Magazine article Russian Life

Six Years That Shook the World: Perestroika's Heroes Today

Magazine article Russian Life

Six Years That Shook the World: Perestroika's Heroes Today

Article excerpt

20 years ago, Russia began to walk down the path of reform.

It was a short walk. Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika lasted just six years. Still, it was enough to turn the world upside down.


Gorbachev's reform plan was not constructed about a neatly formulated ideology, but around the desire to fix a country that had a stagnating, isolated economy. The energetic new General Secretary of the Communist Party (CPSU) attacked many (but far from all) of the sacred cows of communism. He shoved the country toward a market economy, renounced the dictates of hard-liners by allowing demonstrations and lifting censorship, withdrew Soviet troops from Europe and Asia, buried the Bolsheviks' dream of World Revolution and ended the decades-long Cold War.

And then there was the putsch--the attempt by conservative communists to restore the Soviet Union in its previous guise. This turned out to only speed the USSR's demise, leading to the Yeltsin era. And after Yeltsin's resignation there was Vladimir Putin, whose tenure has been longer that of Gorbachev.

Russian Life asked Marina Latysheva to look back on the six years that were perestroika, check in on some of its key personalities, and offer brief updates on where they are now.


In the Soviet communists' highest organ, after three aging leaders died in as many years, the choice was made to put a younger politician on the throne. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was a typical functionary from the Russian provinces, having risen to power through the Brezhnev era. In April 1985, he set the tone for his rule with a speech at the 27th Communist Party Congress, on the need for reform and transformation. He would rule for just over six years: in 1991, while Gorbachev was on vacation, hard-line communists unsatisfied with his leadership tried to execute a putsch. But they were hindered by Boris Yeltsin, who, after the coup was thwarted, took advantage of events to take the reigns of power and hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union.


During perestroika, Gorbachev lifted censorship, took on drunkenness, transformed the industrial and banking systems, and obtained important credits from the West (which turned out to be more than Russia could handle). He made the State subject to electoral mandate and ended the communist monopoly on power. In his reign, the Soviet Union saw shortages and hunger, but business developed. He withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan and ended the Cold War, but his policies also led to an increase in separatism and armed conflict within the USSR.

Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize while still in power. In 2004, he received a Grammy for his narration of a recording with the Russian National Orchestra. Today he spends most of his time traveling, lecturing and working for the Gorbachev Foundation. He also seeks to play an important role in politics, but with little success. He has always been more popular outside Russia than within. His wife Raisa died in 1999, from leukemia, and after her death it was if he had lost a part of himself. As Margaret Thatcher once said, "She and her husband were an indivisible pair. Raisa's constant support to a large degree enabled the president's political rise and the great reforms which he brought about."


An economist and high-ranking Gosplan bureaucrat, Nikolai Ryzhkov became prime minister during perestroika, overseeing the practical implementation of reforms. He was the first and most important adviser to Gorbachev among the other young members of the Politburo. In 1988, he lobbied for the cooperative movement, trying to convince everyone to go into business.

Ryzhkov tried to use his position to change the monster that was the planned economy--a monster which he himself had helped lead for many years. But with little success. Even back then, Ryzhkov understood that everything was not going as the leadership would have liked, yet he spent government meetings complaining about objective problems and difficulties, rather than addressing root causes. …

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