Did Gorbachev want to destroy the USSR? Could the Soviet Union still exist today? Might Putinism end in reforms? Questions about Perestroika that you’re too embarrassed to ask, 35 years later

On April 23, 1985, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held a plenary session that is now considered the start of Perestroika. These transformations were associated directly with Mikhail Gorbachev, the party’s popular new general secretary. But why did Perestroika end with the USSR’s collapse? Could the country have been reformed in some other way? What role did the secret police and the Americans play in all this? For answers to these questions about Perestroika and more, Meduza turned to Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Did the USSR really need Perestroika?

The process by which the Soviet Union abandoned socialism could have been called something else, but this transformation itself was inevitable. (Incidentally, the word perestroika, or “overhaul,” was used by many, including Pyotr Stolypin, to describe Russia’s great reforms in the 1860s.) Stagnation wasn’t just a metaphor but the actual state of the USSR, where the national social contract boiled down to “We pretend to work and you pretend to pay us.” The Soviet state had become an enormous imitation of all things. Cynicism pervaded society and “great” structures ceased to mobilize people in support of the regime. The rhyme “come and visit the Rust Belt, that will make my nethers melt” captures how seriously people took the zeal of Soviet public outreach efforts.

We know the main factor that weakened the Soviet Union: high prices on raw materials. This revenue made it possible to avoid reforms and plug food-supply holes with imports: meat from New Zealand was cheaper than what you could get domestically. As a result, the USSR became the largest importer of food in the world. By the early 1980s, imports exceeded exports by more than $15 billion. By 1984, for example, Soviet grain purchases reached 46 million metric tons — up from just 2.2 million tons in 1970.

But there were even deeper problems with the Soviet system, namely the total inefficiency of its non-market command economy. The issue was that it produced goods for which, in most cases, there could only be artificial demand — one of the key features of a planned economy. As a result, this so-called unmet demand grew, meaning that little could be bought with the money in people’s wallets and savings accounts. By the start of Perestroika, the annual growth rate of unmet demand had reached 16 percent.

In the mid-1980s, a lowly researcher named Vitaly Naishul at the USSR’s State Planning Committee wrote a book that spread through samizdat, titled “Another Life,” where he described the workings of some unprecedented type of economy where production actually mirrors what people need. It turns out that this wasn’t a fantasy!

Another fatal feature of the Soviet economy was its extreme militarization. Most of the economy was devoted to war. The colossal decline in production that came later, in the early 1990s, was due primarily to the collapse of the Soviet military-industrial complex. The scale of defense spending and its share of GDP were classified during the Soviet era, but even the circumstantial evidence suggests unnatural distortions: in the 1970s, the USSR produced 20 times more tanks than the United States. To a high degree, this was dictated not by military necessity but the need to maintain employment at manufacturing sites. A country that spent its entire existence preparing for war was ruined in an arms race and dragged down by its support for satellite states and “fraternal” communist parties.

Rhetoric about the need for NTP — nauchno-tekhnicheskii progress (scientific and technological progress) — came to nothing. In practice, this boiled down to copying Western technologies and producing the most advanced missiles instead of the most advanced shoes and the best guns instead of butter. 

But even more important was what’s called “the spiritual realm.” Nobody still believed in communism. Society was demotivated and theft and corruption had become ways of structuring everyday life, which corresponded to the logic of non-market production and commodity shortages (bribes when it came to all sales and the Soviet verb “dostat’” — “to allot”). More precisely, this was a so-called administrative market: numerous procurement officers traveled across the vast country, equipping their enterprises with needed components based on the logic of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

The dissident movement that took shape between 1965 and 1966 was under tight control, but it turned out to be quite influential — at least for progressive social groups and the established, educated middle class — despite the wave of repressions and its physical destruction in the first half of the 1970s. And underground anti-state groups no longer dreamed of “real socialism,” like in the 1950s and early 1960s — they now wanted the Soviet regime to disappear altogether. At different periods throughout the USSR’s existence, between 8 and 30 million people were listening to Western radio broadcasts, and it wasn’t just the refined intelligentsia. The KGB was particularly worried by the fact that it was often students and schoolchildren with their ears to the radio.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet Union was also rocked by unrest that was anything but intellectual: riots in Novomoskovsk, anti-police demonstrations in Ordzhonikidze (modern-day Vladikavkaz), ethnic clashes in Dushanbe, and even a mutiny by conscripts aboard a troop convoy. This, of course, is hardly an exhaustive list of all the protest turbulence back then.

