Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

The Gorbachev Era

Brezhnev died in 1982 and was replaced by Yuri Andropov, the recent head of the KGB. He tried to reform the nation through campaigns against alcoholism and absenteeism, but he died after little more than a year in office. He was replaced by party loyalist Konstantin Chernenko, who also died after a year in office. An Andropov protege, Mikhail Gorbachev, became general secretary of the CPSU in Mar., 1985.

Glasnost and Perestroika

Gorbachev inherited a country with daunting economic and foreign policy troubles. In the first nine months of his tenure he replaced 40% of the regional-level leadership. Like his mentor Andropov, he unleashed a vigorous campaign against alcohol use. Like Khrushchev, he approved measures aimed at loosening social restraints. The measures, which Gorbachev called glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring"), were expected to invigorate the Soviet economy by increasing the free flow of goods and information.

Glasnost received an immediate challenge when on Apr. 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded, spewing radioactive material over a large area. The Soviet government initially tried to cover up the extent of the disaster, but Gorbachev dramatically ended the cover-up by removing all controls on reporting. The basic poverty of the Soviet people, the waste of the country's resources, the unpopularity of the Afghan conflict were openly discussed for the first time.

Rapid and radical changes began. Dissidents like Andrei Sakharov were released from detention and allowed to voice their views. The USSR signed an agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan, a process that was completed by Feb., 1989. The CPSU held its first conference in 50 years in 1988, further denouncing Stalin and his policies. In Mar., 1989, the first openly contested elections since 1917 were held. In May, Gorbachev visited Beijing, signaling the end of the Sino-Soviet split. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews left the country after emigration restraints were removed. Over 400,000 had moved to Israel by 1993, and substantial numbers also moved to the United States.

Dissolution of the Union

Gorbachev's criticisms of the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe who were not attempting reforms similar to glasnost hinted that the Brezhnev doctrine would be ignored. Frantic, last-minute efforts at reform by Eastern European leaders in the summer and fall of 1989 at best only slowed the collapse of their Communist governments. The loss of dominance over Eastern Europe stunned conservatives in the military and the CPSU, and Gorbachev came under increasing pressure to slow glasnost and perestroika.

The country's troubles continued. The economy did not respond as expected, actually shrinking 4% in 1990. The citizens of the Baltic states and Georgia demanded independence from the USSR. Miners in Donets and Kuznetsk Basins went on strike, a severe blow to a party and a government that had always claimed to represent the workers. Arms reductions with the United States and a pact that accepted the reunification of Germany were signed. In desperation, a group of senior officials led by Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Vice President Gennady Yanayev, and the heads of the KGB and the Interior Ministry, detained Gorbachev at his dacha in the Crimea on Aug. 18, 1991, just two days before he was scheduled to sign a treaty granting greater autonomy to the USSR's constituent republics.

In three days, the August Coup collapsed, as junior military leaders and the presidents of the republics, most notably Boris Yeltsin of the RSFSR, led popular resistance to the attempted coup. The coup leaders were arrested, and Gorbachev was returned to his position as head of state. De facto power, however, had passed to Yeltsin and the presidents of the other republics.

On Aug. 23, 1991, Yeltsin banned the CPSU and seized its assets. On Aug. 24, Yeltsin recognized the independence of the Baltic states; on the same day Ukraine declared itself an independent nation. The Supreme Soviets of the other republics soon passed similar resolutions. In September the Congress of People's Deputies voted for the dissolution of the USSR, and discussions began which led to the Dec. 8 founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States. On Dec. 25, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR and was not replaced; on the same day the United States recognized the remaining republics of the USSR as independent nations. On Dec. 26 the government of the Russian Republic (see Russia) occupied those offices of the USSR located within its boundaries.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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