Mikhail Gorbachev Dead: What Are Glasnost and Perestroika?

CIn the days ahead, many words will be dedicated to Mikhail Gorbachev (the Soviet leader who died August 30th at the age of nineteen). Two words are likely to be repeated throughout the obituaries. glasnost And perestroika. These transliterations of Russian words are synonymous with his campaign for Soviet reform through policies. This was his 1982 book. Perestroika:We need new thinking for our country and the world.

What do these actually signify?

Gorbachev increased talk of the Soviet Union’s communist party shortly after becoming the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1985. glasnost—meaning “openness,” particularly openness of information—and perestroika, meaning a “restructuring,” specifically of the Communist economy and political system. These terms were used together because they both meant the same thing: the reforms that were described in the Soviet Union would be more democratic and include some elements of capitalism to revive the economy.

For more details, glasnost was supposed to translate into a loosening of state censorship of the media — “‘Those who attempt to suppress the fresh voice, the just voice, according to old standards and attitudes, need to get out of the way,’” as TIME reported Gorbachev saying in a July 1986 speech.

Perestroika This was to allow the Soviet to incorporate some aspects of a market economy in its economy. The price controls were relaxed, encouraging more entrepreneurs and limiting private business, and making it easier for consumers to buy imported goods. TIME also explained this to readers back in 1989. “It is particularly important that the actual pay of every worker be closely linked to his personal contribution to the end result, and that no limit be set,’” he said in a 1987 speech.

In a July 27, 1987 cover story, TIME dubbed the policies “Gorbachev’s Revolution” and described the “chilly dawn of reform” spreading in Soviet society: “Mikhail Gorbachev’s calls for glasnost (openness), demokratizatsiyaDemocratization perestroika (restructuring) have become the watchwords of a bold attempt to modernize his country’s creaky economic machinery and revitalize a society stultified by 70 years of totalitarian rule.” As a footnote clarified, “In current Soviet parlance, [glasnost]’s meaning is not so much openness as public airing or public disclosure.”

TIME’s July 27, 1987 Cover


Many factors went into developing these policies.

For example, in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Soviet news outlets produced what TIME called “unprecedented candor” about the mismanagement of the nuclear power plant. Even newspapers can’t help but be influenced by the news. Pravda, the “official voice of the Communist party,” as TIME put it “dropped the rosy prose” and photos of happy workers “in favor of a strong slap at Soviet incompetence, confusion and cowardice” as it reported on officials who left their posts after the accident and the firing of the plant’s director and chief engineer. That openness about what had gone wrong—turning to the truth rather than to propaganda—was just one hint at the coming of glasnost.

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For more information, see perestroika, that involved, as the magazine put it, “making the Soviet Union an economic superpower as well as a military one.” It meant modernizing Soviet factories and forging business partnerships with the West. (For example, Bloomingdale’s department store in New York City started selling Soviet rye bread in 1989.) TIME also reported that Gorbachev’s effort to get a handle on the high levels of alcoholism in the Soviet Union—by raising the drinking age from 18 to 21, shortening liquor store hours and raising the prices of vodka—were a “perestroika of the personality,” an attempt to restructure individuals.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, (C), and Raisa Gorbachev (2ndL) discuss the Chernobyl nuclear plant’s official activities on February 23, 1989.

V. Samokhotsky—AFP via Getty Images

Gorbachev gave one viewpoint on the efficacy of policies when he spoke to TIME about the 20th anniversary of the words being added to the international lexicon. “Seventy-seven percent of Russians say they want to live in a free and democratic country,” he said. “That is the legacy of perestroika.” The idea of glasnost also empowered the Russian LGBTQ community—which has been threatened by recent anti-gay government policies—to speak more openly about sexuality.

However, the changes were not instantaneous or complete.

Some U.S. businesses initially weren’t eager to work with Soviet companies, feeling that their values still weren’t aligned that there wasn’t enough profit in it anyway, given currency conversion issues with rubles. “Many Americans believe that helping strengthen the Soviet Union could damage U.S. interests,” TIME reported in 1988. “And because of Western security concerns, many U.S. commercial technologies will remain off limits to ventures with the Soviets… Imports of Soviet goods to the U.S. are inhibited by an American law that withholds favorable trading status from certain countries practicing repressive emigration policies. Result: the Soviets have turned to West Germany, Japan and other industrial partners for investment capital and production expertise… Meanwhile, their Western partners, who are mainly eager to sell products and services in the Soviet Union, must cope with the nonconvertibility of Soviet currency. No matter how profitable a Soviet joint venture may be, U.S. companies have little use for rubles.”

As a result, there were shortages ranging from fresh fruit to clothing, but the policies were part of a movement that would change the Soviet Union—and 20th century history—irrevocably.

The Soviet Union’s legendary poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko described how perestroika and glasnost went hand in hand to TIME in 1987, and his take arguably still rings profound, more than three decades later: “One could describe glasnostThe national economy is metaphorically referred to as the air above, and the air below. Refreshing the air takes less time than turning and fertilizing the earth. However, it’s easier to purify the air before any healthy changes in the earth can occur. We cannot speak about economic victories at this time, as it’s too early, and nobody has made any promises of a miracle cure. We must wait for the earth to absorb the air, and be enriched.”

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

To Olivia B. Waxman at


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