Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich
GORBACHEV, MIKHAIL SERGEYEVICH
(b. 1931), Soviet political leader, general editor of the CPSU (1985–1991), president of the Soviet Union (1990–1991), Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1990).
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union during a period of sweeping domestic and international change that saw the dismantling of communist systems throughout Europe and ended with the disintegration of the USSR itself, was born in the southern Russian village of Privolnoye in Stavropol province. His parents were peasants and his mother was barely literate.
Mikhail Gorbachev did not have an easy childhood. Born on March 2, 1931, he was just old enough to remember when, during the 1930s, both of his grandfathers were caught in the purges and arrested. Although they were released after prison, having been tortured in one case and internally exiled and used as forced labor in the other, young Misha Gorbachev knew what it was like to live in the home of an enemy of the people.
The war and early postwar years provided the family with the opportunity to recover from the stigma of false charges laid against the older generation, although the wartime experience itself was harsh. Gorbachev's father was in the army, saw action on several fronts, and was twice wounded. Remaining in the Russian countryside, Gorbachev and his mother had to engage in back-breaking work in the fields. For two years Gorbachev received no schooling, and for a period of four and one-half months the Stavropol territory, including Privolnoye, was occupied by the German army. In Josef Stalin's time, those who had experienced even short-lived foreign rule tended to be treated with grave suspicion.
Nevertheless, the Gorbachevs engaged as whole-heartedly in the postwar reconstruction of their locality as they had in the war effort. Exceptionally, when he was still a teenager, Gorbachev was awarded the Order of Red Banner of Labor for heroic feats of work. He had assisted his father, a combine operator (who was given the Order of Lenin) in bringing in a record harvest in 1948. The odds against a village boy gaining entry to Moscow State University in 1950 were high, but the fact that Gorbachev had been honored as an exemplary worker, and had an excellent school record and recommendation from the Komsomol, made him one of the exceptions. While still at high school during the first half of 1950, Gorbachev became a candidate member of the Communist Party. He was admitted to full membership in the party in 1952.
Although the Law Faculty of Moscow University, where Gorbachev studied for the next five years, hardly offered a liberal education, there were some scholars of genuine erudition who opened his eyes to a wider intellectual world. Prominent among them was Stepan Fyodorovich Kechekyan, who taught the history of legal and political thought. Gorbachev took Marxism seriously and not simply as Marxist-Leninist formula to be learned by rote. Talking, forty years later, about his years as a law student, Gorbachev observed: "Before the university I was trapped in my belief system in the sense that I accepted a great deal as given, assumptions not to be questioned. At the university I began to think and reflect and to look at things differently. But of course that was only the beginning of a long process."
Two events of decisive importance for Gorbachev occurred while he was at Moscow University. One was the death of Stalin in 1953. After that the atmosphere within the university lightened, and freer discussion began to take place among the students. The other was his meeting Raisa Maximovna Titarenko, a student in the philosophy faculty, in 1951. They were married in 1953 and remained utterly devoted to each other. In an interview on the eve of his seventieth birthday, Gorbachev described Raisa's death at the age of 67 in 1999 as his "hardest blow ever." They had one daughter, Irina, and two granddaughters.
After graduating with distinction, Gorbachev returned to his native Stavropol and began a rapid rise through the Komsomol and party organization. By 1966 he was party first secretary for Stavropol city, and in 1970 he became kraikom first secretary, that is, party boss of the whole Stavropol territory, which brought with it a year later membership in the Central Committee of the CPSU. Gorbachev displayed a talent for winning the good opinion of very diverse people. These included not only men of somewhat different outlooks within the Soviet Communist Party. Later they were also to embrace Western conservatives—most notably U.S. president Ronald Reagan and U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher—as well as European social democrats such as the former West German chancellor Willy Brandt and Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.
However, Gorbachev's early success in winning friends and influencing people depended not only on his ability and charm. He had an advantage in his location. Stavropol was spa territory, and leading members of the Politburo came there on holiday. The local party secretary had to meet them, and this gave Gorbachev the chance to make a good impression on figures such as Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov. Both of them later supported his promotion to the secretaryship of the Central Committee, with responsibility for agriculture, when one of Gorbachev's mentors, Fyodor Kulakov, a previous first secretary of Stavropol territory, who held the agricultural portfolio within the Central Committee Secretariat (along with membership in the Politburo), died in 1978.
From that time, Gorbachev was based in Moscow. As the youngest member of an increasingly geriatric political leadership, he was given rapid promotion through the highest echelons of the Communist Party, adding to his secretaryship candidate membership of the Politburo in 1979 and full membership in 1980. When Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982, Gorbachev's duties in the Party leadership team were extended by Brezhnev's successor, Yuri Andropov, who thought highly of the younger man. When Andropov was too ill to carry on chairing meetings, he wrote an addendum to a speech to a session of the Central Committee in December 1983, which he was too ill to attend in person. In it he proposed that the Politburo and Secretariat be led in his absence by Gorbachev. This was a clear attempt to elevate Gorbachev above Konstantin Chernenko, a much older man who had been exceptionally close to Brezhnev and a senior secretary of the Central Committee for longer than Gorbachev. However, Andropov's additions to his speech were omitted from the text presented to Central Committee members. Chernenko had consulted other members of the old guard, and they were united in wishing to prevent power from moving to a new generation represented by Gorbachev.
The delay in his elevation to the general secretaryship of the Communist Party did Gorbachev no harm. Chernenko duly succeeded Andropov on the latter's death in February 1984, but was so infirm during his time at the helm that Gorbachev frequently found himself chairing meetings of the Politburo at short notice when Chernenko was too ill to attend. More importantly, the sight of a third infirm leader in a row (for Brezhnev in his last years had also been incapable of working a full day) meant that even the normally docile Central Committee might have objected if the Politburo had proposed another septuagenarian to succeed Chernenko. By the time of Chernenko's death, just thirteen months after he succeeded Andropov, Gorbachev was, moreover, in a position to get his way. As the senior surviving secretary, it was he who called the Politburo together on the very evening that Chernenko died. The next day (March 11, 1985) he was unanimously elected Soviet leader by the Central Committee, following a unanimous vote in the Politburo.
Those who chose him had little or no idea that they were electing a serious reformer. Indeed, Gorbachev himself did not know how fast and how radically his views would evolve. From the outset of his leadership he was convinced of the need for change, involving economic reform, political liberalization, ending the war in Afghanistan, and improving East-West relations. He did not yet believe that this required a fundamental transformation of the system. On the contrary, he thought it could be improved. By 1988, as Gorbachev encountered increasing resistance from conservative elements within the Communist Party, the ministries, the army, and the KGB, he had reached the conclusion that systemic change was required.
Initially, Gorbachev had made a series of personnel changes that he hoped would make a difference. Some of these appointments were bold and innovative, others turned out to be misjudged. One
of his earliest appointments that took most observers by surprise was the replacement of the long-serving Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, by the Georgian Party first secretary, Eduard Shevardnadze, a man who had not previously set foot in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yet Shevardnadze became an imaginative and capable executor of a foreign policy aimed at ending the Cold War. At least as important a promotion was that given to Alexander Yakovlev, who was not even a candidate member of the Central Committee at the time when Gorbachev became party leader, but who by the summer of 1987 was both a secretary of the Central Committee and a full member of the Politburo. Yakovlev owed this extraordinarily speedy promotion entirely to the backing of Gorbachev. He, in turn, was to be an influential figure on the reformist wing of the Politburo during the second half of the 1980s.
Other appointments were less successful. Yegor Ligachev, a secretary of the Central Committee who had backed Gorbachev strongly for the leadership, was rapidly elevated to full membership in the Politburo and for a time was de facto second secretary within the leadership. But as early as 1986 it was clear that his reformism was within very strict limits. Already he was objecting to intellectuals reexamining the Soviet past and taking advantage of the new policy of glasnost (openness or transparency) that Gorbachev had enunciated. Successive heads of the KGB and of the Ministry of Defense were still more conservative than Ligachev, and the technocrat, Nikolai Ryzhkov, as chairman of the Council of Ministers, was reluctant to abandon the economic planning system in which, as a factory manager and, subsequently, state official, he had made his career.
