"Perestroika" is a Russian word, meaning "restructuring" or "reconstruction." It refers to the series of political, economic, and social reforms and foreign policy changes undertaken by the Soviet Communist Party in the years 1985 to 1991. During this period the Soviet Union was transformed from a tightly controlled communist state to a fledgling parliamentary democracy with a developing free-market economy. In the process, the Soviet Union was dissolved and the 15 former communist republics achieved independence. The largest of these is the Russian Federation, which is 8.5 million square miles in size. While this federation includes the vast expanse of Siberia, for the first time in Russian history, it excludes the Ukraine. The architect of perestroika as an official policy was Mikhail Gorbachev, who became party secretary in 1985, and thus head of state. While initially envisioned as a few minor reforms of the machine tool industry and the central planning process, perestroika evolved into a plan to overhaul the Soviet Union when it became clear the earlier reforms could not bring about the necessary economic changes.

Unlike the preceding five communist party heads, all of whom had died of old age or illness, Gorbachev was a relatively young and vigorous man of 53. He had come to the helm of the Soviet Union when, to all the world, the country appeared to be militarily invincible, stable, and changeless. The sizable cracks in the facade of the U.S.S.R. were visible to only a very few outsiders.

Nearly seven decades of control by the communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had isolated the country from the world economy and caused an aggressive Cold War with the United States that was a serious financial drain on the Soviet Union. The state-controlled system of "collective" farming introduced under the Stalin administration had produced a perpetual agrarian crisis, leading to dependency on American and Canadian grain imports to avoid a shortage of bread. In 1979 the U.S.S.R. imported a record 25 million tons of grain from the United States alone, whereas Russia was a leading exporter of grain earlier in the century.

State control of the Soviet Union's industries also led to their stagnancy and decline, after some of them briefly experienced a high growth period in the 1950s. Soviet industries struggled to keep pace with their free-market counterparts, but largely failed to do so. By 1985 free-market countries had long entered the "microchip era," with economies and business life anchored to computers and sophisticated telecommunications systems. In contrast, in the Soviet Union, state-controlled businesses still widely employed the ancient abacus and the banking system was outdated and inefficient. Furthermore, widespread environmental damage caused by antiquated manufacturing industries was carefully hidden from the outside world, until the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986.

Real progress in these years occurred in education, with a nearly 100 percent adult literacy rate and 99 percent of high school age children in school. Urbanization also had made rapid strides, with a majority of Soviet citizens living in cities. The restlessness of this educated population, denied the right to travel abroad or the right to freedom of expression, was evident in the growing dissident movement, whose spiritual leader was former communist physicist Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), who had been sentenced without trial to exile and isolation in the Russian city of Gorky.

Outwardly a loyal communist who had risen through the ranks, Mikhail Gorbachev was determined to reverse the downhill spiral of the Soviet Union when he became secretary general. At the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in 1986, Gorbachev proposed restructuring and reorganization plans to revitalize the Soviet Union's economy. Gorbachev attempted to undo the nationalization of agriculture, industry, and commerce that ultimately had a stifling effect. Against party opposition he launched the policies that would be known as perestroika and glasnost.

Glasnost (or "openness") took the form of greater freedom of expression (i.e., relaxed censorship), culminating in Gorbachev's personal invitation to dissident Andrei Sakharov to return from his exile in 1989 to help in the reconstruction of his homeland. Perestroika involved a series of political and economic reforms that, modest at the outset, unleashed a torrent of change that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At first, the perestroika program focused on improving the Soviet Union's machine tool industry and ensuring the growth of the industry. In addition, perestroika also brought about a reduction of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union's planning committees. By creating superministries, Soviet planners could bypass intermediate bureaucrats and work solely on strategic planning.

Gorbachev soon realized, however, that these reforms would fail to strengthen the Soviet Union's economy because they remained superficial changes. Consequently, perestroika came to refer to far more substantial reorganizations affecting the economy, government, and society beginning in 1987. This more profound version of perestroika called for reforms that would allow private property and private business, end central planning, and focus on making consumer goods and food more available.

This later form of perestroika ultimately brought about the introduction of a limited free market economy for the first time since 1917. Furthermore, the conversion to a free market economy involved the gradual elimination of communist party control and ownership of the economy. To effect these changes, Gorbachev turned to Western capitalist countries for financial assistance. On the political front, perestroika involved the introduction of multi-candidate elections, eventually ending the monopoly of political control by one party. In foreign policy, the changes brought about by perestroika were very radical, with significant, lasting repercussions. Renouncing the Brezhnev Doctrine that gave the Soviet Union the right to intervene militarily in Warsaw Pact countries, communist governments in Eastern Europe were overthrown; the Berlin Wall collapsed; and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself ensued, with the former Soviet states proclaiming their right to self-determination. The world watched in amazement as the U.S.S.R. and the United States became allies in many areas.

The beginning of liberal reforms in the Soviet Union revealed the weaknesses of the totalitarian system that had been in power for seven decades. Unfortunately, the changes instigated by perestroika took on an uncontrollable momentum, leaving chaos and disruption in their wake and lowering the already low standard of living in the former Soviet Union. A new nostalgia for the stability and even the prosperity of the Soviet Union appeared even among the well educated, leading to political polarization. Diehard communist sympathizers staged a surprise coup in August 1991, while Gorbachev vacationed with his family. This reversion was foiled by the timely support of Boris Yeltsin's (1931-) followers, who called for reforms more radical than perestroika. Gorbachev, who had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, resigned as president of the near-defunct Soviet Union in December 1991, officially bringing perestroika to an end. Under his successor, Yeltsin, the communist party was outlawed, and the loosely organized "Commonwealth of Independent States," whose political capital was not even in Russia, replaced the former monolithic Soviet Union.

[ Sina Dubovoy ,

updated by Karl Heil ]


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