views updated May 14 2018



Perestroika (restructuring) was one of the most profound processes of change in history. Intended at first only to reform the Soviet order, it ultimately led to the dissolution of the political system and the disintegration of the country, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The law of unintended consequences operated with a vengeance, and yet there remains a fundamental debate about whether the changes inaugurated by Mikhail Gorbachev when he came to power in 1985 were a success or a failure. His administration managed to transform the moribund and repressive country ruled by the stultifying hand of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) into one firmly set on the road to democracy and was able to transcend the Cold War confrontation with the Western capitalist powers. However, in the process Gorbachev and his team managed to lose the country that was intended to be the subject of the reform process, and by the time that Gorbachev formally resigned from power on 25 December 1991, the USSR had disintegrated into its fifteen component republics.


The Communist Party had ruled the country since Vladimir Ilyich Lenin seized power in October 1917. Despite five major changes of rulers, the political system remained remarkably similar right up to 1985, characterized above all by the dominance of the Communist Party. In March 1985 Gorbachev was selected by the Central Committee as general secretary of the CPSU, despite the misgivings of a large group of conservatives in the Politburo (the supreme body in the CPSU). One reason for Gorbachev's selection was an understanding that the country could no longer be allowed to drift. The economy had lost dynamism and was falling ever further behind the West, and society was increasingly immersed in alcoholism and other pathologies. There was a gaping gulf between the tenets of the core communist ideology, committed to equality and human emancipation, and the tawdry operating ideology that justified the privileges of the elite and the rule of the communist nomenklatura (the class of officialdom). Although the Soviet Union had achieved strategic nuclear parity with the United States in the mid-1970s, it was clear that the quality of Soviet military equipment was falling behind that of the West. The country was bogged down in a bitter war in Afghanistan, and its communist allies in Eastern Europe were restive.

Against this background the need for change was palpable, and thus Gorbachev was the beneficiary of broad popular and elite support in his early years as he sought to revitalize the Soviet Union. By starting a "revolution within the revolution" Gorbachev hoped to save the essentials of the system, above all the leading role of the party and the planned economy, and to transcend the increasingly pointless confrontation with the West. Gorbachev was the last exponent of "reform communism," the program of communist revival that had been attempted twenty years earlier by Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia under the slogan "socialism with a human face." The "Prague Spring" of 1968 was crushed by Soviet tanks in August of that year, and now Gorbachev sought to achieve what the Soviet Union itself had destroyed some twenty years earlier.


There had been sporadic attempts earlier to reform the Soviet system, notably in the 1920s during the New Economic Policy (NEP) and under Nikita Khrushchev (1953–1964) following the death of Joseph Stalin. Perestroika was the third and greatest attempt at communist reform. Within months of coming to power Gorbachev launched the program that he called perestroika, which became ever more radical. Once changes began they could not be constrained by regime-led reform, and by 1991 pressure for a radical change of the system became overwhelming. The attempt in August 1991 by conservatives to hold back the tide of change precipitated the result that they sought to avert: the conclusive dissolution of the communist system of government and, by the end of the year, the disintegration of the USSR. Perestroika was characterized by the following features.

"Acceleration" and economic reform

In the first phase some of the themes of Yuri Andropov's authoritarian reform program were revived. In the few months (November 1982–February 1984) of his brief rule following the death of Leonid Brezhnev, Andropov sought to impose labor and social discipline. To this program Gorbachev added the notion of uskorenie (acceleration), seeking to rejuvenate the existing economic system by the vigorous application of old remedies. The government led by Nikolai Ryzhkov launched an intensive investment program in an attempt to kick-start the economy. Major programs were announced, such as the promise that by the year 2000 all Soviet citizens would have an apartment of their own. Through acceleration the government sought both to reform the economy and increase output, contradictory demands that failed to achieve either. The misconceived antialcohol campaign launched at this time led to the increased production of bootleg liquor (samogon) and severe revenue losses. Gorbachev soon came to understand that more radical measures were required.

