Mikhail Gorbachev

During his rule of the USSR from 1985–91, Gorbachev launched radical economic and political reforms that utterly transformed the Soviet Union. His iconic policies of perestroika (meaning ‘reconstruction’), glasnost (meaning ‘openness’), and the Sinatra Doctrine had important effects on Soviet society and the world. How important were his reforms in ending the Cold War? Why did they ultimately accelerate the collapse of the USSR instead of saving it?

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Table of contents

    Who was Mikhail Gorbachev?

    Mikhail Gorbachev was the eighth General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. His tenure lasted from 1985 until the USSR’s collapse in 1991.

    As you learn about Gorbachev's domestic and foreign policies, consider these questions:

    • ‘The Cold War came to an end because of the actions of Gorbachev’. How far do you agree with this statement?
    • To what extent were Gorbachev’s reforms the cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union?
    • To what extent were Gorbachev’s domestic policies successful?
    • Compare and contrast the role Khrushchev and Gorbachev played in the Cold War.
    • In what ways and to what results did Gorbachev reform the Soviet Union?

    Mikhail Gorbachev Mikhail Gorbachev StudySmarterFig. 1 - Mikhail Gorbachev.

    Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR

    When Gorbachev’s predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, died in 1982, Soviet economic growth had stalled and had even become negative in some instances. As early as 1965, Soviet economist Abel Aganbegyan elucidated that the rate of economic growth was slowing, just as the American economy was becoming stronger. Aganbegyan pointed to the preposterous resources the USSR devoted to the military and the extreme centralisation of the Soviet economy.

    The arms race with America, the war in Afghanistan and the great subsidies handed out to communist states around the world were a further burden on the already overstretched Soviet economy.

    Gorbachev’s decisions and reforms were therefore seen as essential to turn the Soviet economy and make it successful again.

    Revisionist historians studying the end of the Cold War emphasise these great economic pressures as the reason for the end of the Cold War. In his book The Cold War: An International History 1947–1991, historian Simon Ball (1998) argued that ‘there is little doubt that the Cold War came to an end as a result of Soviet economic failure. This failure led, in turn, to a failure of nerve amongst the Soviet governing elite’.

    Mikhail Gorbachev and the Chernobyl disaster

    The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, wherein a faulty nuclear reactor released massive quantities of radioactive material into the environment, further highlighted the failings of the Soviet system. Soviet technologies proved to be unreliable, poorly maintained, and resistant to change. Gorbachev himself wrote in his memoirs that the incident at Chernobyl was a turning point for communism, noting that the system could not continue as it had been. Arguably, the lethargic and self-interested response of the Communist Party in solving the crisis prompted the moral and intellectual critique of communism that inspired these reforms.

    Gorbachev had inherited control of a state where corruption was rife, and the economy was stagnating. The floundering Soviet economy and the blatant need for change in the Communist Party were Gorbachev’s justification for reforms. This reformist doctrine was called the ‘New Political Thinking’ and included his policies of glasnost and perestroika.

    In 1985, Gorbachev gave a speech to Congress, laying out what these changes would mean for the Communist Party and Soviet people, saying, "[these changes] mean the scientific and technical updating of production and the attainment of the highest world level of labour productivity. [They] mean the improvement of social relations, first of all, economic relations. [They] mean profound changes in the sphere of labour and people’s material and spiritual living conditions. [They] mean the invigoration of the entire system of political and public institutions, the deepening of socialist democracy, and self-government by the people."

    Mikhail Gorbachev Reactor 4, several months after the Chernobyl disaster StudySmarterFig. 2 - Reactor 4, several months after the Chernobyl disaster.

    Gorbachev's glasnost

    Glasnost, meaning ‘openness’ was demanded at the Glasnost Rally as early as 1965. In 1986, Gorbachev and his cabinet adopted the term as a political policy. The movement towards glasnost became a political tool for Gorbachev to discredit the conservative opposition to his reformist policies. Initially, this openness had a very small scope, but over the course of Gorbachev’s regime, the policy expanded.

