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GlasnostGlasnost (Russian: гла́сность, IPA: [ˈɡlasnəsʲtʲ] ( ), lit. “publicity”) was a policy that called for increased openness and transparency in government institutions and activities in the Soviet Union. Introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the second half of the 1980s, Glasnost is often paired with Perestroika (literally: Restructuring), another reform instituted by Gorbachev at the same time. The word “glasnost” has been used in Russian at least since the end of the 18th century.

The word was frequently used by Gorbachev to specify the policies he believed might help reduce the corruption at the top of the Communist Party and the Soviet government and moderate the abuse of administrative power in the Central Committee. Russian human rights activist and dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva explained “glasnost” as a word that “had been in the Russian language for centuries. It was in the dictionaries and lawbooks as long as there had been dictionaries and lawbooks. It was an ordinary, hardworking, nondescript word that was used to refer to a process, any process of justice of governance, being conducted in the open.”

Glasnost can also refer to the specific period in the history of the USSR during the 1980s when there was less censorship and greater freedom of information.

Gorbachev: The Great Dissident

From humble beginnings in a modest village, he went on to run the Kremlin. He taught the world two new words: “perestroika” and “glasnost”. The last Soviet leader was born into a peasant family on March 2, 1931 in southern Russia. He witnessed the horrors of famine, the arrest of both his grandfathers and the German occupation. But it didn’t dent his belief in socialism. A star at school, he gained a law degree from Moscow State University in 1955 and embarked on a party career. Three decades later, Mikhail Gorbachev made it to the top as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. For the next six years, “Gorby” would make headlines around the globe.

BBC on the intellectual and political influences which shaped Mikhail Gorbachev. Just how was it that a such an exemplary and loyal son of the USSR ended up as a reformer who would destroy the Soviet system altogether?

Areas of concern

Gorbachev’s policy interpretation of “glasnost” can best be summarized, translated, and explained in English with one word: “openness.” While “glasnost” is associated with freedom of speech, the main goal of this policy was to make the country’s management transparent and open to debate, thus circumventing the narrow circle of apparatchiks who previously exercised complete control of the economy. Through reviewing the past or by opening up the censored literature in the libraries and a greater freedom of speech: a radical change, as control of speech and suppression of government criticism had previously been a central part of the Soviet system. There was also a greater degree of freedom within the media.

In the late 1980s, the Soviet government came under increased criticism, as did Leninist ideology (which Gorbachev had attempted to preserve as the foundation for reform), and members of the Soviet population were more outspoken in their view that the Soviet government had become a failure. Glasnost did indeed provide freedom of expression, far beyond what Gorbachev had intended, and changed citizens’ views towards the government, which played a key role in the demise of the Soviet Union.


Greater transparency

Relaxation of censorship resulted in the Communist Party losing its grip on the media. Before long, much to the embarrassment of the authorities, the media began to expose severe social and economic problems which the Soviet government had long denied and covered up. Long-denied problems such as poor housing, food shortages, and alcoholism.

A ball of verbal energy and charisma, Gorbachev wanted radical change. He started with vodka. His crusade against alcohol abuse saw booze prices rocket and its sale restricted. Drinking in public was banned and drinking scenes were chopped from films. But the war on vodka largely failed. It also dealt a serious blow to the state budget when alcohol production and distribution shifted to the black market.

cold warWidespread pollution, creeping mortality rates and the second-rate position of women were now receiving increased attention, as well as the history of Soviet state crimes against the population. In addition to serious explorations of the Soviet past and present situation relaxation of censorship resulted in an explosion of popular culture including popular Western literature and films and books on astrology, religion, and flying saucers, in short, anything official Soviet publishers had not deemed worth publishing.

Moreover, under glasnost, the people were able to learn significantly more about past, including the purges and other previously classified activities. Although Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s personality cult, information about the true proportions of his atrocities was still suppressed. In all, the very positive view of Soviet life which had long been presented to the public by the official media was being rapidly dismantled, and the negative aspects of life in the Soviet Union were brought into the spotlight. This began to undermine the faith of the public in the Soviet system.

Revelations about Soviet history had a devastating effect on those who had faith in state communism and who had never been exposed to this information. There was a sense of betrayal and hopelessness as the driving vision of society was demonstrated to have been built on a foundation of falsehood and crimes against humanity.

In addition to the exposure of hardship and problems in the Soviet Union, aspects about the outside world—such as the high quality of life in the United States and much of the West—began to be exposed to the Soviets.

Internal calls for independence

Political openness continued to produce unintended consequences. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, nationalists swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR’s central Moscow government to impose its will on the USSR’s constituent republics had been largely undermined. During the 1980s, calls for greater independence from Moscow’s rule grew louder. This was especially marked in the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in other Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Starting in the mid-1980s, the Baltic states used the reforms provided by glasnost to assert their rights to protect their environment (for example during the Phosphorite War) and their historic monuments and, later, their claims to sovereignty and independence. When the Balts withstood outside threats, they exposed an irresolute Kremlin. Bolstering separatism in other Soviet republics, the Balts triggered multiple challenges to the Soviet Union. Supported by Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, the Baltic republics asserted their sovereignty.

1990 GorbačiovasŠiauliuose10The rise of nationalism under glasnost also reawakened simmering ethnic tensions throughout the union. For example, in February 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in the Azerbaijan SSR, passed a resolution calling for unification with the Armenian SSR, which sparked the Nagorno-Karabakh War.

The freedoms generated under glasnost enabled increased contact between Soviet citizens and the Western world, particularly with the United States. Restrictions on travel were loosened, allowing increased business and cultural contact. For example, one key meeting location was in the U.S. at the Dakin Building, then owned by American philanthropist Henry Dakin, who had extensive Russian contacts:

During the late 1980s, as glasnost and perestroika led to the liquidation of the Soviet empire, the Dakin building was the location for a series of groups facilitating United States-Russian contacts. They included the Center for U.S.-U.S.S.R. Initiatives, which helped more than 1000 Americans visit the Soviet Union and more than 100 then-Soviet citizens visit the U.S.

While thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were released in the spirit of glasnost, Gorbachev’s original goal of using glasnost and perestroika to reform the Soviet Union was not achieved. In 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved following a failed coup by conservative elements who were opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms.

Mikhail Gorbachev

(b. 1931)
Having overseen policies aimed at the political and economic restructuring of the Soviet Union, former President Mikhail Gorbachev is credited as one of the architects of the end of the Cold War.

Interview conducted 04/23/01

Commanding Heights : Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev’s Speech to the United Nations (1988)

patriotic | Voices from Russia