Perestroika and Glasnost

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

“Perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness) were Mikhail Gorbachev’s watchwords for the renovation of the Soviet body politic and society that he pursued as general secretary of the Communist Party from 1985 until 1991. Neither term was new to Soviet rhetoric. Stalin occasionally had used them as had his successors. The word glasnost actually appeared in Article 9 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution although without any practical application. Both terms can be found in Gorbachev’s speeches and writings as early as the mid-1970s. But it was in a speech of December 1984, four months before his elevation to the general secretaryship, where Gorbachev first identified them — and a third term, “uskorenie” (acceleration) — as key themes. Uskorenie, with its unfortunate connotations of working faster, fell by the wayside, but perestroika and glasnost gained in importance and substance after 1986.

By 1987, Gorbachev was acknowledging that perestroika was a word with many meanings, but “the one which expresses its essence most accurately … is revolution,” since the “qualitatively new” and radical changes which the Soviet Union required constituted a “revolutionary task.” Substantively, it was to mean in the political sphere the introduction of genuinely contested elections for new political institutions (e.g., the Congress of People’s Deputies), enhancement of the governing role of the soviets, and other measures to promote democratization of the Communist Party and the entire political system. Economically, it referred to the legalization of cooperatives and other semi-private business ventures, the demonopolization and liberalization of price controls, and the election of enterprise managers by the labor collective.

Glasnost was what the British political scientist, Archie Brown, called “a facilitating concept” that enabled writers and journalists to push beyond limits that even Gorbachev and his most liberal-minded deputies, Aleksandr Yakovlev and Eduard Shevardnadze, anticipated or approved. Rather than a gift from above, it came to mean in practice a right asserted from below, analogous to freedom of speech and publication. This radical expansion of meaning eventually proved disastrous to Gorbachev and his agenda for change. In promoting glasnost, Gorbachev assumed that it would enhance perestroika. But as the country became overwhelmed by the avalanche of reports about burgeoning criminality as well as revelations of state crimes of the past (“retrospective glasnost”), glasnost effectively undermined public confidence in the ability of the state to lead society to the promised land of prosperity or even arrest its descent into poverty and chaos.

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