Gorbachev embraced the concept of demokratizatsiya (democratization) from the beginning of his General Secretaryship, although the term he used most often was perestroika (reconstruction). Initially, the first of these terms was not intended to be an endorsement of pluralist democracy, but signified rather a liberalization of the system, while perestroika was a useful synonym for reform, since the very term reform had been taboo in Soviet politics for many years. Between 1985 and 1988, however, the scope of these concepts broadened. democratization began to be linked to contested elections. Some local elections with more than one candidate had already taken place before Gorbachev persuaded the Nineteenth Party Conference of the Communist Party during the summer of 1988 to accept competitive elections for a new legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, to be set up the following year. That decision, which filled many of the regional party officials with well-founded foreboding, was to make the Soviet system different. Even though the elections were not multiparty (the first multiparty elections were in 1993), the electoral campaigns were in many regions and cities keenly contested. It became plain just how wide a spectrum of political views lay behind the monolithic facade the Communist Party had traditionally projected to the outside world and to Soviet citizens.
While glasnost had brought into the open a constituency favorably disposed to such reforms, no such radical departure from Soviet democratic centralism could have occurred without the strong backing of Gorbachev. Up until the last two years of the existence of the Soviet Union the hierarchical nature of the system worked to Gorbachev's advantage, even when he was pursuing policies that were undermining the party hierarchy and, in that sense, his own power base. While there had been a great deal of socioeconomic change during the decades that separated Stalin's death from Gorbachev's coming to power, there was one important institutional continuity that, paradoxically, facilitated reforms that went beyond the wildest dreams of Soviet dissidents and surpassed the worst nightmares of the KGB. That was the power and authority of the general secretaryship of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, the post Gorbachev held from March 1985 until the dissolution of the CPSU in August 1991 and which—in particular, for the first four of his six and one-half years at the top of the Soviet political system—made him the principal policy maker within the country. Perestroika, which had originally meant economic restructuring and limited reform, came to stand for transformative change of the Soviet system. Both the ambiguity of the concept and traditional party norms kept many officials from revolting openly against perestroika until it was too late to close the floodgates of change.
A major impetus to Gorbachev's initial reforms had been the long-term decline in the rate of economic growth. Indeed, the closest thing to a consensus in the Soviet Union in 1985–1986 was the need to get the country moving again economically. A number of economic reforms introduced by Gorbachev and Ryzhkov succeeded in breaking down the excessive centralization that had been a problem of the unreformed Soviet economic system. For example, the Law on the State Enterprise of 1987 strengthened the authority of factory managers at the expense of economic ministries, but it did nothing to raise the quantity or quality of production. The Enterprise Law fostered inflation, promoted inter-enterprise debt, and facilitated failure to pay taxes to the central budget.
The central budget also suffered severely from one of the earliest policy initiatives supported by Gorbachev and urged upon him by Ligachev. This was the anti-alcohol campaign, which went beyond exhortation and involved concrete measures to limit the production, sale, and distribution of alcohol. By 1988 this policy was being relaxed. In the meantime, it had some measure of success in cutting down the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol-related accidents declined, and some health problems were alleviated. Economically, however, the policy was extremely damaging. The huge profits on which the state had relied from the sale of alcohol, on which it had a monopoly, were cut drastically not only because of a fall in consumption but also because, under conditions of semi-prohibition, moonshine took the place of state-manufactured vodka. Since the launch of perestroika had also coincided with a drop in the world oil price, this was a loss of revenue the state and its political leadership could not afford.
Gorbachev had, early in his general secretaryship, been ready to contemplate market elements within the Soviet economy. By 1989–1990 he had increasingly come to believe that market forces should be the main engine of growth. Nevertheless, he favored what he first called a "socialist market economy" and later a "regulated market." He was criticized by market fundamentalists for using the latter term, which they saw as an oxymoron. Although by 1993 Yegor Gaidar, a firm supporter of the market, was observing that "throughout the world the market is regulated." Gorbachev initially endorsed, and then retreated from, a radical but (as its proponents were later to admit) unrealistic policy of moving the Soviet Union to a market economy within five hundred days. The Five-Hundred-Day Plan was drawn up by a group of economists, chosen in equal numbers by Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin (the latter by this time a major player in Soviet and Russian politics), during the summer of 1990. In setting up the working group, in consultation with Yeltsin, Gorbachev completely bypassed the Communist Party. He had been elected president of the Soviet Union by the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR in March 1990 and was increasingly relying on his authority in that role. However, the presidency did not have the institutional underpinning that the party apparatus had provided for a General Secretary—until Gorbachev consciously loosened the rungs of the ladder on which he had climbed to the top. Ultimately, in the face of strong opposition from state and party authorities attempting to move to the market in a giant leap, Gorbachev sought a compromise between the views of the market enthusiasts, led by Stanislav Shatalin and Grigory Yavlinsky, and those of the chairman of the Council of Ministers and his principal economic adviser, Leonid Abalkin.
Because radical democrats tended also to be in favor of speedy marketization, Gorbachev's hesitation meant that he lost support in that constituency. People who had seen Gorbachev as the embodiment and driving force of change in and of the Soviet system increasingly in 1990–1991 transferred their support to Yeltsin, who in June 1991 was elected president of Russia in a convincing first-round victory. Since he had been directly elected, and Gorbachev indirectly, this gave Yeltsin a greater democratic legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of citizens, even though the very fact that contested elections had been introduced into the Soviet system was Gorbachev's doing. If Gorbachev had taken the risk of calling a general election for the presidency of the Soviet Union a year earlier, rather than taking the safer route of election by the existing legislature, he might have enhanced his popular legitimacy, extended his own period in office, and extended the life of the Soviet Union (although, to the extent that it was democratic, it would have been a smaller union, with the Baltic states as the prime candidates for early exit). In March 1990, the point at which he became Soviet president, Gorbachev was still ahead of Yeltsin in the opinion polls of the most reliable of survey research institutes, the All-Union (subsequently All-Russian) Center for the Study of Public Opinion. It was during the early summer of that year that Yeltsin moved ahead of him.
By positing the interests of Russia against those of the Union, Yeltsin played a major role in making the continuation of a smaller Soviet Union an impossibility. By first liberalizing and then democratizing, Gorbachev had taken the lid off the nationalities problem. Almost every nation in the country had a long list of grievances and, when East European countries achieved full independence during the course of 1989, this emboldened a number of the Soviet nationalities to demand no less. Gorbachev, by this time, was committed to turning the Soviet system into something different—indeed, he was well advanced in the task of dismantling the traditional Soviet edifice—but he strove to keep together a multinational union by attempting to turn a pseudo-federal system into a genuine federation or, as a last resort, a looser confederation.
Gorbachev's major failures were unable to prevent disintegration of the union and not improving economic performance. However, since everything was interconnected in the Soviet Union, it was impossible to introduce political change without raising national consciousness and, in some cases, separatist aspirations. If the disintegration of the Soviet Union is compared with the breakup of Yugoslavia, what is remarkable is the extent to which the Soviet state gave way to fifteen successor states with very little bloodshed. It was also impossible to move smoothly from an economic system based over many decades on one set of principles (a centralized, command economy) to a system based on another set of principles (market relations) without going through a period of disruption in which things were liable to get worse before they got better.
Gorbachev's failures were more than counterbalanced by his achievements. He changed Soviet foreign policy dramatically, reaching important arms control agreements with U.S. president Reagan and establishing good relations with all the Soviet Union's neighbors. Defense policy was subordinated to political objectives, and the underlying philosophy of kto kogo (who will defeat whom) gave way to a belief in interdependence and mutual security. These achievements were widely recognized internationally—most notably with the award to Gorbachev in 1990 of the Nobel Peace Prize. If Gorbachev is faulted in Russia today, it is for being overly idealistic in the conduct of foreign relations, to an extent not fully reciprocated by his Western interlocutors. The Cold War had begun with the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. It ended when one East and Central European country after another became independent in 1989 and when Gorbachev accepted the loss of Eastern Europe, something all his predecessors had regarded as non-negotiable. Gorbachev's answer to the charge from domestic hard-liners that he had "surrendered" Eastern Europe was to say: "What did I surrender, and to whom? Poland to the Poles, the Czech lands to the Czechs, Hungary to the Hungarians…."
After the failed coup against Gorbachev of August 1991, when he was held under house arrest on the Crimean coast while Yeltsin became the focal point of resistance to the putschists, his political position was greatly weakened. With the hard-liners discredited, disaffected nationalities pressed for full independence, and Yeltsin became increasingly intransigent in pressing Russian interests at the expense of any kind of federal union. In December 1991 the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian republics got together to announce that the Soviet Union was ceasing to exist. Gorbachev bowed to the inevitable and on December 25 resigned from the presidency of a state, the USSR, which then disappeared from the map.
