Identify and evaluate the relative impact of the factors, which made reform of the Soviet system increasingly likely by the mid 1980s

By the mid 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev faced the unenviable task of attempting to reform the Soviet Union. His main policies of this period, perestroika (restructuring), uskorenie (acceleration) and glasnost (openness) attempted to deal with the myriad problems facing, and to reform, the Soviet system the Soviet Union survived as a nation.To understand why Andropov, Chernenko and especially Gorbachev initiated reform it is necessary to look at the main pressures on the Soviet system by 1985. Specific problems have been grouped for easier analysis and shall be looked at in due course.

Firstly; there were problems with the Political system, secondly; social problems with their resultant pressure on the political and economic systems, and thirdly; the economy. Two major areas of the economy may have been a decisive factor on forcing reforms. The Agricultural and Military sectors will be looked at in slightly more depth, as by 1985 the escalating costs of maintaining both were a major drain on capital investment in other areas.As problems are identified their relative importance and reasons for causing reforms will be assessed. Throughout the essay views of leading academics will be considered. Finally conclusions will be made on the impact of the factors, points briefly explained, citing evidence previously discussed.

Problems with the political system and policyThe problems of the political system were a major reason for reforms.Firstly the government’s policies of the Brezhnev era were a major cause of reform because of their negative effects on society and the economy.Developed socialism, “a corporate vision of a consensual society, in which conflict would be managed by deals struck between the state and functionally based interests”1 served to spread disillusionment among the general population and subsequently require reform to redress its consequences. Its premise of developing the Soviet economy through an influx of technology from the west in order to boost technology and citizen’s standards of living augmented one of Khrushchev’s policies, later named the ‘Little Deal’2; appeasement of the political beliefs, (and their potentially anti-establishmental power) and the right to participate, of the population, by improving their living standards through industrial growth. This can be seen as the ‘deals’ of Developed Socialism.

However by banking on foreign technology and investment through the years of d�tente Brezhnev neglected development of domestic technology, and the economy.When international relations worsened at the end of the 1970s he was left with the economy stagnating and agriculture in serious trouble; and having adverse effects on the population. The complacency of the period3 caused by these policies further damaged the economy. The State’s end of Sakwa’s ‘deals’ had been left unfulfilled and therefore ‘conflicts’ not managed.

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These conflicts were contained by a crackdown on dissent by Andropov and Chernenko4 however the underlying qualms of the population still remained. Kaser (1982) argues that when the economy starts to fail the legitimacy of the government is called into question5. Therefore Government policy was a decisive reason for reform; to retain the legitimacy of CPSU control of the USSR.There was both an under and over (rather than moderate) participation in policy and decision making by interest groups in the Soviet Union. It is a factor in forcing reforms as the balance had to be redressed to keep differing groups happy. Interest groups such as the military had a massive input into policy formation. Indeed the preponderance of Heavy industry in the USSR up to the 1980s could be seen as a reaction by a security – paranoid leadership to the influence of the military top brass.Citizens had very little participation by contrast.

Jeremy Hough described the state of participation in 1976 “The Brezhnev era is not noted for its creating new organisations designed to draw the citizens into public life”6. Miller (1982) describes how general citizens had influence only in the implementation not the formulation of policy. Although the CPSU had a massive membership of around 10% of the population (far higher than western countries), firstly, members were vetted closely prior to joining and then subsequently the majority became the second of two groups of member – those who do not have any decision making power7. Thus lack of participation may be seen to have bred discontent among those who were not able to participate. Discontent breeds disillusionment. This would have therefore been a factor in reform; allowing more participation from under-represented groups would allow the government to prevent criticism and dissent.Two issues concerning the operation of the government were a major factor in promoting reform in order to maintain the image of the CPSU.

Firstly corruption was endemic among officials and bureaucrats in the Soviet system in the early 1980s. The government would not have wanted to appear to promote or foster corruption, as this would produce disillusionment among the population and challenges to the legitimacy of their rule.Secondly, Cadreism was rife as by the 1980s most of the leading roles in the Central Committee and Politburo were filled with Brezhnev’s associates. Turnover rates for the first time in the USSR’s history were low. This stagnation of the leadership resulted in complacency, decay (most of the Politburo were octogenarians by 1980) and corruption, as associates in different departments did each other favours not necessarily in the state interest.Social problemsSocial Pressures were a major cause for reform of the soviet system.Firstly, by the early 1980s there was an acute rural labour shortage, because of massive rural depopulation from out migration. Population growth had slowed also in the nation as a whole as the affluence of Soviet citizens increased and family sizes dropped.

