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WHEN MIKHAIL GORBACHEV became general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, he was confronted with a system that had grown top-heavy with an unwieldy party bureaucracy. Since its beginnings under Vladimir I. Lenin in the Russian Revolution, the government had become more of a hindrance than a help in governing the 15 republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also known as the Soviet Union. Unlike many in the party leadership, Gorbachev had become aware of the oppressive character of the regime. Gorbachev expressed in his memoirs that he realized, as well, that the foment of independence in Eastern Europe would also reach the USSR, and that he had to either be prepared to admit it—albeit in a controlled way—or resist ...

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