During the post-Soviet period Gorbachev held no position of power, but he continued to be politically active. His relations with Yeltsin were so bad that at one point Yeltsin attempted to prevent him from travelling abroad, but abandoned that policy following protests from Western leaders. Throughout the Yeltsin years, Gorbachev was never invited to the Kremlin, although he was consulted on a number of occasions by Vladimir Putin when he succeeded Yeltsin. Gorbachev's main activities were centered on the foundation he headed, an independent think-tank of social-democratic leanings, which promoted research, seminars, and conferences on developments within the former Soviet Union and on major international issues. Gorbachev became the author of several books, most notably two volumes of memoirs published in Russian in 1995 and, in somewhat abbreviated form, in English and other languages in 1996. Other significant works included a book of political reflections, based on tape-recorded conversations with his Czech friend from university days, Zdenek Mlynár, which appeared in 2002. He became active also on environmental matters as president of the Green Cross International. Domestically, Gorbachev lent his name and energy to an attempt to launch a Social Democratic Party, but with little success. He continued to be admired abroad and gave speeches in many different countries. Indeed, the Gorbachev Foundation depended almost entirely on its income from its president's lecture fees and book royalties.
Gorbachev will, however, be remembered above all for his contribution to six years that changed the world, during which he was the last leader of the USSR. Notwithstanding numerous unintended consequences of perestroika, of which the most regrettable in Gorbachev's eyes, was the breakup of the Union, the long-term changes for the better introduced in the Gorbachev era—and to a significant degree instigated by him—greatly outweigh the failures. Ultimately, Gorbachev's place in history is likely to rest upon his playing the most decisive role in ending the Cold War and on his massive contribution to the blossoming of freedom, in Eastern Europe and Russia itself.
See also: august 1991 putsch; democratization; glasnost; gorbachev, raisa maximovna; new political thinking; perestroika; yeltsin, boris nikolayevich
Braithwaite, Rodric. (2002). Across the Moscow River: The World Turned Upside Down. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Breslauer, George. (2002). Gorbachev and Yeltsin as Leaders. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Brown, Archie. (1996). The Gorbachev Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brown, Archie, and Shevtsova, Lilia, eds. (2001). Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin: Political Leadership in Russia's Transition. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Chernyaev, Anatoly. (2000). My Six Years with Gorbachev. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. (1996). Memoirs. New York: Doubleday.
Gorbachev, Mikhail, and Mlynář, Zdeněk. (2001). Conversations with Gorbachev. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hough, Jerry F. (1997). Democratization and Revolution in the USSR, 1985–1991. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Ligachev, Yegor. (1993). Inside Gorbachev's Kremlin. New York: Pantheon Books.
McFaul, Michael. (2001). Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Matlock, Jack F., Jr. (1995). Autopsy of an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union. New York: Random House.
Palazchenko, Pavel. (1997). My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze: The Memoir of a Soviet Interpreter. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Born March 2, 1931
Privolnoye, Stavropol province, Russia
General secretary and president of Soviet Union
M ikhail Gorbachev spoke the following words in a televised address to the Soviet people on December 25, 1991, when he resigned as president of the Soviet Union, "Fate had decided that, when I became head of state, it was already obvious that there was something wrong in this country. We had plenty of everything: land, oil, gas and other natural resources, and God has also endowed us with intellect and talent—yet we lived much worse than people in other industrialized countries and the gap was constantly widening."
Gorbachev rose within the Communist Party the only way possible, by holding to the strict party line. But once he reached its highest office, he began to reform the system with an intensity and boldness that amazed all around him. Two words will be forever linked to his reform of the Soviet Union's political and economic line of command: perestroika, meaning restructuring, and glasnost, meaning openness, as opposed to secrecy and cover-up.
Growing up under Stalin's rule
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born March 2, 1931, in the village of Privolnoye to Sergei Andr and Maria Panteleyevna. Privolnoye, where peasant families worked the land, was located in southern Russia in the Stavropol province. The Stavropol province was a multiethnic society where young Mikhail, as he recalled in his Memoirs, learned "tolerance and consideration and respect toward others."
The hardship of Gorbachev's early childhood and teen years left permanent impressions, marking his character and view of the world around him. Before he entered school, Gorbachev lived mainly with his maternal grandfather, Pantelei Yefimovich Gopkalo, and grandmother, Vasilisa Lukyanoona. A highly respected village member, Gopkalo had joined the Communist Party in 1928 and became chairman of a collective farm in the area. The few books in his hut were those by Karl Marx (1818–1893), Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), V. I. Lenin (1870–1924), and Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry), all early influences on the communist system. Gorbachev's grandmother was deeply religious and kept a religious icon (picture) along with pictures of Lenin and Stalin in a corner of the room.
The first of several occurrences that Gorbachev would remember the rest of his life happened at his grandparents' home during the Stalin-driven purge of 1937 and 1938. The purge, when thousands were arrested and many murdered for little or no cause, reached into the peasants' village. Gopkalo was arrested in 1937 and taken away in the middle of the night on made-up charges that he was a member of an organization opposed to Stalin. He was deemed an "enemy of the people," and neighbors avoided the house. Gorbachev's young friends ignored him, for those who continued to associate with the family of an "enemy" could also be arrested. Gopkalo was released from prison in December 1938. Gorbachev remembers sitting around the fire with family as a seven-year-old listening to his grandfather recall his arrest and torture to attempt to make him "confess."
Although he had been too young to remember, Gorbachev also was told how his paternal grandfather, Andrei Moiseyevich Gorbachev, met a similar fate under the brutal Stalin rule. There was a terrible famine in 1932 and 1933 in the Stavropol area. Authorities arrested Gorbachev's grandfather in the spring of 1934 for not planting enough, even though there was no seed available. Three-year-old Mikhail's father Sergei was Andrei's eldest son. Gorbachev's father took over all farming duties, providing not only for his wife and son but for his mother Stepanida and two sisters. Grandfather Andrei was released from a work camp in 1935, returned to the village, and soon managed a collective pig farm that won awards for the region.
World War II
By 1938, with both grandfathers back home, Gorbachev recalled that life, although at a poverty level by any standards, returned to normal. It had even improved. Gorbachev occasionally got to see a silent movie and delighted in ice cream that was brought to the village. Families took Sundays off, picnicking, playing, and visiting. Then on one Sunday morning on June 22, 1941, terrifying news reached the village and the Gorbachevs and Gopkalos. The Germans had invaded Soviet territory, and the Soviets were suddenly drawn into World War II (1939–45). By August, men in the village headed to the war. Ten-year-old Gorbachev took over farm duties to provide for him and his mother. In Memoirs, Gorbachev observed, "Our way of life had changed completely. And we, wartime children, skipped from childhood directly into adulthood." Over the next three years, Gorbachev watched refugees pass by, saw tired, worn Red Army soldiers in disarray, stumbled on a site with friends in the springtime where remains of soldiers killed in battle were left unburied, and endured German occupation of his village for four- and-a-half months in late 1943.
Happier moments also occurred during the war years, thanks to Gorbachev's paternal grandfather, who looked after the growing boy. However, in August 1944, the family received word that Gorbachev's father had been killed, only to learn soon after that he was actually alive and would return to them. Gorbachev never forgot the hardships of the time.
A life back to normal
In 1944, Gorbachev was able to return to school. His learning depended on teachers and his own resourcefulness. Few books or supplies were available. In summer, he worked up to twenty hours a day with his father, who had started operating a combine harvester on the farm. The two had long conversations about life, duty, family, work, and country.
Young Gorbachev had a bright, quick mind and noted how hard the peasant families worked yet could never improve their impoverished life. Every household had to deliver much of what they produced to the government. Yet in 1947, when Gorbachev was seventeen, he and his father produced a very large amount of grain with their combine and were rewarded. His father received the Order of Lenin award, and young Gorbachev received the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. Gorbachev's honor at seventeen remained his most prized award over all those he received as an adult.