The human impact of the Great Patriotic War on the labour pool was felt too as the numbers of citizens born in this time and reaching working age were far fewer than the pensioners born in the 1920s and before.8 Thus the working age were not able to support the retired as efficiently as before. This factor was important in reform as changes were necessary to industry and agriculture to use labour forces more efficiently i.e. intensification.

Secondly by the late 1970s problems in the workforce such as indiscipline, absenteeism, drunkenness, slackness and a general lack of drive had become apparent9. As a factor in provoking reform this was important as it highlighted flaws in the system, which caused people behave like this, such as lack of incentives to work harder.Thirdly the attempted demographic policy of Sliianie (fusion of nations) into the sovietskii narod (soviet people) under Brezhnev failed – possibly because earlier (sometimes brutal) pressure from Stalin and Khrushchev into conforming, especially of the minority SFSRs, merely increased yearning for national identity and religious belief.

As history shows this feeling was never quashed and partly lead to the break-up of the USSR. Therefore this problem should have been important in causing reform, where a policy such as Lenin’s Nativisation would have been very useful. However it was not an important factor as it was ultimately never addressed.Problems with the economyThe general state of the Soviet Economy by the 1980s and its’ inability to develop beyond the industrial stage were a major trigger for reform. The economy experienced a general stagnation in the 1970s under the policies of Developed Socialism. While the economy experienced massive growth under Stalin and Khrushchev, at the time of the first Five Year Plan growing at 21%, under Brezhnev growth dropped to under 2% by the 1980s.

Soviet GNP was 54% of the USA after 1975 while in production terms the Soviet Union lagged even further behind.10 Technologically the Soviet Union lagged also, and despite excelling in the Military and Astronautics fields was still generally technically backward. Sakwa argues that the Soviet Union had “become industrialised when the advanced countries were moving into the post-industrial era” 11, in which services, information flow and technology are more important than heavy industry. The failure of the Brezhnev administration to act upon this even after it became apparent was a major factor in reform being required, as it was necessary to invigorate the economy and industry to drive innovation in order to catch up with the west.

Domestically, by the 1980s Soviet economy faced many problems exacerbated by poor central control. An example is the poor supply of consumer goods. It can be attributed to the Governments’ failure to appreciate “the volume and process of supply and volume and direction of demand”12. State stores of products retained surpluses to supply state installations first in the event of shortage.

Consumers always came last. This lead to a ‘second economy’ as Kaser (1981) describes it, a supply of consumer goods based on Theft, Speculation, Illicit production and corrupt purchasing. This in turn deprived the state of revenue, as currency was lost to corrupt citizens. As a factor this was important in causing reform as it was necessary to change the emphasis of the Soviet economy to light industry and technology to prevent this happening.By 1980 the Soviet economy was still biased towards Heavy industry and was producer, not consumer, driven. This hampered innovation as goods were produced to often obsolete or inappropriate specifications, as consumers were not considered as to what they wanted. The exception was in the military sector, which will be analysed in short order.

A lack of competition found in free market economies further stifled innovation and development and left the Soviet Union technologically backward when compared to the west.13 As a factor in causing reform the dominance of heavy industry was very important as it was inhibiting development of light industry and consumerism leading to dissatisfaction among the increasingly consumerist population of the Soviet Union.Fundamental problems existed with the economy that went to the heart of the Soviet system, and that were not dealt with by Brezhnev’s administrative reforms / reshuffles of the 1970s.Central planning, and the ‘command economy’ was the first main problem. Sakwa describes it as a “brake on development”14. The Five Year Plans were inflexible to the rapid changes in world industry especially in Semiconductor technology.

Nove (1981) describes the inefficiency and inflexibility of central planning relating to agriculture but which can be applied to all Soviet industry15. Brezhnev himself knew that in the absence of the free market, planning would have to be more detailed and go further into the future. However this belied the fact that planning required a huge bureaucracy to implement.

Half of the departments of the Central Committee were related to the economy. Gosplan was a vast organisation, planning every aspect of the economy, operating “not by…

cumulative gains and benefits, but by constant wasteful exertion”. In addition there was constant conflict for resources between sectors 16. As a factor in causing reform central control was very important as it was clearly holding back development of the economy. Evidence from the movement of China to the free market at the end of the 1970s demonstrated the outdated nature of central planning of the economy.A further issue was that of the drain on capital caused by several key areas.

The first was domestic and export good price subsidisation. Prices of 200,000 products were still regulated by the state even in 1980. Gasoline prices stayed the same from 1947 to 197817. Any increase in value was covered by the state subsidies. Also, exporting products to COMECON countries such as Oil to Poland resulted in the loss of billions of roubles.Here the concept of the ‘War Economy’, where resources are concentrated to several narrow ends, as in a country at war, can be shown to have been in operation in the Soviet Union18. Two areas of the economy, Agriculture and the Military, absorbed far more capital than any other.

