Brezhnev died in November 1982 and was replaced as the Communist Party's General Secretary by Yuri Andropov, who attacked what he saw as moral rot and launched a campaign against corruption and alcoholism. Andropov criticized industry managers for poor supervision of their workforce. Arrests were made of people who should have been at work but were in drinking places.
He was aware of corruption interfering with government economic organization, including corruption that had reached into the upper ranks of the Communist Party and to Brezhnev's daughter, and he wanted to do something about it.
Andropov died after only thirteen months in office, and the Party chose Konstantin Chernenko as his successor. He continued Andropov's attempts at reform. Then, after only a year in office, he too died, and on March 15, 1985, the Party elevated its second in command, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the position of Party leader.
Gorbachev had joined the Communists Party while a 21-year-old university student — a time he would recall when veterans back from the war were "full of the pride of victory" and when Communist ideology was attractive to young people. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1955 with a degree in law, and he stayed active in the Party, a man of energy and intelligence, holding to the ideal of service to the people while recognizing a contrast between the way things were and the slogans of his superiors.
When becoming Party leader in 1985, Gorbachev wanted to continue the attempt at correcting economic decline and decay. Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union needed, as he put it, "radical change." Gorbachev wanted to prove that socialism could adapt, innovate and be as productive as capitalism. He launched his new policy of restructuring (perestroika), an attempt to create independent actions from various ministries and some market reforms within what remained basically a command economy.
He began another crackdown against alcohol. Orders were given that embassy receptions and gatherings had to be alcohol free. He raised the price of liquor, reduced supplies and the hours of sales.
Gorbachev tried to create greater incentives for people of talent. He had the wages of science and technical personnel increased by fifty percent. And the salaries of others were to be adjusted to the quality of their work. Still believing in central planning, Gorbachev wished to increase the efficiency in central planning management. To make economic planning more effective and efficient, new super-agencies were created to oversee economic developments.
In October 1985, Gorbachev published his plan to increase production of consumer goods and to increase services. His plan called for a 30 percent increase by 1990 and 80 to 90 percent increases by the year 2000. He estimated that labor productivity in this period would more than double. With diminishing natural resources for energy, Gorbachev was planning to increase the production of nuclear power by 400 and 500 percent.
Gorbachev advocated more openness (glasnost) at places of work. He likened the economy to a family's home and democracy to ownership of the home. "A house," he said, "can be put in order only by a person who feels that he owns this house." He spoke of the goodwill necessary in making an economy work. He complained of leaders having placed themselves beyond the reach of criticism and of some who had become accomplices in, if not the organizers of, criminal activities.
As a part of his new freedom to express oneself, Gorbachev started releasing political prisoners. The Soviet Union's most outspoken dissident, Andrei Sakharov (the father of the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb) was allowed to return to Moscow from the city of Gorky, where he had been exiled for speaking out against Soviet troops being sent to Afghanistan. And Gorbachev allowed more free expression in newspapers and on television.
President Reagan, meanwhile, wanted to end the arms race. Reagan would write that even if a nuclear war did not men the extinction of mankind, it would certainly mean the end of civilization as we know it. Reagan's ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, was to write that Reagan wanted to convince the Soviet leaders that it was in their interest to come to an accommodation with the West. Matlock writes that "Reagan set out to construct a framework for negotiation that would stress accommodation rather than confrontation." (Matlock, Superpower Illusions, p. 31)
Gorbachev wanted to improve the Soviet economy by reducing military spending. He believed that the Soviet military was absorbing too much wealth and scarce resources, and he believed that one way to reduce military spending was to make an arms agreement with the United States. Reagan was committed to developing a defense system that was dubbed Star Wars. His critics complained it would seem to the Russians to give the US a first strike capability. His "Star Wars" idea and his hostility toward Moscow's "evil empire" made Gorbachev's arguments with his military establishment more difficult, but Gorbachev went ahead and let military spending decline with the decline of the Soviet economy in general.
Gorbachev and Reagan held their first summit meeting at Geneva in November 1985, and they met again in October 1986 at Reykjavik in Iceland, and yet again in May 1988 in Moscow. There, Reagan was received warmly by ordinary citizens and enthusiastically by students responding to his speech at Moscow University.
Gorbachev had become popular in Western Europe and the United States, where people were calling him "Gorbie." Reagan was being attacked verbally by conservatives outside his administration. Howard Phillips called Reagan "a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda" and "an apologist for Gorbachev." William F. Buckley complained that, "To greet it [the Soviet Union] as if it were no longer evil is on the order of changing our entire position toward Adolf Hitler."
CONTINUE READING: Gorbachev under Pressure
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.