Although economic growth rates did initially rise, the period of acceleration in 1985 and 1986 failed to achieve genuine economic reform, and by 1990 the country was sinking into an ever deeper recession. In June 1987 a Central Committee plenum adopted a halfhearted plan for the economic transformation of the country that focused on greater autonomy for enterprises and increased rights for workers to elect their own managers. The legalization of cooperatives at this time served only to promote the criminalization of the economy. Reform plan followed reform plan, but none were consistently implemented. Inflation rose to catastrophic proportions as goods disappeared from the shops. The country became increasingly ungovernable as Ryzhkov's relatively conservative government was unable to implement its own version of reform, in part because of Gorbachev's lack of support, while more radical alternatives were equally unacceptable. Miners' strikes from June 1989 signaled that the regime was dangerously isolated, having lost the support of the workers, the class that it claimed to represent. The turning point was Gorbachev's failure in September 1990 to support the plan proposed by the team led by Stanislav Shatalin, Grigory Yavlinsky, and Yegor Gaidar proposing a rapid transition to the market in "five hundred days." The plan called for an end to price controls, fiscal and monetary discipline to contain inflation, and rapid privatization. The USSR was to be converted into an economic union with only loose political ties between the constituent republics. With the rejection of the plan, Russia launched its own economic reforms in November 1990.

Glasnost (openness)

Censorship had been the hallmark of the Soviet system. Now under Gorbachev the veil of secrecy began to be lifted. At first Gorbachev sought to use glasnost in an instrumental way, as a means of using public opinion to exert pressure on recalcitrant officials to accept his reforms. Some limited debate was allowed about the Soviet past, in particular over the horrors of the Stalinist system, but the aim at first was certainly not the pursuit of truth or the achievement of freedom of speech. These only came gradually as the pressure for more open debate eventually created a genuinely free public sphere. A landmark in the development of this openness was the explosion in reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on 26 April 1986. It was only when monitors in Sweden and other countries picked up the existence of a nuclear cloud that the scale of the explosion became public. In the meantime, lives were placed at risk in the May Day march in neighboring Kiev. Finally Gorbachev made a public broadcast that recognized the scale of the disaster. The limits on glasnost were pushed back, and ever more became known about the crimes of the past, above all those committed by Stalin and his entourage. Some of the boldest commentators even began to criticize the founding father of the system, Lenin, despite Gorbachev's attempts to present the late Lenin of the NEP years as the precursor of perestroika. There were ever more critical commentaries on the inadequacies of the present, including poor health services, overcrowded schools, the special shops for the nomenklatura elite, and above all the widespread shortages of goods in the shops. These revelations could not but undermine the legitimacy of the Soviet order.

Development of civil society

Meanwhile numerous "informal" (neformaly) groups of social activists began to form, known as informals because they operated in the gray area of official tolerance and their status was not recognized by Soviet law. These groups soon reflected every aspect of political life, with nationalists jostling against communist revivalists all the way through to semifascist groupings such as the Pamyat (memory) organization. This outburst of civil society demonstrated the energy that was latent in the Soviet system. The country had been industrialized and urbanized in the 1930s, accompanied by the massive development of the educational system. Perestroika now gave the hugely expanded intelligentsia the opportunity for inclusion in the political system based on equality and right rather than on conformity and arbitrariness. Intellectuals provided the motive force for perestroika. The informal groups provided the basis later for the emergence of a multiparty system. The emergence of an independent working-class movement, above all in the coal-mining industry, marked the point at which Gorbachev's strategy of reform from above was transformed into a revolution from below.

Demokratizatsiya (democratization)

The January 1987 plenum of the Central Committee marked a watershed in the move away from authoritarian and toward democratic reform. The plenum called for the extension of competitive elections in the workplace, the soviets (councils), and in the party itself. The Nineteenth Party Conference in June–July 1988 marked the transition to the deepening of democratization. Attempts were made to formulate a grand strategy of political reform to modernize the entire system within the framework of one-party democracy and one-party parliamentarianism. Gorbachev's strategy was based on the CPSU retaining a predominant role; but the party was now to guide rather than lead. The principle aim was to create a "socialist legal state" with the separation of powers and a revived legislature.

