Collapse of the Soviet Union: The Unintended Effects of Glasnost and Perestroika

Mikhail Gorbachev’s intention with the reforms he introduced after his accession to power can be regarded as an attempt to rejuvenate and revitalise the communist system. Whether anyone within the Soviet Union or outside it could foresee the crises and the landslide effect which these reforms would have, remains an unanswered question. However, the issue of whether or not the Soviet Union could have survived these reforms requires political analysis taking into account Russia’s internal circumstances at the time, and how these contributed to the events that unfolded. This paper will examine these circumstances and will address the question of the survival of the Soviet Union after the implementation of the reforms.


With regards to the internal situation in the Soviet Union, its economy, or rather the structural weakness of the economy was the principal problem. The Soviet economy was built on rewarding gross output rather than productivity, rigid central planning and offered disincentives to improvements in production techniques and management. Furthermore, instead of orientating the market in terms of supply and demand, the centre prescribed what goods were to be produced and what their prices should be. A notoriously ineffective part of the Soviet economy, agriculture was hampered by the central planning’s stifling of productivity and promotion of inflexible procedures as well. The Soviet Union’s inability to modernize its economy in line with the West was of great significance. This together with a major deterioration in harvests towards the end of the 1970’s, and a drop in production in some crucial industries, suggested a broad “climate of economic stagnation” (Baylis & Smith, 2005: 115).

These problems however, were not enough to plunge the Soviet Union into systemic crisis. It was Gorbachev’s initiatives which ripened the conditions that led to the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. The first of these was “glasnost”. This was the option to allow distribution of knowledge regarding the truth about Soviet life. Economic and political restructuring were the second and third initiatives and were known as “perestroika” (Baylis & Smith, 2005: 115)


Glasnost allowed for freedom of expression and the loosening of controls on radio, press, the film industry and television quickly paved the way for public opinion to slip beyond Gorbachev’s grasp. Those who opposed Gorbachev now had a voice as well as those who wanted to go faster and farther than he did. The elementary principle of the Party’s primary role was ultimately undermined by the logic of glasnost. In terms of political reform, Gorbachev proposed new legislature whereby only one-third of the representatives to the Congress of People’s Deputies would be reserved for the Communist Party. The other two-thirds would be directly chosen on the grounds of popular vote. The result was that large numbers of Communist candidates suffered defeat, loosening the grip of the Communist Party on government. The second political reform Gorbachev initiated was the conception of an executive presidency. Gorbachev contended that he should stand for this role unobstructed in an attempt to retain hold on the route of change (Baylis & Smith, 2005: 115-116).


Under the Soviet system all areas of social life was subject to an ideological and politically derived rationale, as a result economic restructuring can to an extent not be separated from politics. Gorbachev’s economic reforms were an attempt to implement a separation of economics from politics, or at least to head in that direction. 1987 saw the legalization of business cooperatives and private farming, a year later under the Enterprise Law managers of state enterprises were granted limited freedom to sell a percentage of their goods on the open market instead of having to sell all of it to government, as it had been previously. These initiatives were an attempt at bridging the gap between an incentive-based market economy and the stifling command system. In the realm of foreign economic policy, new legislation on Joint Ventures permitted foreign companies ownership of Soviet enterprises. The result of these economic transformations was disastrous. The reforms had succeeded in abandoning the old system without implementing in its place a feasible new economic system. Price levels were unpredictable, some displaying the participation of government and some reflected what consumers would pay. Declining production, shortages and inflation were the harvest of half a decade of glasnost and perestroika, coupled with a general sense of doubt about the future, social disarray and rising crime rates (Baylis & Smith, 2005: 117)


The J-curve theory states that the most dangerous time for a government facing a crisis is to impose reforms. The government may implement reform in an attempt to regain legitimacy; however, with each reform comes an intensified call for transformation, and when a government can no longer meet these rising expectations, it suffers a further loss of legitimacy. The J-curve theory predicts that where a government can no longer meet rising expectations and demands, a revolution is likely to occur. The Soviet Union under the Communist Party could not have survived the reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, as these reforms lead to calls for further and faster reform inside Russia and throughout the Soviet Union. Furthermore, freedom of speech, the distribution of truth about Soviet life and the catastrophic results of the economic reforms lead to an increasing part of the population becoming disillusioned and disgruntled with the current administration. Ultimately if the Communist Party had not relinquished power in Russia, it too may have experienced a revolution as did many of the Countries in the Soviet Union. (Hague, Harrop and Breslin, 1992: 76-81; Baylis & Smith, 2005: 115-117).


The erosion of the Communist Party’s power in Russia released ambitions for freedom which had been forcefully buried but not killed off by seven decades of Soviet rule. The demands for independence spread through the Soviet Union like a wild fire, heralding the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s reforms can be seen as short-term cause which ultimately tipped the scale and brought about the demise of the Soviet Union (Baylis & Smith, 2005: 116).




Rod Hague, Martin Harrop and Shaun Breslin, Political Science: A Comparative Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992


Baylis, J., and S. Smith. eds., The Globalization Of World Politics: An Introduction To International Relations, Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.




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