In 1985 the newly elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev launched a policy of perestroika aiming to revitalize Soviet political, economic, and social life following the 'stagnation' of his predecessors--Leonid Brezhnev, Yurii Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko--and to implement 'new thinking' in Soviet foreign policy. In order to overcome resistance from those with an interest in the status quo, Gorbachev promoted glasnost or a form of freedom of expression. While in Moscow and some other larger cities in the RSFSR these policies produced some loosening of strict government controls and introduced elements of democratization, in the Ukrainian SSR, by contrast, perestroika was initially almost completely stalled. Economic perestroika was immediately implemented, but did not produce the desired results of greater public satisfaction or acceleration and better quality of production. In public life, even the general discontent caused by the Chornobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 did not immediately result in mass political actions. The general political stagnation was attributable primarily to the conservative leadership and repressive policies of the republic under First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine Volodymyr Shcherbytsky. Shcherbytsky was antipathetic equally towards Gorbachev, political reform, and Ukrainian nationalism. He was especially opposed to glasnost and democratization. Nor was Gorbachev particularly anxious to remove him in order to make way for thoroughgoing perestroika. He was impelled to act only after Ukrainian former political prisoners and dissidents, taking advantage of the relatively liberal atmosphere of glasnost and perestroika, began to threaten the center's control of the republic. They seized the opportunity to demand independence. As elsewhere in the Soviet Union, informal groups and popular fronts began to form; in the Ukrainian SSR, the most important of these were the Ukrainian Helsinki Association (UHS) and the Popular Movement of Ukraine (Rukh). The UHS later transformed into the republic's first competitive non-communist political party, the Ukrainian Republican party, while Rukh deputies were instrumental in the adoption of the 16 July 1990 Declaration on the State Sovereignty of Ukraine that represented an important step toward independence... Learn more about the last years of the Soviet Union: the perestroika period and the Ukrainian movement toward sovereignty and independence by visiting the following entries:

GORBACHEV, MIKHAIL, b 2 March 1931 in Privolnoe, Stavropol krai, RSFSR, d 30 August 2022 in Moscow. Soviet Communist Party official, last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and first, last, and only President of the USSR. Born into a Russian-Ukrainian peasant family, Gorbachev rose to top position in the Soviet power structure in 1985. From then until 1991, he launched a series of uncoordinated and unplanned political reforms of the Soviet system under the rubric of perestroika (rebuilding or remodeling; known in Ukrainian as perebudova). By his dynamism and political maneuvering he was able to introduce into the USSR semi-competitive elections for the Congress of People's Deputies in 1989, freedom of expression, association, and travel, and in 1990 free elections in the Union republics. Despite their improvised, halfhearted and erratic nature, these liberalization measures acquired a momentum of their own, leading to the delegitimization of the CPSU and its monopoly of power, the disintegration of the USSR, and the launching of transitions to democracy in RSFSR, the Baltic states, and Ukraine...

Mikhail Gorbachev

PERESTROIKA. According to its architect, Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika was necessitated by the crisis situation in which the Soviet Union found itself in the 1980s when Gorbachev came to power. He identified a noticeable slowdown in economic growth as not only a principal problem in itself but also as being at the root of a whole series of manifestations of the country's sluggishness. The main instruments or guidelines in executing his program were prescribed as being glasnost (openness or transparency) and demokratizatsiia (democratization). Perestroika was thus supposed to improve the economic well-being of the people, raise their morale through greater involvement in and transparency of decision-making, optimize accountability of officials to their electorates, provide more autonomy to production enterprises with the elimination of central direction, and in general unleash creativity and initiative via massive public mobilization. The project succeeded partially in relaxing the myriad of controls, but faced many unanticipated obstacles, and led ultimately to the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War...


CHORNOBYL NUCLEAR DISASTER. A devastating explosion that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the nuclear power station located in Chornobyl in Kyiv oblast, the worst disaster of its kind in the world. Its immediate cause was a test of the shutdown of reactor number four that went out of the operators' control. A steam explosion blew the concrete roof off the reactor which together with a fire released a radioactive cloud into the atmosphere spreading over parts of Ukraine, the Belorussian SSR, RSFSR, and northern Europe. The accident itself together with the Soviet government's response to it had grave consequences for the USSR. Attempting to prevent panic, authorities responded with silence and reassurances that all was under control, but doing so only discredited themselves and undermined their legitimacy. In 2006, Gorbachev wrote of the Chornobyl disaster that it, not perestroika, caused the collapse of the USSR. The Chornobyl catastrophe was seen as a national disaster by leading Ukrainian dissidents, writers, and intellectuals, and made a priority issue. In the end, it was a historical landmark for Ukraine launching its exit from the USSR...

