The Decline of the Soviet Union: The History of the Communist Empire in the Last 30 Years of Its Existence
Leonid Brezhnev became First Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in late 1964 after a plot to oust Khrushchev. Little is remembered in the public imagination about Brezhnev in comparison to Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Lenin, or Joseph Stalin, despite the fact Brezhnev ruled the USSR from 1964-1982, longer than any Soviet leader other than Stalin. In fact, he held power during a tumultuous era that changed the world in remarkable ways, and that era has been favorably remembered by many former Soviet citizens. It marked a period of relative calm and even prosperity after the destruction of World War II and the tensions brought about by Khrushchev. Foremost amongst Brezhnev’s achievements would be the détente period in the early 1970s, when the Soviets and Americans came to a number of agreements that reduced Cold War pressures and the alarming threat of nuclear war.
On the other side of the balance sheet, Brezhnev oversaw a malaise in Soviet society that later became known as an era of stagnation during which the Communist Bloc fell far behind the West in terms of economic output and standard of living. His regime also became notorious for its human rights abuses, and Soviet foreign policy in his later years took on some of the character of the earlier American behavior that he had so criticised. Most calamitous of all was the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The Cold War moved into one of its most dangerous phases after Brezhnev’s death as both sides deployed nuclear weapons within alarming proximity in Europe. A NATO exercise, “Operation Able Archer,” almost led to a Soviet miscalculation, and when the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner in September 1983, claiming it had strayed into Soviet airspace, the Cold War became very tense indeed.
After going through three elderly leaders in three years, Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen as the new General Secretary at the relatively young age of 54 in March 1985. Gorbachev hoped to build the Soviet economy to relieve the persistent shortages of consumer goods it faced, which were caused by enormous military spending of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev tried to introduce some economic reforms, but they were blocked by communist hardliners. Gorbachev then came to the belief that the Soviet economy could not improved without political reform as well.
Limited political reforms, such as broadcasting uncensored debates in which politicians openly questioned government policy, backfired when they energized eastern European opposition movements which began to overthrow their communist governments in 1989. Gorbachev was unwilling to reoccupy these eastern European nations and use the Soviet army to put down these revolts.
In comparison with other Soviet leaders, Gorbachev was leader of the USSR for a relatively short period, but the changes that took place under his leadership were monumental, including some that were intended and others that were unforeseen. Gorbachev oversaw the end of the Cold War and the peaceful transition away from communism in Central and Eastern Europe, and he ended the war in Afghanistan and many other proxy conflicts in the developing world. Gorbachev improved relations with the West and developed enough trust with President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush to decommission thousands of nuclear weapons. He also liberalized the political environment within the Soviet Union itself, increased accountability, and brought in a certain degree of democracy.
Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for these efforts in 1990, but his regime also left a legacy of turbulence and destruction in its wake. As a result of his policies, many Soviet people rose up against the status quo, demanding national self-determination and reviving old grievances. Gorbachev could not prevent the USSR from disbanding at the end of 1991.