Perestroika (перестройка; Ukrainian: перебудова; perebudova). A policy and campaign launched in 1985 by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Mikhail Gorbachev aiming to revitalize all aspects of Soviet life—political, economic, social, and moral-spiritual—following the ‘stagnation’ of his predecessors—Leonid Brezhnev, Konstantin Chernenko, and his own patron, Yurii Andropov—and to implement ‘new thinking’ in Soviet foreign policy. Motivated by a recognition of the country’s obvious lack of dynamism compared with the rest of the developed world and the equally apparent failure to satisfy the needs of the domestic public, he directed a loosening of the system to assure survival of Soviet socialism by means of its amelioration. The project succeeded partially in relaxing the myriad of controls, but faced many unanticipated obstacles, and led ultimately to the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the end of the Cold War.
According to its architect, perestroika was necessitated by the crisis situation in which the Soviet Union found itself in the 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. He identified a noticeable slowdown in economic growth as not only a principal problem in itself but also as being at the root of a whole series of manifestations of the country’s sluggishness. The main instruments or guidelines in executing his program were prescribed as being glasnost (openness or transparency) and demokratizatsiia (democratization). Perestroika would thus improve the economic well-being of the people, raise their morale through greater involvement in and transparency of decision-making, optimize accountability of officials to their electorates, provide more autonomy to production enterprises with the elimination of central direction, and in general unleash creativity and initiative via massive public mobilization. It entailed a significant diminution of the monopolistic leading role of the Communist Party and the command economy, but Gorbachev fended off any hint of incipient de-legitimation of the whole Soviet system by invoking Vladimir Lenin in his defense as having been the original advocate of combining socialism with democracy. In order to revive Soviet socialism it had to be democratized—in a sense, Gorbachev was reaching over the heads of the party-state bureaucracy which was by and large naturally opposed to reform to enlist the Soviet people’s presumably latent energy in support of his project.
This was an unprecedented and extraordinarily complex challenge. In view of its crucial significance both domestically and internationally perestroika began with and was primarily about economic reform. The first step was a crackdown on workplace discipline, including an anti-alcohol campaign. Other measures included: permitting small-scale private enterprise by individuals or under the guise of co-operatives; the Law on State Enterprises, eliminating top-down quantitative measures of output in favor of self-management and self-financing; and opening the door to foreign investment via joint ventures. None of these worked as intended: the anti-alcohol campaign caused a shortage of sugar and drastic reduction of revenue for the state from the sale of alcohol as the population geared up the production of samogon (moonshine) in compensation; success of the co-operatives, bringing the shadow economy into the open, created resentment in a public strongly wedded to egalitarianism and seeing this activity as semi-criminal at best; enterprise self-management could not operate properly in the absence of real prices and markets; and foreign investors were deterred by the unwelcome prospects of an economy in rapid decline tending towards crisis. Plans for a transition to a market system were made but not acted upon, nor could Mikhail Gorbachev bring himself to endorse the idea of a market economy as alternative to the command economy. The results were shortages, inflation, rationing, demonstrations, and strikes. In 1989 alone, 5,300 demonstrations were recorded as having taken place involving approximately 12.6 million people. The Soviet economy did not revive but went into accelerated decline; the impact of economic perestroika on the populace—utter disenchantment with Gorbachev’s ‘reforms’—was the opposite of what it had been hoped to achieve.
Considering the vested interest that ministries, the State Planning Committee (Gosplan), directors of state enterprises, collective farm and state farm chairmen, as well as local government and party bosses had in preserving the existing system, perestroika required some curtailment of their powers. Nevertheless, due to lack of effective monitoring and impelled by the rapidly declining economy, these agents continued to obstruct the policy’s uniform implementation or to shape it to their benefit. Republic and local governments sought shelter from the prevailing economic uncertainty in autarky, thus creating further disruption. Hoarding became common among consumers. Managers of economic ministries and state enterprises were able to hive off resources or finished product to sell for personal profit in the as-yet unregulated private market.