Continuing education and party participation
Gorbachev finished secondary school in 1950 with a silver medal, the award for second best student in the graduating class. About the same time, he became a "candidate" member of the Communist Party. His Red Banner award, work record, party status, and "worker peasant" background helped him to be accepted into Moscow State University law school. Gorbachev quickly developed an interest in politics and became active in the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. In 1952, he became the Komsomol leader for the entire law school and also was admitted as a full member to the Communist Party. Although he proclaimed the Stalin propaganda, Gorbachev's personal decency was evident to his fellow students.
Gorbachev had arrived in Moscow in 1950 at the height, at least to date, of the Cold War (1945–91). The Cold War was a prolonged conflict for world dominance between the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The weapons of conflict were commonly words of propaganda and threats. Both the Soviets and the United States possessed the atomic bomb and were busily developing the more powerful hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb. The Korean War (1950–53) had broken out. Communism and U.S. capitalism were presented by his professors as totally incompatible systems, one of which would eventually win over the other. (Communism is a system in which the government or state controls production and there is no private ownership of property, whereas in capitalism there is corporate or private ownership of goods, where competition and a free market are emphasized.)
As a law student, Gorbachev was a disciplined hard worker. He read the works of many authors and particularly liked a two-year course on the history of political ideas. In the midst of Gorbachev's university years, Stalin died in 1953. He had doubts about Stalin's approach to leadership which held that anyone against his ideas was a criminal. Yet Gorbachev kept those views to himself. Stalin was replaced by Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry), and soon Gorbachev heard the words "peaceful coexistence" with the United States. This turn-about in philosophy impressed Gorbachev. Classmates recall he enjoyed attending various lectures and art exhibitions and was always ready to discuss his latest intellectual experience. However, it was Raisa Maximovna Titorenko who greatly expanded Gorbachev's interests. Gorbachev met Titorenko, his future wife, at the university.
Raisa Titorenko was born in the Siberian town of Rubtsovsk. All through school, she was an outstanding student, graduating with the gold medal, first in her class. Not only intelligent, Raisa was quite a beauty. At the university, she studied philosophy and, like Gorbachev, loved to soak in all the cultural experiences available in Moscow. They were soon inseparable and married on September 25, 1953. After graduation in June 1955, the young couple went back to Stavropol, where Gorbachev became an organizer for the Komsomol. Much as Khrushchev had done, Gorbachev returned to his home to begin a rapid climb through party ranks. Their only child, Irina, was born in 1956.
The capital of the Stavropol province was the city of Stavropol, with a population of 130,000. Here, Gorbachev established relationships with other young Komsomol members including Eduard Shevardnadze (1928–; see entry), whom one day Gorbachev would appoint as Soviet foreign minister. Between 1956 and 1958, Gorbachev was first secretary (chief officer) of the city of Stavropol's Komsomol.
By 1961, Gorbachev was first secretary for the Komsomol of the larger Stavropol province. In 1962, he jumped from Komsomol to the party and also enrolled in the Stavropol Agricultural Institute's department of agricultural economy. Gorbachev realized that agricultural successes in his area might translate into a job in Moscow.
During this time, Raisa Gorbachev also continued her work on a doctoral dissertation. The topic was changes in peasant life on the collective farms of the Stavropol area. She received her candidate of science degree in philosophy, the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the United States. She authored a book based on her dissertation and taught at the same institute where her husband was working on his second degree.
Rising through the party
Gorbachev continued his rise in the party ranks. He became first secretary of the party for the city of Stavropol, then first secretary of Stavropol province. The first secretary of a province held the power of the region firmly in his hands. Gorbachev managed all the party affairs for the area. Most members of the Communist Party Central Committee were first regional secretaries, to which post Gorbachev was elected in 1971. The Central Committee was the main administrative body of the Communist Party. Their votes elected the general secretary of the Communist Party, who held the highest position of power in the Soviet Union.
During the early and mid-1970s, Gorbachev was able to travel to countries in both Western and Eastern Europe, considerably broadening his view of European politics. He also caught the attention of Yuri Andropov (1914–1984), chairman of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, which was also the most powerful Soviet intelligence agency. Andropov often vacationed in Stavropol. He was highly impressed with Gorbachev and became a mentor to him. Then on November 27, 1978, much to Gorbachev's surprise, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982; see entry) appointed him secretary of the Central Committee in charge of agriculture, no doubt based on Andropov's recommendation. Gorbachev and his wife moved from Stavropol, where they had lived for twenty-three years, to Moscow. By October 1980, Gorbachev had been promoted to full member of the Politburo. The Politburo was a group of select people in the Central Committee that directed policy.
The party experienced a rapid succession of leaders between 1983 and 1985. Brezhnev died in 1983, and Andropov became general secretary. However, Andropov died in 1984 and was replaced by another aged and ill hard-line communist, Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985). Chernenko died in 1985. The vigorous fifty-four-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev became the new general secretary of the Communist Party on March 11, 1985. Andrey Gromyko (1909–1989; see entry), veteran Soviet foreign minister and a leader in the Politburo, enthusiastically nominated Gorbachev for the position. In Gromyko's nomination speech, he characterized Gorbachev by saying, "This man has a nice smile, but he has teeth of iron." At last, Gorbachev was in position to bring reform.
A changing nation
Gorbachev had long exhibited a can-do attitude. He was a man of action and wasted no time setting a tone in the country to expect change. One immediate outward example of the change was seen with Raisa. Unlike any general secretary's wife before, she accompanied her husband on travels around the Soviet Union and to foreign countries. She became a partner and ally in her husband's initiatives. She also took up the cause of conservation and promotion of the Russian cultural heritage. Gorbachev began an antialcohol campaign that proved very unpopular. At first, he held a tight line but was forced to abandon the campaign a few years later. Nevertheless, he had indicated to the people of the Soviet Union that he would be a leader for change.
The nuclear reactor disaster of Chernobyl occurred on April 26, 1986. Still under the old communist system of not disclosing internal problems to the outside world, Gorbachev did not publicly respond to the disaster quickly. He first spoke on television about the disaster on May 14. However, that was the last time Gorbachev would use secrecy and cover-up. Almost immediately, he instituted the official government policy of glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, or restructuring. Gorbachev saw that for the Soviet Union to survive in the late twentieth century world marketplace of ideas and goods, it would have to completely reform its cumbersome political and economic chain of command. Glasnost showed the horrors the Soviets had lived under through the decades and the corruption of the huge government system.
Gorbachev set into motion the most radical domestic reforms of the Soviet political system since it was first established in 1917. Most reforms were started in 1989 and 1990. Gorbachev moved the center of political power away from the Communist Party and into a government structure. The party was no longer manager of the country. He decided the Soviets needed an executive presidency much like the French and American presidencies. So he introduced to the Constitution the word "president," taking the place of the position of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, also known as the head of state. Supreme Soviet was the Communist Party's legislature. Under the presidency, he established two executive councils, the Presidential Council, like the U.S. president's cabinet, and the Council of the Federation, which brought together the top representatives of the Soviet republics. The Presidential Council took over most duties of the Politburo.
On the legislative side of government, he introduced competitive elections to the Soviet Congress of the People's Deputies that comprised 2,250 positions. In 1988, Gorbachev got approval for the first multicandidate elections since the 1920s. However, 750 places were reserved for organizations such as the Communist Party (100 seats). In turn, Congress elected from its members a Supreme Soviet—a two-part body made of the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities. These were similar to genuine Western-style debating bodies and parliaments. In 1988, Gorbachev got rid of many of the old party faithfuls and replaced them with those whose ideas were like his.
Cold War ends
Gorbachev also undertook a radical restructuring of the economy. He took the party out of detailed management of the economy by slashing the Central Committee from twenty departments to nine. The essence of Gorbachev's economic restructuring was decentralization, giving more control to localities. Although he pushed the economy toward a real marketplace competition, he had to walk a fine line between moving too fast and too slow. Commercial banks and trading associations were not yet well organized. Gorbachev laid out plans to drastically increase production of consumer goods and services between 1985 and 2000.
To ease the difficult economic transition, Gorbachev knew the Soviet Union needed to halt its all-out Cold War arms race with the United States. In July 1985, he replaced Gromyko with Shevardnadze as foreign minister to help in easing Cold War tensions with the United States.
