Literal meaning publicity
In the Russian language the word glasnost (Russian: гла́сность, [ˈɡlasnəsʲtʲ]) has several general and specific meanings. Its meaning "publicity" in the sense "the state of being open to public knowledge" has been used in Russian at least since the end of the 18th century. In the Russian Empire of the later 19th century the latter meaning was particularly associated with reforms of the judicial system, ensuring that the press and the public could attend court hearings and that the sentence was also read out in public. It was made popular in the 1980s by Mikhail Gorbachev as a slogan for increased government transparency.
Glasnost, explained Soviet human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, is a word that "had been in the Russian language for centuries. It was in the dictionaries and lawbooks as long as there had been dictionaries and lawbooks. It was an ordinary, hardworking, nondescript word that was used to refer to a process, any process of justice or governance, being conducted in the open."
In 1986 the term was used by Mikhail Gorbachev as a political slogan for increased openness and transparency in government institutions and activities in the Soviet Union. Critics aware of the term's recent history regarded the Soviet authorities' new slogan as a vague and limited alternative to more basic liberties; According to Alexei Simonov of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, "Glasnost is a tortoise crawling towards freedom of speech".
In the six years when the USSR attempted to reform itself glasnost was often linked with the similarly vague slogans of perestroika (literally: restructuring or regrouping) and Demokratizatsiya (democratization). Glasnost was frequently invoked by Gorbachev in connection with policies aimed at reducing corruption at the top of the Communist Party and the Soviet government and moderating the abuse of administrative power in the Central Committee.
Glasnost can also be used to define the brief and distinctive period from 1986 to 1991 at the end of which the USSR came to an end. It was a time of decreasing pre-publication and pre-broadcast censorship and greater freedom of information, but censorship or the central control of information by the government and the Party remained a fundamental element of the Soviet system until the very end.
Glasnost in Russia since 1991
The outright prohibition of censorship was enshrined in Article 29 of the new 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation. This did not end attempts by officials to restrict access to information in post-Soviet Russia or pressure by the authorities on media outlets not to publicise or discuss certain events or subjects. Monitoring of the infringement of media rights in the years from 2004 to 2013 would find that instances of censorship were the most commonly reported type of violation (see "Russia - Conflicts in the Media" website and database).
There were also periodic concerns about the extent of glasnost in court proceedings, as restrictions were placed on access to certain cases for the media and for the public.
The evolution and limits of Gorbachevian glasnost
Gorbachev's policy interpretation of "glasnost" can best be summarized, translated, and explained in English with one word: "openness". While "glasnost" is associated with freedom of speech, the main goal of this policy was to make the country's management transparent and open to debate, thus circumventing the narrow circle of apparatchiks who previously exercised complete control of the economy. This was worked toward through reviewing the past or by opening up the censored literature in the libraries and exercising a greater freedom of speech. Glasnost was a radical change, as control of speech and suppression of government criticism had previously been a central part of the Soviet system. There was also a greater degree of freedom within the media.
In the late 1980s, the Soviet government came under increased criticism, as did Leninist ideology (which Gorbachev had attempted to preserve as the foundation for reform), and members of the Soviet population were more outspoken in their view that the Soviet government had become a failure. Glasnost did indeed provide freedom of expression, far beyond what Gorbachev had intended, and changed citizens' views towards the government, which played a key role in the demise of the Soviet Union.
Under glasnost, the Soviet media began to expose numerous social and economic problems in the Soviet Union which the Soviet government had long denied and covered up. These included poor housing, food shortages, alcoholism, widespread pollution, creeping mortality rates, the second-rate position of women, as well as the history of state crimes against the population. Although Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's personality cult, information about the true proportions of his atrocities was still suppressed. These revelations had a devastating effect on those who believed in state communism and who had never been exposed to this information, as the driving vision of society was built on a foundation of falsehood and crimes against humanity.
In addition, information about the higher quality of life in the United States and Western Europe began to be exposed to the Soviets, along with western popular culture, which Soviet publishers did not consider worth promoting.
Calls for greater autonomy and independence
Political openness continued to produce unintended consequences. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union's constituent republics, nationalists swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR's central Moscow government to impose its will on the USSR's constituent republics had been largely undermined. During the 1980s, calls for greater independence from Moscow's rule grew louder. This was especially marked in the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist sentiment also took hold in other Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Starting in the mid-1980s, the Baltic states used the reforms provided by glasnost to assert their rights to protect their environment (for example during the Phosphorite War) and their historic monuments and, later, their claims to sovereignty and independence. By withstanding these outside threats, the Balts exposed an irresolute Kremlin, bolstering separatism in other Soviet republics. This was followed by multiple challenges to the Soviet Union. Supported by Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, the Baltic republics asserted their sovereignty in 1991.
The rise of nationalism under glasnost also reawakened simmering ethnic tensions throughout the union. For example, in February 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in Azerbaijan passed a resolution calling for unification with Armenia, which sparked the Nagorno-Karabakh War.
Contacts with the outside world
Glasnost enabled greater contact between Soviet citizens and the Western world, particularly with the United States. Restrictions on travel were loosened, allowing increased business and cultural contact. One significant center for such citizen diplomacy in the USA was provided by American philanthropist Henry Dakin, with his extensive Soviet contacts:
During the late 1980s, as glasnost and perestroika led to the liquidation of the Soviet empire, the Dakin building was the location for a series of groups facilitating United States-Russian contacts. They included the Center for US-USSR Initiatives, which helped more than 1,000 Americans visit the Soviet Union and more than 100 then-Soviet citizens visit the US.
Aims and results of Gorbachev's glasnost
Gorbachev's original goal of using glasnost and perestroika to reform the Soviet Union while maintaining control by the Communist Party was not achieved. The policy allowed Soviet citizens to speak out and criticize the Communist Party and the Soviet system itself. It also inadvertently released long-suppressed national sentiments in the republic states that wanted to assert their independence; undermining the authority of the Soviet central-government. Both policies exposed the extremely weak Soviet Economic system when the discipline of the Communist Party was removed. In December 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved months after the August failed coup by conservative elements who were alarmed by the forces unleashed by Gorbachev's reforms.