Primary Sources

CIA Intelligence Assessment: Rising Political Instability Under Gorbachev


As President George H. W. Bush took office in January 1989, factions within his administration disagreed concerning the approach to take with regard to US-Soviet relations. In December 1988, Gorbachev had delivered what he called a “watershed” address at the United Nations, announcing that he planned unilaterally to reduce Soviet military forces by 500,000, cut conventional armaments massively, and withdraw substantial numbers of armaments and troops from Eastern European countries. Gorbachev had spoken of freedom, individual rights, and national self-determination, declaring that “the use of threat or force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy.” Some in the Bush administration advised that the US should support Gorbachev’s liberalization efforts, while others doubted the Soviet leader’s sincerity, believing he was scheming to divide the US from its NATO allies and that Soviet force remained a real threat. In February, Bush ordered a “strategic review” of foreign policy to help determine his own course. The following declassified intelligence assessment from April was not unusual in its warnings concerning the instability of the situation in the Soviet Union regardless of Gorbachev’s intentions and may have been influential in persuading the administration to take a cautious attitude toward Gorbachev.


Central Intelligence Agency, "Rising Political Instability Under Gorbachev : Understanding the Problem and Prospects for Resolution," 1 April 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Full Text

By taking the Soviet Union down the road of radical reform. General Secretary Gorbachev has opened Pandora's box. He clearly hopes that, by shaking up the system, he can rouse the population out of its lethargy and channel the forces he is releasing in a constructive direction to build a more dynamic and competitive system. So far, however, economic performance has continued to stagnate, there is a widespread perception that living conditions are deteriorating, and political turmoil and popular unrest have sharply increased. As a result, the Soviet system is less stable than it has been at any point since Stalin's great purges in the 1930s. There is little prospect of relief in sight.

Over the past two years, incidents of political unrest in the USSR, ranging from benign, small gatherings to major acts of political violence, have sharply escalated. . . .

This new political activism is taking place largely outside Communist party control. Emboldened by glasnost, Soviet citizens are organizing groups that could form the basis of a political opposition and advancing a wide range of demands that essentially run against the party's interests. The most dangerous of these are the nationalist movements that have blossomed in many republics. Having seen their quality of life stagnate under Gorbachev, many Soviet citizens are becoming increasingly skeptical of reform, seeing it more and more as a threat to the secure existence they recall they enjoyed under Brezhnev. These developments are increasingly polarizing the members of the elite over the future course of reform – creating the danger of a divisive split in the leadership and making Gorbachev's continued hold on power far from certain. . . .

The next several years promise to be turbulent. There are too many variables and unforeseen events to predict whether Gorbachev will be able to control the process he has started, if it will increasingly come to control him, or if fears of where it is leading will result in a conservative retrenchment. Clearly, a wide range of outcomes is possible: Continuing Gorbachev’s course. . . . Conservative retrenchment. . . . Reactionary coup. . . . A radical takeover. . . . Change from below. . . .

How to Cite this Source

Central Intelligence Agency, "CIA Intelligence Assessment: Rising Political Instability Under Gorbachev," Making the History of 1989, Item #348, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:24 pm).

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