Gorbachev, Mikhail (b. 1931)

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Leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991.

Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) between 1985 and 1991 was indeed "six years that changed the world." Elected general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1985, Gorbachev immediately signaled that a period of accelerated change would be launched, a process that he called "perestroika" (restructuring). Gorbachev represented the generation of politicians inspired by the spirit of post-Stalinist thaw in the 1950s, epitomized by the Twentieth Party Congress in February of that year at which Nikita Khrushchev delivered his "secret speech" condemning Joseph Stalin's destruction of the Communist Party and other crimes. The critical Soviet elite of the 1960s (known collectively as the shestidesyatniki, "the people of the [nineteen] sixties") sought to save Soviet-style socialism by giving it a more human face, a program implemented by Alexander Dubček in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. The attempt to create "socialism with a human face" was crushed by Soviet and allied tanks in August 1968, but now the Soviet system itself had come to the same point. On assuming the leadership Gorbachev and his colleagues agreed that the old system could not go on in the old way, mired in the "stagnation" of the Leonid Brezhnev years, and sought to implement the ideals of humanistic socialism. In the event, under Gorbachev's leadership the communist political system dissolved, the Soviet bloc of allied socialist countries in Eastern Europe fell apart, and ultimately the USSR disintegrated.


Gorbachev was born into a peasant family in the Stavropol region of southern Russia on 2 March 1931. This was a time of terrible privation as Stalin's policy of collectivization forced peasants off their own small plots and into giant collective farms (kolkhozy). This was the time of Stalin's terror, and both of Gorbachev's grandfathers suffered from repression, although his maternal grandfather went on to chair a collective farm. During the war Gorbachev's native village, Privolnoye, came under German occupation from August 1942 to January 1943. Living under the occupation usually had a devastating impact on people's career prospects, but for Gorbachev, being so young, it proved no obstacle to advancement. Gorbachev was a talented school pupil and at the same time a model agricultural worker, for which at age seventeen he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. This honor provided the impetus for Gorbachev to enter the highly prestigious Law Faculty of Moscow State University in 1950. Gorbachev's higher education and his legal knowledge would later distinguish him from his peers in the top Soviet leadership. His five years in Moscow University were a crucial formative period in his intellectual development, and many of the friends he made there were to remain close to him for the rest of his life.

This applies in particular to his fellow student Zdeněk Mlynář, who became one of the architects of the Prague Spring. Mlynář was the author of the Action Program of the Czechoslovak Communist Party that called for the transformation of the party into a genuinely accountable and democratic body at the head of a popular movement. Underlying this ideal was the view that Stalinism represented a shift toward an economic form of socialism that focused the relationship between things, whereas the proponents of socialism with a human face believed in a more democratic form of socialism that focused on relations between people. This was a view that lay at the heart of Gorbachev's reforms later.

It was while at university that Gorbachev married Raisa Maximovna Titorenko; they had two daughters. Raisa Maximovna was a notable sociologist in her own right, studying the condition of peasants in her native Stavropol region and honestly reflecting on the problems that faced them, despite the claims of "developed socialism" to have solved the social problems inherited from capitalism. She was to be Gorbachev's intellectual companion and source of moral support, and her death in 1999 was a devastating blow from which he never fully recovered. The couple lived in the Stavropol region from 1955 to 1978. Gorbachev soon realized that his talents lay in politics rather than in practicing law. He swiftly moved up the career ladder as a functionary, first in the regional Komsomol (Communist League of Youth) organization, which he came to head by 1958, and then in the Communist Party organization from 1962. By 1966, at the remarkably early age of thirty-five, he was first secretary of the Stavropol city organization of the CPSU, by 1968 the second secretary for the entire region, and in 1970 first secretary of the Obkom (Regional Party Committee). With the latter post came membership in the national Central Committee in 1971. As head of the Stavropol region Gorbachev experimented with ways of achieving greater worker involvement, notably through the "link" system of granting greater autonomy to groups of workers, something he later sought to give to the whole country.

Although the hopes of the 1950s and early 1960s turned to disappointment and stagnation in the later years of Brezhnev's leadership (1964–1982), Gorbachev continued to thrive. Because Stavropol was located on the route to the top leadership's holiday destinations in south Russia, Gorbachev was host to many an important dignitary. In particular, the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, noted Gorbachev's ability and was later to favor Gorbachev once he became for a brief period leader of the country following Brezhnev's death.

