35 years ago, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was about to commence its XXVIIth party congress. Party congresses were rare events, held regularly only every five years. They thus marked an important occasion for the Soviet leadership to talk about past successes and lay out future plans. The XXVIIth party congress was the first one headed by the new general secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev. He set out an ambitious reform agenda. For the next years, the Soviet Union – and the world – would talk about glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). This post is going to cover three questions: What did those terms mean? Which consequences did the policies that Gorbachev set in motion have? And, a question that is especially important to board gamers, who are used to assess events and policies by their strategic value: Were those policies beneficial?
What Were Glasnost and Perestroika?
Let’s begin the other way round: Glasnost and perestroika were the opposite of what had been going on in the Soviet Union before Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party (and thus the leader of the Soviet Union) in 1985. The country had been ruled by Leonid Brezhnev, a cautious, conservative man, for almost twenty years – enough time for all matters political, economic, and social to solidly ossify. Then, when Brezhnev died in 1982, he was succeeded by the elderly and sick Yuri Andropov, and then by the similarly frail Konstantin Chernenko. Both of them died barely a year after taking office – not enough time to start any kinds of reforms (not that either of them, especially not Chernenko, would have wanted that) – the sad result of the Politburo, the highest executive committee of the Communist Party being both highly conservative and extremely over-aged. The spirit of these times is captured in the satirical game Kremlin (Urs Hostettler, Fata Morgana), published in 1986, in which players hope to bring a Politburo member with which they have influence to the top of the Soviet system, yet for every action the party apparatchiks take, they age and might die.
After having lost three leaders in less than two and a half years, even the most conservative members of the Politburo realized that things could not go on that way. (A joke from the era has Margaret Thatcher call Ronald Reagan: “It’s a pity you didn’t come to the funeral of the Soviet general secretary. Marvelous. A great spectacle. I’m totally going again next year.”) Thus, they elected the relatively young Gorbachev.
Gorbachev’s reform leanings were well known in 1985. Yet as long as the Politburo was dominated by the conservatives, he needed to tread carefully. Thus, he originally defined Glasnost (openness) as a simple matter of transparency and accountability of the Communist Party, designed to increase the populace’s trust in the party. However, as Gorbachev solidified his power, Glasnost became an ambitious concept for a more pluralist society, where speech and press were free. A bit of that dependence on Gorbachev to fill the nice term Glasnost with life shines through in the Glasnost card of Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games): If The Reformer (another Gorbachev card event) has not been played, Glasnost is but an empty gesture worth a few VP, but with The Reformer, it becomes a power play.
Perestroika (restructuring) was a wider term than Glasnost, but had a similar story of becoming a more radical concept over time: Initially, most outside observers thought of it as nothing more as some kind of the economic reforms in which the Soviet leaders had dabbled half-heartedly since the 1960s every once in a while. And indeed, Gorbachev had ideas for the Soviet economy, yet they went far beyond anything that had been tried in the Soviet Union since Lenin’s New Economic Policy of the 1920s: The state-owned companies gained a wide amount of autonomy over what to produce and how to set prices, more non-state owned companies were allowed, and in the later stages of Perestroika, there were even joint ventures with Western investors in the Soviet Union.
Perestroika was similarly wide-reaching in matters of domestic policy: Party and state, traditionally so closely intertwined that they were hard to tell apart, were slowly separated from one another. New institutions like the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Presidency of the Soviet Union were set up, and, while not just everyone could run for these offices, for the first time in Soviet history, contested elections between several candidates replaced the higher party levels making suggestions and the lower ones electing the suggested candidates.
Last, Perestroika changed Soviet foreign policy. Gorbachev returned to the policy of détente which had characterized superpower relations in the 1970s. (His counterpart Ronald Reagan took a bit longer to embrace détente, but came around – principally because he thought that Gorbachev and he could get things done together.) In regards to the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe, Gorbachev – implicitly – repudiated the Brezhnev Doctrine that individual country’s sovereignty ended where it touched on the socialist camp as a whole. Gorbachev made it clear to the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe that they could no longer rely on the Soviet army to bail them out as they had during the uprisings in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The peoples of Eastern Europe did not know, but they would put their leaders to the test in 1989 – if only to get some Perestroika of their own. Communist players of 1989 (Ted Torgerson/Jason Matthews, GMT Games) can embrace Perestroika and attract the people of Eastern Europe with it, yet in the game, its positive effects cannot last longer than a turn…
What Consequences Did Glasnost and Perestroika Have?