The Politburo’s final step into the abyss was the start of the Soviet-Afghan War. Nobody wanted Soviet soldiers to die on foreign soil in honor of a few gerontocrats and their ever-changing allies. The USSR was destroyed morally in the Afghan War, as if it had stepped onto a giant landmine, which is something many people now forget

Next, in the early 1980s, we had the “artillery carriage race” with the successive deaths of general secretaries Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko. We no longer like to remember this, but according to the memoirs of numerous party workers and Gorbachev himself, the whole party elite — its “blood and flesh,” the regional committee secretaries — and the entire country didn’t just want but frantically craved change and new leadership. The party welcomed the fact that a relatively young Central Committee Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev managed to out-maneuver the old-timers. His victory was a great relief to the nation.

And the first shock was that Gorbachev spoke without a script.

What exactly did they want to “restructure”? Did they want to build capitalism instead of socialism?

Gorbachev absolutely did not want to rebuild the socialist foundations of the state and society. He honestly believed that socialism still harbored enormous inner reserves and that it was worth tapping these resources, like when they’d discovered the Samotlor oil in the 1960s (which sent the country into stagnant suspended animation), and that everything would roar immediately to life. Among his speechwriters and companions in the Politburo, Gorbachev often shared his thoughts about Lenin’s writings as he revisited the texts. Gorbachev believed sincerely in socialism. “More democracy, more socialism” — that was his slogan.

A May Day celebration at Red Square in 1989. The sign reads: “Long live the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Perestroika’s pioneer and guarantor!”

Ideologically, he intended to loosen the dogmatic reins and rediscover “the good Lenin” as opposed to “the bad Stalin.” In foreign policy, he wanted to end the confrontation with the West, especially when it came to nuclear weapons. With the economy, he wanted to accelerate growth.

In fact, “acceleration” was the signature word of early Perestroika. Significantly, this turned out to be a serious mistake. Instead of minimizing the liberation of market forces and granting relative independence to enterprises at least within the framework of the formerly aborted Kosygin reform, there was an unchecked injection of investment into several sectors, primarily in mechanical engineering. Growth accelerated, except what grew was the production of products that consumers did not need. You’ve heard of art for art’s sake? Well, this was production for production’s sake.

Admittedly, Gorbachev came to his senses after some time, and the June 1987 Central Committee Plenum marked the beginning of an attempt to introduce real economic reforms. Admittedly, even these reforms were very careful and not quite market-oriented; they boiled down to providing greater independence to state enterprises.

After this quick start, the reforms predictably soon stalled: the project was limited by the bounds of the socialist economy. To launch a real market, the USSR needed to abolish price controls, clean up its finances, end its budget deficit, and stop accumulating external debt. There wasn’t sufficient political will to undertake these reforms and the socialist economy’s life was ending anyways: goods were disappearing from the shelves and inflation was steadily rising. No one dared to open this abscess until Russia’s first prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, after the Soviet Union had already collapsed.

Did Gorbachev want to break up the USSR?

If Gorbachev wanted anything, it was to preserve socialism and the Soviet Union. After 1990, he was in fact the president of the USSR and he wanted to remain in this role. He resisted the separatism of the Soviet republics and he waged a war against Boris Yeltsin, who was interested in Russia’s soverignization. Gorbachev launched the Novo-Ogaryovo Process, trying to save the Union even without the departing Baltic states. August 20, 1991, was supposed to mark the culmination of these efforts: the signing of a new Union Treaty. These plans were abruptly derailed on August 19, however, by an attempted coup d’état. The August Coup certified the USSR’s death a few months before the Belavezha Accords and, on December 25, 1991, the Soviet flag was finally lowered from above the Kremlin.

