In the Russian Empire of the late-19th century, the term 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 read out in public. In the late 1980s, it was popularised by Mikhail Gorbachev as a political slogan for increased government transparency in the Soviet Union.
"For centuries", human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva has explained, the word glasnost has been in the Russian language: "It was in the dictionaries and lawbooks as long as there had been dictionaries and lawbooks. It was an ordinary, hardworking, non-descript word that was used to refer to a process, any process of justice or governance, being conducted in the open." In the mid-1960s, however, as Alexeyeva recounts, it acquired a new and topical importance.
On 5 December 1965, a key event in the emergence of the Soviet civil rights movement, often known as the Glasnost rally, took place in Moscow when protesters on Pushkin Square led by Alexander Yesenin-Volpin demanded access to the closed trial of Yuly Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky. They specifically asked for "glasnost", i.e. the admission of the public, independent observers and foreign journalists, to the trial, something that was required in the newly issued, but not widely available, Code of Criminal Procedure. With a few specified exceptions, Article 111 of the Code stated that judicial hearings in the USSR should be held in public.
Such protests against closed trials continued throughout the post-Stalin era. Andrei Sakharov, famously, did not travel to Oslo to receive his Nobel Peace Prize because he was standing outside a court building in Vilnius (Lithuania), demanding access to the 1976 trial of Sergei Kovalev, an editor of the Chronicle of Current Events and prominent rights activist.
In 1986, aware of the term's historical and more recent resonance, Mikhail Gorbachev and his advisers adopted "glasnost" as a political slogan, together with the obscure "perestroika".