In short: Immense consequences – and many of them unexpected. In matters of the economy, neither the structures nor the people working in them were prepared for a gradual shift to a market-based system. Gorbachev’s reforms thus caused major adaptation problems by themselves, yet they also served to expose the underlying dysfunctionality of the Soviet economy which had existed before the reforms.
Gorbachev’s domestic policy reforms found more success. The USSR became a much freer and more pluralistic country. Yet those reforms developed a dynamic of their own, and even if Gorbachev had wanted it, he would have found it impossible to put the genie of political liberty back into the bottle. On the contrary, once the Soviet citizens had some freedoms, they used them to call for more – especially the dissidents and the non-Russian peoples of the USSR. With political certainties eroding, so did party loyalty for a vast part of the members of the Communist Party. The remaining stalwarts finally braced themselves to stop Gorbachev. Both of these phenomena – the centrifugal tendencies of the dissidents and non-Russian nationalities and conservative Communist opposition – fanned each other’s flames: While, say, the Baltic peoples wanted to get away from Communist rule, their independence movement convinced the old guard in the party that Gorbachev needed to be removed in order to stop the Baltic republics from breaking away. These tensions culminated in the conservatives’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. A coup might also spell the end for the player in the solo game Gorbachev: The Fall of Communism (R. Ben Madison, White Dog Games). It’s a States of Siege game with a twist: Whenever the marker on any of the five paths (four of which refer to various ethno-national groups in the Soviet Union, the fifth represents the Communist Party) reaches the center, the game is not lost immediately, but a coup is staged: If Gorbachev has enough elite support to weather it, he goes on to fight another day. In history, that was not the case: While the coup failed, it made Gorbachev a lame duck. The supporters of reforms turned away from him and toward his erstwhile ally Boris Yeltsin (who had cut a much more dashing figure during the coup), and away from the Soviet Union and toward their respective ethno-national identities. The Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991.
In the realm of foreign policy, Gorbachev’s impact is quickly summarized: He made the biggest individual contribution to ending the Cold War. He managed to defuse the tensions between the superpowers by getting Ronald Reagan on board with mutual disarmament, and his pragmatic reform approach (combined with the erosion of Communism’s attractiveness) swept the ideological dichotomy between Capitalism and Communism away. The contemporary Glasnost: The Game (Yiannis Laouris, YL Games), published in 1989, envisioned a demilitarized world as the result of such policies – dissolving armies is the only way a player can score points (and it is usually done mutually between two of the four players in an emulation of arms control negotiations). Once countries are demilitarized, they cannot also not targeted by other players’ military aggression anymore – and yet, to control the countries and thus score for their demilitarization, they need to be conquered first – not quite Gorbachev’s approach!
As we’ve seen, Gorbachev’s reforms had many effects. The card Gorbachev becomes General Secretary from Wir sind das Volk! – 2+2 (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame) touches on the polymorphism of Gorbachev’s reforms and the binds in which the Soviet Union found itself in the mid-1980s. It’s a card with many symbols, and all of them deserved to be looked at: The numbers in the top left corner denote the action points a western (yellow, 1) or eastern (red, 2) player could gain from the card when opting not to play it for the event – yet in the case of the East, it comes with a conflict symbol (lightning). Forgoing the card event in favor of the action points would cause internal conflict in the East, presumably as the reformist faction in the USSR demands to finally be put in charge. (This conflict might in fact be a boon to the East German player, if it sabotages Soviet plans and thus gives East Germany full autonomy – very much like the historical East German leaders saw Gorbachev’s reform agenda as a threat.) Even if the card is played for the action points, it cannot be used for the arms race (crossed-out missile in the top right corner) – a nod to Gorbachev’s policy of arms control.