The relaxing of tensions between the two superpowers would allow Gorbachev to devote energy and resources to domestic issues. The Soviet Union had no economic means to continue matching the relentless American missile buildup.U.S.-Soviet arms control talks had stalled in 1983 due to stubborn nonproductive Cold War hard-line diplomacy between Andropov and U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89; see entry). Reagan was the most intensely anti-Soviet American president to date. Gorbachev was determined to show a new look of flexibility in negotiations and to eventually win over Reagan. When Gorbachev came into office, he inherited a U.S.-Soviet impasse over Reagan's proposed "Star Wars" program, an elaborate system to defend the United States from missile attacks. The Soviets had demanded Star Wars and all research toward it be canceled. Gorbachev considered this an unnecessarily tough stance. In October 1986, Gorbachev met with Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland. There, he proposed a grand compromise, the eventual elimination of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in exchange for withdrawal and destruction of U.S. missiles deployed in Europe in 1983 and aimed at the Soviet Union. Furthermore, he proposed to make deep cuts in offensive missiles, if Star Wars was confined to laboratory research only.
Although the talks fell apart, the precedent of better cooperation was set, and Gorbachev began altering his position on Star Wars more and more. In December 1986, Gorbachev in a brilliant political move released Nobel Peace Prize–winning physicist Andrey Sakharov (1921–1989; see entry) from exile in Gorky. This won worldwide approval. Sakharov had fallen out of favor with the Soviets because of his outspokenness and went into exile in early 1980. He had long advocated control of nuclear weapons, and now Gorbachev spoke of a need only for a sufficient defensive position and "mutual security" for the Soviets and America. Gorbachev was laying the groundwork for the end of the Cold War. His new thinking was tremendously intriguing for western strategists.
By 1987, some Western European polls showed Gorbachev as more popular than Reagan. In December 1987, Gorbachev visited Reagan in Washington, D.C., for another summit. Gorbachev quickly became a local and national television media celebrity. Delighted to visit America, he exhibited
enthusiasm and goodwill and even stopped his motorcade to get out and shake hands with Washingtonians on the street. Clearly, Gorbachev was a new kind of Soviet leader.
In January 1988, Gorbachev announced plans to withdraw Soviet troops from the decade-long costly war in Afghanistan that further showed a dramatic change in Soviet thinking. The next two years saw an impressive amount of interaction between Gorbachev and U.S. leaders. In response, Reagan went to Moscow in May for yet another U.S.-Soviet summit. Then Gorbachev returned to the United States the following winter. On December 7, 1988, Gorbachev made his famous speech to the United Nations in New York City in which he called for an end to the Cold War. By the end of 1989, Gorbachev had allowed the people of Eastern European states to remove communist dictatorships and regain independence. He watched the toppling of the Berlin Wall, which had kept people from fleeing from communist East Germany to noncommunist West Berlin since 1961, and later saw the reunification of East and West Germany. In 1990, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Gorbachev. In March 1990, the Congress of People's Deputies elected Gorbachev as president of the Soviet Union. He met with the new U.S. president, George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93; see entry) in Washington in June 1990.
The fall of Gorbachev
All of the initiatives made Gorbachev extremely popular in the West, but in the Soviet Union major problems existed. The combination of raised economic expectations coupled with continuing shortages of basic goods and growing unemployment caused Gorbachev's popularity at home to drop significantly. Also, many old-time party hard-liners were aghast watching their former satellite countries break away. The old-line conservatives wanted the reforms to slow or even stop. Liberals wanted much faster progress in reform. Gorbachev briefly turned to some of the hard-liners for support. But on August 18, 1991, while on a vacation in the Crimea (a peninsula reaching into the Black Sea), a coup was attempted. Gorbachev and his wife were held at their villa for several days. The coup collapsed thanks to resistance by the people of Moscow led by Russian president Boris Yeltsin (1931–). Gorbachev returned to Moscow but never gained back any real authority. Yeltsin would essentially become the most influential Soviet leader. In a last effort to distance himself from the Communist Party, Gorbachev resigned from the party on August 24, 1991. However, power formally shifted to Russian president Yeltsin on November 7, 1991. He banned the Communist Party in Russia.
Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president on December 25, 1991. The Soviet Union ended its existence on December 31, 1991. Gorbachev kept a residence in Moscow and bought a villa in Finland. He made a run for election as Russian president in 1996 against Yeltsin but garnered less than 1 percent of the vote. In 1999, Raisa Gorbachev died of leukemia, a blood disease. Gorbachev founded several organizations including the International Organization for Soviet Socioeconomic and Political Studies (Gorbachev Foundation), based in Moscow, and Green Cross International, headquartered in Geneva. He also lectures extensively abroad.
For More Information
Doder, Dusko, and Louise Branson. Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin. New York: Viking, 1990.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. A Time For Peace. New York: Richardson & Steirman, 1985.
Gorbachev, Mikhail, and Zdenek Mlynar. Conversations with Gorbachev. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Gorbachev, Raisa. I Hope. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
McCauley, Martin. Gorbachev. New York: Longman, 1998.
Morrison, Donald, ed. Mikhail S. Gorbachev: An Intimate Biography. New York: Time Books, 1988.
President Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.http://www.mikhailgorbachev.org (accessed on September 3, 2003).
Middle School and High School Experiences
Unlike previous Soviet leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev had fully grown up in the well-established Soviet communist system. His school experiences in the early twentieth century differ markedly from what U.S. schoolchildren experienced in the early twenty-first century. In his book Memoirs, Gorbachev describes his school experiences:
The school of that time, its teachers and its pupils, defies unemotional description. As a matter of fact, it was not even a school. Aside from being housed in various village buildings built for completely different purposes, it possessed only a handful of textbooks, a few maps and visual aids and some chalk, an item not obtained without some effort. That was virtually all we had. The rest was up to the teachers and pupils. We made our ink ourselves. The school had to bring in firewood, and therefore it kept horses and a car. Our teachers, too, had a hard life during the war, what with the cold, the hunger, the anguish. But to do them justice: even then they tried (and one can only guess how hard it must have been) to do their job conscientiously, exerting every effort imaginable. Our village school had eight grades. For the ninth and tenth grades we had to attend the district secondary school some twenty kilometres away. With the other children from my village I rented a room in a flat at the district centre and once a week had to return to the village to get some food. Nobody supervised my studies. My parents considered me responsible enough to work on my own.
I studied zealously. My interest emanated [came] from my inquisitive mind and the desire to get to the bottom of things. I enjoyed physics and mathematics. History fascinated me, while literature made me oblivious to anything else.
In those years everybody was keen to participate in amateur theatre, and loved athletics, although there were virtually no facilities for these activities. Once our drama group went on a tour of the district villages giving paid performances. The money we collected was used to buy thirty-five pairs of shoes for children who had nothing to wear to school.
Excerpt from "Address to the 43rd United Nations General Assembly Session, December 7, 1988"
Found in United Nations General Assembly, Provisional Verbatim Record of the Seventy-Second Meeting
"We are witnessing the emergence of a new, historic reality: a turning away from the principle of super-armament to the principle of reasonable defense sufficiency."
O n December 7, 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) at the UN headquarters in New York City. Gorbachev was general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and president of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). In other words, he was head of both the Soviet Communist Party and the government of the Soviet Union. The speech would mark another major step toward ending the Cold War, a prolonged conflict for world dominance from 1945 to 1991 between the two superpowers, the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The occasion of the speech also came several weeks before U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89) ended his term of office and George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) began his.
Before the entire world, Gorbachev plainly announced the Soviet reforms that he had begun over the previous three years. Describing his reforms as containing "a tremendous potential for peace and international co-operation,
" Gorbachev charted a course never heard expressed by a Soviet leader before. He spoke of "profound social change" and "new nations and States." People, he claimed, were "longing for independence, democracy and social justice." He declared this was in large part due to the growing mass media that brought a greater exchange of ideas around the world. Keeping societies closed to the outside world, such as the Soviet society since the 1920s, was no longer practical.
Related to this change was a globalization of trade. No country could economically develop and thrive without taking part in the newly developing worldwide economic system. At this time, Gorbachev still held fast to maintaining communist rule, though with a reformed Communist Party allowing greater personal freedoms and public participation. He spoke of respecting differing viewpoints and tolerance among the nations, of living "side by side with others, while remaining different." Gorbachev stressed a key step toward greater world stability was disarmament, and he desired to build on the INF treaty signed the previous December. He called for "radical economic reform" by lessening government control of industry and business. Gorbachev thanked President Reagan and U.S. secretary of state George Shultz (1920–) for supporting his reforms. In conclusion, he expressed a desire to continue the growing relationship with the United States through newly elected president Bush.
