Perestroika was the slogan that came to symbolize Mikhail Gorbachev’s effort to reform the Soviet Union. The fifty-three-year old Gorbachev was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985 because the leadership in the ruling committee (Politburo) wanted a young, energetic leader who would tackle the country’s mounting problems. By 1985 the Soviet economy had almost stopped growing, and the country was dependent on imports to feed its population and to renovate its aging industrial base. Additionally, Moscow felt threatened by the arms buildup launched by United States president Ronald Reagan and by the ongoing war with Afghanistan.
In 1985, Gorbachev launched a crackdown on alcohol consumption and tried to boost economic growth through investing in new technology imported from the West. He encouraged the media to criticize bureaucratic inertia through a campaign of glasnost, or openness. In 1986, he initiated the more ambitious program of economic restructuring, perestroika in Russian—the word reform was unacceptable because in communist ideology, a reformist is someone who has abandoned the revolutionary path.
With these new endeavors, Gorbachev called for a decentralization of decision making, with responsibility shifting from central planners to factory managers. A new May 1988 law on cooperatives subsequently lifted some of the restrictions on individual entrepreneurship, and a wave of small businesses sprang up in Soviet cities. However, perestroika did not envisage the privatization of state-owned business or the creation of competitive markets. Most factory directors abused their new freedom and avoided plan targets while paying themselves, and their workers, higher wages. Slack financial discipline and a fall in the world oil price—the Soviet Union’s main source of export revenue—led to inflationary pressures. Because prices were still controlled, this pressure manifested as shortages in goods. By 1989, rationing was introduced in many regions for basic food products, and workers were starting to protest their declining living standards.
On the political front, perestroika meant competitive elections—at first for positions inside the Communist Party, and then for local and national legislatures. Gorbachev tried to separate the role of party functionaries from state officials and to hold the latter accountable through the competitive elections. A new Congress of People’s Deputies was elected in March 1989. Gorbachev’s problem involved growing instances of political issues that had nothing to do with his economic agenda now dominated the debates in the now-free media and the new congress. Primary among these issues were the demands of nationalists in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for more autonomy, if not outright independence, and a territorial dispute that erupted between the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Gorbachev tended to side with conservatives in suppressing these nationalist protests, and this alienated him from the rising Russian Democrats—whose support he needed for his economic reforms. By the time Gorbachev was willing to compromise with the nationalists, in 1991, it was too late to save the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev had introduced perestroika with the goal of improving the Soviet economy, thus ensuring that the country would preserve its role as a preeminent world power. Ironically, his reforms unleashed economic and political instability, which brought about the rapid collapse of the Soviet system— precisely the opposite of what he had intended.
- Brown, Archie. The Gorbachev Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Seven Years that Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Goldmann, Marshall. What Went Wrong with Perestroika. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.