Mikhail Gorbachev was in a way the key figure in ending the Cold War, communism control in Eastern Europe and in reforming the USSR. Thanks to his policies of ‘glasnost’ (openness) and ‘perestroika’ (restructuring), Gorbachev was able to bring drastic changes into all of Eastern Europe and the USSR. He had committed himself to reform the Soviet Union and was not prepared to shore-up a Soviet-dominated structure in Central and Eastern Europe which was failing economically and was threatening to bankrupt the USSR if it continued to try and match the USA as a political and military force.
Gorbachev took many initiatives on detente, arms control, improving relations with China and in slackening Russia’s heavy involvement in Afghanistan which was taking its toll. He offered many major concessions in the ongoing arms control negotiations. In 1986, he negotiated with American President Reagan in Reykjavik and dramatically offered massive cuts in Soviet armament, which would lead the elimination of all nuclear weapons within ten years.
This proposal ran into problems, partly because US president Reagan was reluctant to give up his Star Wars project, but it did help convince a good number of people in the West that Gorbachev was a new type of Communist leader, and that he was truly intent on putting an end to the Cold War. In 1988, in speech to the United Nations in New York, Gorbachev commited himself to ending the Cold War, and doing this by renouncing the Russian emphasis on the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution on trying to export Communism abroad, and therefore also renouncing the Brezhnev doctrine and committing the USSR to massive cuts in conventional and nuclear weapons.
After this he started to pull the USSR out of Afghanistan, which was leading to no Russian overall victory. To finish, he met President Bush in December 1989 at the Malta Summit and both came to an agreement that the Cold War was officially over. Gorbachev had also earlier renounced the possibility of Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe, which effectively withdrew any support for the Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. These regimes were also already under internal pressure for change, like for example Poland’s government was faced with the determined trade union Solidarity.
Following this, the collapse of the Iron Curtain occurred rather quickly, like a large dam breaking, and with little bloodshed. Without the USSR’s support, the countries’ Communist governments fell quickly as the waves of reform demands overwhelmed them. When Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, he set course to revitalize and transform the USSR after the sterile years following Khrushchev’s fall, and he often talked of his ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’. He introduced new and very important laws in economic affairs.
He announced in November 1986 ‘1987 will be the year for broad applications of the new methods of economic management’. Small-scale private enterprise such as family restaurants or business making clothes or handicrafts or providing services such as car and television repairs, painting, decorating and private tuition was to be allowed, as were worker co-operatives up to a maximum of 50 workers. One motive behind this reforms was to provide competition for the slow and inefficient services provided by the state in the hope of stimulating a rapid improvement and economic growth.
Another was the need to provide alternative employment as patterns of employment changed over the following decade, and as more automation and computerization were introduced into factories and offices, the need for manual and clerical workers declined. Another important change was that the responsibility for quality control throughout industry as a whole was to be taken over by independent state bodies rather than by factory management. It was hoped that by the year 200, the USSR would have experienced a profound social and economic transformation and growth.
However this process is still taking place, amidst serious problems, notable corruption throughout former Soviet societies. Gorbachev was also prepared to change course in human rights. Many well-known dissidents, notably critics of the system, were released, and the Sakharovs were permitted to return to Moscow from internal exile in Gorky in December 1986. Pravda, Lenin’s famous Bolshevik newspaper, was even allowed to print an article criticizing Brezhnev for overreacting to critics.
A new law was also introduced which prevented dissident from being sent to mental institutions, in January 1988. There were a few surprising developments in cultural matters. In May 1986, both the Union of Soviet Film-makers and the Union of Writers were permitted to sack their reactionary heads and elect more independent minded leaders. Long banned anti-Stalinist films and novels were shown and published and preparations were made to publish works by the respected poet Osip Mandelstam, who had died in 1938, in a labor camp.
There also came a new openness (glasnost) in the media. For example, in April 1986, during the Chernobyl disaster, the whole issue was discussed in the USSR with unprecedented frankness. One advantage to this new approach was that the government could now use the media to publicize the inefficiency and corruption which it was so anxious to stamp out. Glasnost was all the more encouraged, provided nobody criticized the party itself. Political changes were then introduced in January 1987.
After delivering a devastating attack on the stagnation and corruption of the Brezhnev years, Gorbachev announced moves towards democracy. There were to be local government elections in which there would be a choice of candidates, though not yet of parties, and there would also be secret elections for top party positions. According to one western journalist, ‘these changes were greeted with a combination of delight, fascination and disbelief’.