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External Pressures for Reform

"Gorbachev Factor"

By the mid-1980s the internal pressures connected with the domestic economic situation and the limitations of the extensive economic development made the appearance of a bold reformer almost inevitable. Internal problems apart, there were important external factors that compelled the Soviet leadership to embark on a reform course. By the 1980s, as a result of the Soviet Union’s dubious efforts to sponsor a “world revolutionary process” in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the consequent deterioration of the climate of détente, the country had found itself in international isolation. The NATO bloc countries in the West and Japan and China in the East were now united in their hostility to the USSR.

The rise to power of strong-willed and deeply anti-communist Western leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979, Ronald Reagan in the United States in 1981, and Helmut Kohl in West Germany in 1982, only served to amplify tensions in the relations between the USSR and the West. The Western leaders were committed to defeating the Soviet Union both in the economic contest and in the arms race. The military-industrial competition between the USSR and the West intensified at a time when advanced capitalist countries had been able to overcome the economic problems of the 1970s and their economies revived. Under these circumstances, Soviet ideologues found it more and more problematic to prove to their population the virtues and superiority of socialism.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, in particular, took a strongly anti-Communist stance and even publicly denigrated the USSR, dubbing it “the evil empire.” Convinced in the righteousness of his anti-Communist crusade, he inaugurated the largest peacetime military buildup in American history. In 1983 he proposed a program emphasizing the construction of a U.S. strategic defense system in space known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. The SDI, immediately dubbed “Star Wars,” was intended to defend the United States from attack from Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles by intercepting and destroying them in flight. Such an interception would require extremely advanced technological systems, which were yet to be researched and developed. There were serious doubts among Western arms experts about the technical feasibility of constructing a comprehensive defensive system of this kind, and some thought the project was unworkable. Its cost was prohibitive even by the standards of the powerful American economy.

The Soviet leadership, however, appeared to be too unnerved by the news of the American intentions to be able to muster courage and call Reagan’s bluff. It was seriously concerned that the national economy might not be able to sustain the new spiral of the arms race and that the West would obtain a technological edge in the military field. The SDI presented a powerful military-technological challenge, posing a real threat to the USSR’s superpower status. Whether the danger was real or imagined, the SDI became an important factor that compelled Soviet rulers to contemplate reforms aimed at retaining the country’s international standing.

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The Economy in Crisis


Soviet Russia

Understanding the Soviet Period
Russian Political Culture
Soviet Ideology
The Soviet System
Soviet Nationalities
The Economic Structure
The Socialist Experiment
"Great Leap" to Socialism
The USSR in World War II
Stalin's Legacy
Brezhnev's Stagnation
The Economy in Crisis
Political Reform
The USSR's Collapse

Models of Soviet Power

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