“The impressive collection of septuagenarians that dominates the Soviet Union is nearing its end. In a month, in a year … and for some years to come, a new transitional period will no doubt be opened, a period of economic and strategic stillness, before a new primus inter pares emerges and a new politics emerges. What will come out of this, continuity or rupture? Rupture is not excluded.”
– Jacques Lesourne, Les Mille sentiers de l´avenir, 1981.
On August 14, 1981 thousands of Polish workers occupied the ports of Gdansk supporting the Solidarity Movement. Furious by the new rise in food prices and incited by the words of their fellow citizen Pope Karol Wojtyla, better known as John Paul II, the Polish people demanded their freedoms back, repressed by a puppet regime of a larger dictatorship: the Soviet Union.
The world held its breath waiting for the violent response of the red giant, but this never came and a convalescent Leonid Brezhnev just closed any contact, information exchange and migration between the Soviet Union and its satellite.
Although Soviet inaction was strange in view of its repressive past in protests in Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, even Afghanistan in 1979, Brezhnev did not want to see an invasion of Poland happen.
This was the headquarters of the main military alliance of the Soviet Union (USSR), the Warsaw Pact. The coalition without Poland simply did not make sense. The headquarters of the Pact was in Legalice, and Poland was a crucial link connecting the Soviet Union to its beloved East Germany.
The labor movement began to expand, and in September the KGB informed Brezhnev that similar strikes by thousands of workers were occurring in the Baltic countries; the situation was critical.
In the end, the Politburo had to grant Poland more autonomy, as well as send it food, raw materials, and whatever else the Polish movement demanded in order to stem the rising tide of liberalism. This crisis would be the first of many that the Soviet Union would face during the 1980s, the main cause of which would be a failed economic system.
The crisis in Poland highlighted the precarious situation of the Soviet system. In the USSR agriculture, despite colossal state investments, could not meet the needs of the Soviet people and the centralized distribution system had become a real bottleneck.
Products that were heavily subsidized by the state, such as meat, butter and oil, began to disappear from Soviet stores and to be seen on an increasingly large black market with prices higher than the official ones. A reflection of the shortage of basic goods in the USSR.
The priorities of the Communist regime did not match the needs of the people either. In the mid-1980s, military spending still occupied a quarter of the USSR’s budget, in an attempt to fill the economic vacuum through the monopoly of force.
Despite the high military expenditure, the Soviet leadership was aware of the precarious situation of the USSR and its allies. This led it to intensify its oil and gas production to try to cover the large deficit that was growing every year. In fact, the USSR was forced to cut off the oil and gas subsidies it gave to its Warsaw Pact allies and sell it to the West in order to contain the grave situation.
The stagnation was not only on the level of scarcity of basic goods and services, but also on the technological level. By the 1980s, the mother of the space satellite was devoting more resources to technological espionage than to research and development.
Although the public imagination gives us a vision of Russian spies on U.S. military bases and conspiracies at the highest levels, the reality is that Soviet espionage, aware of the comforts of the average Western citizen, by that time was focused more on collecting information on consumer durables, appliances and industrial espionage.
A stagnant economy and a weak, aging political class gave way to a body as pachydermic as the Politburo venturing to appoint a new, more modern ruling class with new, reformist ideas that would allow the USSR to break out of its stagnation.
The old guard and its exit from the Soviet Union
On November 10, 1982, Leonid Brezhnev died in his peaceful sleep. Almost immediately the Politburo rushed to appoint former KGB director Yuri Andropov as the new Secretary General of the Communist Party in an attempt to prevent another violent power struggle.
The elderly Andropov, suffering from kidney failure, would last a little more than a year in power. That was enough time to escalate tensions between the United States and the USSR with the so-called “Star Wars” nuclear defense program promoted by Reagan and the downing of the Korean Boeign-747 aircraft on Soviet territory. Andropov would die on February 9, 1984.
Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, received the presidency in a catatonic state, and his health hardly allowed him to govern. Predictably, Chernenko would not last long in power either: he died in March 1985.
With more and more octogenarians dying and a regime crying out for change, the Politburo decided to appoint Mikhail Gorbachev as Secretary General thanks to the decisive vote of the last survivor of the old troika, Andrei Gromiko.
Gorbachev was a fervent Communist, but he was convinced that the party line needed fundamental reforms. As a child, Gorbachev witnessed the horrors of Stalinism’s collective farms and despite being extremely poor, he described his childhood as very happy.
His intelligence allowed him to enter the University of Moscow, where he would excel and join the Communist Party. His career as a public official stood out for being one of the few who truly occupied a position because of his effectiveness and not because of his political indoctrination, and unlike his colleagues, he was not corrupt.
Gromiko, Andropov and Cherchenko saw these characteristics in Gorbachev as necessary for a transformation of the regime and kept him closer and closer to the circles of power.
Unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev was a decent man. He was never in mortal danger in the Soviet power struggles and his youth made him an attractive candidate for the Presidency of the Soviet Union. Even now it comes as a surprise to see a guy like Gorbachev rise to power in a power structure exactly designed so that people like him would never reach the top.
On a trip to Leningrad in May 1985 Gorbachev would announce that the Soviet Union needed fundamental reforms, starting with an economic transformation. A perestroika.