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Reform Was Necessary: Gorbachev’s Quest for A Socialist ‘Alternative’

Reform Was Necessary: Gorbachev’s Quest for A Socialist ‘Alternative’

Pranveer Bharti

On 8 December 1991, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the USSR, was in Moscow when the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Union Treaty at Belovezhskaya Pushcha, declaring the USSR ceased to exist and establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States. It was the most humiliating defeat for Gorbachev as President of the USSR. Gorbachev died on 30 August 2022, leaving behind his vast legacy of democratic reforms in the Soviet Union.  

A reformist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was born on 2 March 1931; he remained praiseworthy as well as the most contested leader of the Soviet era in the 20th century. He was the leader who tried to reform a socialist system already plunged into a deep crisis of centralised bureaucracy, corruption, lack of political freedom, foreign military expenditure, the rise of nationalism, and fear of KGB’s interrogation.  

When Gorbachev took over office in March 1985, the Soviet Union was struggling with fundamental issues concerning domestic politics of the Soviet Union and ideological cold war politics, ranging from the Soviet nationalities policy to the reduction in nuclear weapons, maintaining good relations with West and at the same time keeping the satellite states in its socialist periphery. 

Frustrated with the decades-long political repression of Soviet populations and struggling under a state-controlled economy, Gorbachev sought to transform and rebuild the Soviet Union, once controlled by Stalinist state terror, with socialist ‘alternative’ reforms like perestroika and glasnost. In December 1984, Gorbachev publicly declared these concepts in his speech before Moscow All-Union Scientific and Practical. Living in the dilemma engendered by his political and rhetorical career, Gorbachev still praised Lenin as a historical and intellectual figure who changed the epoch of history, to maintain some legitimacy in the Politburo, while denouncing Stalin as someone who built the ‘cult of personality’ by persecuting Soviet dissidents. During the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1987, Gorbachev unveiled his motive for democratic reform. In his speech, he said,

“It is perfectly obvious that the lack of the proper level of democratisation of Soviet society was precisely what made possible both the cult of personality and the violations of the law, arbitrariness, and repressions of the thirties to be blunt, real crimes based on the abuse of power. Many thousands of members of the party and non-members were subjected to mass repressions. That, comrades, is the bitter truth. Serious damage was done to the cause of socialism and the authority of the party, and we must speak bluntly about this. This is essential for the final and irreversible assertion of Lenin’s ideal of socialism (quoted in Remnick, 1994).”

Gorbachev’s quest for providing a socialist ‘alternative’ to the Soviet Union remained under the surveillance of his political rivals. Even though pro-reform leaders like Yakovlev, Yeltsin, and Shevardnadze acted as the catalyst for the pro-democratic reforms, they maintained their distance. They tried to convince Gorbachev that his reforms could offend other hardliners like Yegor Ligachev. For them, denouncing the Stalinist regime as repressive and violent and for creating a politically motivated ‘cult of personality’ was to ‘blacken’ Soviet history. Gorbachev’s pro-reform group remained apprehensive about his work. 

Why Reforms?

Before Gorbachev’s ascendency to power, the Soviet Union faced serious domestic leadership threats. The sudden death of two Soviet leaders became a concern for leadership stability. Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko could not serve the Soviet Union for a long time. Gorbachev had already influenced Politburo with his good reputation and thus succeeded in reaching the top of the leadership ladder. During his tenure (1964-1982), Brezhnev brought reforms that mainly emphasised re-settling the wrong-doing of Khrushchev, particularly de-Stalinization, and considered re-establishing neo-Stalinism. Some scholars argue that in the Brezhnev era, the Stalinist Model of institutions remained intact but with minor changes and thus furthered the same ‘oligarchical petrification’, leading to long-term political immobilism and economic decline (Brzezinski 1969). Even though Brezhnev’s period is nostalgically remembered as an era of scientific exploration, modernisation and two decades of stability, it also remained an era of corruption, stagnation and political decay.  

While Khrushchev pondered over reforming the socialist economy, the death of Stalin dropped intense insecurity among Soviet elites and demanded domestic reform. Firstly, they insisted on improving the standard of living conditions, agriculture and food supply. Secondly, greater physical security and managing the party and state remained matters of concern for Soviet elites. Stalin’s death also yielded state legitimacy problems and demanded a filled-in ideological void. Khrushchev’s stubborn attitude toward building Soviet Culture while rejecting the Stalinist form of coercion obstructed production and resulted in economic wastage. The biggest challenge for Gorbachev was managing the long decades of economic stagnation, which challenged growth and threatened Gorbachev’s legitimacy problem, both domestically and abroad. As a result, political and economic questions became so entrenched that Gorbachev failed to bring those reforms. Stephan F. Cohen, a renowned Sovietologist, argued that reform is not merely a form of change. Still, it must change people’s lives by expanding political and economic freedom. It has to be an “ordinarily piecemeal, gradualist improvement”. By the end of 1991, democratisation and economic reform reached almost every faction; democratic election, freedom of speech, press freedom, the crumbling of CPSU and the replacement of Soviet ideology with “democratic universal values above everything”. Most of the system was in the process of far-reaching democratic and market reformation, not yet fully reformed but still in “transition” (Cohen 2004).   