Constitutional amendments in late 1988 created a three-chamber Congress of People's Deputies (CPD). The full Congress was to meet twice a year, while current parliamentary business was to be conducted by a smaller Supreme Soviet drawn from the CPD. This strange parliamentary model was to cause endless problems for the Soviet Union and later in Russia, where a similar model was adopted. The semifree elections of March 1989 for the new assembly saw the defeat of many communist officials and the return of some democrats. The CPD's first convocation in May 1989 was the scene of vigorous debates, televised live to an enthralled nation, and appeared to mark the onset of effective parliamentary politics. The CPD and its Supreme Soviet passed a significant body of reformist legislation, with new laws on freedom of conscience and religious belief and freedom of the press. The first steps were taken toward creating a law-governed state (Rechtsstaat), if not a democracy, something that distinguished perestroika from the rest of Soviet history. However, the Congress was unwieldy and lacked the necessary committee structure to set a coherent legislative agenda or to establish the routines for effective legislative activity or oversight over the executive.

The end of the Cold War

Foreign policy was undoubtedly the sphere in which Gorbachev met with the greatest personal success. Although his reforms were initially greeted with scepticism, Gorbachev gradually won over the major Western leaders. Above all, U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev found a common language in the pursuit of strategic arms reductions. At the base of his foreign policy was Gorbachev's view that the fundamental ideological principles on which the Cold War was fought had become anachronistic. The world in Gorbachev's view had become interdependent, and confrontation with Western imperialism did not inevitably have to take the form of armed confrontation. There would still be competition with the capitalist West, but this would no longer be the rivalry entrenched in Khrushchev's theory of peaceful coexistence. A new type of cooperative coexistence could be established in which the West and reformed Soviet Union lived peacefully together. This was the logic that led to the announcement of massive troop reductions in December 1988, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in March 1989, the announcement of a "common European home" in 1989, and acceptance of the popular revolts against communism in the fall of that year. However, conservatives in the USSR insisted that Gorbachev was betraying Soviet national interests by giving away more than the country received, and this view still has considerable resonance.

The end of Communist rule

Article 6 of the 1977 Soviet constitution talked of the CPSU's "leading role," and as long as the party's power remained constitutionally entrenched, the political system remained recognizably communist. However, there was a growing divergence between reform of the communist system and the development of a democratic form of Soviet power. This divergence was brought to the fore by the collapse of the communist systems in the East European "satellite" states in late 1989, symbolized above all by the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November. It became increasingly clear that Gorbachev's attempt to reconcile representative democracy with a leading role for the CPSU was untenable. One-party democracy was a contradiction in terms, and the attempt to achieve what Gorbachev called the "socialist pluralism of opinions" was challenged by the growth of genuine political pluralism in society. On 13 March 1990, under pressure from massive demonstrations that echoed the slogans seen in Eastern Europe earlier, the CPD modified the constitution to remove reference to the party's "leading role." The era of one-party rule, which had in effect lasted since October 1917, came to an end: free elections were introduced and the half-truths of glasnost gave way to genuine freedom of speech. Gorbachev's definition of perestroika as a party-led program of reform had now outgrown its creator.


To compensate for the erosion of party dominance, Gorbachev sought to strengthen the institutions of the Soviet state. Local soviets were given greater powers to manage their affairs, while in the center the institution of an executive presidency was established. On 14 March 1990, the day after the modification of Article 6, Gorbachev was elected president of the USSR by the CPD. His failure to engage in a national election weakened his legitimacy and allowed those who had a popular mandate to challenge his power. Party perestroika gave way to presidential perestroika. The transformation of the political system at last allowed liberalization to give way to genuine democratization.

