The Unintended Consequences of Gorbachev's Perestroika

Photograph by Bob Galbraith/AP Photo

1986 Mikhail Gorbachev eases government controls on industry and allows workers’ cooperatives to set up private businesses.

When Soviet leader Gorbachev launched his plan for perestroika—or restructuring—at a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee in January 1986, he promised it would deliver the economic and political modernization that his countrymen had “long been yearning for.” The upheaval that followed, however, wasn’t what he had in mind. Within six years, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had disintegrated, diminishing Moscow’s influence abroad and opening the door to chaos at home.

Over the next decade, Russia endured a bloody coup attempt, the looting of state assets by ruthless oligarchs, and the collapse of the national currency. Now the country seems to be turning resolutely away from three things Gorbachev actually intended to achieve with perestroika: reduced state management of the economy, greater political freedom, and warmer relations with the West.

President Vladimir Putin and his allies have seized Russia’s richest companies and banks, ousting and sometimes jailing their leaders. The Kremlin has assumed control of major news outlets and stamped out political opposition. Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and its probing of NATO defenses in the Baltics and elsewhere threaten to erase more than a quarter-century of peace with the West that began with the 1987 deal between Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan to reduce the size of their countries’ nuclear arsenals. “The world is on the brink of a new Cold War,” Gorbachev, now 83, lamented at a Nov. 8 ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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