If the card is played for the event, all the icons in the bottom half trigger: The Soviet Union will have a harder time building the East German economy or improving living standard there (hammer and sickle icon -1), as Gorbachev refused to prop up the Soviet Union’s Eastern European allies. The Soviet Union’s treasury will benefit (+3), presumably because of cuts to the defense budget (the main recipient of Soviet funds in both history and the game). Unrest in East Germany will be removed (crossed out fist) – after all, Gorbachev was popular among the people there as well. And finally, one economic structure will be removed in East Germany (crossed-out factory) – another symbol of the economic support Gorbachev refused to keep giving to the Eastern European satellites.
It’s a boatload of history in one little card, and it will make you think hard in your game if to choose this card or another from the open card display, and in case of the eastern players, if to play it for the action points or the event. As the Soviet Union, how desperately do you need Gorbachev? As the United States, how much is it worth to deny him to the East by snatching the card yourself? As East Germany, how advantageous is it to skip on the card event and instead douse Soviet domestic politics in the oil they won’t sell to you for cheap anymore and toss a match in?
Were Gorbachev’s Policies Beneficial?
As the look at the Gorbachev becomes General Secretary showcases, it’s not so easy to come to a definitive assessment of Gorbachev’s policies. First of all, we have to ask: Beneficial to whom? This final part of the post will try to answer that for four possible objects: Gorbachev himself, the Soviet Union and its successor states, Communism, and the world.
Did Gorbachev himself benefit from his reforms? Rather not. He could have had a much quieter and more prosperous time just staying the course and maybe modernizing in the most limited ways. After all, his radical reforms were not unavoidable – on the contrary, they were a rather unlikely thing to happen. Gorbachev-the-Conservative would have ruled a Soviet Union which would have become less dynamic and relevant on the world stage as its economic base eroded, but would have still been mighty with its large army and nuclear arsenal. Maybe Gorbachev might still rule over the Soviet Union today – as Brezhnev did in his days of old age. As it happened, that was not Gorbachev’s course. As a result, while he is respected in the West for his role in ending the Cold War, Gorbachev has been reviled in Russia for the last thirty years, held responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the economic upheaval of the 1990s.
That brings us to the next question: Were Gorbachev’s policies beneficial for the Soviet Union and its successor states? – There is a stark contrast (keenly felt by many Russians) between the hyperstability and personal prosperity (limited as it was) of the Brezhnev era and the oligarchic hypercapitalism and economic deprivation of the masses during the 1990s. A less personally tangible matter is the diminished power of Russia (as the Soviet Union’s main successor state), yet it has been a psychological blow to many Russians as well. While unintended, these are indirect results of Gorbachev’s policies – at least in the Russian popular imagination. And truly, his management of the political transformation – masterful until 1988 – became riddled with errors in the later years. The economic reforms exacerbated existing economic problems and his underestimation of the nationalist fervor in the republics accelerated the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
Still, focusing on Gorbachev’s mistakes from 1989 to 1991 overlooks the broader issue: The Soviet Union of the early 1980s was already economically unsound (as the import of consumer goods (and basic necessities like grain) relied on borrowing and energy exports and was undermined by falling oil prices) and could not have been sustained without cutbacks. And Gorbachev surely cannot be blamed for the way Russia handled its transition into a capitalist economy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Also, let’s not forget the positive aspects of Gorbachev’s rule for the Soviet Union: In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Russians and the other nations (formerly) under Soviet rule enjoyed liberties unknown to them since the days of the 1917 revolutions. It leaves a bitter taste to realize that many of these liberties have been rolled back in Russia in the Putin era, and today Russians are less free than they were thirty years ago.
Sure, Russia was hit hard by the aftermath of Gorbachev’s rule, but Communism got mangled even worse. As an ideology, it was entirely in ruins after the end of the Cold War. There was no credible systematic alternative to liberal democratic capitalism anymore (or so at least Francis Fukuyama claimed in his much-quoted essay The End of History?). Was that because of Gorbachev – or despite him? – One argument in Gorbachev’s favor here is that Communism had already lost much of its shine when the impressive post-war economic growth of the Soviet Union petered out from the 1960s on (after all, Communism was a materialist ideology and its main promise was material) and when the Soviet Union suppressed the Prague Spring in 1968 (making a grim point about the unlikelihood of political reform in the East). Not only Western onlookers, but also the citizens of the East (the elites and the masses alike) had widely stopped believing in Communism, resigned to accept their fate to live in its never-changing world. While Communism as an idea might have been dying before Gorbachev already, Communism as a political power died with Gorbachev, who – without saying it – distanced himself ever more from both Communist ideology (moving in direction of social democracy) and the Communist Party (contemplating breaking with it and founding his own – unheard of in a communist country!). However, this was possibly the last chance for Communism to reinvent itself. The successors to the Communist parties of the East have all transformed themselves into democratic socialist parties (some enjoying more, some less success at the polls). Wir sind das Volk! – 2+2 also sees opportunities for the ideology in reforming: The Perestroika and Glasnost event card increases the number of socialists as well as eastern prestige (yet comes at the price of significant unrest in the East – free speech will not only result in speech those in power want to hear, and economic change is always hard to bear).