Gorbachev had been able to consolidate his power faster than any previous Soviet leader, yet he still faced formidable opposition. By 1990 it was clear that the reform coalition was disintegrating and Gorbachev's own brand of communist reformism was losing support. Political life was becoming increasingly polarized, and Gorbachev's centrism was eroded from both sides. Conservatives warned that Gorbachev's policies were leading to the betrayal of socialism and the destruction of the country. The growing democratic movement also now diverged from perestroika's communist reformism and sought to introduce the basic features of a modern democratic system. The representative of this trend was Boris Yeltsin, who in 1986 had been appointed to head the Moscow party organization. He was the first top party leader openly to condemn the privileges of the party elite, and his stress on social justice earned him massive popularity. Elections to the Russian CPD in March 1990 saw a strong showing for democratic forces, organized in the movement "Democratic Russia," and in May 1990 Yeltsin was elected chair of the Russian parliament. The Russian declaration of state sovereignty on 12 June 1990 marked the moment when political control slipped out of Gorbachev's hands toward the individual republics. The winter of 1990–1991 saw Gorbachev isolated from the radical democrats and fearing the hard-line reactionaries.

The existence of the USSR was increasingly challenged by a number of republics. The three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) had never reconciled themselves to incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 as part of the deal between Stalin and Hitler in August 1939, and now frustration with perestroika encouraged them to think of secession. Moldova had also been a victim of the Nazi-Soviet pact, while the Caucasian republics of Armenia and Georgia still hankered after the independence that they had lost as a result of Soviet invasions in 1921. Gorbachev only slowly reacted to the nationalist challenge, but ultimately sought to find a way of keeping the union together in a reforged Union Treaty. As far as the republics were concerned, this was too little too late, and in 1990 Lithuania led the way in declaring independence. The storming of the Lithuanian TV building in Vilnius on 13 January 1991, in which fifteen people were killed, provided vivid warning of the bloodshed that could attend the disintegration of the USSR.

Yeltsin rallied to the support of the Baltic republics, representing the repudiation of Moscow's traditional empire-building role and creating the conditions for the relatively peaceful disintegration of the Soviet "empire." Gorbachev's attempt to legitimize the authority of the Soviet Union in the following months by renegotiating the federation included a referendum on 17 March 1991 in which the great majority supported a renewed union, although the vote was held in only nine republics. In the "nine-plus-one" agreement of 23 April at his dacha at Novo-Ogarevo, Gorbachev conceded extensive powers to the republics and an accelerated transition to a market economy. The new Union Treaty would be one built from the bottom up, founded on the sovereignty of the republics and relegating Gorbachev and the central government to a secondary role. The treaty was formalized on 23 July 1991 and was to have been signed by some of the republics on 20 August. However, on 19 August 1991 the conservatives struck and tried to seize power in a coup that was as farcical as it was dangerous. Three days later the coup attempt collapsed, but the country could never be the same again. The attempt to hold the country together accelerated its disintegration. One after another the republics declared their independence, leaving Russia as the continuer state of the USSR.


Despite the revolutionary language, Gorbachev began as a reformer, but he became increasingly radical as he met opposition and the promise of his early reforms was not fulfilled. His tragic fate was to act as the destroyer rather than the builder. The more that he tinkered with the system, the deeper the crisis. His reform communism only exacerbated the problems of what was already a system in crisis and worsened the legacy facing the postcommunist governments. However, Gorbachev demonstrated that the Soviet system could be reformed, although the communist component would have to be removed. Failure to deal adequately with the economy and national aspirations provoked disintegration. It fell to Gorbachev's successors in Russia and the other republics to rebuild economies and to nourish the fragile shoots of democracy that perestroika had encouraged.

See alsoChernobyl; Gorbachev, Mikhail; 1989; Soviet Union; Yeltsin, Boris.


Brown, Archie. The Gorbachev Factor. Oxford, U.K., 1996.

English, Robert D. Russia and the Idea of the West: Gorbachev, Intellectuals, and the End of the Cold War. New York, 2000.

