Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost

Mikhail Gorbachev changed the traditional position of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which had long discouraged open discussion and disregarded human rights, when he launched the policy of glasnost.

Summary of Event

After the announcement on March 11, 1985, of the death of General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko Chernenko, Konstantin on the previous day, Mikhail Gorbachev at the age of fifty-four became the youngest leader of the Soviet Union since Joseph Stalin. It was revealed by top Communist Party officials that Gorbachev had provided leadership for the Politburo and the Secretariat during Chernenko’s final days. The Soviet Union was in the midst of a severe economic crisis in which the very legitimacy of the government was questioned. Every Soviet leader since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution had promised radical social changes and restructuring to resolve problems. Gorbachev believed that immediate social reforms, including a policy of glasnost (openness), were necessary to revitalize the economy and to prevent the further economic and political decline of the Soviet Union and a resulting loss of global power. Under Gorbachev’s leadership, the Soviet government became increasingly aware that the nation’s serious economic problems could be remedied only through extensive political reforms and democratization. Glasnost
Soviet Union;glasnost
[kw]Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost (Mar. 11, 1985)
[kw]Policy of Glasnost, Gorbachev Initiates a (Mar. 11, 1985)
[kw]Glasnost, Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of (Mar. 11, 1985)
Soviet Union;glasnost
[g]Europe;Mar. 11, 1985: Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost[05700]
[g]Soviet Union;Mar. 11, 1985: Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost[05700]
[g]Russia;Mar. 11, 1985: Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost[05700]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 11, 1985: Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost[05700]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 11, 1985: Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost[05700]
[c]Human rights;Mar. 11, 1985: Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost[05700]
Gorbachev, Mikhail
[p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;glasnost
Stalin, Joseph
Khrushchev, Nikita S.
Brezhnev, Leonid
[p]Brezhnev, Leonid;human rights
Ligachev, Yegor
Yeltsin, Boris

The word “glasnost” was derived from the Russian adjective glasnyi, meaning “public disclosure.” In April, 1985, Gorbachev began to use the term “glasnost” to mean full public disclosure of significant national issues concurrent with exposure and critical evaluation of government performance, including weaknesses. The concept of glasnost was considered a necessary component of democratization in the Soviet Union, as it encouraged public awareness, debate, and discussion and an informed and intelligent citizen body. In 1988, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda expressed the meaning of glasnost to include freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and open comparison of ideas; the making available to citizens of any information they needed to participate in the discussion and solution of state life; openness and accessibility of all organs of power to citizens; opportunities for citizens to make suggestions to the government; consideration of public opinion in the making of decisions; and the publication of adopted decisions.

Glasnost and political reforms in Soviet society were prompted by the shrewd, energetic, and innovative leadership of Gorbachev and by major transitions in various economic, cultural, and demographic conditions. In contrast to the passive political culture of the primarily rural peasant society of Stalin’s period, the Soviet Union witnessed in the 1980’s the growth of an outspoken, intelligent, professional urban middle class. After the expansion of telecommunications to a national audience, the Soviet people demanded full disclosure of significant policy decisions and major national disasters (the Chernobyl nuclear accident, for example).

Gorbachev’s adoption of glasnost was influenced primarily by the stagnant Soviet economy. Gorbachev thought of glasnost as the catalyst for necessary economic changes and perestroika Perestroika (restructuring) for a society that had experienced only 2 percent economic growth across the 1980’s. Gorbachev’s open articulation of the problems of the Soviet system and the critical need for glasnost, social reforms, and an extended sphere of legitimate private activity, freedom, and human rights was an ironic affirmation of what had been expressed in the past three decades by numerous human rights activists and Soviet dissidents.