    Did you know? Soviet sincerity about glasnost was tested after the disaster at Chernobyl, where proponents of Gorbachev’s reform argued that this disaster stemmed from a lack of open communication, which proved the need for increased glasnost.

    Glasnost focused on social reform, with the particular aim of increasing transparency in government processes and including the masses in making decisions. Civil liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of information were remarkably expanded. This was meant to allow the people of the USSR to reflect on their problems and discuss potential solutions.

    As a direct consequence, the glasnost allowed greater freedom for the Soviet public to speak freely, allowing for the criticism of Soviet leaders, the re-examination of Soviet history, and an open debate on the actions of past governments such as the Purges. Political dissidents were released from prisons, the persecution of the Churches ceased, and liberty to travel to Western countries was introduced. Glasnost was also perceived by some in the West to be part of a new foreign policy of openness towards more democratic states.

    However, while the introduction of glasnost was meant to strengthen the USSR, it had the opposite effect. Glasnost was used to allow blame to be passed on to former Soviet leaders, but it eventually became the channel through which the call for the democratisation of the Soviet Union would be amplified. Glasnost ultimately permitted dramatic changes in Soviet media and the end of single-party domination.

    Gorbachev's perestroika

    Perestroika focused on the restructuring of the Communist Party and the Soviet economy. Gorbachev first used the term during a speech in 1986.

    The policy promoted market-like reforms, allowing small-scale private enterprises, collective ownership of businesses, worker cooperatives, and the elimination of centralised control over quotas. State enterprises still had to fulfil orders from the Party but were now free to do what they wanted with their remaining goods, based on consumer demand and the actions of other enterprises.

    However, perhaps the most radical reform to the economy was the authorisation of foreign investment into the Soviet Union. The structure of the Communist Party also saw massive changes. As Gorbachev said to the Supreme Court in 1988, "The time has come when we can expect nothing from further instructions from above, when we must actively implement the adopted decisions everywhere: in every collective, in every city and village. Here a very important role belongs to the soviets, as genuine bodies of people’s rule".

    Thus, perestroika entailed a process of democratisation or demokratizatsiya.

    From January 1987 onwards, Gorbachev announced that members of local councils would be elected by the people and not the Party. Direct elections were also announced for several significant roles within the Communist Party.

    From 1988 onwards, a new parliament called the Congress of People’s deputies was established. This parliament became the highest institution of power in the Soviet Union. Congress would have two-thirds of its members elected by universal suffrage and one-third elected from public organisations, such as the Communist Party. Gorbachev assumed the role of executive President, much like in the American system.

    What was Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign policy?

    As Paul Demakis, former US State Representative, argued in 2009, Gorbachev identified that

    The Soviet Union could never advance economically if it continued to devote 20 per cent of its gross national product and 40 per cent of its deficit-ridden budget to military spending.1

    This outsized spending on the military led to budget cuts in education, healthcare, and social services, which damaged the regime’s domestic popularity. As such, Gorbachev took a very different approach to foreign policy than his predecessors.

    He emphasised that the world’s nations are inextricably linked and made clear his commitment to nuclear disarmament, declaring in the 27th Party Congress of 1986 that

    it is high time to begin an effective withdrawal from the brink of war, from the equilibrium of fear, to normal, civilised forms of relations between the states of the two systems. [...] With nuclear war being totally unacceptable, peaceful coexistence rather than confrontation of the systems should be the rule in inter-state relations.

    Gorbachev’s New Thinking Policy opened the doors to cooperative diplomacy between the US and the USSR. He moved away from the soviet concept of ‘international class struggle’, which stated that the working class of all nations must act together to replace capitalism with communism. He also ended the Brezhnev Doctrine, which promised Soviet intervention in any event where a socialist state was threatened.

    Gorbachev instead encouraged the Sinatra Doctrine (alluding to the Frank Sinatra song ‘My Way’), which described the USSR’s new policy of allowing the Soviet bloc to determine its own internal affairs. In May of 1988, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, underscoring the nation’s new policy of avoiding conflict wherever possible.

