National Security Archive: Perestroika in the Soviet Union: 30 Years On

12 March 2015 — National Security Archive

Documents show extraordinary achievements, Spectacular missed opportunities

Newly published records include report on Chernobyl, Gorbachev meetings with Mitterrand and Bush, and Gorbachev appeal for international aid in 1991

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 504
Compiled and edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Anna Melyakova

Posted March 11, 2015

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Washington, DC, Posted March 11, 2015 — Thirty years ago today, in the Kremlin, the Soviet Politburo unanimously elected its youngest member, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the pinnacle of Soviet power — General Secretary of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This election ushered in the “perestroika” period of revolutionary change, which led to the end of the Cold War, democratization of the Soviet Union, and ultimately — to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire, as detailed in an extraordinary selection of documents from Soviet, American and other sources published today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (

Gorbachev had come to Moscow only a few years earlier, in 1978, to serve as the party secretary for Agriculture. His rise was indeed meteoric. Under General Secretary Yuri Andropov (1982-84), Gorbachev essentially became number two in the party and a perceived successor to Andropov. According to the documents as well as diaries and memoirs, Gorbachev was a straight arrow, not a dissident, but a reformer within the system. His top priorities were to reform the Soviet economy, end the war in Afghanistan, and end the nuclear arms race to direct the peace dividend to domestic reform. It helped him that at the time, the entire Soviet elite was ready for change and saw in him the potential to make the Soviet system stronger and more vibrant. The documents published here show Gorbachev’s first efforts to achieve his goals — from the conversation with Afghan Communist leader Babrak Karmal to the launch of the anti-alcohol campaign, to the first conversation with President Ronald Reagan.

This selection of documents from all seven years of the perestroika era attempts to give the reader a sense of the scope of this revolutionary transformation, not just of the Soviet Union, but of the world. The documents cover the most important issues that confronted Soviet leaders in this period — the reform of the Warsaw Pact and relations with socialist allies from the beginning and to the crumbling of the Pact, arms control and the key U.S.-Soviet interactions, relations with West European countries, and Soviet activities in the Third World.

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THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.