On 25 April 1986, the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl (90 kilometers north of Kiev) exploded. The radiation killed hundreds, contaminated rivers and ruined local agriculture. Plans for building nuclear plants as an inexpensive source of power were halted.
Through 1987 the Soviet economy continued to decline. There were good grain harvests and a reduction in grain imports but also reduced oil sales abroad. The government reduced imports of consumer goods, which left Soviet citizens with less to buy. The incomes of consumers had been rising, and with more money chasing too few goods, prices were rising. Revenues from sales taxes were declining, and to make up for insufficient tax revenues the government was printing more money, increasing inflation. People were putting the money they could not spend into state savings banks – a bad place for money during inflation and a waste in that it was money not being invested in worthy enterprises.
The Gorbachev regime was creating new bureaucracies to oversee planning and investing at the local level. Decrees were issued on quality production and completing projects on time. New laws were passed allowing managers to have more initiative. Producer cooperatives were allowed. Some joint ventures with foreign companies were authorized.
The government tried to increase private farming. But, unlike China, few people in the Soviet Union were interested in venturing into independent farming, some not sure that government favor toward private enterprise in agriculture was permanent. In 1987 the number who accepted the land grants increased, but many failed to make a success of it. Many of those who did succeed merely produced enough for their own subsistence. Overall, the move toward private farming remained unsubstantial, and the Soviet Union's agriculture remained largely collective. The Russians were not taking to free enterprise with the confidence that China's peasants were.
Gorbachev's new bureaucracies were to be described as a tangle of confusion. After fifty years of being told what to do in petty detail, and afraid of initiative and risk, managers were not ready to take full advantage of production opportunities. There was ineptitude in investing. Demands made by planners were not in tune with production capabilities. Growth targets were missed by wide margins and projects remained uncompleted.
In 1988 new priorities were given to the construction of housing and to modernizing industries that produced consumers goods. Gorbachev's reforms had opposition from within the Communist Party and from local bureaucracies. Gorbachev responded by removing the Party from overseeing the economy.
In December 1988 an amendment to the Soviet constitution created the All-Union Congress of People's Deputies as the new highest body of state authority (separate from the Party's supreme body, the Party Congress). It met in May, with 2,250 deputies who had been selected in competitive contests, some of them Party members, some not. The now famous dissident Andrei Sakharov was one of the deputies. He spoke against real power being in the hands of the Communist Party, of his being "troubled" by a gap between the government's words and deeds and of retreats in freedom of information.
At the Congress, Sakharov described the public's confidence in Gorbachev as having fallen "to almost zero." Despair, he said, was a barrier to evolutionary development. He complained that moves toward a market economy had been half-measures and "impractical." People, he said, cannot wait any longer with nothing but promises to sustain them. A middle course in a situation like this, he said, "is almost impossible." Either accelerate reforms toward economic freedom, he complained, or retain administration of the command economy in all its aspects. Gorbachev answered that "big leaps" had resulted in "tragedy and backtracking" but that he s for public support, Gorbachev said that he expected Soviet citizens would understand his policies.
Sakharov and his allies were a minority at the Congress. A veteran who had lost his legs in Afghanistan spoke of Sakharov as having committed slander in criticizing the Soviet Union's war there. He ended his criticism of Sakharov by saying there were three matters that "we must all fight to protect." These were, "state power, our motherland, and Communism." This appeal to patriotism brought the delegates to their feet, and their applause rocked the hall.
At the Congress, Sakharov's allies listed their complaints: a complaint against inflation and too few computers, a complaint that scientists were still using the abacus. Someone suggested a cut in the importation of grain, allowing farmers to sell part of their produce for hard currency and allowing them to spend their hard currency as they wished. And it was suggested that the six to eight billion being spent in Latin America – mainly subsidies to Cuba – be stopped. Someone described 20 percent of the population as living in areas that were ecological disasters and another 35 to 40 percent living under unsatisfactory ecological conditions. He spoke of one-fifth of the sausages and 42 percent of children's dairy products in 1987 having contained a dangerous amount of chemicals. He spoke of a high rate of infant mortality and of the average lifespan in the Soviet Union being four to eight years less than it was in developed nations.
Meanwhile, the economies of the Soviet Union's European allies (fellow members of the Warsaw Pact formed in 1955) had been suffering along with that of the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev was looking toward glasnost (openness and transparency) as a remedy for their troubles.
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.