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A Precursor to the Downfall: Living Through Soviet Perestroika and Glasnost

The international community hoped great changes would come to the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 and demonstrated his willingness to distinguish himself from the previous Soviet leaders. Gorbachev reversed the precedent of invariably praising the Soviet system when he criticized the inefficient Soviet economy in a speech delivered in St. Petersburg.

Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev during the Geneva Summit in Switzerland (November 1985) White House Photo Office | commons.wikimedia.org
Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev during the Geneva Summit in Switzerland (November 1985) White House Photo Office | commons.wikimedia.org

The following year, in a speech to the Communist Party Congress, he called for a great systemic reform encompassing the principles of political and economic restructuring (perestroika) and the beginning of governmental transparency and openness (glasnost).

Gorbachev proceeded to introduce historic changes to several aspects of the Soviet system. He started by reforming a principal component of the Soviet communist economic policy. He loosened the central government’s control of many industries by allowing farmers and manufacturers to decide for themselves the organization of their production process. This gave them the liberty to determine the type and amount of goods produced and to set the prices for each product. Furthermore, he allowed for the creation of limited cooperative businesses, the first time since 1922 that aspects of free-market capitalism had been instituted in the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev also made reforms in the political sector. At a Party meeting in 1988, he advocated for measures facilitating the implementation of the first democratic elections since the Russian Revolution seventy years earlier. As a result, after elections held just a few months after, the new Congress of People’s Deputies showed great diversity in its ranks. Many liberal reformers, including former dissidents and prisoners, now sat alongside loyal Communist Party members. Empowered by the recent lifting of press restrictions, reporters enjoyed the freedom of attending sessions of the new legislative body and witnessing open debates between the opposing political parties.

However, some of these reforms had unexpected consequences. The agricultural sector started charging more for their products, at prices that most Soviets could not afford. This led to increased government spending to subsidize prices and in turn higher debt. Furthermore, hardliners were quick to claim that Gorbachev was being too radical, while liberal reformers argued that the changes were not far-reaching enough. Opposition to the regime mounted from both sides.

Gorbachev’s attempts to revitalize the sluggish Soviet economy and political system ultimately led to his downfall. Inspired by the newfound freedoms granted by perestroika and glasnost, independence movements started gaining momentum across the USSR. In August 1991, a coup of hardliners associated with the KGB (Soviet secret police force) attempted, but failed, to displace Gorbachev. Just a few months later, however, on December 25, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Michael J. Hurley served as Assistant Information Officer in Moscow from 1987 to 1990, right around the beginning of the implementation of the new perestroika and glasnost policies. He witnessed the societal changes taking place among the Soviet population, especially the shifts in attitude towards the communist regime. Later in his career, Hurley served in the Public Affairs Section in Budapest, Hungary, and as the Public Affairs Officer in Moscow, Russia.

Hurley’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on October 30, 2015.

Read Hurley’s full oral history HERE.

Read about the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev HERE.

Read about the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit HERE.

Drafted by Sophie May

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Excerpts:

“There was a huge change in the attitude of people.”

           
Soviet Union, 1988 (June 1988) Seth Morabito | flickr.com
Soviet Union, 1988 (June 1988) Seth Morabito | flickr.com

Hard-Hitting Questions:
Q: Did you see a difference in the society from your experiences before (pre-Gorbachev era)?

HURLEY: Those were the Gorbachev years, so yes things began to change politically. The years of this openness (glasnost) and rebuilding (perestroika) that Gorbachev promoted to reform communism and give it a more human face. Of course in the end it failed and communism collapsed. But to answer your question there was a huge change in the attitude of people, for instance who came through the exhibit. Because when I was in the Embassy from 1987 to 1990 I was responsible for advancing the exhibits. I was the Embassy’s liaison with the guides. The difference in the questions we observed was enormous. In the 1970s they would try to trap us with questions and in the late 80s it was completely reversed where they were asking leading questions. “Isn’t it true that you can buy fifty different types of blue jeans?” I agreed with them, but tell them also that I don’t need 50 different types of blue jeans (in the 1970s possessing a pair of blue jeans for young Soviet males was the ultimate status symbol—there was a huge black market—one could make a tidy profit, but also attract the attention of the KGB). You had to try to play down their enthusiasm. They had an exaggerated view that everything is so poor and so bad in the Soviet Union that it must be heaven on earth in the United States. Of course it wasn’t and it isn’t.

