by James Graham
During an interview in 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev is quoted as saying "I detest lies" (1.). It was this yearning for the truth that lead him to introduce the policy of glasnost literally openness in English. The liberal press exploited this leeway and continuously challenged its boundaries.
Whole periods of recorded Soviet history were changed by glasnost. Stalin, Brezhnev and Cherenko previously great leaders were unmasked as the brutal oppressive murders they really were. Only Lenin remained sacrosanct. Most telling of all, the school history exams for 1988 were cancelled. So much conventional wisdom was overturned in the preceding months that the existing Soviet history books had become useless. This change was not totally accepted by radicals or hardliners. The radicals wished to go further, faster and were exemplified in such illegal publications as Glasnost. Hardliners tried to retain their grip on people's minds by frequent attacks on the radicals in the conservative press. Prada the flagship Communist Party newspaper thundered "that extremists and nationalists were hiding their true face behind a mask of commitment to perestroika (2.). While glasnost did allow discussion to take place it is clear from the exert that controls were placed on the discussion. The arrest and harassment of the more radical papers staff and the removal of material from libraries still ensured the attacks found the right targets. The early years of glasnost and thus the early years of freedom of speech in the USSR are described and analysed in the exert.
The critical re-examination of history glasnost fostered was unprecedented in the USSR and affected every chapter of the country's history. Khrushchev had previously criticised Stalin however he only let out partial truths to help his own career. The difference this time was that a liberal press had been allowed to grow and flourish within the USSR. Ogonyuk a popular current affairs magazine had a circulation of three million by 1990. It was in newspapers, television shows and magazines like Ogonyuk that the USSR's past was examined and the real truth revealed to the Soviet people. The liberal press did not take long to turn its attention to the slowness in reform of the Soviet system.
Glasnost had broken free from its masters by 1989 and began to be used to criticise its creator Gorbachev. Anything was now fair game. The abolition of the Communist Party's leading role, the failure of perestroika and multi party democracy were openly discussed in the Soviet media. These ideas were undreamt of even a couple of years earlier. The turning point for glasnost was the Chernobyl nuclear diaster in 1986. Soviet authorities initially tried to cover up the catastrophe and remained silent for 48 hours. The silence was followed by complete honesty and unparallel information of the like that had never been seen in the USSR before. After Chernobyl environmental concerns became a favourite topic of the liberal press. The turning of Central Asia into a desert by diverting rivers to irrigate cotton plantations were just one example that shocked the nation. The people could not believe the incompetence of their Communist Party planners. As the truth came out piece by piece the Soviet people became more and more angry at their Communist rulers.
Glasnost allowed for the first time the facts to be presented. The Soviet people soon realised why so much had been kept from them for so long. The USSR was in a mess but for the first time the people knew the truth and were demanding answers.
(1.) Time Magazine 4 June 1990 page 19
(2.) Goodbye to the USSR page 101