Soviet State Agriculture was highly inefficient and unproductive. In November 1980 Brezhnev described the food supply situation as even more serious than the energy transport and metal bottlenecks. The main draw on capital was the maintenance of food subsidies.

In 1981 the subsidy on Livestock was $33bn (1981 prices), “the highest food-and-agriculture subsidy known in…history”19. General lack of mechanisation or inappropriate machinery (issued by Sel’khoztekhnika) and chronic lack of spare parts reduced the efficiency of Collective farms as work often was left uncompleted due to a lack of machinery, resulting in further wastage of crops or products, such as fertiliser.

Lack of mechanisation resulted in the proportion of the population involved in agriculture much higher than in other ‘developed’ countries20. At harvest time in 1979 a staggering 16 million people were involved; 7.8 million of which came from other more productive sectors21.

Agricultural infrastructure was extremely poor creating further waste and inefficiency especially in delivery of crops. Tracks frequently became bogged in spring and fall. The central planning of what to grow, where, and how, without any input from farm managers, was frequently insensitive to local conditions and resulted in huge inefficiency wastage and expense. Clearly agriculture was a major factor in forcing reform as it was holding back the growth of the rest of the soviet economy through the massive labour and financial drains it placed.The Soviet Armed forces were another key financial drain.

At the XXVI Party Congress Brezhnev made clear that the Soviet Union would retain strategic and military parity with the West, implying no matter what the cost22. Unlike in the rest of the Soviet economy, real intensification took place in the production of armaments, it can be argued, as a result of progress, competition with the West but also because of the SALT I and II treaties placing caps on the size of Armed Forces. Numbers of men-at-arms and armour fell the 1960s while military equipment became more and more advanced. In the late 1970s the SS-18 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile entered service with high accuracy and carrying 10 nuclear warheads per rocket. Tanks such as the T 72 and T 80 could fight at night and engage targets with laser range-finding pinpoint accuracy. Of course this lead to the armed forces placing a huge financial strain on the Soviet economy. Up to a third of Soviet GNP may have been spent on the military by 1985, double that of the USA, whose economy was 40% larger23. This expenditure denied capital for investment in other areas of the economy, leading to claims that the USSR was merely a large Military-Industrial complex24.

Brezhnev acknowledged that competition between the military and other sectors would “complicate economic development”25. The ever-increasing spiralling costs of the Arms Race by the mid 1980s left the USSR with no option but to cut back on expenditure; therefore military over-expenditure was a major cause for reform.ConclusionsThe factors previously described all had a major impact when requiring Soviet leaders to reform, although it is quite difficult to quantitatively order them in some sort of hierarchy. When looked at in isolation all three categories of factor have varying degrees of impact in affecting reforms.

The enormous drain of capital from the state of the Agricultural system is an example, more important for immediate Soviet capital levels than drunkenness in the workplace, however much it cost. Expenditure, inefficiency and wastage were a major reason for reform.However the problems in one of the defined groups are often a consequence of problems in another, and their impact in affecting reform depends very much on the degree of severity of the other. For example Social problems were mainly caused by dissatisfaction with the ‘system’ and were, it can be argued, a direct consequence of both misguided political decisions / policy and economic troubles. Sliianie (fusion of nations) resulted in yearning for national identity while over investment in Heavy industry resulted in a lack of consumer goods and a lower standard of living for the citizen. If the economy had been more developed and standards of living higher, would nationalist feeling against Sliianie and the sovietskii narod by non-Russian nations have been so high? It is true that strong negative feelings are often born from times of hardship, for example a rise in German anti-Semitic feeling after the defeat in the First World War, and usually directed at organisations / figures in authority. Would this have made reforms in demographic policy less necessary?It is those factors that damaged the economy so irreparably such as military overspending that had the most impact in affecting reform. These factors brought hardship to the everyday citizen, by resulting in problems such as relatively poor living conditions, lack of consumer goods, and food shortages.

It can be argued that although eventually, political factors such as lack of participation would lead to disillusionment among the population, factors resulting from a weak economy that tangibly affected the citizen were more important in affecting reform.Kaser (1982) states “the economic problems of the 1980s…have an important political dimension” because, he argues, if an economy fails to produce for the average citizen, or causes the citizen to incur hardship, the legitamacy of the party to rule is called into question26. If the party lost its’ legitamacy to rule and its’ authority in the eyes of citizens it would surely be replaced.

For this reason Economic concerns were the most important factor in affecting major reform of the Soviet system.


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