The Gorbachev Era
The Gorbachev Era
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the head of the Soviet Union. Born in 1931 to a peasant family in the North Caucasus region, Gorbachev was well aware that major political changes were necessary. Beginning around 1980, the United States had enormously increased military spending; the Soviet Union simply could not afford to keep up without ruining its own economy. To remedy the economic and social problems in the USSR, Gorbachev instituted glasnost (openness) and perestroika (a restructuring of the economy and society). Glasnost was intended to encourage open debate within the Soviet Union. Gorbachev believed that the economic and social problems the country faced demanded input from all segments of society, not just Party members. He relaxed censorship and instituted policies that encouraged writers and intellectuals to speak out about society’s problems and suggest their own solutions.
Perestroika called for increases in foreign trade and reductions on military spending. During a 1987 meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, eliminating all medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe. This made Gorbachev very unpopular with the Soviet military, who were convinced it made the USSR vulnerable to attack.
In 1988, Gorbachev thoroughly reorganized the Soviet government. He called for a Congress of People’s Deputies, whose members would then elect the Supreme Soviet (the federal legislative assembly). Under Gorbachev’s predecessors the Supreme Soviet had simply served as a rubber stamp for the Party; from now on it would function as a powerful lawmaking body. Deputies for the Congress represented all segments of society and government: one-third represented the interests of the many nationalities within the USSR, one-third were freely elected on a geographical basis, and one-third were directly nominated by major institutions such as the Orthodox Church, the trade unions, and the Communist Party. The new Supreme Soviet was bicameral and would meet twice a year for three- or four-month sessions. The era of one-party rule in the Soviet Union was over. Non-Communists were allowed to run for office at the national, republic, and local levels in 1989.
In July 1988, due to a severe economic slump and his own awareness of the changed atmosphere in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would withdraw from any interference in the self-government of other nations. Eastern Europe would have to take care of itself from now on; the Soviet Union could no longer afford to control and monitor nations outside its own borders.
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