Gorbachev, Mikhail S. Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. London, 1987.

Hahn, Gordon M. Russia's Revolution from Above, 1985–2000: Reform, Transition, and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime. New Brunswick, N.J., 2002.

Harris, Jonathan. Subverting the System: Gorbachev's Reform of the Party Apparat, 1986–1991. Lanham, Md., 2003.

Hough, Jerry F. Democratization and Revolution in the USSR, 1985–1991. Washington, D.C., 1997.

Sakwa, Richard. Gorbachev and His Reforms, 1985–90. New York and London, 1990.

White, Stephen. After Gorbachev. 4th ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Richard Sakwa


views updated May 18 2018


Perestroika was the term given to the reform process launched in the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Meaning "reconstruction" or "restructuring," perestroika was a concept that was both ambiguous and malleable. Its ambiguity lay in the fact that it might convey no more than a reorganization of existing Soviet institutions and thus be a synonym for reform of a modest kind or, alternatively, it could signify reconstruction of the system from the foundations up, thus amounting to transformative change. The vagueness and ambiguity were initially an advantage, for even the term reform had become taboo during the conservative Leonid Brezhnev years after the Soviet leadership had been frightened by the Prague Spring reforms of 1968.

Perestroika had the advantage of coming without political and ideological baggage. Everyone couldin the first two years, at least, of the Mikhail Gorbachev erabe in favor of it. Its malleability meant that under this rubric some urged modest change that in their view was enough to get the economy moving again while others who wished to transform the way the entire system worked were able to advance more daring arguments, taking cover under the umbrella of perestroika. Within Gorbachev's own top leadership team, both Yegor Ligachev and Alexander Yakovlev expressed their commitment to perestroika, but for the latter this meant much more far-reaching political reform than for the former. Once political pluralism had by 1989 become an accepted norm, perestroika as a concept had largely outlived its political utility.

For Gorbachev himself the term "perestroika" meant different things at different times. Initially, it was a euphemism for "reform," but later it came to signify systemic change. Gorbachev's views underwent a major evolution during the period he held the post of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU and that included the meaning he imparted to perestroika. In an important December 1984 speech before he became Soviet leader, Gorbachev had said that one of the important things on the agenda was a "perestroika of the forms and methods of running the economy." By 1987 the concept for Gorbachev was much broader and clearly embraced radical political reform and the transformation of Soviet foreign policy. Gorbachev's thinking at that time was set out in a book, Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World. While the ideas contained were far removed from traditional Soviet dogma, they by no means yet reflected the full evolution of Gorbachev's own position (and, with it, his understanding of perestroika). In 1987 Gorbachev was talking about radical reform of the existing system. During the run-up to the Nineteenth Conference of the Communist Party, held in the summer of 1988, he came to the conclusion that the system had to be transformed so comprehensively as to become something different in kind. In 1987 he still spoke about "communism," although he had redefined it to make freedom and the rule of law among its unfamiliar values; by the end of the 1980s, Gorbachev had given up speaking about "communism." The "socialism," of which he continued to speak, had become socialism of a social democratic type.

Perestroika became an overarching conception, under which a great many new concepts were introduced into Soviet political discourse after 1985. These included such departures from the Marxist-Leninist lexicon as glasnost (openness, transparency), pravovoe gosudarstvo (a state based on the rule of law), checks and balances, and pluralism. One of the most remarkable innovations was Gorbachev's breaking of the taboo on speaking positively about pluralism. Initially (in 1987) this was a "socialist pluralism" or a "pluralism of opinion." That, however, opened the way for others in the Soviet Union to talk positively about "pluralism" without the socialist qualifier. By early 1990 Gorbachev himself had embraced the notion of "political pluralism," doing so at the point at which he proposed to the Central Committee removing from the Soviet Constitution the guaranteed "leading role" of the Communist Party.

