Before Gorbachev's arrival, Soviet leaders simply accepted rationing and the status quo instead of trying to improve things. The economy stagnated. Describing the Soviet economy, Gorbachev wrote: "Finances were in disarray, and the economy was out of balance and in deficit. There was a shortage not only of foodstuffs and industrial goods, but also of metals, fuel and building materials."

Gorbachev knew that something needed to be done about the economy but his moves toward economic reforms were uncertain and somewhat inept and based more on the policies of steering a course between hardliners and reforms than on economic realities. Gorbachev's biographer Martin McClauley, told the Los Angeles Times, Gorbachev "didn't understand economics and he didn't understand what he was doing."

Gorbachev economic reforms broke down the old system but failed to replace it with something that worked. Prices rose, supplies grew scarce, the lines got longer, crops rotted because the new economy could not handle the workload. The reforms only seemed to open up the black market and shadow economy while the official economy went broke and eventual collapse seemed inevitable.


Perestroika, literally “rebuilding” or “restructing”, was Gorbachev's campaign to revitalize the communist party, the Soviet economy, and Soviet society by reforming economic, political, and social mechanisms. Perestroika was aimed primarily to the economy, but it was meant to refer to society in general. It was an effort to move the Soviet Union away from the command economy. In many ways the reforms were not all that different from Lenin’s New Economic Policy and Deng’s economic liberalization in China. Gorbachev always said that his goal was to modernize Socialism not overthrow it and thus keep the Communist party in power.

Over the course of Soviet rule, society in the Soviet Union had grown more urbanized, better educated, and more complex. Old methods of exhortation and coercion were inappropriate, yet Brezhnev's government had denied change rather than mastered it. Despite Andropov's efforts to reintroduce some measure of discipline, the communist superpower remained stagnant. Once Gorbachev began to call for bolder reforms, the "acceleration" gave way to perestroika. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Throughout the early years of his rule, Gorbachev spoke of perestroika , but only in early 1987 did the slogan become a full-scale campaign and yield practical results. At that time, measures were adopted on the formation of cooperatives and joint ventures. At a plenum of the CPSU Central Committee in January 1987, Gorbachev explicitly applied the label to his program to devolve economic and political control. In economics, perestroika meant greater leeway in decision making for plant managers, allowance for a certain degree of individual initiative and the chance to make a profit. *

In January 1988, the new Law on State Enterprises went into effect, allowing enterprises to set many of their own prices and wages. Results were disappointing, however, because workers demanded steep wage increases. As the government printed more money, products fetched higher prices outside the official economy. Thus, goods usually sold in state stores at fixed prices quickly disappeared as speculators snatched them up or producers ceased making deliveries. By September 1988, many staple products could not be found even in Moscow. During 1988-89 Gorbachev also issued orders to the oblast party committees to cease interfering in the economy, and he cut the staffs of state committees and ministries involved in the economy in order to prevent them from further tampering with it. Without the state and the party to hold it together and guide it, the economy went into free-fall. *

In the summer of 1990, Yeltsin, who had been elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic in May, backed a radical economic reform plan that would have spelled the end of many special interests within the party. Gorbachev in turn presented a much less extreme "Presidential Plan," which the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union passed. Yeltsin threatened that the Russian Republic would proceed with the initial radical plan, but shortly thereafter he suspended it. *

In January 1991, Gorbachev replaced Prime Minister Nikolay Ryzhkov, who had become identified with the regime's economic failures, with Valentin Pavlov, an opponent of radical reform. Pavlov immediately created a mass panic by withdrawing large-denomination banknotes from circulation and limiting the public's ability to convert them to lower-denomination notes. The move, designed to reduce the vast sums of money circulating and to punish "black marketeers" hoarding large banknotes, only intensified the people's mistrust of the Soviet government. The economy continued to spiral downward, and Gorbachev and Shevardnadze had to ask the West for financial aid in order to stave off collapse. Gorbachev's retreat marked the last time economic reform dominated the agenda of a Soviet government. *

Perestroika Reforms

Under perestroika, Gorbachev allowed limited private enterprise and private property. Businesses known as cooperatives were started and some deregulation took place. The Soviet economic reforms during Gorbachev's initial period (1985-86) were similar to the reforms of previous regimes: they modified the Stalinist system without making truly fundamental changes. The basic principles of central planning remained. The measures proved to be insufficient, as economic growth rates continued to decline and the economy faced severe shortages. Gorbachev and his team of economic advisers then introduced more fundamental reforms, which became known as perestroika (restructuring). At the June 1987 plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Gorbachev presented his "basic theses," which laid the political foundation of economic reform for the remainder of the decade. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In July 1987, the Supreme Soviet passed the Law on State Enterprises. The law stipulated that state enterprises were free to determine output levels based on demand from consumers and other enterprises. Enterprises had to fulfill state orders, but they could dispose of the remaining output as they saw fit. Enterprises bought inputs from suppliers at negotiated contract prices. Under the law, enterprises became self-financing; that is, they had to cover expenses (wages, taxes, supplies, and debt service) through revenues. No longer was the government to rescue unprofitable enterprises that could face bankruptcy. Finally, the law shifted control over the enterprise operations from ministries to elected workers' collectives. Gosplan's responsibilities were to supply general guidelines and national investment priorities, not to formulate detailed production plans. *