On the other hand, we used to get all kinds of agitation and propaganda thrown at us in the 70s. “Why do you hate black people? Why are so many people poor in the U.S.? How much money do you make?” These are questions that were legitimate from their point of view, but of course don’t tell the whole picture about the U.S. One difficulty was to try to give some perspective on race in the U.S. and why there is poverty and crime. It was a great experience for me as a young person to debate with people whose questions were political and aimed to embarrass, whereas we argued only from the point of view of seeing things the way we actually saw them. Arguing with those who don’t care about facts, only winning, as we do in our current Presidential sweepstakes, certainly improved my Russian. OK, that was the 70s.

“Isn’t it true that you can buy fifty different types of blue jeans?”

           
(February 2017) NIKON D5100 | pxhere.com
(February 2017) NIKON D5100 | pxhere.com

The Thing about Jeans and the Soviets:
Q: You mentioned blue jeans. Almost everybody who talks about the Soviet Union and Russia talks about blue jeans. It is just a pair of pants.

HURLEY: Yeah, for us it is a practical thing. The old blue jeans when I go out and rake leaves or my newer blue jeans when I go over to my neighbor’s to have a drink. But I don’t have a closet full of them. It was one of those commodities they couldn’t get—they weren’t in the five year plan. It was fashionable and it caught on, and it was a very valuable commodity at the time. The other thing was Playboy magazines. They just didn’t have anything like that, the sort of soft porn of Playboy magazine. So if you had Playboy magazines and some bibles and blue jeans you were in big business. They even had a word for the trader who had these goods. They called them fartsovshchik. But woe unto that person whether foreigner or not who got caught. It was not a wise thing to be out trading and trying to profit from these things they didn’t have. Some people did and some people got caught.

“ It was by then hard to find a true believer.”

The Collapse of Communism: By the late 1980s people were just most weary of the whole communist shtick. It was by then hard to find a true believer, because people realized that what they talked about and the application of Leninist theory brought them nothing, and they were tired of it. Information began to travel faster and faster in those times and people could see on their televisions, they could see western movies, that people lived pretty well elsewhere. So the material differences bothered them because Russians are huge materialists. They like things, fancy things.

“Why are we afraid of these people?”

The Start of Something New: Yeltsin was on the march and big unpredictable changes were coming. We didn’t know which way it would go. We didn’t know that it would all come down. People began to be surprised by how flimsy the foundation was. They always thought that communism, space travel and all of this stuff equaled power. Being there and seeing it up close, I sometimes thought: what is this based on? People are drunk all the time, and they have nothing to buy. They are jolly people—they love to sing and dance and read poetry, but also so dour. Why are we afraid of these people? I don’t think there were more than two or three U.S. analysts who imagined it would all collapse. If anybody says they did anticipate the collapse, they are probably full of it. Just this massive whoosh, and practically everything disappears. And then it wasn’t violent. There was a little bit of violence but it wasn’t massive head beating revolutions. I saw some of the first demonstrations in 1990 with 100,000 people in the streets of Moscow. What is going on here? Big changes were coming.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
Seattle University 1968–1969
Western Washington State College 1969–1971
University of Washington, Seattle 1971–1973
MA in Soviet Studies, George Washington University 1975–1978
Joined the Foreign Service 1985
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—Political and Economic Rotation 1986–1987
Moscow, Russia—Assistant Information Officer 1987–1990
Budapest, Hungry—Public Affairs 2006–2009
Moscow, Russia—Public Affairs Officer 2009–2012