Brezhnev, after many years of poor health, died in November 1982. His successor as CPSU general secretary and head of state was Yury Andropov, a former chairman of the Soviet political police, the KGB. Andropov attempted a disciplinary approach to Soviet problems, but soon disappeared from public view and succumbed to illness in February 1984. After him, Konstantin Chernenko, a member of Brezhnev’s entourage for 35 years, lasted only 13 uneventful months before he, too, died in office. On March 11, 1985, the Central Committee appointed the 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Politburo, as general secretary.
Gorbachev, an agricultural specialist from the southern Stavropol’ region of the RSFSR, followed the classic Soviet path to cementing his personal power, putting sympathizers into influential positions and shuffling the leadership. But his six and one-half years in office were anything but conventional. Without intending to do so, Gorbachev triggered a revolution that unseated him and the Communist regime.
Gorbachev first seemed content to copy Andropov’s crackdown on corruption and sloth, unseating some longtime comrades of Brezhnev and Chernenko and announcing a campaign to curb alcohol consumption. Beginning in 1986, Gorbachev, dissatisfied with the meager results of preceding decisions and prodded by the painful revelations of incompetence accompanying the Chernobyl’ nuclear disaster, struck off in a much more radical direction. He called for glasnost (openness or candor) in the media and culture and for a far-reaching perestroika (restructuring) of the nation’s economy and political system, and it soon was apparent that he was aiming at no less than the comprehensive reform of the Soviet system.
He originally believed this could be accomplished without doing away with its socialistic features or with the CPSU’s monopoly on power. Within several years, though, discrepancies multiplied between his desire to retain the fundamentals of the old order and his determination to press ahead with perestroika. Gorbachev never did achieve a deep-cutting reform of the Soviet economy. His main accomplishment was to legalize individual entrepreneurship and small cooperative businesses, an initiative he several times compared to the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s.
Throughout, the state sector remained dominant and resistant to change. Without going so far as to reform the planned economy comprehensively, Gorbachev’s government disrupted its operations, provoking a further slowdown in growth and, beginning in 1990, a contraction in the Soviet Union’s gross national product (GNP). Shortages of consumer goods burgeoned and protest strikes by miners and other workers erupted. Gorbachev’s most concerted efforts were in the political arena, where he announced to the party Central Committee in January 1987 that it was time to inaugurate competitive elections presenting the voter with a multiplicity of candidates, replacing the no-choice ballots that had been universal since the 1920s. A national conference of the CPSU in June and July 1988 approved Gorbachev’s plan and resoundingly denounced Stalinism, Brezhnevite stagnation, and the suppression of freedoms of expression, assembly, and organization. Several months later the USSR constitution was amended to safeguard electoral choice among candidates and to replace the Supreme Soviet with a 2250-member Congress of People’s Deputies. Elections to the congress were held all over the Soviet Union in March and April 1989. Although members of the CPSU still occupied the vast majority of seats, many functionaries of the party were defeated, while former political dissidents such as physicist Andrey Sakharov gained entry to the legislature. Gorbachev himself was selected the first chairman of the congress.
Gorbachev’s difficulties multiplied after the congressional election. On one flank, he was more and more estranged from conservative leaders within the CPSU establishment, who began to charge him with deserting the party’s cause.
On the other flank, he was unable to satisfy the more thoroughgoing reformers who came to the fore in the election process. The acknowledged leader of the “democrats,” as they described themselves, was Boris Yeltsin, a former candidate member of the Politburo whom Gorbachev excluded from the leadership in October 1987 but who staged a flamboyant comeback in the 1989 election. To shore up his centrist position and increase his leverage with conservatives in the CPSU apparatus, Gorbachev had parliament in March 1990 institute the office of USSR presidency and select him to it. In 1990 the center of progressive opposition to Gorbachev shifted to the union republics, which now proceeded to reelect their legislatures under the amended rules.
Eager to placate critics, the Central Committee and the Soviet parliament agreed to change the constitution to allow non-Communist parties—and not merely individuals—to take part in political life. In March 1990 the voters of the RSFSR gave an insurgent faction named Democratic Russia a narrow plurality in the republic’s parliament. Yeltsin was elected chairman of the assembly by a razor-thin margin in May. On June 12, 1991, he was elected the first president of Russia, in a republic-wide popular election contested by six candidates. "USSR" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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