Gorbachev wanted to give more freedom, but he scarcely imagined that the weakening of the Marxist-Leninist and administrative reins would start smashing down one barrier after another: censorship obstacles collapsed, the country began devouring books that hadn’t been read in decades of Soviet rule, and there was an emergence of new informal organizations, movements, and clubs. The process of political emancipation became an avalanche. And Gorbachev could but sprint out ahead of the ice, trying to save face. 

The USSR could only exist, as they used to say, “on a solid Marxist-Leninist foundation.” Without this glue, only the shards of the empire remained. What’s more, everything might have collapsed much sooner, were it not for Gorbachev’s Perestroika. Gorbachev’s Glasnost and attempts to give enterprises, legalized individual entrepreneurs, and cooperatives the chance to earn money helped delay the moment of political and economic collapse.

The Soviet Union was also doomed because democratization awoke national movements in the USSR’s national republics. With the introduction of “republican economic accounting,” for example, the Baltic nations essentially became self-sufficient. The recognition of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, moreover, accelerated the Baltic countries’ effective separation from the USSR — a process that was primarily emotional and psychological. The Caucasus — a region home to strong and passionate national movements that sank into ethnic wars — was also drifting away. The Soviet Union couldn’t manage another fight in the trenches, and it was clearly impossible to preserve the USSR without Ukraine. 

By the end of his reign, Gorbachev was left with just Russia and the Central Asian republics. What kind of USSR was that? Even Russia had departed on its own sovereign voyage, which satisfied not just the democrats but also their ideological adversaries, the Russian national-patriots, who now mourn the loss of their “Great Power.” People today like to forget this, as well. 

Was Yeltsin for or against Perestroika?

Boris Yeltsin was a talented regional committee secretary with an excellent sense of the political situation. He had both democratic instincts and an enormous will to power, embodying exactly the kind of personnel needed at the time. He could hardly have imagined that he would come to be an emblem of the era. Perfectly suited to the moment, Yeltsin couldn’t help but take advantage of this. There came a point at which society needed a leader more radical than Gorbachev. Perestroika made Mr. Yeltsin this leader and he then attained the official status of Russia’s president.

Strictly speaking, though, Perestroika is an idea that belongs to the Gorbachev era. The Yeltsin era is Russia’s post-Perestroika, independent period outside the Soviet Union. Yeltsin nevertheless preserved his political opponent’s main legacy. Perestroika signified society’s freedom and emancipation from the state for the first time in Russia’s entire history, both before and during the USSR. Subsequent generations of Russian politicians, however, have abandoned this.

Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev meet with deputies of the Russian Parliament after the August 1991 Coup. August 23, 1991.
AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Might the USSR still exist today, were it not for Perestroika?

Long before Perestroika, the Soviet Union was a colossal paper tiger. Fearing the consequences of change, Soviet leaders were late with reforms. The longer they waited to introduce economic changes after the failed attempts between 1965 and 1968, the higher the cost of possible transformations grew every year, which would have made them seem all the more shocking. The longer political stagnation dragged out, the greater the detonation of accumulated mass discontent and desire for reform.

In his book, “Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia,” Yegor Gaidar cataloged the mechanics of the socialist economy’s collapse in great detail, using statistical information based on archival materials and departmental correspondence. Gorbachev had the bad luck of coming to power when oil prices collapsed. Gaidar concluded: “From 1985 to 1986, prices fell several fold on resources that fueled the Soviet budget, sustained its foreign trade balance, made it possible to purchase tens of millions of tons of grain every year, service its foreign debt, and finance the army and defense industry.” By 1991, the savings Soviet citizens had in banks weren’t real money so much as account records — the state had managed to siphon off these resources. 

All empires collapse, from the Ottomans to the British. It was impossible to stop the USSR’s dissolution. This is the logic of history.

Maybe the Soviet Union should have reformed according to the Chinese model? First the economy and then politics?

