Free Expression, Free Elections, and Democratic Reforms

There is always an inherent tension between the interests of the state and that of the individual. In the Soviet Union, the will of the state always prevailed over that of its people. Under the oppressive rule of Stalin and his successors, political dissidents were imprisoned and freedom of expression was prohibited. As the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev forged a new path forward for the nation and curtailed human rights abuses in the state.

Mikhail Gorbachev was born to Russian peasants in 1931. At age 15, he joined the Komsomol, or “Youth Communist League.” Local party officials recognized his promise and sent him to law school in Moscow, where he became a Communist Party member. He also became the youngest full member of the Politburo, then the highest executive committee in the Soviet Union. In 1985, the Politburo elected Gorbachev general secretary of the Communist Party, and he set about installing bold reforms, including “glasnost” (“openness”) and “perestroika” (“change”).

In 1987, Gorbachev and U.S. President Reagan signed an agreement to destroy all their intermediate-range nuclear-tipped missiles. In 1989, Gorbachev openly supported reformist groups in Eastern European Soviet-bloc countries, starting a chain reaction that led to the fall of communism in Europe. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Cold War between East and West was brought to a halt. President Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in the peace process. On December 25, 1991, the day he resigned, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Opinions on his leadership remain deeply divided to this day, but Mikhail Gorbachev was seen by many as a visionary.

In this lesson, students will learn about the policy of perestroika, how President Gorbachev pursued this policy, and how these changes within the Soviet Union led to different relationships with other nations. After reading excerpts from Gorbachev’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture and unpacking the economic systems at play in the former Soviet Union, learners will participate in activities that strengthen their capacities to become human rights defenders in their communities. The lesson plan incorporates the International Human Rights Framework in its curriculum and provides additional resources for further learning.

Because all the activities involve independent or group research that can be done online, this lesson plan fits into either virtual or in-person classrooms, with opportunities for discussion and collaboration on Zoom or with classmates.