Lastly, the most ambitious question: Were Gorbachev’s policies beneficial to the world? Vladimir Putin has an opinion on that: “The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” – For the Soviet Union and Russia, I have given my answer above. But what about the world outside of it? – Maybe the peoples of Eastern Europe felt Gorbachev’s impact most strongly: They were free to shed their authoritarian rulers once those had lost Moscow’s backing. And the end of the Cold War affected the entire world. Despite the ever-more-fashionable nostalgia for the Cold War, its end was a good thing: The “peace dividend” that came with the end of the arms race brought a sounder fiscal policy and helped an economic boom (both especially in the United States), the short window of close cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union bore fruit in the multilateral intervention to reverse Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait, Europe was politically unified without the bloodshed that had marked all the great political changes of the last centuries of its history, and all over the globe, conflicts which had been kept alive by the zero-sum thinking of the superpowers supporting one or the other side petered out. And this end to the Cold War – even though it benefited the West much more than the East – had been largely Gorbachev’s merit.
The games themselves take different positions on the matter: In Gorbachev: The Fall of Communism, the eponymous character is more of a liability than an asset. He is frequently on vacation (which at least the player can use to suppress dissent by force that the lily-livered Gorbachev would prohibit otherwise), and his reform policies are what got the Soviet Union in its unstable predicament anyway. 1989 sees Gorbachev in an ambivalent light: Some cards event that refer to him benefit the Communist player, others the Democratic player, some are neutral – probably a fair assessment of Gorbachev’s stance of non-intervention in Eastern Europe. In Twilight Struggle and Wir sind das Volk! – 2+2 Gorbachev is mostly as a positive force for the East, yet sometimes (especially in the latter game) he does not only bring benefits, but also downsides. Finally, Twilight Squabble ascribes the most potency to Gorbachev’s reforms, and Glasnost: The Game derives its vision of a peaceful world from his slogan.
The games which reference Glasnost and Perestroika are numerous and varied. Thus, as only the second group of games they gain Clio’s rare stamp of approval (read about the first group here)!
- Kremlin (Urs Hostettler, Fata Morgana)
- Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
- 1989: Dawn of Freedom (Ted Torgerson/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
- Gorbachev: The Fall of Communism (R. Ben Madison, White Dog Games)
- Glasnost: The Game (Yiannis Laouris, YL Games)
- Wir sind das Volk! – 2+2 (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame)
- Twilight Squabble (David J. Mortimer, Alderac)
The magisterial work on Gorbachev’s time in office and his policies remains Brown, Archie: The Gorbachev Factor, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996.
For the age of hyperstability before Gorbachev (and the discussion if it was an age of stability and stagnation), see the essays (in German, but with English abstracts) in: Belge, Boris/Deuerlein, Martin (eds.): Goldenes Zeitalter der Stagnation? Perspektiven auf die sowjetische Ordnung der Brežnev-Ära, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2014.
On the transformative last third of the 20th century in Russian history, see Kotkin, Stephen: Armageddon Averted. The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001.
The main proponent of the erosion of Communism as an ideology as the main force behind the collapse of the Soviet Union is Vladislav M. Zubok, mainly in Why did the Cold War End in 1989?, in: Westad, Odd Arne (ed.): Reviewing the Cold War. Approaches, Interpretations, Theory, Cass, London 2000, pp. 343—367 and A Failed Empire. The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC 2007, pp. 305—335.
Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay The End of History? was published in National Interest 16, 2, 1989, pp. 3—18, online here (free registration required).