Few people in the 1960s and '70s were bold enough to forecast the demise of the Soviet Union. Moscow, it was generally believed, still posed a formidable security threat and a major ideological challenge to the West. There were no indications that the Kremlin was about to loosen its hold on power, either in the Soviet Union or in East Central Europe, even though there was some evidence of systemic weakness and long-term relative decline. The emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) raised hopes in some quarters that the decline could be reversed. Indeed Gorbachev showed that a new leader could make a significant difference, but not in ways that could have been predicted. In fact, the reform process initiated by Gorbachev developed its own anti-system dynamic and defied the best attempts of the Kremlin to re-assert its control.
The Soviet Union had not one but several Achilles' heels, the economy, the environment, and nationalities policy being among the most conspicuous. Arguably, the decades-long policy of Sovietization was the Soviet Union's greatest failure. As soon as Gorbachev loosened the controls the various Soviet nationalities began to reassert themselves amid calls for self-determination and the restoration of sovereignty. Although there was undoubtedly a connection between Gorbachev's assumption of power and the increased visibility of national movements, it would, nevertheless, be a mistake to over-emphasise the discontinuity of the mid-1980s. After all, a formidable dissenting movement had existed in the Lithuanian republic for two decades. What the world saw was a small group of active dissenters who were prepared to sacrifice themselves for their varied causes. For them imprisonment, consignment to psychiatric hospitals and loss of career were to be expected. What it did not generally see was that the active dissenters were the tip of the iceberg, enjoying the covert, and occasionally the open, support of large sections of the population. Gorbachev did not
LITHUANIA: STEPPING WESTWARD