In the early days of the Gorbachev era, Anatoly Chernyaev (the deputy director of the Central Committee’s International Department and subsequently an adviser to Gorbachev) wrote in his journal: “[…] They expect a lot from Gorbachev, just as they had from Andropov… But what we really need is nothing less than a ‘revolution from above.’ Otherwise nothing will work out. Does Mr. Gorbachev understand this?”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s transformations were ultimately gradual, not unlike the reforms in China, but the Chinese had time and Gorbachev did not. China in 1979 was like the USSR in 1929. Before its reforms, China was an agrarian country with enormous cheap labor resources, and its economic transformation was accompanied by urbanization. The Soviet Union was already an urbanized nation: since the late 1950s, the urban population exceeded the rural population. The supply of cheap labor had run out.

How do you take the Chinese approach in the face of a colossal financial crisis and budget deficit? How do you take the Chinese approach in an economy that survives entirely on its oil addiction and can’t withstand the external shock of falling commodity prices?

Economic reforms in the USSR inevitably collided with politics. The economics of shortage (according to János Kornai) could become the economics of abundance (Kornai’s term for the mechanisms of the free market) only by launching an absolutely free market with free pricing. But this was incompatible with the idea of maintaining socialist dogma and single-party rule. Back in the 1960s, the Soviet Union had a chance to introduce market elements gently without losing the Communist Party’s control, like in China, but the opportunity was wasted on burning through oil rents.

When Gaidar took over as cabinet head after the USSR’s collapse, he didn’t have even a second to steer the derailed country onto a Chinese path, and he lacked any instrument of control like the Communist Party. Gaidar subsequently wrote, “It’s pointless to shout at the crowd running to storm the Bastille: ‘Wait! Are you sure that France has all the institutions [needed] for an effective democracy? Let’s pause and analyze the prerequisites for this.’ Revolutions have their own logic and their own driving forces.”

Why was prohibition necessary? Is it true that this was the final straw that destroyed the USSR?

Back in December 1969, Brezhnev gave a speech at a Central Committee plenary session that wasn’t printed in newspapers or published in the multivolume collection of his “works” under the title “Following Lenin’s Course.” In addition to discussing problems with labor productivity, the exhaustion of labor resources, and technological lag, Brezhnev also addressed the Soviet population’s total “alcoholization.” And this was just the beginning: alcohol consumption in the 1970s was twice as high as in the 60s. In 1978 alone, roughly 9 million drunks were delivered to the police. 

Gorbachev believed that this level of alcohol consumption was simply unacceptable. On the other hand, when it came to the dry law itself and how it was enforced (by cutting down vineyards, for example), the authorities went way too far. The policy partially undermined budget revenues and public opinion about Mr. Gorbachev. 

But vodka isn’t the only liquid that finished off the USSR: oil well fluid played a part, too.

Why didn’t the all-powerful KGB stop Perestroika? According to one theory, the agency itself orchestrated the reforms in order to rule in place of the Communist Party.

There are examples of the KGB taking both sides — times when it attempted to tailor Perestroika to its own liking and when it tried to stop it. The policies inspired by former KGB chairman Yuri Andropov looked like this: strengthen discipline, toughen criminal prosecutions, and launch a public and illustrative fight against corruption — especially in trade — to the point of executions. He believed devoutly that these measures could kickstart the economy and discipline society. There was nothing transformative about these “reforms,” though Andropov’s legacy as a great reformer was mythologized. 

At the end of Gorbachev’s reign, the KGB under Vladimir Kryukov did precisely the opposite, trying to mount “counter-reforms” and a plot against Perestroika in the August coup. This effort failed completely, demonstrating once again the intelligence community’s degree of effectiveness when it decides to take on the people. 

In both cases, the KGB was incapable of outmanoeuvring history. The agency battled dissidents, nationalist movements, and nonconformists outside the dissident circles. Usually, agents were merciless and successful, but they were unable to fight against anything so incomprehensible to them as the Soviet people, whose representatives were suddenly beginning to feel like real citizens.

The KGB itself, of course, was convinced that the U.S. embassy and/or a global cabal lurked behind every revolution and every major world event. Russia’s intelligence community failed and still fails to understand that there’s such a thing as a subject of history, like the people or a rebellious mass or a powerful and distinct popular leader. And there’s no one behind any of this. Not the masons and not any anti-Soviet forces. 

