This Week in History

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This Week in History
11 March 1985: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

  D Rohan Kumar

On 11 March 1985, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. 

Gorbachev's election changed the future of the Soviet Union and that of the Communist Party. He was instrumental in ushering new age reforms in the Soviet Union that would see the country breathe a sigh of relief and freedom from the rigours of Stalin and Brezhnev's style of despotic rule by reinstating the style of Lenin's administration. However, in less than a decade, the reforms and restructuring by Gorbachev proved to be fatal for the Soviet Union, ultimately leading to its collapse. 

Mikhail Gorbachev was born in 1931 in Russia. He joined the Komsomol, the youth organization of the Communist Party, in 1946 and 1950 became a member of the Communist Party. Gorbachev saw himself as a "genuine-Marxist" and a "genuine Leninist" and denounced Stalin's administration style and cult. From the 1950s, Gorbachev rose steadily through the rank and file of the Communist Party, beginning from the grassroots to finally becoming a member of the Central Committee in 1978. Following the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, the next two General Secretaries - Andrapov and Konstantin Chernenko, died in quick succession in 1984 and 1985, respectively. In 1985, Gorbachev was elected unanimously as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union upon the proposal of Gromkyo. 

In October 1988, General Secretary Gorbachev was elected chairman of the presidium of the national legislature (the Supreme Soviet). Shortly thereafter, Gorbachev restructured the Soviet government to include a bicameral parliament. In 1989, the parliament elected a new Supreme Soviet from its ranks and made Gorbachev its chairman. In 1990, Gorbachev ran without opposition for president of the Soviet Union.

As the leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was instrumental in ushering in critical reforms and restructuring the Soviet system of governance and economy. His two most famous reforms were 'Glasnost' (openness and transparency in governance), 'Demokratizatsiya' (democratization) and 'Perestroika' (restructuring the Soviet economy). Gorbachev wanted to loosen state censorship of media and bring about openness in the system. On the economy, he was critical of the government's active involvement in the day-to-day economic activity of every citizen. Instead, Gorbachev wanted to incorporate some features of the market economy by loosening price controls, encouraging a limited number of private businesses and entrepreneurs, and making imported private consumer goods easier to purchase. For the first time in Soviet history, foreign corporations were allowed to establish joint ventures with Soviet partners and undertake investments. Gorbachev believed that far-reaching political liberalization would be a prerequisite for economic advancement. And so, based on the principle of Demokratizatsiya, the first ever free elections in the Soviet Union were held in 1988. 

Gorbachev's reform aspirations, meanwhile, were unable to meet his goals. In many regions of the Soviet Union, especially in the Baltic republics, the Caucasus, and Moldova, political instability, separatist movements, and discontent progressively surfaced as the Communist Party steadily lost control over political and social life. Similarly, the unrestricted exchange of information facilitated the decentralization of government power during the Glasnost era. The Soviet Union was believed to have broken up and declined due to revelations of its past and the shortcomings of its society.

By 1990 and 1991, Gorbachev's economic policies had caused the economy to become unstable and enter a crisis. These policies resulted in macroeconomic imbalances, skyrocketing inflation, widespread shortages, the seizure of significant companies' assets, and a rapid accumulation of foreign debt. Social unrest was prevalent due to Gorbachev's inability to implement a successful economic plan, which led to suffering. All these factors, plus dissenting factions within the Communist Party who were pro-reformists and anti-reformists, combined shook the roots of the Soviet Union. With referendums taking place in former Soviet Republics in favour of independence from the Soviet Union, all attempts made by Gorbachev to keep the Union intact failed. 

On 25 December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from the presidency of the Soviet Union. That same day, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and its former units emerged as sovereign countries. History recalls Gorbachev as the man who was instrumental in ending the Soviet Union's hegemony over Eastern Europe following World War II. The long-standing Iron Curtain dividing Eastern communist governments from Western non-communist ones was partially pulled down with Gorbachev's assistance. Regarding international relations, Gorbachev fostered closer ties with non-communist nations, particularly the US. To reduce the political and military tension between the US and the USSR, Gorbachev collaborated with US President Ronald Reagan. He, thus, contributed to the conclusion of the Cold War. Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his "leading role in the peace process" in Europe. 

This Week in History is a new addition to our research publications, looking at the history, its importance, consequences/legacies, and relevance today. We hope this will add historic value to two of our flagship publications- Conflict Weekly and The World This Week. A shorter version of the above will be published in Conflict Weekly/The World This Week.

About the author
D Rohan Kumar is an Assistant Professor in History at Vels University, Chennai, and a PhD Scholar in History, at Loyola College, Chennai.

In the series:
14 March 1849: The Sikh Army surrenders to the British
12 March 1918: Lenin shifts the capital to Moscow
09 March 1776: Adam Smith publishes “The Wealth of Nations”

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