Imagined Alternatives: A History of Ideas in Russia’s Perestroika

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The story of perestroika, in which the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched a reform programme aimed at renewing the socialist system, then lost control of a process that finally led to the demise of the USSR in 1991,
is a well-known narrative. However, this version of events has been established in hindsight by liberal historians proclaiming ‘the end of history'(1) and thus tells this story from a very specific angle. This paradigm of the ‘failed socialist experiment’ focuses on strong leaders and their actions. The result is a tale of individual people making historic choices. The research presented here shifts the focus onto society, and onto ideas. Thus the main question asked in this article is not ‘What did the leaders do?’ but ‘What did society think?’. The fact that the official perestroika programme promoted by parts of the state élite was paralleled by the so-called ‘informal movement’(2), consisting of social initiatives, discussion circles, political clubs and large social organisations, has often been ignored or neglected by historians. This article enriches the usual story of perestroika thought with some original material drawing on two main sets of sources: a series of interviews that I conducted in Moscow in June 2011 with activists from the perestroika period, and the original documents of these various organisations—founding programmes, declarations, samizdat articles and such like(3). The result is a vivid polylogue of various groups within civil society and the élite.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1–24
Number of pages24
JournalSocialist History
Issue number42
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes


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