Things to remember while reading "Address to the 43rd United Nations General Assembly Session, December 7, 1988":
- Mikhail Gorbachev came into the Soviet leadership position in 1985 when the economy was in disarray and the United States, under President Reagan, was pursuing another period of expensive rapid arms buildup. Soviet citizens had lost faith in the communist system and dramatic reform was desperately needed.
- Reagan and Shultz had overcome hard-line anticommunist opposition in the U.S. administration to negotiate arms control agreements and support Gorbachev's efforts at Soviet reform.
- Gorbachev differed from previous Soviet leaders by being from a later generation, being college-educated, and being quite socially outgoing in public.
Excerpt from "Address to the 43rd United Nations General Assembly Session, December 7, 1988"
We have come here to show our respect for the United Nations, which increasingly has been manifesting its ability to act as a unique international center in the service of peace and security.…
The role played by the Soviet Union in world affairs is well known, and in view of the revolutionary perestroika under way in our country, which contains a tremendous potential for peace andinternational co-operation, we are now particularly interested in being properly understood.
That is why we have come here to address this most authoritative world body and to share our thoughts with it. We want it to be the first to learn of our new, important decisions.…
We are witnessing the most profound social change. Whether in the East or the South, the West or the North, hundreds of millions of people, new nations and States, new public movements and ideologies have moved to the forefront of history. Broad-based and frequently turbulent popular movements have given expression … to a longing for independence, democracy and social justice. The idea of democratizing the entire world order has become a powerful sociopolitical force.…
Thanks to the advances in mass media and means of transportation the world seems to have become more visible and tangible. International communication has become easier than ever before. Today, the preservation of any kind of closed society is hardly possible. This calls for a radical review of approaches to the totality of the problems of international co-operation as a major element of universal security. The world economy is becoming a single organism, and no State, whatever its social system or economic status, can develop normally outside it.…
However, concurrently with wars, animosities and divisions among peoples and countries, another trend, with equally objective causes, was gaining momentum: the process of the emergence of a mutually interrelated and integral world. Today, further world progress is possible only through a search for universal human consensus as we move forward to a new world order.…
The international community must learn how it can shape and guide developments in such a way as to preserve our civilization and to make it safe for all and more conducive to normal life.…
In the past differences were often a factor causing mutual rejection. Now, they have a chance of becoming a factor for mutual enrichment and mutual attraction.
Behind differences in social systems, in ways of life and in preferences for certain values, stand different interests. There is no escaping that fact.…
This objective fact calls for respect for the views and positions of others, tolerance, a willingness to perceive something different asnot necessarily bad or hostile, and an ability to learn to live side by side with others, while remaining different and not always agreeing with each other.…
These are our reflections on the patterns of world development on the threshold of the twenty-first century.…
Forces have already emerged in the world that in one way or another stimulate the arrival of a period of peace.…
Those politicians whose activities used to be geared to the Cold War and sometimes linked with its most critical phases are now drawing appropriate conclusions. Of all people, they find it particularly hard to abandon old stereotypes and past practices, and, if even they are changing course, it is clear that, when new generations take over, opportunities will increase in number.
In short, the understanding of the need for a period of peace is gaining ground and beginning to prevail. This has made it possible to take the first real steps towards creating a healthier international environment and towards disarmament.…
The whole world welcomes the efforts of this Organization [United Nations].…
Under the sign of democratization, perestroika has now spread to politics, the economy, intellectual life and ideology.
We have initiated a radical economic reform. We have gained experience. At the start of next year, the entire national economy will be directed to new forms and methods of operation.…
Let me now turn to the main issue without which none of the problems of the coming century can be solved: disarmament.
International development and communications have been distorted by the arms race and the militarization of thinking. As the Assembly will know, on 15 January 1986 the Soviet Union put forward a programme for building a nuclear-weapon-free world. Translated into actual negotiating positions, it has already produced material results. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the signing of the Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the elimination of their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles—the INF Treaty. I am therefore particularly pleased to note that the implementation of the Treaty—the elimination of missiles—is proceeding normally in an atmosphere of trust and businesslike work. A large breach has thus been made in a seemingly unbreakable wall of suspicion and animosity. We arewitnessing the emergence of a new, historic reality: a turning away from the principle of super-armament to the principle of reasonable defense sufficiency.…
Finally, since I am here on American soil, and also for other obvious reasons, I have to turn to the subject of our relations with this great country. I had a chance to appreciate the full measure of its hospitality during my memorable visit to Washington exactly a year ago. Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States of America have a history of five and a half decades. As the world has changed, so have the nature, role and place of those relations in world politics. For too long they developed along the lines of confrontation and sometimes animosity, either overt or covert. But in the last few years the entire world has been able to breathe a sigh of relief, thanks to the changes for the better in the substance and the atmosphere of the relationship between Moscow and Washington.
No one intends to underestimate the seriousness of our differences and the toughness of our outstanding problems. We have, however, already graduated from the primary school of learning to understand each other and seek solutions in both our own and the common interest.
The USSR and the United States have built the largest nuclear and missile arsenals; but it is those two countries that, having become specifically aware of their responsibility, have been the first to conclude a treaty on the reduction and physical elimination of a portion of their armaments which posed a threat to both of them and to all other countries. Both countries possess the greatest and most sophisticated military secrets; but it is those two countries that have laid a basis for and are further developing a system of mutual verification both of the elimination of armaments and of the reduction and prohibition of their production. It is those two countries that are accumulating experience for future bilateral and multilateral agreements.
We value this. We acknowledge and appreciate the contributions made by President Ronald Reagan and by the members of his Administration, particularly Mr. George Shultz.
All this is our joint investment in a venture of historic importance. We must not lose that investment, or leave it idle.
The next United States administration, headed by President-elect George Bush, will find in us a partner who is ready—without long pauses or backtracking—to continue the dialogue in a spirit of realism, openness and goodwill, with a willingness to achieve concretresults working on the agenda which covers the main issues of Soviet/United States relations and world politics.…
We are not inclined to simplify the situation in the world.
Yes, the trend towards disarmament has been given a powerful impetus, and the process is gaining a momentum of its own. But it has not yet become irreversible.
Yes, the willingness to give up confrontation in favor of dialogue and co-operation is being felt strongly. But it is still far from becoming a permanent feature in the practice of international relations.
Yes, movement towards a nuclear-weapon-free and non-violent world is capable of radically transforming the political and intellectual identity of our planet. But only the first steps have been taken, and even they have been met with mistrust in certain influential quarters and face resistance.
The legacy and the inertia of the past continue to be felt.…
We are meeting at the end of a year which has meant so much for the United Nations and on the eve of a year from which we all expect so much.
I should like to believe that our hopes will be matched by our joint efforts to put an end to an era of wars, confrontation and regional conflicts, to aggressions against nature, to the terror of hunger and poverty as well as to political terrorism.
That is our common goal and we can only reach it together.…
What happened next …
Not long after the UN speech, Gorbachev introduced major political reforms within the Soviet Union. A revised Soviet constitution created a new parliament known as the Congress of People's Deputies. To fill seats in the new parliament, elections were held in the various fifteen Soviet republics in March. Gorbachev was surprised how badly hard-line communist candidates had lost. One new reform-minded communist who won was Boris Yeltsin (1931–) in the highly important Moscow district of Russia. Gorbachev had not expected such a shift in political power away from the Communist Party. On the international scene, President Bush's new secretary of state, James Baker (1930–), and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (1928–) met several times through the early months of 1989, forming a close working relationship.
Did you know …
- During his visit to the UN headquarters in New York City, Gorbachev posed with President Ronald Reagan and President-elect George Bush in front of the Statue of Liberty. It later proved a powerful image representing the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War.
- President George Bush's secretary of defense Richard Cheney (1941–) warned Bush against aiding Gorbachev, predicting the reforms would fail and hard-line communists would regain control. Other advisors would warn that Gorbachev's reforms were a trick to weaken the United States by agreeing to disarmament measures. This was old-line, long-adhered-to U.S. philosophy concerning the Soviet Union. Letting go of this line of thinking was difficult for many old-line U.S. diplomats.
- A major feature of Gorbachev's UN speech was his renouncing longtime communist assumptions that conflict between capitalism and communism was inevitable.
- In the speech, Gorbachev shocked other nations by announcing a withdrawal of a half million Soviet troops and thousands of heavy conventional weapons from Eastern Europe.
