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Advent of Gorbachev

"Gorbachev Factor"

The word perestroika is associated with the final stage of Soviet history and with the name of Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931). It is applied to the period beginning with his appointment to the post of general secretary in March 1985 and ending with his resignation and the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991. 


Gorbachev’s period in power was marked by complex and conflicting developments in Soviet society. The term perestroika, which literally means “restructuring,” was itself interpreted in different, sometimes diametrical, ways by various individuals, social groups, and political forces within the Soviet Union. For some, it stood for the dismantling of the Stalinist system and a transition to democracy. Others wanted to limit perestroika to replacing some outdated elements of the socialist system, claiming that its foundations were sound. There were also various shades of opinion between these two approaches to what was to be “restructured.” 

The important thing to note, however, is that, when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, almost all sections of society, all social groups, longed for change. These included certain groups within the party and state bureaucracy that were in favor of moderate reform. They hoped that more dynamic and vigorous actions of the government would rejuvenate the declining economy, reinvigorate the system, and ultimately strengthen their own authority. Gorbachev was sensitive enough to detect these hopes and aspirations, which were already in the air.

Gorbachev’s election to the post of general secretary took place at the extraordinary plenum of the Party’s Central Committee in March 1985, convened following Chernenko’s death. By that time the command system had reached a point a which it was in great need of rejuvenating its geriatric structures. Gorbachev’s candidacy was a logical choice in the situation when a younger and reform-minded leader was vitally needed to improve the external image and reanimate the decaying mechanisms of the system. His appointment was received as a natural and necessary step by the Soviet nomenklatura.

The change in the country’s leadership generated cautious hopes in the Soviet population. The personality and actions of the new general secretary were received with enthusiasm and inspired optimism. Gorbachev’s popularity soared rapidly, and his support base quickly became nationwide. His confident manner, unconventional behavior during unscheduled walks about Moscow, even his ability to smile and his sense of humor made him look different from his predecessors and instilled optimism. Gorbachev demonstrated enviable energy both at home and abroad. He conveyed the impression of a modern and dynamic leader, who knew in which direction to lead the country to overcome what he described as a “precrisis situation.”

However, with each passing year popular trust in Gorbachev waned and faded. By 1990 Boris Yeltsin (b. 1931) had moved into first place as the most popular politician. A nationwide opinion poll conducted by the All-Union Center for the Study of Public Opinion in February 1991 asked about the qualities that marked Gorbachev as a political leader. The answers revealed that 28 percent of those interviewed thought that Gorbachev’s main characteristic as a political leader was “duplicity and hypocrisy.” About 20 percent believed that he had “flexibility and skills of political maneuvering”; a similar number thought that Gorbachev was “weak and indecisive.” Eighteen percent believed that the Soviet leader showed “indifference to human suffering,” only 7 percent credited Gorbachev with “decisiveness,” and just 4 percent thought that he possessed strategic foresight.

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