Andropov and Gorbachev
The ideas of Gorbachev were not completely original. By 1980 there were many younger, idealistic communists who were disgusted by corruption and wanted to reform the system. Several reformers gathered around the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov. Gorbachev was one of this group. Brezhnev died in 1982 and Andropov became the new Soviet leader. Within a few months he became desperately ill and he died in February 1984. Although he was not in power long, Andropov introduced some policies that were later developed by Gorbachev:
• He called for an end to the arms race, and offered to reduce the Soviet stockpile of weapons in return for American reductions.
• He attacked corruption at home.
Andropov made a number of offers to Reagan. One of these was revolutionary - this was a plan to abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine and to promise never again to invade other Warsaw Pact countries. Reagan did not take this offer seriously and it came to nothing.
Although Andropov had many original ideas he did little to provide more freedom for the people of the Soviet Union. As the KGB Chairman from 1967-82 he had played a key role in the persecution of dissidents, nationalists and different religious groups. After the death of Andropov. the new leader of the Soviet Union was Konstantin Chernenko. He had little interest in reform.
Like Andropov, Chernenko did not live long enough to have much impact. He died in 1985 and his replacement as General Secretary was the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. He introduced policies of 'glasnost' or 'openness' and 'perestroika' or 'economic restructuring'.
One critical difference between Gorbachev and Andropov was in the way glasnost gave new freedom to the people of the Soviet Union. This was a radical change. Control of ideas had always been a central part of the Soviet system. Under glasnost, people were told an increasing amount about the atrocities committed by the government when Stalin had been in power. Thousands of political prisoners were released. The leading dissident Andrei Sakharov was released in 1986.
The Gorbachev Agenda
The economy was failing. The communist system needed to be reformed but not replaced. This would be done by a process called 'perestroika' or 'restructuring'.
Perestroika would require a new honesty on the part of people in the Soviet Union. Free speech should be allowed. There should be a new spirit of 'glasnost' or 'openness'. There should be an end to the persecution of the dissidents. Corruption must be stamped out.
A key cause of the economic problems was the amount of money being spent on defense. To reduce this the Soviet Union should: pull out of Afghanistan; negotiate arms reductions with the USA; and stop interfering in the affairs of other communist countries.
Another distinctive feature of the Gorbachev leadership was the energy and imagination with which he pursued the idea of disarmament with the US president, Reagan. Unlike Andropov he was able to persuade Reagan that he genuinely wanted an end to the Cold War.
The two men met, face-to-face, at a series of summit meetings. The main focus for these discussions was arms control. The result was a major disarmament treaty in 1987. Both the USA and the Soviet Union agreed to remove medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe within three years.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan
As soon as he was in office, Gorbachev began to explore ways of ending the war in Afghanistan without destroying the communist government in that country. In February 1988 he announced publicly that the Soviet army was going to pull out of Afghanistan The withdrawal began in May 1988. By February 1989 the last Soviet troops had left.
Failure at home
Gorbachev had many triumphs in foreign policy but he was less successful at home. By encouraging free speech Gorbachev simply brought problems out into the open. He wanted to make the Soviet system of centrally planned production more efficient. This did not happen. The levels of corruption and inefficiency in the economy were too great. The managers of the Soviet economy saw the reforms as a threat to their jobs and they blocked the changes.