Consider the following …
- Gorbachev claimed that mass media made it almost impossible for a government to maintain a strict control over a society closed to outside influences. What kinds of influences do you think young Soviets may have been exposed to in the 1970s and 1980s?
- Why do you suppose Gorbachev did not intend to end communism, but basically reform it?
- What did Gorbachev mean when he asserted that U.S.-Soviet relations through the Cold War were "distorted by the arms race and the militarization of thinking" and that "the first steps" of disarmament "have been met with mistrust in certain influential quarters"?
For More Information
Gorbachev, Mikhail, and Zdenek Mlynar. Conversations with Gorbachev. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Kelly, Nigel. Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Cold War Ends. Chicago: Heineman Library, 2001.
Mandelbaum, Michael. The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century. New York: PublicAffairs, 2002.
McCauley, Martin. Gorbachev. New York: Longman, 1998.
Morrison, Donald, ed. Mikhail S. Gorbachev: An Intimate Biography. New York: Time Books, 1988.
Stokes, Gale. The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
United Nations General Assembly, Provisional Verbatim Record of the Seventy-Second Meeting, A/43/PV.72, December 8, 1988. New York: United Nations, 1988.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.http://www.mikhailgorbachev.org (accessed on September 22, 2003).
Gorbachev, Mikhail 1931-
Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until that country’s demise in 1991, has gone down in history for peacefully dismantling the seventy-year-old repressive Communist system and for initiating the cold war’s nonviolent end after four decades of international tension. For this, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 and is regarded by many, particularly outside Russia, as one of the twentieth century’s greatest leaders. Inside Russia, Gorbachev is more often blamed for the collapse of the Soviet Union, a breakup most Russians regret. Whether Gorbachev should be held directly responsible for that collapse is contested by many scholars who cite complex reasons for that country’s disintegration.
Born into a peasant family, Gorbachev grew up in the important agricultural region of Stavropol, in southern Russia. Highly intelligent and winning awards for both academic achievement and agricultural work, Gorbachev was accepted to the prestigious law faculty of Moscow State University in 1950. There, Gorbachev met educated, urban students from the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, one of whom, the Czech intellectual Zden\k Mlynár (1930–1997)—later a prominent 1968 Prague Spring reformer—became Gorbachev’s lifelong friend.
Returning to Stavropol in 1955, Gorbachev advanced to the top of the regional party hierarchy, and by 1978, he reached Moscow as the secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in charge of agriculture. By 1980 this young, energetic agricultural expert was elected as full member of the fourteen-strong Soviet Politburo (the highest Soviet decision-making body, stocked with octogenarians). Once the CPSU general secretary Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982, Yuri Andropov emerged victorious from the leadership struggle, only to die fifteen months later and be replaced by the ailing Konstantin Chernenko, who survived for only thirteen months. Gorbachev became general secretary, and thus Soviet leader, in March 1985.
With skillful use of his new powers, Gorbachev pushed aside the old guard and reassigned top posts to like-minded anti-Stalinists such as Eduard Shevardnadze (b. 1928) and radical reformers, notably Aleksandr Yakovlev (1923–2005). He then embarked on diplomatic campaigns abroad that, over five years, grew into a foreign policy revolution featuring massive, asymmetrical cuts in Soviet weapons arsenals, acceptance of the peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe, and finally, a radical push to join Europe as a democracy.
At home, Gorbachev managed—despite incessant opposition—to introduce increasingly important political reforms, dubbed perestroika (political and economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness in media and society). Though always predisposed toward reform, Gorbachev did not stress democratization until 1987, when his powers had grown strong enough and his own views consolidated. In 1988 he established competitive elections and a genuine legislative body. He worked to implement checks and balances, a law-governed state, political and religious freedoms, and genuine federalism. Radical economic reform proved far harder, because liberalizing prices risked social upheaval. The economy stagnated as the command economy unraveled, while market institutions remained unborn. The combination of political freedoms, high expectations, and economic decline exacerbated tensions between the fifteen republics and the Soviet state. Striving to keep the U.S.S.R. together, Gorbachev embarked on a new federal framework; but politics at home undercut him. An attempted coup in August 1991 left him critically weakened. In December Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007), president of the Russian Republic, dealt the final blow to Gorbachev—and to the U.S.S.R.—by withdrawing Russia from the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned, leaving a great legacy. He brought freedom to Russia and played the most decisive part in ending the cold war.
SEE ALSO Cold War; Democracy; Democratization; Economies, Transitional; Glasnost; Russian Federation; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Yeltsin, Boris
Brown, Archie. 1996. The Gorbachev Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
English, Robert. 2000. Russia and the Idea of the West. New York: Columbia University Press.
Mlynář, Zdeněk, and Mikhail Gorbachev. 2002. Conversations with Gorbachev. Trans. George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press.
Julie M. Newton
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev (born 1931) was a member of the Communist Party who rose through a series of local and regional positions to national prominence. In March 1985 the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party elected him general secretary of the party and leader of the U.S.S.R. He resigned in 1991.
Mikhail Gorbachev was born into a peasant family in the village of Privolnoe, near Stavropol, on March 2, 1931, and grew up in the countryside. As a teenager, he worked driving farm machinery at a local machine-tractor station. These stations served regional state and collective farms, but were also centers of police control in the countryside. Gorbachev's experience here undoubtedly educated him well about the serious problems of food production and political administration in the countryside, as well as the practices of the KGB (the Soviet secret police) control, knowledge which would serve him well in his future career.
In 1952 Gorbachev joined the Communist Party and began studies at the Moscow State University, where he graduated from the law division in 1955. Student acquaintances from these years describe him as bright, hard working, and careful to establish good contacts with people of importance. He also met and married fellow student Raisa Titorenko, in 1953.
With Stalin's death in 1953 the Soviet Union began a period of political and intellectual ferment. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and paved the way for a major restructuring of the Soviet Union's political system and economic administration. For young party activists like Gorbachev this was a period of exciting innovations and challenges.
Gorbachev returned after his graduation to Stavropol as an organizer for the Komsomol (Young Communist League) and began a successful career as a party administrator and regional leader. In 1962 he was promoted to the post of party organizer for collective and state farms in the Stavropol region and soon took on major responsibilities for the Stavropol city committee as well. Leonid Brezhnev rewarded his ability by appointing him Stavropol first secretary in 1966, roughly equivalent to mayor.
Climbing the Party Ladder
Soon afterwards, as part of the party's new campaign to assure that its best career administrators were thoroughly trained in economic administration, Gorbachev completed an advanced program at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute and received a degree in agrarian economics. With this additional training he moved quickly to assume direction of the party in the entire Stavropol region, assuming in 1970 the important post of first secretary for the Stavropol Territorial Party Committee. This position, roughly equivalent to a governor in the United States, proved a stepping stone to Central Committee membership and national prominence.
Gorbachev was assisted in his rise to national power by close associations with Yuri Andropov, who was also from the Stavropol region, and Mikhail Suslov, the party's principal ideologist and a confidant of Leonid Brezhnev, who had once worked in the Stavropol area as well. Gorbachev also proved himself a shrewd and intelligent administrator, however, with an extensive knowledge of agricultural affairs, and it was largely on this basis that Brezhnev brought him to Moscow in 1978 as a party secretary responsible for agricultural administration. His performance in this capacity was not particularly distinguished. The Soviet Union suffered several poor harvests in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and its dependency on foreign grain imports increased. Yet Gorbachev gained a solid reputation, despite these problems, as an energetic and informed politician, with an activist style contrasting rather sharply with that of most aging Kremlin leaders.
The ascension of Yuri Andropov to power after the death of Leonid Brezhnev in January 1980 greatly strengthened the position of his protegé Gorbachev. Both men showed impatience with outmoded administrative practices and with the inefficiences of the Soviet Union's economy. Andropov's death returned the U.S.S.R. briefly to a period of drift under the weak and ailing Konstantin Chernenko, but Gorbachev continued to impress his colleagues with his loyal and energetic party service. Beginning in October 1980 he was a member of the ruling Politburo.
A New Type of Russian Leader?