In order to overcome resistance from those with an interest in the status quo, Mikhail Gorbachev promoted glasnost or a form of freedom of expression. Thus in December 1986, the ban on nuclear physicist and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov was lifted; he was allowed to return to Moscow from exile in Gorky. Earlier that year mass media were permitted to cover Communist Party affairs and social problems more openly, and books previously banned began to be published. In 1987, 140 dissidents were amnestied and released from prison (the Soviet dissident movement had been largely destroyed by the KGB in 1982–84). Jamming of broadcasts by Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and other outlets was halted in 1988. In June 1990, a new law ended censorship and guaranteed media freedom. Gorbachev signed a decree formally rehabilitating all victims of Stalinist repression. While the idea of glasnost was to expose to public scrutiny the misdeeds of Party cadres, state officials, and economic managers so as to accelerate perestroika, it also unexpectedly placed Gorbachev’s leadership, the CPSU, and the legitimacy of the entire Soviet system in question.
With the failure of the restructuring policies to revive the Soviet economy, perestroika, with its twin instruments of glasnost and demokratizatsiia, was then applied to the governing institutions of the party-state, in an attempt to transform them more along Western lines. As an ‘experiment’ in 1987, in local soviet (council) elections in about five per cent of constituencies voters were offered a choice of candidates. In 1989, competitive elections with multiple candidates on the national level occurred in three-quarters of the 1,500 seats open to contestation within the 2,250-member Congress of People’s Deputies (CPD). Even some party officials running unopposed failed to obtain the necessary 50 per cent of the vote to be declared elected. This caused consternation in conservative circles in the Communist Party and Soviet state. Created as a replacement for the decorative Supreme Soviet of the USSR, the CPD became an arena for unprecedentedly stormy debate broadcast live on television and radio exposing political issues to wide public scrutiny for the first time. The CPD also elected from among its membership a new, 542-member Supreme Soviet meant to function as a full-time parliament, which due to its openness proceeded to signal or threaten a shift in policy-making and power away from the party apparatus. Gorbachev, however, did not formally assign significant powers to these legislatures at the expense of the CPSU at this time. In any case, the new Supreme Soviet was severely constrained in its ability to act as a genuine legislature, hemmed in on one side by the CPD and by the president on the other; the CPD quietly voted itself out of existence in the wake of the abortive August coup on 2 September 1991.
Concurrently, beginning in 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev reduced the size of the Party’s permanent administrative bureaucracy, the apparat, the Soviet Union’s de facto government, refashioning it into something more like a stand-alone party participating in the more competitive atmosphere of the day rather than being the formal and sole policy-making body as in former times. He cut the size of the central apparatus in half, reduced the number of Central Committee departments (which had paralleled the ministries of government) from 20 to 7, created six new CC commissions to act as think tanks internal to the Party, and reduced the number of voting CC members from 303 to 251, partially by retirements. The commissions passed into oblivion unlamented having gotten no further than gathering information. In February 1990, he managed to have the Central Committee agree to the CPSU relinquishing its constitutional status as the sole ruling party. It voted instead to adopt a presidential system and constitution, although such a constitution was never written. The same meeting endorsed creation of a law-based state (pravovoe gosudarstvo), more akin to rule by law than rule of law and often compared to the German concept of the Rechtsstaat, but an advance on Soviet arbitrary lawlessness as hitherto practiced. Gorbachev received strong criticism from all sides for his perestroika policies at this plenum, yet all but 2 of 270 participants voted for his proposal. This symbolized well the paradoxical nature of Gorbachev’s preferred approach to perestroika—liberalization on command; a plurality of opinion, followed by unanimous decision. Retirements precipitated by Gorbachev at the top (so as to reduce the influence of conservative opponents) were matched by massive voluntary defections from what had been a 20-million-strong Communist Party at the bottom. Gorbachev then had himself elected President by the CPD in March 1990, but seemed to hedge his bets by also being re-elected General Secretary of the CPSU at its 28th and final CPSU Congress in July 1990. The introduction of a presidential system of government after installing a parliamentary model created confusion and uncertainty, the more so as the coordination of these new institutions was never formally worked out in a constitution. While disengaging the CPSU from the function of governing, Gorbachev appeared ambivalent about either abandoning it altogether or else stepping into the role of full-time executive president, thus seeming not fully committed to the glasnost and demokratizatsiia aspects of perestroika.
