Digital History

The Past Three Decades: Years of Crisis - Years of Triumph

A Remarkable Ideological Turnaround Previous Next
Digital History ID 3370



In 1982, 75-year-old Soviet party leader Leonid Brezhnev died. Growing stagnation, corruption, and a huge military buildup had marked his regime. Initially, the post-Brezhnev era seemed to offer little change in U.S.-Soviet relations. KGB leader Yuri Andropov succeeded Brezhnev, but died after only 15 months in power. Another Brezhnev loyalist, Konstantin Chernenko, who died just a year later, replaced him. In 1985, Soviet party leadership passed to Mikhail S. Gorbachev, a 54-year-old agricultural specialist with little formal experience in foreign affairs. Gorbachev pledged to continue the policies of his predecessors.

Within weeks, however, Gorbachev called for sweeping political liberalization (glasnost) and economic reform (perestroika). He allowed wider freedom of press, assembly, travel, and religion. He persuaded the Communist party leadership to end its monopoly on power; created the Soviet Union's first working legislature; allowed the first nationwide competitive elections in 1989; and freed hundreds of political prisoners. In an effort to boost the sagging Soviet economy, he legalized small private business cooperatives, relaxed laws prohibiting land ownership, and approved foreign investment within the Soviet Union.

In foreign affairs, Gorbachev completely reshaped world politics. He cut the Soviet defense budget, withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, allowed a unified Germany to become a member of NATO, and agreed with the United States to destroy short-range and medium-range nuclear weapons. Most dramatically, Gorbachev actively promoted the democratization of former satellite nations in Eastern Europe. For his accomplishments in defusing Cold War tensions, he was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.

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