Russian History


Unforeseen Results of Reform

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.

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--see Glossary) 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 (see Glossary) 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.

In sum, the Soviet Union left a legacy of economic inefficiency and deterioration to the fifteen constituent republics after its breakup in December 1991. Arguably, the shortcomings of the Gorbachev reforms had contributed to the economic decline and eventual destruction of the Soviet Union, leaving Russia and the other successor states to pick up the pieces and to try to mold modern, market-driven economies. At the same time, the Gorbachev programs did start Russia on the precarious road to full-scale economic reform. Perestroika broke Soviet taboos against private ownership of some types of business, foreign investment in the Soviet Union, foreign trade, and decentralized economic decision making, all of which made it virtually impossible for later policy makers to turn back the clock.