Gorbachev and Reagan Administration

During his period, Gorbachev pursued a foreign policy which remained adjected to perestroika and his domestic desires. Making of foreign relations was linked to his ‘New Political Thinking’ that looked at the world in a much more humanistic way; a new Humanism, arguing for a peaceful nuclear-free world. Reducing the cold war rivalry between USSR and US remained his primary concern. But still, he detested the Reagan administration for his radical policy toward Moscow between 1981 to 1984. The Reagan administration acted technologically superior by applying broad military renewal and thus forcing the Soviet Union to rethink its expansionist behaviour. During his speech in May 1981, Reagan not only emphasised that “the West will not contain communism” but “it will transcend communism” (quoted in Patman 1999). 

In the pre-Perestroika years, the United States utilised the economic woes of the Soviet Union in shaping its attitude toward Moscow, which helped in originating the “New Political Thinking” before Gorbachev’s accession to power in March 1985. During the early 1980s, the Soviet Union’s economic growth had averaged 7.8 per cent in the eighth Five Year Plan (1966-70); 5.7 per cent under the ninth Five Year Plan (1971–75); 4.3 per cent under the tenth Five Year Plan (1976–80) and reduced to 2.5 per cent in eleventh Five Year Plan (1981-1985). The Soviet military expenditure rose to 25% of GNP (quoted in Patman 1999). The ailing state of the economy trailed the Soviet Union and changed its attitude internationally and domestically. Since 1979, the Soviet economy experienced poor grain production, leading to grain import from other countries and a rise in infant mortality rate (Lapidus, 1999). The continued fall-off the economy posed a significant setback to what Gorbachev called the USSR’s ‘lost momentum’. At the same time, the US defence military expenditure rose to 7 per cent of GNP, which further pushed the Soviet Union backwards in cold war rivalry. All these burning issues before Gorbachev’s coming to power pushed him towards uskoreniye (acceleration), culminating in perestroika and glasnost. 

Nationalities Policies: Gorbachev’s headache?

During Gorbachev’s reforms, nationalist sentiments in different parts of the Soviet Union unleashed many political demonstrations and instability in national republics, further threatening Soviet leadership and future reform. Since the glasnost provided more freedom in expressing their national concerns, the Soviet leadership left the matter of political and economic autonomy to individual republics. On the national question, which Lenin dealt with to bring other republics into the Socialist frame to prioritize class as the main enemy, Gorbachev remained reluctant to respond against the demand for emotional and territorial ‘homeland’ of other titular nationalities. The revival of national consciousness, not only resulted in non-Russians but even pushed the autonomous regions, oblasts to demand more autonomy. This reluctance further created elite class groups who remained more loyal to Gorbachev. As a result, this led to the sudden rise of many socio-political, nationalist movements. Many upheavals and demonstrations happened, culminating in the violence and bloody confrontations between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Protests resulted in the killings of many in Baltic states, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. During this period, the demand for national self-determination based on ethnic identity, language, and culture flourished and ended the Soviet Union.   

In conclusion

Gorbachev’s induction of ‘New Thinking’ into Soviet domestic politics and applying it to foreign policy resulted in a complete overturn of democratic reforms. It had paved the way for introduction of elections, removing the bans against books, rehabilitating Soviet dissidents like Bukharin, and printing Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book Gulag Archipelago. William Taubman, the author of the book, Gorbachev His Life and Times, writes, “Gorbachev was a visionary who changed his country and the world — though neither as much as he wished,”. During his period, reforms like perestroika and glasnost were judged by anti-reform hardliners through the Soviet ideology- communism. His constant battle with nationalists and communists like Boris Yeltsin and Yegor Ligachev ended with the Novo-Ogarevo process and August coup of 1991, which made him, as Galina Starovoitova said later, “A king without a kingdom.” (Quoted in Remnick 1998).  



  1. Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), pp. 548–9.
  2. Gorbachev, M. S. (1987). Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. United Kingdom: Harper & Row.
  3. Peter Baker (2017): “Mikhail Gorbachev Brought Democracy to Russia and Was Despised for It,” New York Times, 6 September.
  4. Cohen, S. F. (2004). Was the Soviet system reformable? Slavic Review63(3), 459-488.
  5. Lapidus, G. W. (1988). Gorbachev’s nationalities problem. Foreign Aff.68, 92.
  6. Patman, R. G. (1999). Reagan, Gorbachev and the Emergence of ‘New Political Thinking’. Review of International Studies25(4), 577-601.
  7. Remnick, D. (1994). Lenin’s tomb: The last days of the Soviet empire. Vintage.
  8. Remnick, D. (1998). Resurrection: The struggle for a new Russia. Vintage.
  9. Tompson, W. J. (1993). Khrushchev and Gorbachev as reformers: a comparison. British Journal of Political Science23(1), 77-105.


Pranveer Bharti is a PhD candidate at the Center for Russian & Central Asian Studies, JNU. He did his M.Phil in the same center. His area of interest includes Russian geopolitics, security, nationalism, ethnic conflict and democratisation in post-Soviet states. (