Did Gorbachev’s policies of ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’ catalyse the downfall of the USSR?

When examining the question, one can think ‘yes’ and then argue that it was both of the policies or one over the other (I have chosen the latter argument). One can also consider the ‘no’ approach. Most commonly for this specific topic, a suitable counterpoint is the policies of US President Ronald Reagan.

If you’re planning to answer ‘yes’ to this question then the best approach is to argue the ‘no’ position first and then demonstrate through counter-arguments why it is not the case. Obviously, with a question like this, one cannot dismiss Gorbachev’s policies immediately because they had a demonstrable effect on the USSR. However, it may be possible to argue either that these policies were implemented as a response to the pressure that President Reagan caused in the international sphere, both economically and politically. Concerning the former, the orthodox approach has been that Reagan’s push for greater defence spending provoked the Soviets to mirror such expansion which eventually was not economically viable for them. However, Soviet defence spending, while untenably high, was not all that affected by US military expansion. More conceivable was the fact that increased Saudi oil production brought the price down which deeply hurt Soviet exports of oil. In the political sense, the ‘Reagan Doctrine’ which supported the ‘rollback’ of communism both overtly and covertly supported regimes and non-state actors who sought to fight against communism. Notably, the CIA program of support for the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan equipped them with sophisticated weapons so as to draw the Soviets further into the conflict. All of this would appear to indicate that Reagan’s policies were responsible for the USSR’s collapse. Alternatively, while Reagan’s policies cannot be dismissed, they cannot be credited solely for the collapse. The economic situation in the USSR was pretty dire before Reagan took office and as already explored none of his policies seemed to directly affect the Soviet economy. Equally, the ‘Reagan Doctrine’ operated partially under the notion that monolithic communism existed and also operated fully outside of the USSR. One might say that covert involvement in Afghanistan through the CIA is evidence but poor Soviet strategy and over-compensation would have probably caused the same result.      

For this answer, I have divided the two policies and given primacy to ‘Glasnost’ as a more pertinent policy in respect to the question. However, I must illustrate why I think this is the case in my ‘Perestroika’ paragraph. Economic reform could have been achieved in the USSR without its collapse. Gorbachev’s more specific policies, like ‘khrozraschyot’ (Commercialisation), could have potentially been implemented to re-ignite production in the Soviet economy. The development of a quasi-market also meant that non-essential goods could be produced on a greater scale with greater availability. Linked with economics but not strictly an economic policy was the eventual decision to retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 which by that time had been costing them dearly in expenditure and personnel. Most dramatically, Gorbachev introduced a law whereby private ownership could occur. One might believe this to be profoundly un-communist, which in turn would damage the established political fabric of the state. Equally, these measures would only partial benefit the workforce as a whole and restructuring became hampered by the fact that fluid economic power did not spread out equally but became heavily concentrated. On the other hand, these steps could have slowly evolved the economy so it actually functioned better in the world economy. Potentially, one could say that China exemplifies this notion with a huge and multi-faceted global economy in a country that is still ostensibly communist.  

As previously mentioned, for my answer I am arguing that ‘Glasnost’ was the primary catalyst in the USSR’s downfall. In my opinion, this works effectively because one can explore the policy in terms of the Soviet state and the wider global context. ‘Glasnost’ was certainly a cause of the USSR’s downfall primarily because it removed the totalitarian nature of the government which was inherent to its political control. This in itself affected Russia, the Soviet Republics and the Warsaw Pact because it allowed separatist and nationalist sentiments to grow unhindered. The epitome of the policy was the relaxation of censorship laws thereby allowing a torrent of criticism to emerge as well as the coverage by Soviet media of dire social circumstances like high mortality rates, alcoholism and state-crimes. In the same vein, Soviet citizens began to be exposed to societies and cultures outside of the USSR. In a superficial sense, the horrors of capitalism did not appear to be that horrible at all. A very ostensible example of this was the opening of McDonald’s, a symbol of American economic power, in Moscow in 1990. More damaging, of course, were the calls for independence from practically every Soviet republic leading to the USSR’s eventual dissolution. Again, symbolically here, the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (and the re-unification of Germany) demonstrated that the voice of the populations within the USSR and the Warsaw Pact had finally been given credence and consideration. Moreover, it illustrated that the Soviet government would not uphold the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’; to maintain communism in the Warsaw Pact nations through force.  

When concluding, summarising the argument is the primary consideration but if one can show that the tangibility between the question, introduction and conclusion has been strengthened then this will promote your argument further. Equally, refrain from continuing the argument in the conclusion by putting in new points. For this argument I would conclude by saying that both Gorbachev’s policies had a catalysing effect on the collapse of the USSR yet ‘Perestroika’ offered an alternative economic solution that had the wrong infrastructural foundation while ‘Glasnost’ fundamentally ruined the source of the Soviet government’s control.              

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