Chornobyl Nuclear Disaster

UKRAINIAN HELSINKI ASSOCIATION (UHA). The association was founded in 1988 on the initiative of Viacheslav Chornovil and with the support of many other dissidents and former political prisoners, some of whom had been members of the former Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG). Like the UHG, the UHA stressed the importance of human rights. However, unlike the UHG and almost all informal public organizations created in Ukraine in the 1980s, the UHA placed a strong emphasis on achieving political goals. This included the promotion of democratic ideals, opposition to the Communist Party, and genuine sovereignty for Ukraine. The creation of UHA was formally announced in Lviv in July 1988, and branches of the organization were soon founded throughout Ukraine. Chornovil hoped that UHA would become the nucleus of a large-scale, decentralized, non-party 'national front' like Sajudis in Lithuania, but his expectations were undermined by the creation in 1989 of the Popular Movement of Ukraine (Rukh). Levko Lukianenko's competing plan, that UHA become a cenytralized political party, gained momentum and in 1990 the UHA was transformed into the Ukrainian Republican party, the very first new political party to be officially registered in Ukraine...

Ukrainian Helsinki Association

POPULAR MOVEMENT OF UKRAINE popularly known as Rukh (the Movement). The most important non-Communist, grass-roots organization created in Ukraine with the ostensible purpose of supporting the policy of perestroika launched in Moscow by Mikhail Gorbachev. Rukh's stated main objectives included the full attainment of political, religious, and human rights and freedoms; the moral rejuvenation of society; the democratization of Soviet society and the Soviet state; and the political and economic sovereignty of Ukraine. The Communist Party's media campaign against Rukh that lasted until September 1989 merely served to increase Rukh's popularity and membership. By 1990 Rukh had become the largest public organization in Ukraine, with an estimated 5 million supporters and over 50 different periodicals. In the 1990 elections to the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR, candidates supporting Rukh formed a Democratic Bloc to contest 30 percent of the seats. In June 1990 together with the 'democratic' wing of the CPU, they formed the opposition to the Communist Party, representing 35 percent of the parliamentary seats. They were instrumental in the adoption of the 16 July 1990 Declaration on the State Sovereignty of Ukraine...

Popular Movement of Ukraine

DECLARATION ON THE STATE SOVEREIGNTY OF UKRAINE. An act of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR adopted on 16 July 1990 by a vote of 355 to 4. The declaration asserted the right of the Ukrainian SSR to self-determination, defined the Ukrainian people on a non-ethnic basis as being all its citizens, guaranteed every citizen equality before the law, and declared the republic's supreme authority over its own territory. It decreed that Ukrainian SSR laws took precedence over the laws of the USSR on the Ukrainian territory, and declared that the Ukrainian SSR would maintain its own army and its own national bank with the power to introduce its own currency. It also made clear Ukraine's determination to be independent insofar as economic, ecological, and cultural policies were concerned. The new republic would protect all forms of property and would institute a cultural revival. In foreign affairs the declaration proclaimed the Ukrainian SSR as having the right to maintain direct relations with other states and to conclude international agreements. The declaration was an important stage on Ukraine's road to independence...

Declaration on the State Sovereignty of Ukraine

The preparation, editing, and display of the IEU entries about the last years of the Soviet Union: the perestroika period and the Ukrainian movement toward sovereignty and independence were made possible by a generous donation of the CANADIAN FOUNDATION FOR UKRAINIAN STUDIES.

ABOUT IEU: Once completed, the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine will be the most comprehensive source of information in English on Ukraine, its history, people, geography, society, economy, and cultural heritage. With close to 20,000 detailed encyclopedic entries supplemented with thousands of maps, photographs, illustrations, tables, and other graphic and/or audio materials, this immense repository of knowledge is designed to present Ukraine and Ukrainians to the world.

At present, only 54% of the entire planned IEU database is available on the IEU site. New entries are being edited, updated, and added daily. However, the successful completion of this ambitious and costly project will be possible only with financial assistance from IEU supporters. Become an IEU supporter and help the CIUS in creating the world's most authoritative electronic information resource about Ukraine and Ukrainians!

Go To Top Of Page

Click Home to get to the IEU Home page; to contact the IEU editors click Contact.
To learn more about IEU click About IEU and to view the list of donors and to become an IEU supporter click Donors.

©2001 All Rights Reserved. Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.