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The Gorbachev Era: Reforming Soviet Society (1985-1991)

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After the death of Brezhnev in 1982, two Soviet leaders – Iurii Andropov (died in 1983) and Konstantin Chernenko (died in 1985) – ruled the state. Since they died soon after assuming power, they could not carry out serious reforms. In March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader. He planned to make the Soviet system, particularly its stagnant economy, more efficient, stronger, and productive. To achieve these objectives, Gorbachev adopted a new “democratic” style of leadership. He called for more openness (glasnost) in the conduct of government and for a restructuring of the economy (perestroika).

Gorbachev’s economic plans called for reducing centralized control of the economy and allowing more local initiatives to factories, farms, and peasants. Limited private enterprises (the so called kooperativy) were also allowed and became widespread, especially in service industry.

Glasnost promoted the ideas of more freedom of expression and less censorship and government secrecy. Writers became free to criticize without fearing punishment, and many dissidents were released from detention. Permission to emigrate and travel abroad increased significantly, and many Soviet intellectuals supported Gorbachev’s policies. Films, plays, and books that had long been forbidden suddenly appeared. Long-taboo subjects – from airplane crashes to nuclear accidents, from prostitution to government corruption – could be discussed on national television and in the press. Newspapers and magazines criticized the faults of the Soviet political system. New historical interpretations, especially ones critical of the Stalin and Brezhnev eras, were published. The government recognized that the old history books were “full of lies” and it cancelled all final history examinations for secondary school students. The Soviet leadership allowed some demonstrations and strikes. Religious freedom was restored.[10] In December 1988 the government stopped the jamming of foreign radio broadcasts, including the Ukrainian-language programs of U.S. financed Radio Liberty. Soviet people started to loose their fear of freely expressing themselves to one another.

The great catalyst for the Ukrainian national movement was the Chornobyl nuclear accident (April 29, 1986). Moscow’s attempts to silence the consequences of the event led many Ukrainians to rethink their attitude to the Soviet system which could easily sacrifice the lives of people for political reasons. (Moscow even ordered the traditional May Day parade to be held in Kiev at the time). Many Ukrainians understood that an independent Ukrainian government would better protect their interests. Thus, Chornobyl stimulated the growth of Ukrainian national consciousness.

The primary aim of the glasnost campaign was to encourage economic modernization. Gorbachev thought that a free society would be more effective in putting reforms into practice. In contrast to the Chinese reformation model, where political freedom was suppressed not to be an obstacle for economic development, Gorbachev decided to use it to stimulate reforms. The result was counterproductive. Introducing democratic freedoms in Soviet republics opened the way for creating nationalistic movements, which started struggle for independence. The situation strikingly reminded that one of 1917, when the Provisional Government introduced democratic reforms which brought the Russian empire to collapse.

Thanks to the liberalization policy numerous independent cultural organizations started to appear in Ukraine. They tried to revive the Ukrainian language, history, culture, and environment. Their activities contributed to the growth of national consciousness among Ukrainians.

In September, 1989 a large-scale mass organization under the name “Popular Movement of Ukraine for Perestroika” (Rukh) had its founding congress. Rukh advocated a program of democratization and support for national rights. Thanks to Rukh’s efforts Ukrainian was proclaimed the state language in 1989. In the spring of 1990 the first free elections to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) were held. In 16 June 1990, the Verkovna Rada proclaimed the Declaration of Sovereignty which placed Ukraine’s interests over those of the USSR. In 1989 and 1990 a number of radical political parties with the aim of achieving full independence emerged in Ukraine. Similar political parties appeared in many other Soviet republics. The Soviet Union was on the verge of disintegration.


On August 18, 1991 some old-line Communist leaders made their move. Fearing loss of their powers and the disintegration of the USSR, they put Gorbachev under house arrest while he was vacationing in the Crimea. The next morning an eight-member Emergency Committee (ГКЧП) of old-line Communists, including the defense minister and the KGB (secret police) chief, announced in Moscow that Gorbachev was sick and that the Committee had assumed emergency powers. The Committee planned to limit democratic freedoms and establish strict order all over the USSR. The Committee gave orders to introduce strict censorship in the media and to postpone the activity of political parties and movements. Tanks and troops were brought in the Soviet capital. However, neither the tanks nor the troops were resolute enough to fire on resisters led by Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. By August 22, the coup had failed, and Gorbachev returned to Moscow that same morning. Coup leaders were arrested, and Yeltsin became the hero of the day. Gorbachev’s power and authority declined sharply.

The events that followed quickly after were almost as dramatic as the failed coup. Taking advantage of the situation (the weakness of the central government) Soviet republics proclaimed independence one after another. The Ukrainian parliamentarians did it on August 24. The coup showed them that only independence could guarantee safety and free development. As the involvement of the Communist Party in the attempted coup became clear, high governmental officials quit the party, which was soon banned. The declaration of independence was confirmed in a nationwide referendum on December 1. (More than 90 percent voted “yes”). At the same time, Leonid Kravchuk, the former major ideologue of Ukrainian Communists, was elected as Ukraine’s president.

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