President Mikhail Gorbachev oversaw the most fundamental changes to his nation’s economic engine and political structure since the Russian Revolution of 1917. Perestroika (“restructuring” in Russian) refers to a series of political and economic reforms meant to improve the slow 1980s economy of the Soviet Union.
What Is Perestroika?
Perestroika loosened centralized control of businesses, allowing farmers and manufacturers to decide for themselves which products to make, how many to produce, and what to charge for them. This move dissatisfied high-ranking officials who had previously headed powerful central committees.
Gorbachev introduced a new policy that allowed for the creation of limited co-operative businesses, giving rise to privately owned enterprises in the Soviet Union. He also loosened restrictions on foreign trade and encouraged Western investment.
Gorbachev introduced these reforms to improve the Soviet economy, but many of them had the opposite effect. For example, government subsidies had kept the price of food low for decades, but now the prices jumped and many people could not afford to buy basics.
Political Reforms Under Perestroika
Gorbachev also reformed the Soviet political system. In 1988, he pushed through measures calling for the first truly democratic elections since the Russian Revolution of 1917. Former dissidents—such as Nobel laureate physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov—were elected, in Western-style campaigns.
When the new Congress met for its first session in May 1989, the cancellation of press restrictions under glasnost enabled the media to cover the meetings. The coverage showed open conflict between conservatives and liberals.
Opponents of Perestroika
Many of these newly-elected reformers criticized what they felt was limited change. The hardliners pushed back.
Other reforms included the creation of political parties, and a shift of autonomy and control to local and regional bodies, away from the central government. These reforms weakened Gorbachev’s own base of support. The Communist Party lost its monopoly on political power in the Soviet Union.
Results and Aftermath of Perestroika
Perestroika’s failure hastened the fall of the Soviet Union. Nationalist independence movements grew within the U.S.S.R. in the late 1980s. The nationalists were inspired by perestroika and glasnost reforms, as well as by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
In August 1991, hardliners attempted a coup, but Gorbachev was able to maintain power. He finally resigned on December 25, 1991.
Almost 75 years after the Russian Revolution ushered in the Communist Party era, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
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