The Law on Cooperatives, enacted in May 1987, was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms during the early part of the Gorbachev regime. For the first time since Lenin's NEP, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. The law initially imposed high taxes and employment restrictions, but it later revised these to avoid discouraging private-sector activity. Under this provision, cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers became part of the Soviet scene. *

Gorbachev brought perestroika to the Soviet Union's foreign economic sector with measures that Soviet economists considered bold at that time. His program virtually eliminated the monopoly that the Ministry of Foreign Trade had had on most trade operations. It permitted the ministries of the various industrial and agricultural branches to conduct foreign trade in sectors under their responsibility rather than having to operate indirectly through the bureaucracy of trade ministry organizations. In addition, regional and local organizations and individual state enterprises were permitted to conduct foreign trade. This change was an attempt to redress a major imperfection in the Soviet foreign trade regime: the lack of contact between Soviet end users and suppliers and their foreign partners. *

The most significant of Gorbachev's reforms in the foreign economic sector allowed foreigners to invest in the Soviet Union in the form of joint ventures with Soviet ministries, state enterprises, and cooperatives. The original version of the Soviet Joint Venture Law, which went into effect in June 1987, limited foreign shares of a Soviet venture to 49 percent and required that Soviet citizens occupy the positions of chairman and general manager. After potential Western partners complained, the government revised the regulations to allow majority foreign ownership and control. Under the terms of the Joint Venture Law, the Soviet partner supplied labor, infrastructure, and a potentially large domestic market. The foreign partner supplied capital, technology, entrepreneurial expertise, and, in many cases, products and services of world competitive quality. *

Problems with Perestroika

Although they were bold in the context of Soviet history, Gorbachev's attempts at economic reform were not radical enough to restart the country's chronically sluggish economy in the late 1980s. The reforms made some inroads in decentralization, but Gorbachev and his team left intact most of the fundamental elements of the Stalinist system--price controls, inconvertibility of the ruble, exclusion of private property ownership, and the government monopoly over most means of production. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

By 1990 the government had virtually lost control over economic conditions. Government spending increased sharply as an increasing number of unprofitable enterprises required state support and consumer price subsidies continued. Tax revenues declined because revenues from the sales of vodka plummeted during the anti-alcohol campaign and because republic and local governments withheld tax revenues from the central government under the growing spirit of regional autonomy. The elimination of central control over production decisions, especially in the consumer goods sector, led to the breakdown in traditional supplier-producer relationships without contributing to the formation of new ones. Thus, instead of streamlining the system, Gorbachev's decentralization caused new production bottlenecks. *

Failure of Gorbachev’s Reform Effort

Perestroika ultimately failed because Gorbachev did not have a firm vision of what the Soviet system was to be replaced with. Perestroika and Glasnost opened the floodgates of change and are credited with starting the chain of events that led to the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The Communist party under Gorbachev didn't have the clear lines of authority and the irrefutable ideological dogma that had maintained discipline and held the party together in the past. Among Gorbachev's problems were his "inability to tolerate strong figures around him, his reliance on the KGB, which eventually betrayed him; his longstanding failure to grasp the realities of economic reform." When Gorbachev was losing his popularity a popular cry was "Gorbachev to Chernobyl!"

Gorbachev's efforts to introduce democracy and free market reforms were thwarted by Communist party bosses and appartchniks who didn't want to give up their perks. Intellectuals acting under glasnost discredited the system and robbed its of it legitimizing ideology. At the same time, no liberal institutions or legal framework—necessary for making a market democracy function—were instituted. On thing that happened when the Soviet Union collapsed was that industries and regions controlled by party loyalists ended up being run by the same loyalists only after the collapse they became concerned with enriching themselves rather than supporting the state.

Gorbachev's new system bore the characteristics of neither central planning nor a market economy. Instead, the Soviet economy went from stagnation to deterioration. At the end of 1991, when the union officially dissolved, the national economy was in a virtual tailspin. In 1991 the Soviet GDP had declined 17 percent and was declining at an accelerating rate. Overt inflation was becoming a major problem. Between 1990 and 1991, retail prices in the Soviet Union increased 140 percent. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Under these conditions, the general quality of life for Soviet consumers deteriorated. Consumers traditionally faced shortages of durable goods, but under Gorbachev, food, wearing apparel, and other basic necessities were in short supply. Fueled by the liberalized atmosphere of Gorbachev's glasnost (literally, public voicing) and by the general improvement in information access in the late 1980s, public dissatisfaction with economic conditions was much more overt than ever before in the Soviet period. The foreign-trade sector of the Soviet economy also showed signs of deterioration. The total Soviet hard-currency debt increased appreciably, and the Soviet Union, which had established an impeccable record for debt repayment in earlier decades, had accumulated sizable arrearages by 1990.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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