Gorbachev’s policies of social reform, human rights, and glasnost were launched in a society that had a history of deep-rooted hostility toward openness and the protection of human rights. The concepts of individualism and inalienable rights were not part of the traditional Soviet political vocabulary. In the decades prior to Gorbachev’s leadership, the traditional position of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (most notably expressed in the 1977 Soviet constitution) lacked an understanding of natural or human rights and instead emphasized the obligations that citizens owe to the state. The Soviet government often did not comprehend Western allegations of human rights violations in the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Under Joseph Stalin’s leadership, Soviet citizens had been confronted by the arbitrary imposition of terror and the denial of basic human rights by a totalitarian government. Stalin justified coerced collectivization and pervasive human rights abuses as necessary to the economic transformation of the Soviet Union. Nikita S. Khrushchev’s leadership in the period 1953-1964 and somewhat unsystematic social reforms served as the most immediate historical precedents for Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. The major components of Khrushchev’s social initiative included sharp criticism of Stalin’s flagrant violations of human rights, a reduction in abusive state authority, and a gradual improvement in respect for basic human rights.

Many of the gains made in the protection of human rights under Khrushchev, however, were reversed under Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership from 1964 to 1982. Brezhnev justified the restriction of political and religious activities, particularly those of dissidents, as the necessary promotion of state and Communist Party interests over individual rights. The climax for the reversal of reforms occurred upon the expulsion of the novelist and political dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr from the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1969 and his arrest and loss of citizenship in February, 1974. Brezhnev’s foreign policies did provide some hope for human rights activists, however, because of an accelerated emigration of Soviet Jews and the Soviet government’s promised compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Helsinki Accords (1975)

In the period prior to Gorbachev’s promotion of glasnost, the Soviet government used a variety of strategies to harass the members of social reform and human rights activist groups and to impede their free assembly, association, and speech. Political, religious, and ethnic dissidents were subjected to political trials, accused of anti-Soviet agitation, malicious hooliganism, and treason; they were sentenced to internal exile, to prison terms, or to incarceration in psychiatric hospitals, or even deported from the Soviet Union. Prisoners of conscience confronted restricted religious freedom (even simple prayer was considered a serious break with prison regulations), extreme isolation, and severed communication ties with their families.

The Soviet government for several decades prior to Gorbachev’s leadership was committed to a policy of harassment and imprisonment of religious rights activists. The persecuted included Jews, members of the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholics, Muslims, and Baptists. Members of such religious groups were often arrested for innocent spiritual activities, including participation in congregational services during religious holidays and the publication and distribution of religious literature. In particular, Jewish dissidents and “refuseniks” (Jews who had been denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union) who persisted in the teaching of Jewish religious values and the Hebrew language were often accused of anti-Soviet slander and Zionism and sentenced to hard labor. Jews;refuseniks

As early as the April 23, 1985, meeting of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, Gorbachev began to use an elementary understanding of glasnost as a political strategy that identified particular issues to be addressed, encouraged citizen support of the government, and provided critical oversight of the state bureaucracy. In an ironic development, the future leader of the Communist Party’s conservative opposition to Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, Secretary Yegor Ligachev, was promoted to full Politburo membership by Gorbachev at the April meeting. The development of Gorbachev’s interpretation and application of the concept of glasnost evolved through various major policy statements expressed in the Soviet Communist Party program printed in October, 1985; the report presented by Gorbachev to the Twenty-seventh Communist Party Congress in February, 1986; Gorbachev’s 1987 book Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World; Perestroika (Gorbachev) and his historic speech delivered to the Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the Communist Party on July 1, 1988.

A fundamental objective of glasnost was the exposure of the Soviet bureaucracy’s natural tendency toward corruption, mismanagement, and lack of innovation. On July 11, 1986, the Soviet military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda openly criticized several Uzbekistan Communist Party officials who had protected their sons from military combat in Afghanistan. Instead of relying on the Communist Party to promote public disclosure and discussion, Gorbachev articulated the critical need for the continuous support of the Soviet people and their demands for open dialogue. Throughout 1985, 1986, and 1987, Gorbachev sponsored open public debates in workplaces and communities in an effort to inquire about grievances of the Soviet population and to promote democratization in the Soviet Union through the expansion of the channels of citizen access to government.

Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost greatly reduced state censorship of literary works and increased the flow of information. Under the policy, the mass media were permitted to discuss, openly and critically, controversial problems in the Soviet Union, including alcohol and drug abuse, crime, shortages of housing and consumer goods, unemployment, prostitution, and national accidents. The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant Chernobyl nuclear accident (1986) in April, 1986, was a landmark in the development of Gorbachev’s implementation of glasnost, because Western analysts criticized the Soviet government for not promptly alerting the Soviet people or global leaders about the nuclear disaster. After the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet leadership became prompt in reporting information on a variety of major accidents throughout 1986, including the sinking of the passenger ship Admiral Nakhimov
Admiral Nakhimov (ship) on August 31, 1986, and the sinking of a Soviet nuclear submarine off the coast of New York on October 3, 1986.

Previously censored novels by Boris Pasternak and Anatoly Rybakov were finally published in the Soviet Union in 1987. After being banned for decades for alleged anti-Soviet biases, Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev’s poems and Vladimir Nabokov’s novels were printed in 1987. The proreligious film Repentance, which was very critical of Stalin’s implementation of terror, had its premiere in Moscow in January, 1987. In addition, former political prisoners and dissidents were allowed to publish an autonomous journal of political commentary on the Soviet Union titled Glasnost, and the previously jammed radio broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation and Voice of America were finally approved for transmission to the Soviet audience.


A variety of complex domestic and global consequences resulted from Gorbachev’s initiation of the policy of glasnost. The most significant and successful changes developed in the area of human rights, and not necessarily in the promotion of perestroika. Under Gorbachev’s leadership, glasnost gradually expanded in scope, intensity, and purpose to include a transformation of social relations, the recognition and respect of basic human rights and freedoms, and “rethinking” in Soviet foreign policy. Gorbachev’s call in 1986 for a genuine revolution in the minds and hearts of people stimulated the proliferation of voluntary associations (an estimated thirty thousand in 1986) and the emergence of a pluralistic society in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet government openly reported a series of dramatic events that promoted glasnost, social reform, and human rights throughout 1986. On February 11, 1986, human rights dissident Anatoly Shcharansky Shcharansky, Anatoly was given his freedom and permitted to emigrate to Israel after nine years of imprisonment. In May, 1986, many Georgian Muslims who had been exiled from Georgia and stripped of their basic civil rights by Stalin in 1944 were granted permission to return to their homeland. In July, 1986, the Soviet Human Rights Commission Soviet Human Rights Commission was instituted to analyze humanitarian problems and educate Soviet citizens about their human rights. On November 5, 1986, Gorbachev articulated a much more liberal and efficient emigration policy designed to promote a greater sensitivity to the reunification of family members and the personal needs of individuals.

The most striking release of a political prisoner occurred on December 16, 1986, when Gorbachev personally telephoned Andrei Sakharov Sakharov, Andrei nuclear physicist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and articulate human rights activist to inform him that his seven-year exile in Gorky was over and to request that Sakharov continue his patriotic work in Moscow. Gorbachev’s direct authorization of Sakharov’s freedom and open acknowledgment of the Soviet government’s previous unethical treatment of the human rights activist was a novel act for a Soviet leader. Several hundred other human rights activists and dissidents were also soon released.

Gorbachev expressed his recognition that the historical window of opportunity remained open to implement glasnost and comprehensive social reforms, including the protection of human rights, at the January and June, 1987, meetings of the Central Committee. At those meetings, Gorbachev articulated that citizens had the right to evaluate critically and openly the performance of the Soviet leadership in resolving problems. The creation in the spring of 1988 of the All-Union Center for the Study of Public Opinion All-Union Center for the Study of Public Opinion[All Union Center for the Study] was another indication of the Soviet government’s efforts at glasnost and democratization.

Rising democratic and free market expectations were often unfulfilled, however, and open frustrations were expressed by the Soviet people and some of the more outspoken, radical leadership. Boris Yeltsin, the first freely elected president of the Russian Republic, demanded immediate comprehensive democratic reforms, including the establishment of extensive popular elections, independence for the Soviet republics, and the implementation of market-economy principles. Several Soviet liberals, including the former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Shevardnadze, Eduard created the Democratic Reform Movement Democratic Reform Movement (Soviet Union) in July, 1991, to save glasnost and perestroika and to accelerate democratic processes.

Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost entailed multiple risks to his leadership. He faced explosive ethnic uprisings, demands by several republics for independence, and a backlash by the bureaucracy, conservative party members, and the military. On August 19, 1991, a coup was initiated by hard-line Communist leaders of the interior and defense ministries and the KGB. By August 21, 1991, the coup had collapsed, and Gorbachev reclaimed his constitutional authority, but only temporarily. Revolutions and coups;Soviet Union Facing new opposition from Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991, after which Yeltsin presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

With the passage of time, it is possible to see Gorbachev’s policy as having undercut his own legitimacy as well as that of the Soviet Communist Party. Moreover, Gorbachev’s inability to make substantial progress on perestroika accentuated his dilemma and paved the way for his own political demise and for the collapse of Communism in his own country and throughout Eastern Europe. It is interesting to note that the one major remaining Communist power, China, drew lessons from the Soviet Union’s experience, choosing to pursue its own version of perestroika while delaying glasnost. This evoked the ongoing ire of human rights advocates but revolutionalized and liberalized the Chinese economy, which boomed in the early twenty-first century. Glasnost
Soviet Union;glasnost

Further Reading

  • Copeland, Emily A. “Perestroika and Human Rights: Steps in the Right Direction.” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 15 (Summer, 1991): 101-119. Scholarly article provides a critical examination of the historical development of Soviet human rights policy. Useful for its informative discussion of the relation between ideological factors and social reform in the Soviet Union and for its critical analysis of Soviet foreign policy.
  • Doder, Dusko, and Louise Branson. Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. Offers a detailed historical account of the intellectual and political context that shaped Gorbachev’s articulation of the policies of social reform, glasnost, perestroika, and “new thinking” in foreign policy. Provides especially interesting analysis of the role of the intelligentsia and glasnost and the complexities of Soviet politics. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Gibbs, Joseph. Gorbachev’s Glasnost: The Soviet Media in the First Phase of Perestroika. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999. Traces the shift in theory and policy of glasnost over the years and examines how Gorbachev used the policy of glasnost for his political agenda. Notes that as Gorbachev broadened the power of glasnost, the media’s power simultaneously increased.
  • Gorbachev, Mikhail. Gorbachev: On My Country and the World. Translated by George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. The former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union reflects on the Soviet experiment from the October Revolution to the Cold War. Discusses leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Boris Yeltsin and examines the twenty-first century challenges facing Russia and the world.
  • _______. Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. Updated ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1991. Philosophical and historical work articulates in detail Gorbachev’s theoretical blueprint for comprehensive changes through the policies of glasnost, perestroika, democratization, and “new political thinking.” Provides insight into Gorbachev’s critical assessment of the political and ideological causes of the fundamental problems confronting the Soviet Union.
  • Nove, Alec. Glasnost in Action: Cultural Renaissance in Russia. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. Scholarly work focuses on the historical context that preceded Gorbachev’s initiation of the policy of glasnost and the significant cultural aspects of glasnost. In particular, the chapters on religion, morality, literature, and the media provide detailed substantive information on the implementation of glasnost. Appendix contains a useful guide to Soviet publications.
  • Sheehy, Gail. The Man Who Changed the World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. Political-biographical study of Gorbachev uses numerous interviews of individuals associated with the Soviet leader to develop an analysis of his political behavior. Includes bibliography and index.
  • White, Stephen. Gorbachev in Power. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Offers a highly scholarly, sophisticated, and comprehensive critical analysis of the first five years of Gorbachev’s political leadership. Examines in detail the social, political, and economic context of Gorbachev’s leadership and promotion of social reforms. Includes bibliographic references and index.

Détente with the Soviet Union

U.S.-Soviet Summit

Soviet Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Undergoes Meltdown

Soviet Farmers Gain Control of Land and Crop Selection

Soviet Parliament Allows Private Ownership

Lithuania Declares Independence from the Soviet Union

Dissolution of the Soviet Union