Gorbachev and the Collapse of Communism

Mikhail Gorbachev's period as President of the Soviet Union, 1985-91, was truly revolutionary. But Steven Morewood argues that he failed to understand or control the forces he unleashed.

When Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev came to power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) on 11 March 1985 drastic reforms were demanded if the faltering USSR was to remain a superpower still able to compete with its arch-rival, the United States. Enmeshed in Afghanistan, threatened by the 'New Cold War', with a hawk (Ronald Reagan) in the White House, the economy was in free fall and living standards were plummeting. Gorbachev's predecessor, Yuri Andropov, had already concluded that reforms were needed, but he fell fatally ill before he could initiate them.

Under Gorbachev, political, economic, social and foreign policy changes became the order of the day. Each fed off the other, so that reform gained a momentum of its own, and, in the end, control over policy was wrested from the centre. Ultimately, the limited transformation which was intended to salvage the socialist system brought its collapse – in the Eastern European outer empire in 1989 and the USSR itself in December 1991, when Gorbachev fell from power and 15 independent states emerged.

Gorbachev: motives and interpretations

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