In November 1978 Gorbachev was elected a secretary of the Central Committee, launching his rapid ascent in the national leadership. It soon became clear that Gorbachev was not only the youngest of the national leaders (only forty-seven years old compared to the average age of around seventy) but also had a spirit of resolution and political skills that would take him far. Granted candidate membership of the Politburo in 1979 and full membership in 1980, he was one of the nation's top figures when Brezhnev died in November 1982. Andropov assumed the leadership position but ill health prevented him doing much more than signaling that he sought to impose greater labor and political discipline balanced by some ideological flexibility. Gorbachev was shouldered aside in the leadership struggle following Andropov's death in March 1984, with the gerontocrats electing one of their own, the Brezhnevite Konstantin Chernenko. Gorbachev effectively acted as second-in-command, and Chernenko's death in March 1985 finally allowed a new generation to take over the reins of power.


Gorbachev did not come to power with a clear set of policies, but he was convinced that change had to take place if the Soviet Union stood any chance of competing militarily and economically in the new international conditions. Gorbachev intended to oversee the modernization of the Soviet system. One of the characteristics of his leadership was the ability to discard old positions and to modify his thinking in the light of developments, but this flexibility came to be seen toward the end by many as unprincipled opportunism.

Gorbachev immediately turned his attention to the economy, where the high growth rates of the 1950s and 1960s had by the 1970s turned into stagnation and barely maintained standards of living. However, the attempt through the policy of acceleration (uskorenie) to achieve an intensification of economic output while launching structural reform was ill-advised. A spurt in economic growth was soon followed by a slump and by 1991 an economic meltdown. The anti-alcohol campaign of 1985–1986 was equally ill-advised, depriving the country of nearly one-third of tax revenues, and its implementation was crude and heavy-handed, alienating much of the population from the very first. The launching of glasnost (openness) in 1987 was intended at first only to expose corruption and to strengthen the Soviet system, but it soon became a devastating search for the truth about terror under Lenin and Stalin. Although a man of high intelligence, Gorbachev was unable to rid himself of an idealized vision of Leninism. His calls to return to some better version of the Revolution, epitomized by the works of the late Lenin stressing a gradual approach to building socialism, was anachronistic in the conditions of the 1980s.

By late 1987 the program of democratization (demokratizatsiya) came to the fore, in part to wrong-foot his opponents in the Communist leadership but also because Gorbachev had come to understand, like the Czechoslovak reformers before him, that socialism without democracy would inevitably give rise to Stalinist distortions. Experiments were conducted at the local level with multi-candidate elections. Gorbachev's own views at this time were eloquently developed in his book Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World (1987), in which he talked of perestroika as a revolution both from above and below. The country by now was swept by a wave of civic activity, with thousands of informal groups springing up. Many called for political pluralism, but at the same time, nationalist movements developed, in particular in the Baltic republics, the western part of the country, and the south Caucasus. The demands of popular movements began to outstrip Gorbachev's ability to respond to them.

The high point of Gorbachev's definition of perestroika was the Nineteenth Party Conference in June–July 1988, where he outlined a program of democratic political change and a new international role for the USSR. The conference was followed by measures to prevent the party apparatus from impeding change or challenging Gorbachev, and in November 1988 constitutional amendments created the rudiments of a parliamentary system. The elections to the new Congress of People's Deputies (CPD) in March 1989 saw many of the top party leaders lose, thus undermining the legitimacy of the old regime. The early debates of the parliament riveted the nation, as problems were openly discussed for the first time in decades. Mass demonstrations, echoing those that brought down the communist systems in Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1989, forced the Central Committee in February 1990 to relinquish its constitutionally entrenched "leading role," as embodied in article 6 of the 1977 Soviet constitution. On 14 March 1990 the CPD formally abolished the dominant role of the CPSU but on the very same day created a new executive presidency. The CPD elected Gorbachev to this post, and his failure to stand in a national ballot is often considered one of his major mistakes. Lacking a popular mandate, he was sidelined by those who did, notably Boris Yeltsin in the Russian republic.

