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Transparency, dissent and the Soviet Union’s downfall

| Thursday, January 19, 2023

The collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the world’s most seismic events towards the end of the twentieth century. Many political analysts have provided a plethora of hypotheses as to why the USSR collapsed the way it did, and the different ways it could have either been avoided or mistakes that precipitated its dissolution. After 70 years of totalitarian government, it is important to explore how small shifts toward transparency and democracy blasted through the foundations of the old Soviet regime. 

Glasnost, Russian for transparency had the explicit purpose of introducing openness and accountability into Soviet society by encouraging frank and open discussion of the issues of the past and present. The iron grip the Soviet government had retained over the narrative it fed its citizens was an indispensable part when it came to ensuring the stability, legitimacy and survival of the Communist Party’s rule. With absolute control over what the population knew, the government was able to preserve a narrative that suited its interests. Even if said narrative came to lose most of its shine following decades of unfulfilled promises and never-ending letdowns, the lack of alternatives was still an important tool for the Soviet government to continue its control. If voices that countered the official line were allowed to emerge, and frank discussion came to upend the alternate reality presented by Soviet propaganda, the very legitimacy of the system came into play. Uncovering the truth and allowing for it to be discussed in the open was a terrible blow to Soviet legitimacy, as the regime was built on covered-up economic failures and the lives of millions of citizens that died at the hands of political persecution instigated by those at the very top of the political food chain. Glasnost was intended by Gorbachev’s government as a means for the citizenry to provide their authorities with constructive criticism, but only from a communist perspective. Instead, Glasnost unleashed a check on the USSR’s power that precipitated the Union’s dissolution in 1991, as losing control of the narrative emboldened people to organize themselves against a state they no longer believed in. 

In terms of democratic participation, the Soviet political system was designed to operate cohesively and without any room for dissent. The Communist Party, as the Union’s sole existing political party, was supposed to retain a guiding role for the rest of the country and serve as the vanguard of the Revolution and Soviet people. There was little room for dissent within the official Party structure, as once decisions had been made by those at the top, everyone at the bottom was supposed to abide by their instructions. The very essence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was anti-democratic. The attempt to democratize the Party was an utter failure, as a party that claims to be Marxist-Leninist cannot be democratic by definition. The introduction of multi-candidate competitive elections allowed the Soviet population to choose between different political directions and platforms. The election of independent candidates, including future president Boris Yeltsin, to the newly established Congress of People’s Deputies, provided the opportunity for dissenting voices to make their case to the people as to why the Soviet Union should remove the Party’s grip on power once and for all. Gorbachev’s push to open up the Party structure to the popular will was intended to mobilize the general public. However, Gorbachev could not square establishing an open, democratic society while retaining the Party as the guiding force that led the way for the rest of the Soviet Union. Opening up the country to dissent under the expectation dissenting voices would continue to submit to the Party’s ultimate authority was unrealistic, and Demokratizatsiya allowed independent voices to further their clamor for further freedoms. Democratization further decentralized power within the USSR, and allowed for autonomous reformist leaders to emerge, clearing the way for those that would come to lead the different Soviet republics upon dissolution at the end of 1991. 

Although the Soviet Union collapsed well over thirty years ago, every December the news cycle is flooded with articles and pieces that once again pick apart the way history went down to bring about the fall of the Iron Curtain. This winter break, I could not help but go down the same rabbit hole I fall into every year around Christmas time, and once again gloss over what I think is a very interesting part of global history. As these events were crucial in developing the state of the world today, one cannot help but revisit the importance of the two elements that intended to bring democracy and hope to tens of millions of people living on the other side of a totalitarian iron curtain.

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes and karaoke. You can reach him at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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