Ultimately, perestroika gave impetus to the disintegration of the entire pseudo-federation that was the USSR. Not only did economic collapse stimulate autarkic measures on the part of its constituent republics and lesser regions, but the formal decentralization of power launched by the republic elections of 1990 unleashed a torrent of declarations of sovereignty and independence. That summer, the RSFSR declared its sovereignty, as did Ukraine; the following year, the Baltic republics, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia all declared their independence. A ‘war of laws’ ensued between Moscow and the republics. This loosening of ties was aggravated by glasnost, which exposed historical grievances that republics’ nationalities had against the center. These centrifugal tendencies were given additional political reinforcement by reason of the republics’ presidents (whether they supported or opposed perestroika) having been elected directly by the people—like Boris Yeltsin in the RSFSR, and unlike Mikhail Gorbachev for the USSR. On the eve of the signing of a new union treaty drawn up by Gorbachev to accommodate these tendencies, a small group of the top leaders of the USSR’s repressive bodies launched a coup to oust Gorbachev and halt the country’s disintegration. Yeltsin, however, stood up to the coup plotters, the coup collapsed, and Gorbachev was humiliated. If Gorbachev had intended—as many in the West mistakenly believed—to set in motion a proper transition to liberal democracy, he ought certainly to have disbanded the secret police, the KGB. Instead, he left it unreconstructed except to replace its head and gave it more powers such as the pursuit of economic crimes. This same head then led the coup attempt. Thus the credibility of Gorbachev and his program, the legitimacy of the CPSU, and the raison d’être of the USSR were all undone. Perestroika, far from rebuilding the Soviet system, turned into its demolition charge, and Gorbachev its undertaker. In his final address before the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 25 December 1991, Gorbachev expressed pride in perestroika’s achievements: freedom for society, elimination of the totalitarian system, a democratic breakthrough, beginnings of a mixed economy, and an end to the Cold War.
In the Ukrainian SSR, by contrast, perestroika caused hardly a ripple, even though conditions at the outset were comparable to those elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Economic perestroika was immediately implemented, but did not produce the desired results of greater public satisfaction or acceleration and better quality of production. The general political stagnation was attributable primarily to the conservative leadership of the republic under First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) Volodymyr Shcherbytsky. Shcherbytsky was antipathetic equally towards Mikhail Gorbachev, political reform, and Ukrainian nationalism. None of these could serve him as an impulse to depart from the status quo. He was especially opposed to glasnost. Nor was Gorbachev particularly anxious to remove him in order to make way for thoroughgoing perestroika. He was apparently impelled to act only after Ukrainian former political prisoners and dissidents, taking advantage of the relatively liberal atmosphere of glasnost and perestroika, began to threaten the center’s control of the republic. They seized the opportunity to demand independence. As elsewhere in the Soviet Union, informal groups and popular fronts began to form; in the Ukrainian SSR, the most important of these were the Ukrainian Helsinki Association (UHS) and the Popular Movement of Ukraine (Rukh; initially called the Popular Movement of Ukraine for Perestroika). The UHS transformed into the republic’s first competitive political party, the Ukrainian Republican party. Rukh campaigned for the removal of Shcherbytsky, which was achieved in September 1989. He was replaced by Volodymyr Ivashko, who in turn was replaced by Stanislav Hurenko; neither could be classed as a reformer. At its second congress in October 1990, Rukh dropped ‘for Perestroika’ from its name, adopted a more radical position on the national question, and made national independence its main goal. Once the national communists took over the cause of independence, Rukh faded into the background. In the wake of the August coup in Moscow, Ukraine declared its independence, and at the end of the year elected the former CPU ideology secretary, Leonid Kravchuk, as President. The Rukh candidate, Viacheslav Chornovil, ran second. Kravchuk went on to sign the Belavezha Accords with his Russian and Belarusian counterparts, Boris Yeltsin and Stanislav Shushkevich, nullifying the 1922 Union Treaty and terminating the existence of the USSR, and instigating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place. Perestroika in its political guise came late to Ukraine; communists stood aside and tried to block national democrats from using it to call for independence. When independence dropped suddenly into their laps the opportunist national communists—rather than the national democrats—turned it into a reality, launching the very fraught transition to liberal democracy and market economy which followed.
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[This article was written in 2020.]