National mobilization began to threaten the unity of the country. Gorbachev appeared to have a blind spot when it came to the sensitivities of the many nations making up the USSR, in particular the fifteen union republics that according to the 1977 constitution had the right to secede. Although Gorbachev was willing to grant greater autonomy to the union republics, he would have no truck with independence. The rise of Russia under Yeltsin came as a most unwelcome distraction for him, while the frustration of the Baltic states and Moldova about Gorbachev's failure at least to acknowledge the historical injustice meted out to them by Stalin finally provoked calls for independence. Gorbachev hoped to transform what was in effect a unitary state into a genuinely confederal community of nations by negotiating a new union treaty, but by the time that this seriously came on the agenda in 1991 many of the republics were ready for independence. Lithuania had already declared independence in 1990, followed by Georgia and other republics in 1991. Even though a large majority voted in favor of preserving a reconstituted USSR in the referendum of 17 March 1991, the boycott of the vote by six republics detracted from the victory.

Gorbachev had come to power when the second Cold War threatened to turn into a hot war, and it was his undoubted achievement not only to lift the threat of conflict with the West but also to provide the conditions for the overcoming of the Cold War in its entirety. Gorbachev proposed the idea of "new political thinking" based on the notion of interdependence and a new cooperative relationship with the West. Proof of this was the abolition of a whole class of intermediate nuclear weapons in 1987. Withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988 put an end to one of the Soviet Union's most futile military adventures. In Europe, Gorbachev talked of the establishment of a "common European home," but it was not clear what form this would take. Gorbachev looked on as one after another of the communist regimes in the Soviet bloc collapsed from 1989; although he would have preferred reform communism to have replaced neo-Stalinism, instead capitalism flooded in. Gorbachev facilitated the unification of Germany in 1990, although he is criticized for failing to guarantee in treaty form the demilitarized status of the eastern part of the new country.

Economic reform proved the stumbling block for his vision of perestroika. His inability to make up his mind in the early 1990s over a strategy for economic change encouraged Russia and the other republics to go it alone. Resistance to his aims and his policies grew to the point that a group prepared to seize power in a coup. The specific issue was the planned signing of the new Union Treaty on 20 August 1991, but the plotters were also concerned about economic disintegration and the loss of political control. For three days in August (19–21) Gorbachev was isolated in the Crimea, while Yeltsin faced down the plotters and emerged with renewed popularity. Gorbachev's hopes for a reformed democratic socialism lay in tatters. The pressure for increased sovereignty for republics grew into demands for independence, and despite Gorbachev's attempts to save the union, in December of that year the USSR was formally dissolved. Gorbachev resigned as president on 25 December 1991 and went on to head his Gorbachev Foundation dealing with historical and social science research.

Gorbachev proved a visionary transformative leader, but his attempt to reform the Soviet system provoked its demise. His reforms clearly showed that Soviet socialism had hidden potential, and it is not incredible to argue that a different set of policies might have allowed the Soviet system to emerge strengthened and renewed from the reform process. By 1991 the Soviet Union was in effect a functioning democracy, although it lacked a market system. Gorbachev achieved the relatively peaceful transcendence of the communist system, the ending of the Cold War, and the transformation of the USSR's fifteen republics into sovereign statehood. Gorbachev remained loyal to his vision of a humane democratic socialism, and for many in the chaotic transition to democratic capitalism that followed his humanism and intelligence remained a beacon of hope.

See alsoAndropov, Yuri; Eastern Bloc; 1989; Perestroika; Soviet Union; Velvet Revolution.


Primary Sources

Gorbachev, Mikhail. Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. London, 1987. Gives Gorbachev's own views at the time.

——. Zhizn' i reformy. 2 vols. Moscow, 1995. Gorbachev's full memoirs.

——. On My Country and the World. New York, 2000.

Gorbachev, Mikhail, and Zdeněk Mlynář. Conversations with Gorbachev on Perestroika, the Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism. New York, 2002. Vividly brings out the theoretical basis of Gorbachev's thinking.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Archie. The Gorbachev Factor. Oxford, U.K., 1996. One of the best political analyses of Gorbachev's leadership.

Hahn, Gordon M. Russia's Revolution from Above, 1985–2000: Reform, Transition, and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime. New Brunswick, N.J., 2002. Reviews much of the memoir literature that has emerged since to give balanced analyses of the period.

Hough, Jerry F. Democratization and Revolution in the USSR, 1985–1991. Washington, D.C., 1997.

Sakwa, Richard. Gorbachev and His Reforms, 1985–90. Hemel Hempstead, U.K., 1990. Good coverage of the intellectual context of the time.

Richard Sakwa