Mikhail Gorbachev

Translated to English as ‘restructuring’, Perestroika was the term coined by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for his wide-ranging program of political and economic restructuring – a program which initiated a half-decade of rapid transition culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union altogether, profound crisis for the socialist left around the world, and the end of the Cold War. The book, then, is not the significant issue here. Rather, it is important as a discussion of a tremendously-significant time in modern history and as a document of economic, geopolitical and cultural upheaval that re-drew the socio-political borders of the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Upon becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, Gorbachev moved to institute a series of reforms aimed at general democratization and economic liberalization. Intended to relieve political and economic tensions in the country and provide for a more democratic socialism with increased market mechanisms to satisfy consumers, perestroika and glasnost (openness) soon became general terms for a process of reform that marked the beginning of the end of command socialism as it had been practiced in the USSR and much of the Soviet bloc.

For Gorbachev, the intent of the reform process was neither the disavowal of socialism nor the dissolution of the country. Rather, he saw perestroika as a means of strengthening socialism, of preemptively averting political and economic crisis in order to make the system function more effectively. While some reformers envisioned market restoration as a lifesaver for the country’s economic woes, Gorbachev cautioned against losing sight of socialism in the reform process, stressing that his concern was ‘not about the lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism.’ Social dynamics, though, are not easily manipulated, and perestroika magnified the tensions in the USSR between reformers and the old guard of the Communist Party. Gorbachev moved to loosen the grip of the Communist Party on various aspects of Soviet society and tie himself more directly to the reform movement, with significant success. The reformers, though, soon gained a momentum of their own, and he was caught between a rigid Party apparatus that sought to block the reformĀ  process and a liberalization movement that demanded and eventually simply declared increased autonomy for various regions of the USSR and various mechanisms of governance. By the late 1980s, a number of Soviet republics and Eastern Bloc allies/ satellites had effectively split from the USSR, and Gorbachev’s position as General Secretary was largely independent of the leadership of the Communist Party. As the Soviet Union fractured, the architect of reform was outstripped by the reform process, leading to the election in 1991 of a much more free-market-oriented reformer in Boris Yeltsin, who as President of the Russian Federation oversaw the final dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Days later, Gorbachev resigned from his post as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. His perestroika was complete, and entirely not as intended.