Failure of reform and the decline of the Communist state

Following the death of Stalin, several attempts were made to reform parts of the Soviet State. Khruschev instigated a DeStalinisation programme. There were attempts to open up opportunities for some private .Opportunities to discuss and debate political issues were introduced. Systems of running the economy and state on a National and Local level were reformed. These addressed issues that had been identified by the senior party leaders and some that had led to dissent. The reforms often met with opposition. Implementation was slow. Dissenting voices continued to be heard. Later, policies such as Perestroika and Glasnost were introduced as reforms. These were the final major policy changes of the USSR.

USSR - Failure of Reform


Reform was attempted in the Soviet Union in two periods of time. Firstly, under Khruschev. Secondly, under Gorbachev. Both introduced policies that enabled more openness. There was an opportunity to discuss political issues in public. Elements of Capitalism were permitted. The media had the level of restriction it worked under reduced. On both occasions, the reforms failed.


Khruschev introduced reforms that made the media more able to express itself. New Television shows were allowed. Books were allowed by some foreign authors. An openness policy saw the first publication of a book that made mention of the conditions within a gulag: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Social liberalisation of this kind led to more expressionism. This in turn led to the government finding the works inappropriate and taking action against some of the artists and writers. The policy was inconsistent, it promoted debate and expression but then challenged some of those who did so.

Economic Reform

Economic reform under Khruschev met lots of opposition. He wanted to reduce the power of the hard-liners, sympathetic to Stalinism. To do this he replaced some of the central planning bodies in Moscow with regional ones. Some 107 Sovnarkhozes (Regional Economic Councils) were set up. At the same time the central ministries were closed down. The Sovnarkhozes were answerable to the Supreme Soviet of the Economy. However they lacked support from senior figures and lacked the expertise in administration that the Moscow offices had built up. The number of Sovnarkhozes had to be reduced to 47.

Khruschev also reformed the way in which the USSR interacted with the rest of the world. The USSR entered into cultural exchanges, including the hosting of US Exhibitions. The arrival, in 1959, of the American National Exhibition in Moscow was the beginning of some 30 years of the Soviet public being able to see, first hand, what was available in the western world. It was accompanied by Soviet moves to incorporate elements of consumerism into the economy.

Social Reform under Khruschev

Housing was also an area in which Khruschev introduced major reforms. The Seven Year Plan of 1958 included a target of 12 million new apartment blocks in Soviet Cities. The apartments and 7 million homes in rural areas were designed to reinvigorate family values. They all featured kitchens. This may seem obvious to westerners but it was a matter of great ideological significance and dispute in the Soviet Union. This housing programme saw a migration on a scale not seen before. It marked the end of the peasantry in the USSR. This had a major impact on life for many in the Soviet Union.

Khruschev’s reforms came to a halt when he was ousted from office. The reforms that he had introduced had sparked fierce debates and some discontent. Attempts to create an element of openness led to dissent. Reaction to this led to disdain.

Gorbachev: Glasnost and Perestroika

Twenty years later Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reform the Soviet Union. He too advocated openness (Glasnost) and restructured (Perestroika). Again, openness led to suspicion at first and then dissent. As with Khruschev’s regime, the leadership was challenged at home and abroad. Gorbachev’s reforms included ending the single party state, allowing non Communist candidates, encouraging some Capitalism in the economy. He also looked to have a more peaceful relationship with the West. These reforms led to the authority of the Soviet Union being challenged, firstly in Lithuania. In 1989 the dominance of the USSR over the Eastern Bloc was challenged in a series of popular protests against the system. This was most famously seen in Berlin where the crowd tore down the Berlin Wall.

Shortly afterward, hastened by the reforms, the Communist State of the USSR came to an end.

Further Reading



Russian and Soviet HistoryRussian History Homepage
Russia before the First World WarOpposition to Tsarist RuleImpact of the First World War
1917: Abdication of Tsar Nicholas IIBolshevik RevolutionLenin and the Bolshevik Revolution
Leon TrotskyBolshevik Rule 1918-1924Russian Civil War
New Economic PolicyLenin's LegacyDevelopment of Communist Rule
Life in the Soviet UnionFailure of Reform and Decline of the Communist StateStalinism
Collectivisation of Soviet AgricultureWomen in the USSRDe-Stalinisation
Khruschev's Reform ProgrammeDecline of the Soviet UnionCollapse of the Soviet Union