Just six years after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as General Secretary of the Communist Party and introduced reforms, the Soviet Union collapsed and newly formed independent nations arose from the ashes. What went wrong?

In 1985, even many of the most conservative hardliners realized that much needed to change. The Soviet economy was faltering and dissidents and internal and external critics were calling for an end to political repression and government secrecy.

Shortly after taking power, Gorbachev tried to tackle these challenges. Under a new policy of glasnost, or transparency and openness, new press freedoms shone a light on many of the most negative aspects of the Soviet Union, both past and present. And with perestroika, the Soviet Union underwent a rapid political and economic restructuring that aimed to transform much of society.

While glasnost and perestroika were not the sole causes of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., the reforms they introduced destabilized an already weakening system and hastened its end.

Well-Intentioned Reforms Backfired

The economic reforms under perestroika—including laws that allowed for the creation of cooperative businesses, peeled back restrictions on foreign trade and loosened centralized control over many businesses—were meant to jump start the sluggish Soviet economy. 

Instead, government spending soared (leading to a massive deficit), as did inflation and food prices, as the formerly highly subsidized agricultural sector was now producing food for profit, not at the formerly controlled prices of earlier years.

The stunning political transformation, which saw the first truly democratic elections in Soviet history in 1989 and the creation of a new Congress of People’s Deputies, also had unintended consequences.

In decentralizing power from the massive communist bureaucracy towards local power control, Gorbachev alienated Party apparatchiks, deprived himself of a power base to support his reforms, incited nationalist and independence movements inside and outside of the U.S.S.R. and fatally wounded the Communist Party itself.

Andrei Sakharov and Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev having heated exchange with human rights activist Andrei Sakharov during session of Congress of People’s Deputies. (Credit: Sergei Guneyev/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Gorbachev's Reforms Faced Opposition from Both Sides

Although they recognized the need for reform (which is why Gorbachev had been chosen to head the Communist Party), hardliners quickly grew wary of many of these changes, which weakened their own powerful positions and veered away from Communist orthodoxy.

They repeatedly pushed back, and took advantage of the new press freedoms under glasnost to publish attacks on Gorbachev. Ultimately, in August 1991, a group of these hardliners staged a coup to topple Gorbachev. The coup failed, but it further destabilized the Soviet system.

Meanwhile, newly released dissidents like physicist and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov criticized the pace and scope of reforms, pushing for a full-fledged move to a market economy and further liberalization of the political process, moves which Gorbachev was often unwilling to make.

The Soviet People Were Unprepared for the Speed of Reforms

While it took several years for the economic and political reforms of perestroika to take effect, the new transparency under glasnost happened almost immediately. Shocking revelations about past abuses under the Soviet system came to light.

William Taubman, historian and author of Gorbachev: His Life and Times, who was in Moscow at the time, recalls, “We used to rush down to the newsstand every morning to buy every paper or journal that we could buy, and by the time we got there at 6:30 or 7 there were already long lines … Moscow was like a huge seminar in which everyone was doing the reading!”

And while the Stalinist era may have been an early focus of these revelations, it soon spread to formerly sacrosanct subjects. “At first, Lenin was not touched, but then it spread to Lenin, and the revelations in effect indicted the whole Soviet system,” Taubman says.

That included exposing the corruption and inefficiencies in the modern-day Soviet system. The rapidity with which the foundation blocks of Soviet communism came under harsh criticism was unsettling for many in the Soviet Union, further destabilizing an already precarious situation.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin
An anti-Gorbachev crowd demonstrating in support of populist Boris Yeltsin. (Credit: Sergei Guneyev/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Gorbachev Struggled to Contain the Forces he'd Unleashed

Having risen through the ranks of the Communist Party, Gorbachev was a skilled in-fighter who could navigate the dog-eat-dog world of the Kremlin. But when faced with a new, democratically elected group, those skills failed him.

Another rising leader, Boris Yeltsin, was known for his popular touch. The increasingly tension-filled relationship between the two men proved disastrous.

As Taubman notes, “It’s a terrific Shakespearean conflict. They should have been allies, they could have been allies, they would have been terrific allies with their different skills, but they turned themselves into enemies. Gorbachev played a role in creating Yeltsin as his nemesis, and then Yeltsin paid him back in spades.”

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Reforms Led to a Relatively Peaceful End of an Empire

There is little doubt that these reforms, intended to strengthen the economy and transform the political system, instead undermined the foundation of the Soviet Union. It’s likely, Taubman says, that the Soviet Union could have survived for a number of years, but it would have grown weaker and more decrepit.

While some sort of collapse may have been inevitable, Taubman believes that, thanks to Gorbachev, the ending was far less tumultuous than it could have been. “It could have ended with an explosion, and with blood, like the Yugoslav model where the thing fell apart, and the various pieces, republics, began warring with each other. Gorbachev managed, or is responsible for, the relatively peaceful end of an empire. “

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev
President George H.W. Bush and Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev during their 1991 joint press conference in Moscow concluding the two-day US-Soviet Summit dedicated to the disarmament. (Credit: Mike Fisher/AFP/Getty Images)

The West Could Have Eased the Transition

While Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev forged a fruitful, if unlikely, political partnership, Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, was slow to act when pushback from hardliners made Gorbachev most vulnerable.

As Taubman says, “Gorbachev wanted something like the Marshall Plan, and Bush refused to give it. Bush might have worried that the aid would go down the drain. But at the end, when Gorbachev desperately needed economic assistance in a big way, Bush wouldn’t provide it.”

That decision had consequences that linger today. Taubman believes that this period marked the only time in the last century that America had a Russian or Soviet partner that was truly willing to be an ally, making it a missed opportunity of huge proportions.

Putin Blames Gorbachev for USSR's Collapse

Many in Russia look back at the pre-Gorbachev era with a somewhat undeserved nostalgia, overlooking the economic, political and societal harshness of the Soviet system.

When Gorbachev ran for president in 1996, just five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he garnered less than one percent of the vote. Recent popularity polls have placed him well below even dictator Joseph Stalin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a vocal critic. “When Putin says that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century, he is indicting Gorbachev as the man he blames for that collapse,” Taubman says. “Everything that Gorbachev did, Putin is in effect reversing.”