But why did former Communist Party leaders come to power in Russia after Perestroika, followed by former intelligence agents?

The capitalism that developed in Russia in the 1990s was rightly called nomenclatural and bureaucratic (and later oligarchic). It has remained so to this day with some changes to the composition of the individuals (and professions) that have successfully merged with the authorities. 

But this was deliberately built into neither Perestroika nor the reforms instituted afterwards by Gaidar’s team. Quite the contrary, the whole problem is that real liberal reforms didn’t last very long at all — from November 1991 until December 1992. The nomenclatura managed to resist the changes successfully, especially when it came to privatization, which was subsequently carried out based on compromises. Despite the fact that the government tried to introduce privatization within a legal framework, the real power and political influence remained with the directors of enterprises (who were also called “reds”) and industry lobbyists. 

These groups were then replaced by oligarchs whom the state effectively “appointed” through the loans-for-shares system to counterbalance the red directors. The system itself remained the same: those with power owned the economy’s commanding heights and those with property wielded decisive influence over the authorities. In the early 2000s, former KGB agents reported for their new role as state oligarchs.

What did the Americans think about Perestroika? They always wanted to defeat the USSR, afterall…

The Americans, like the West as a whole, were very cautious about “Gorbymania” at first. They simply did not believe the USSR was capable of change or ready to end the Cold War, and suspected that Gorbachev was deceiving them by drawing them into some kind of game. Back in 1984, before becoming general secretary, Gorbachev had impressed Margaret Thatcher with his negotiating skills. Ronald Reagan was wary of the new Soviet leader, until he became convinced that Gorbachev was serious about jumpstarting disarmament talks with the United States. Reagan also struggled to believe that Gorbachev wanted to democratize the Soviet Union and therefore the entire Eastern Bloc, which was still under the USSR’s control within the framework of the old “Brezhnev doctrine” that said anywhere a Soviet soldier had set foot belonged to Moscow.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in Washington on December 8, 1987. The agreement was abandoned in 2018.
Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

President George H. W. Bush was a good partner for Gorbachev. Reagan’s successor never wanted a weakened or collapsed USSR for one simple reason: the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and chaos in Moscow could mean war on a local or global scale. The Americans feared the USSR’s dissolution. For a time, they didn’t understand who Yeltsin was and they trusted only Gorbachev. These misgivings, incidentally, greatly complicated the “birth” of an independent Russia.

Will the Putin regime end with another Perestroika?

Talk about a “Perestroika 2.0” is nothing new. During his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev was often compared to Gorbachev. The comparison is thoroughly ridiculous. Gorbachev was a completely independent and self-sufficient political figure. There was no “elder” standing behind him, like Putin shadowed Medvedev. 

In other words, under today’s state capitalism and political authoritarianism à la Putin, there will be no Perestroika 2.0. The legacy of Gorbachev’s overthrow still frightens Russia’s current masters, and they’ll never heed the advice of Prince Tancredi Falconeri from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”: “For everything to stay the same, everything must change.”

Politics in Russia is inalterably personified. Stalin had a natural exit and even the triumvirate made up of Malenkov, Khrushchev, and Beria immediately launched an albeit weak liberalization. Gorbachev was selected after the gerontocrats’ “artillery carriage race” (three dead general secretaries in two and a half years), and policies swung sharply toward liberalization. Yeltsin left and Putin began chilling Russia almost right away and then far more harshly after 2003. 

Before reforms begin, the leader and his inner circle need to go. So long as Russia is home to the logic of “zeroing out” Putin’s presidential terms, modernization, democratization, and liberalization will remain impossible. Just as Gorbachev sought new resources in socialism, Putin will use the remaining energy of state capitalism in the economy and stricter authoritarianism in politics — until the emergence of a new Gorbachev. But don’t expect this person to destroy everything; everything will have collapsed before he even arrives.

Text by Andrei Kolesnikov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

(c) Meduza

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