Even perestroika as understood in the earliest years of Gorbachev's leadershipnot least because of its embrace of glasnostopened the way for real political debate and political movement in a system which had undergone little fundamental political change for decades. In his 1987 book, Perestroika,

Gorbachev wrote: "Glasnost, criticism and self-criticism are not just a new campaign. They have been proclaimed and must become a norm in the Soviet way of life . There is no democracy, norcan there be, without glasnost. And there is no present-day socialism, nor can there be, without democracy." Such exhortation was alarming to those who wished to preserve the Soviet status quo or to revert to the status quo ante. It was, though, music to the ears of people who wished to promote the more rapid democratization of the Soviet system, even to advocate moving further and faster than Gorbachev at the time was prepared to endorse.

If perestroika is considered as an epoch in Soviet and Russian history, rather than a concept (though conceptual change in a hitherto ideocratic system was crucially important), it can be seen as one in which a Pandora's box was opened. The system, whatever its failings, had been highly effective in controlling and suppressing dissent, and it was far from being on the point of collapse in 1985. Perestroika produced both intended and unintended consequences. From the outset Gorbachev's aims included a liberalization of the Soviet system and the ending of the Cold War. Liberalization, in fact, developed into democratization (the latter term being one that Gorbachev used from the beginning, although its meaning, too, developed within the course of the next several years) and the Cold War was over by the end of the 1980s. A major aspect of perestroika in its initial conception was, however, to inject a new dynamism into the Soviet economy. In that respect it failed. Indeed, Gorbachev came to believe that the Soviet economic system, just like the political system, needed not reform but dismantling and to be rebuilt on different foundations.

The ultimate unintended consequence of perestroika was the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Liberalization and democratization turned what Gorbachev had called "pre-crisis phenomena" (most notably, economic stagnation) during the early 1980s into a full-blown crisis of survival of the state by 19901991. Measuring such an outcome against the initial aims of perestroika suggests its failure. But the goals of the foremost proponents of perestroika, and of Mikhail Gorbachev personally, rapidly evolved, and democratization came to be given a higher priority than economic reform. At the end of this experiment in the peaceful transformation of a highly authoritarian system, there were fifteen newly independent states and Russia itself had become a freer country than at any point in its previous history. Taken in conjunction with the benign transformation of East-West relations, these results constitute major achievements that more than counterbalance the failures. They point also to the fact that there could be no blueprint for the democratization of a state that had been at worst totalitarian and at best highly authoritarian for some seven decades. Perestroika became a process of trial and error, but one that was underpinned by ideas and values radically different from those which constituted the ideological foundations of the unreformed Soviet system.

See also: democratization; glasnost; gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; new political thinking


Brown, Archie. (1996). The Gorbachev Factor. New York: Oxford University Press.

English, Robert D. (2000). Russia and the Idea of the West: Gorbachev, Intellectuals, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gorbachev, Mikhail. (1987). Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. London: Collins.

Gorbachev, Mikhail, and Mlynar, Zdenek. (2002). Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, the Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hough, Jerry F. (1997). Democratization and Revolution in the USSR. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Matlock, Jack F., Jr. (1995). Autopsy of an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union. New York: Random House.

Archie Brown


views updated May 29 2018

pe·re·stroi·ka / ˌperəˈstroikə/ • n. (in the former Soviet Union) the policy or practice of restructuring or reforming the economic and political system. First proposed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 and actively promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika originally referred to increased automation and labor efficiency, but came to entail greater awareness of economic markets and the ending of central planning. See also glasnost.


views updated May 18 2018

perestroika (Rus. reconstruction) Adopted by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, perestroika was linked with glasnost. The restructuring included reform of government and the bureaucracy, decentralization and abolition of the Communist Party monopoly. Liberalization of the economic system included the introduction of limited private enterprise and freer movement of prices.


views updated May 23 2018

perestroika (in the former Soviet Union) the policy or practice of restructuring or reforming the economic and political system. First proposed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 and actively promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika originally referred to increased automation and labour efficiency, but came to entail greater awareness of economic markets and the ending of central planning. The word is Russian, and means literally ‘restructuring’.

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