Revolutions of 1989 - Background - Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

Although several Eastern bloc countries had attempted some abortive, limited economic and political reform since the 1950s (Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Prague Spring of 1968), the advent of reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 signaled the trend toward greater liberalization. During the mid-1980s, a younger generation of Soviet apparatchiks, led by Gorbachev, began advocating fundamental reform in order to reverse years of Brezhnev stagnation. The Soviet Union was facing a period of severe economic decline and needed Western technology and credits to make up for its increasing backwardness. The costs of maintaining its so-called "empire" – the military, KGB, subsidies to foreign client states – further strained the moribund Soviet economy.

The first signs of major reform came in 1986 when Gorbachev launched a policy of glasnost (openness) in the Soviet Union, and emphasized the need for perestroika (economic restructuring). By the spring of 1989, the Soviet Union had not only experienced lively media debate, but had also held its first multi-candidate elections in the newly established Congress of People's Deputies. Though glasnost advocated openness and political criticism, at the time, it was only permitted in accordance with the political views of the Communists. The general public in the Eastern bloc were still threatened by secret police and political repression.

Moscow's largest obstacle to improved political and economic relations with the Western powers remained the Iron Curtain that existed between East and West. As long as the specter of Soviet military intervention loomed over Central, South-East and Eastern Europe, it seemed unlikely that Moscow could attract the Western economic support needed to finance the country's restructuring. Gorbachev urged his Central and South-East European counterparts to imitate perestroika and glasnost in their own countries. However, while reformists in Hungary and Poland were emboldened by the force of liberalization spreading from East to West, other Eastern bloc countries remained openly skeptical and demonstrated aversion to reform. Past experiences had demonstrated that although reform in the Soviet Union was manageable, the pressure for change in Central and South-East Europe had the potential to become uncontrollable. These regimes owed their creation and continued survival to Soviet-style authoritarianism, backed by Soviet military power and subsidies. Believing Gorbachev's reform initiatives would be short-lived, orthodox Communist rulers like East Germany's Erich Honecker, Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov, Czechoslovakia's Gustáv Husák, and Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu obstinately ignored the calls for change. "When your neighbor puts up new wallpaper, it doesn't mean you have to too," declared one East German politburo member.

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Famous quotes by mikhail gorbachev:

    I believe, as Lenin said, that this revolutionary chaos may yet crystallize into new forms of life.
    Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931)

    I am a Communist, a convinced Communist! For some that may be a fantasy. But to me it is my main goal.
    Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931)

    My life’s work has been accomplished. I did all that I could.
    Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931)

    Democracy is the wholesome and pure air without which a socialist public organization cannot live a full-blooded life.
    Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931)