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"Gorbachev Factor"

"Gorbachev Factor"

The USSR’s dramatic and precipitous collapse has given rise to various interpretations, with many of them politically motivated. The politicians who had put their names on the Alma-Ata declaration strove to prove that the Soviet Union was doomed and that the setting up of a loose alliance of independent states to replace it was the only possible way out of a political dead end. 

Their political opponents attributed the dissolution of the USSR to different reasons, from collusion of the three Slavic leaders, who had signed the fateful agreement of 8 December 1991, to the machinations of “world imperialism.” The dramatic upheavals in the period following the disintegration of the USSR have led to a steep rise in the numbers of those who regard the dissolution of the USSR as a tragic mistake or even a crime committed by high-ranking politicians.

It appears that the disintegration of the USSR was caused by a cumulative effect of a number of factors. Surely, the political will and actions of the republican leaders did play a significant role. In particular, the political decision adopted by the Slavic leaders, Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shushkevich, in December 1991 made the process of dismemberment of the USSR hard to reverse. Yeltsin’s personal dislike of Gorbachev was an important factor, which could have tipped the scales in favor of that decision.

Equally important was the “Gorbachev factor” itself in speeding the USSR towards its inglorious end. His plans and intentions often revealed utopian attempts to combine the incompatible: socialism with capitalism, totalitarianism with democracy. At the start of perestroika Gorbachev demonstrated astonishing complacency with regard to the nationalities policy. In 1986 he publicly claimed that the “nationalities question in the USSR had been settled once and for all.” Any reform program if it was to be successful had to address the federal structure of the Soviet Union first. The failure to realize this was undoubtedly one of the major mistakes of Gorbachev’s career as the Soviet leader. His detailed plans for political reform as presented at the Nineteenth Party Conference in 1988 contained little on the question of reforming the federation and showed every sign of intending to retain the basic centralist structures of the Soviet system intact.

The centrifugal tendencies generated by political democratization had caught him by surprise, and he felt hurt by what he saw as the “ingratitude” of the republics. As the nationalist pressures for autonomy increased, Gorbachev was unwilling to make any concessions to separatists. In April 1989 Soviet troops came to the help of the Communist authorities in Georgia to disperse the opposition rally in Tbilisi; in January 1990 they prevented the nationalist forces in Baku from coming to power in Azerbaijan; in January 1991 they seized the state TV station in Vilnius. These military reprisals caused many casualties, and the Vilnius affair was apparently intended as a dress rehearsal for a major crackdown in the Baltic region. The pro-reform forces in Russia and other union republics accused Gorbachev of collusion with antidemocratic forces and of attempting to depose the legitimate popular front governments of the Baltic states.

The “Gorbachev factor” revealed the basic defect of Soviet authoritarianism: the system’s overdependence on the top leader. Gorbachev’s enormous powers blocked ways of counteracting his policies, even when these led to the regime’s self-destruction.

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The USSR's Collapse


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Understanding the Soviet Period
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The USSR's Collapse

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