature. Eastern Europe had become an ecological disaster zone of dying rivers and barren forests, grimy cities, crumbling monuments and disease-ridden humans"
Almost synonymous with Gorbachev's name are the two key ideas – Perestroika and Glasnost – he introduced in order to tackle the most pressing problems: wasteful use of resources, lack of innovation, poor division of labour, too many costly products, ineffective use of resources and low productivity.
Perestroika (restructuring or rebuilding) was the vehicle by which Gorbachev intended to change the political and economic system through the introduction of a market economy and political liberalisation. The task was to attempt to make production more intensive, with the proposition of reintroducing a few key ideas from Lenin’s New Economic Policy 1921 – i.e. allowing more private business ventures to make private profits.
Glasnost (public openness) was the process by which publicity and maximum transparency in government activity was introduced together with freedom of information and a cut-back in state censorship to try and end corruption within the party and endorse fundamental civil liberties, previously unavailable in the Soviet Union.
It was an attempt at modernising the communist system to facilitate the satisfaction of the masses, as well as a show of liberal concessions to the West, and were at first popular. Within three years of introducing these major reforms they were seen as a catastrophic failure and were abandoned. Not only had they further intensified already hostile social and economic tensions within the USSR but helped to instil a greater sense of nationalism in the satellite states.
Through these policies he aimed not at ending communism, but at replacing the current pseudo-Stalinist regime, with a more tame and democratic socialism that could work in the modern age, without seeming to close to the model of his predecessors who according to Mazower: “Unlike Hitler,[…] aimed at a total modernization of the region” ,albeit unsuccessfully.
The road to serious collapse can be seen from 1982 onwards when opposition towards Gorbachev was not simply made up of the “elderly little Stalins,” who led the satellite states, but as Mazower continues included most people: “The collapse of belief in socialist ideology, and the abandonment by the early 1980s of any convincing hope of surpassing the West economically, left the party with little general purpose. It was degenerating into a privileged nomenklatura, and a decreasingly effective instrument of crisis management.”
Gorbachev was, it would seem, doomed from the onset: he had had radicals such as Yeltsin clamouring for more drastic changes while old conservatives such as Ligachev felt he had gone too far already and the party would soon spiral out of control. His failed reforms and liberal approach towards Stalinism and the Soviet Union effectively caused communist opposition to climax and the Soviet Union to collapse from within the empire itself. Furthermore the Soviet Union could no longer afford the economic and political strain of the Eastern Bloc and the charade of keeping up appearances to the West – pre and post– cold-war détente.
This collapse seems to draw parallels from Tsarist rule, under Nicholas II, which had managed to maintain flourishing communism nearly a century before. In the early 20th century Russia was a state in revolution, under Nicholas II, - who failed to provide stability from predecessors such as Alexander III, a totalitarian who more closely related to Stalin, vastly restricted opposition through stringent and dominant policy. The decline of tsarist rule only 23 years later –after his death– seemed highly improbable. The fact that only a decade later people were calling for change and revolution, shows the paramount need for Russian leaders to keep a tight grip on the people –something fairly difficult for a leader such as Gorbachev to do, trying to steer himself clear of an oppressive string of leaders. Nicholas did however; fail to keep peace through the use of force, along with failing to satisfy the people by bringing about change that maintained loyalty, a reality that mirrors Gorbachev's own. Gorbachev was a shrewd man, unlike Nicholas, who failed to learn from more liberal predecessors such as Alexander II and who recognised the call for change from above, as opposed to waiting for change to be taken by force from below. Gorbachev, a perceptive politician recognised this need entirely, although ironically his inclination to negotiate and to reconstruct social unison within the Communist party doomed the Soviet Union to fail. In this way Gorbachev echoes Tsar Alexander II, showing how an increase in political freedoms acted as a double edged sword. The fact that what may have saved the tsarist regime brought the Soviet Union to its knees demonstrates how complex it is to rule a nation undergoing revolutionary thought.
As a result, the downfall cannot be blamed solely on Gorbachev as a man as clearly he had to do what possible with the vast soviet state that was left to him but the way he went about it was certainly damaging to the communist ideal. Glasnost, for example had the repercussions of exacerbation the national problem as, by allowing people to voice their concerns without fear of being quashed, the authority of the communist governments were weakened. Far from the original idea of bringing the Eastern bloc closer together, through greater freedoms, it tore the Soviet Union apart –the ultimate catch-22.
Perestroika was the salt in the wound for Gorbachev as if only the economy and living standards had improved then surely the people’s attitude towards communism being beneficial would have too. After the 1989 revolutions, the Republican government, along with Yeltsin took steps to end the power of the CPSU in Russia by banning the party and seizing property, marking the fall of Russian Communism in 1991and the remaining Eastern Bloc states declared independence soon after showing that once and for all the iron curtain had been ripped down.
In conclusion, therefore, it seems clearly apparent that under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, although attempting both political and economic reforms simultaneously – in what was essentially a complete restructuring and ‘shake-up’ of Russia and the Soviet Union in order to modernise the state and compete with the West – the failures led to disillusionment within the population, the party elite and the Eastern Bloc states. Satellite states that in the past would never have dared think of breaking away from Moscow’s iron rule were beginning to think seriously about managing their own affairs better than Moscow could and became more open in their demands of freedom from oppressive communist governance.
By 1989 The Communist cause had been exhausted and the Soviet Union had become a failure; Gorbachev had undermined the CPSU’s confidence and sapped and revolutions began to break-out all over Eastern Europe (most of these involved ousting the communist leaders and creating republics.)
Gorbachev's leadership was arguably too weak, and Gorbachev's role as a reform communist is seems had a detrimental effect on the strength of socialist rule in the Eastern Bloc and even accelerated the disintegration empire, which although, seemingly inevitable, may not have occurred so soon had it been someone else.
But it is worth taking into consideration that this type of regime cannot last forever and it seems more pragmatic to state that his reforms were merely the catalyst for communisms failure, as years of stifled hostility and frustration to the communist regime were finally given an outlet.
Aliyev, Heydar. "Gatiyyatin Tantanasi" (Triumph of Determination). Baku, 1995.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. London: Harper & Row, 1988.
Mazower, Mark. Dark Continent: Europe's 20th Century. London: Penguin, 1998.
Excerpt from a speech made by President Heydar Aliyev in the Azerbaijani Parliament, (February 10, 1991) ten months before the Soviet Union was declared officially dissolved).
Czechoslovakia’s Husak was 76, Ceausescu was the youngest at 67, Bulgaria’s Zhivkov was 74 and Tito was in his 80s