the mid-1980s the internal pressures connected with the domestic
economic situation and the limitations of the extensive economic
development made the appearance of a bold reformer almost
inevitable. Internal problems apart, there were important external
factors that compelled the Soviet leadership to embark on a reform
course. By the 1980s, as a result of the Soviet Union’s dubious
efforts to sponsor a “world revolutionary process” in Africa, Asia,
and Latin America and the consequent deterioration of the climate of
détente, the country had found itself in international isolation.
The NATO bloc countries in the West and Japan and China in the East
were now united in their hostility to the USSR.
rise to power of strong-willed and deeply anti-communist Western
leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979, Ronald Reagan
in the United States in 1981, and Helmut Kohl in West Germany in
1982, only served to amplify tensions in the relations between the
USSR and the West. The Western leaders were committed to defeating
the Soviet Union both in the economic contest and in the arms race.
The military-industrial competition between the USSR and the West
intensified at a time when advanced capitalist countries had been
able to overcome the economic problems of the 1970s and their
economies revived. Under these circumstances, Soviet ideologues
found it more and more problematic to prove to their population the
virtues and superiority of socialism.
President Ronald Reagan, in particular, took a strongly
anti-Communist stance and even publicly denigrated the USSR, dubbing
it “the evil empire.” Convinced in the righteousness of his
anti-Communist crusade, he inaugurated the largest peacetime
military buildup in American history. In 1983 he proposed a program
emphasizing the construction of a U.S. strategic defense system in
space known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. The SDI,
immediately dubbed “Star Wars,” was intended to defend the United
States from attack from Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles
by intercepting and destroying them in flight. Such an interception
would require extremely advanced technological systems, which were
yet to be researched and developed. There were serious doubts among
Western arms experts about the technical feasibility of constructing
a comprehensive defensive system of this kind, and some thought the
project was unworkable. Its cost was prohibitive even by the
standards of the powerful American economy.
Soviet leadership, however, appeared to be too unnerved by the news
of the American intentions to be able to muster courage and call
Reagan’s bluff. It was seriously concerned that the national economy
might not be able to sustain the new spiral of the arms race and
that the West would obtain a technological edge in the military
field. The SDI presented a powerful military-technological
challenge, posing a real threat to the USSR’s superpower status.
Whether the danger was real or imagined, the SDI became an important
factor that compelled Soviet rulers to contemplate reforms aimed at
retaining the country’s international standing.