    With Gorbachev’s reforms, Reagan relaxed his hostile rhetoric towards the Soviet Union. Instead of opposing Reagan, Gorbachev’s priority was to reduce the toll of the Cold War on the USSR and thus complied with many of Reagan’s demands. This agreement between the two powers led to the strategic arms reduction summit in Reykjavik in 1986 and the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, which banned intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

    Mikhail Gorbachev’s significance

    Gorbachev sought to completely reform the Soviet economy, political system, and relations with foreign powers. He dismantled the long-standing command economy, the rigorous censorship that hushed any criticism of communism, and introduced democracy into the Party.

    However, he failed to account for all of the changes that would occur because of these reforms. The dismantling of the command economy and the introduction of capitalist elements ultimately undermined the entire system. Moreover, the freedoms introduced by glasnost allowed for an ideological revolution that diminished the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s rule.

    Historian Stephen Kotkin argues that

    Mikhail Gorbachev and his perestroika and glasnost policies ultimately led to a liberalization of the economy and allowed rival political parties to run, escalating the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev’s positive support of peaceful pro-democratic reforms in Eastern European countries also helped to achieve this end. 2

    However, other historians argue that the economic decline of the Soviet Union ultimately led to the dissolution of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. They would argue that Gorbachev’s reforms were ‘too little too late’.

    Raymond Pearson states that

    by its last decade, the sprawling, outdated and dysfunctional economy of the Soviet Empire could neither deliver the welfare state by fulfilling the economic and social expectations of its population nor supply the warfare state by satisfying the spiralling financial and technological demands of the Cold War. By 1990, financial bankruptcy ensured that the stricken Soviet Union could sustain neither role.3

    Mikhail Gorbachev - Key takeaways

    • Glasnost, meaning ‘openness’, was Gorbachev’s policy of increasing transparency and accountability within the Communist Party.
    • Perestroika, meaning ‘reconstruction’, was Gorbachev’s policy of introducing market-like mechanisms to the Soviet economy.
    • Gorbachev ended the Brezhnev Doctrine and improved diplomatic relations with the West, even entering into arms reduction treaties with the USA.
    • Gorbachev’s reforms are frequently cited as one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.


    1. Paul C Demakis, “Who Ended the Cold War?” Boston.com, The Boston Globe, 5 Nov. 2009, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/11/05/who_ended_the_cold_war/.
    2. Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Collapse of the Soviet Union. Oxford University Press, 2001.
    3. Raymond Pearson, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire. Palgrave, 2002.
    4. Fig. 1 - Mikhail Gorbachev (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RIAN_archive_850809_General_Secretary_of_the_CPSU_CC_M._Gorbachev_(cropped).jpg) by Vladimir Vyatkin (https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q16635137) Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    5. Fig. 2 - Reactor 4 seen from above several months after the Chernobyl disaster (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IAEA_02790015_(5613115146).jpg) by IAEA Imagebank (https://www.flickr.com/people/35068899@N03) Licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Mikhail Gorbachev

    How did Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms change the Soviet Union?

    The Soviet Union suffered from increasing economic stagnation and could not feasibly keep up with the massive spending that combatting America in the Cold War required. Gorbachev strove to reignite the Soviet economy, introduce civil liberties, and make the Communist Party more democratic in nature.

    What did Mikhail Gorbachev do?

     Gorbachev introduced glasnost, a policy of reducing censorship, increasing civil liberties, and making the work of the Communist Party more transparent. He also introduced perestroika, which was Gorbachev’s policy of restructuring the Soviet economy so that more power was in local councils and economic planning was no longer centralised. It also involved the introduction of democracy to the Communist party, with direct elections for certain roles.

    Why did Mikhail Gorbachev get a Nobel Peace Prize?

    Gorbachev received a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War.

    Why was Mikhail Gorbachev important?

    The appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader in 1985 began a process that was to lead directly to the dissolution of the USSR.

    How did Mikhail Gorbachev change the world?

    By contributing to ending the Cold War.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the English translation of Perestroika?

    What is the English translation of Glasnost?

    When was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed?


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