As he took power in March 1985, Gorbachev brought a fresh new spirit to the Kremlin. Young, vigorous, married to an attractive and stylish woman with a Ph.D., he represented a new generation of Soviet leaders, educated and trained in the post-Stalin era and free from the direct experiences of Stalin's terror which so hardened and corrupted many of his elders. His first steps as head of the party were designed to improve economic productivity. He began an energetic campaign against inefficiency and waste and indicated his intention to "shake up" lazy and ineffective workers in every area of Soviet life, including the party. He also revealed an unusual affability. Britons found him and his wife Raisa "charming" when he visited England in December 1984, and he showed a ready wit, "blaming" the British Museum, where Karl Marx studied and wrote, for Communism's success. Shortly after taking power Gorbachev also moved to develop greater rapport with ordinary citizens, taking to the streets on several occasions to discuss his views and making a number of well-publicized appearances at factories and other industrial institutions. In addition, he began strengthening his position within the party with a number of new appointments at the important regional level.
A charismatic personality, Gorbachev also had the youthfulness, training, intelligence, and political strength to become one of the Soviet Union's most popular leaders. Upon assuming power in 1985, he was faced with the need to make significant improvements in the Soviet Union's troubled economy—an extremely difficult task—and to establish better relations with the United States, which might allow some reduction in Soviet defense expenditures in favor of consumer goods. In November 1985 he met with President Reagan in Geneva to discuss national and international problems. Little progress was made but both leaders agreed to hold another "summit" meeting in the United States in 1986.
When new tensions developed between the two superpowers, the leaders agreed to hold a preliminary meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland, October 11-12, 1986. But the clearest signs of improving Soviet-American relations came in 1988. Gorbachev made a positive impression when he entered a crowd of spectators in New York City to shake hands with people. In May and June of the same year, President Reagan visited Moscow.
Within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev promoted spectacular political changes. His most important measure came in 1989 when he set up elections in which members of the Communist Party had to compete against opponents who were not Party members. Later that same year, he called for an end to the special status of the Communist party guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution and ended the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan.
Two issues, however, caused growing difficulty for Gorbachev. First, there was the problem of nationalities, as the Soviet Union consisted of nearly 100 different ethnic groups. As the political dictatorship began to disappear, many of these groups began to engage in open warfare against each other. Such bloodshed came from longstanding local quarrels that had been suppressed under Moscow's earlier control. Even more serious, some ethnic groups, like the Lithuanians and the Ukrainians began to call for outright independence. Second, the country's economy was sinking deeper into crisis. Both industrial and agricultural production were declining, and the old system, in which the economy ran under centralized control of the government, no longer seemed to work.
Yet, Gorbachev was apparently more willing to make changes in government and international affairs than to focus on the problems associated with ethnic diversity and the economy. Perhaps influenced by more conservative rivals, he cracked down on the Lithuanians when they declared their independence in the summer of 1990. Also, he gradually tried to move toward a private system of farming and privately-owned industry.
At the same time, a powerful rival began to emerge: once considered an ally, Boris Yeltsin became the country's leading advocate of radical economic reform. Although forced from the Politburo, the small group at the top of the Communist Party, in 1987, Yeltsin soon established his own political base. He formally left the Communist Party in 1990, something Gorbachev refused to do, and was elected president of the Russian Republic in June 1991. Gorbachev, on the other hand, had been made president of the Soviet Union without having to win a national election. Thus, Yeltsin could claim a greater degree of popular support.
Fall From Power
In August 1991, a group of Communist Party conservatives captured Gorbachev while he was on vacation in the Crimea and moved to seize power. Some of these men, like Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, were individuals Gorbachev had put in power to balance the liberal and conservative political forces. But Yeltsin, not Gorbachev, led the successful resistance to the coup, which collapsed within a few days. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow, he was overshadowed by Yeltsin, and there were rumors that Gorbachev himself had been involved in the coup.
By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had fallen apart. When most of its major components like the Ukraine and the Baltic states declared themselves as independent, real power began to rest with the leaders of those components, among them Yeltsin, hero of the attempted coup and president of the Russian Republic. Gorbachev formally resigned his remaining political office on Christmas Day 1991.
As a private citizen, Gorbachev faded from public view, but continued to write and travel. On one occasion, his travels struck an important symbolic note. On May 6, 1992, he spoke at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. There, in 1946, Winston Churchill had given his classic speech coining the term "the Cold War." Gorbachev's appearance was a vivid reminder of the changes he had helped bring about during his seven years in power.
In the spring of 1995, Gorbachev began touring factories in Russia, spoke to university students, and denounced President Yeltsin. He stopped just short of formally announcing his candidacy for the presidency in 1996. He wrote an autobiography, which was released in 1995 in Germany and 1997 in the United States.
Like many historical figures, Gorbachev's role will be interpreted in varying ways. While a Russian factory worker stated in Newsweek, "He destroyed a great state … the collapse of the Soviet Union started with Gorbachev …," some critics in the West saw the fall of Communism as "altogether a victory for common sense, reason, democracy and common human values."
The political tasks Gorbachev faced are well documented in several studies of the Soviet system. These include Seweryn Bialer, Stalin's Successors: Leadership, Stability, and Change in the Soviet Union (1980), George Breslauer, Khrushchev and Brezhnev as Leaders: Building Authority in Soviet Politics (1982), and Dusko Doder, Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin From Brezhnev to Gorbachev(1986). The first book-length study of the Soviet leader was Thomas G. Butson, Gorbachev: A Biography (1985). The second full-life account was Zhores A. Medveder, Gorbachev (1986). Articles on Contemporary Soviet affairs can also be found every other month in the journal Problems of Communism, which tracks Gorbachev's performance in a number of areas. Helpful magazine articles can be found in U.S. News & World Report (November 25, 1996); National Review (November 25, 1996); and Newsweek (March 13, 1995). Gorbachev's autobiography Memoirs was released in the United States in 1997. A summary of Gorbachev's political career can be accessed online at the A&E Biography website at http://www.biography.com (August 5, 1997). □
Born: March 2, 1931
Russian politician and president
Mikhail Gorbachev achieved national recognition as member of the Communist Party, the dominant political party of the former Soviet Union that believes in the common ownership of goods and services. In March 1985 the Soviet Communist Party elected him general secretary of the party and leader of the Soviet Union. He resigned in 1991 shortly after the fall of communism.
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was born into a peasant family in the village of Privolnoe, near Stavropol, Soviet Union, on March 2, 1931. As a teenager, he worked driving farm machinery at a local machine-tractor station. Gorbachev's experience here undoubtedly educated him well about the serious problems of food production and political administration in the countryside. He also became familiar with the control of the KGB (the Soviet secret police), knowledge which would serve him well in his future career.
In 1952 Gorbachev joined the Communist Party and began studies at the Moscow State University, where he graduated from the law division in 1955. He also met and married fellow student Raisa Titorenko, in 1953.
With Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin's (1879–1953) death, the Soviet Union began a period of political and intellectual unrest which paved the way for a major restructuring of the Soviet Union's political system and economic administration. For young party activists like Gorbachev this was a period of exciting changes and challenges.
After his graduation Gorbachev returned to Stavropol as an organizer for the Komsomol (Young Communist League) and began a successful career as a party administrator and regional leader. In 1962 he was promoted to the post of party organizer for collective and state farms in the Stavropol region and soon took on major responsibilities for the Stavropol city committee as well. Party leader Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982) rewarded his ability by appointing him Stavropol first secretary in 1966, roughly equivalent to mayor.
Climbing the party ladder
After gaining additional political training Gorbachev moved quickly to assume direction of the party in the entire Stavropol region. In 1970 he assumed the important post of first secretary for the Stavropol Territorial Party Committee. This position, which is similar to a governor in the United States, proved a stepping stone to Central Committee membership and national recognition.
Gorbachev was assisted in his rise to national power by close associations with Yuri Andropov (1914–1984), who was also from the Stavropol region, and Mikhail Suslov, the party's principal ideologist. In 1978, at the request of Brezhnez, Gorbachev went to Moscow as a party secretary responsible for agricultural administration. Despite problems with agriculture in the Soviet Union at this time, Gorbachev gained a solid reputation as an energetic and informed politician. His activist style was just the thing to oppose most of the aging leaders in the Kremlin, a building in Moscow which houses the government.
The political rise of Yuri Andropov after the death of Leonid Brezhnev in January 1980 greatly strengthened the position of the up-and-coming Gorbachev as both men showed impatience with outdated practices and inefficiencies of the Soviet Union's economy. In October 1980, Gorbachev became a member of the ruling Politburo, the small group at the top of the Communist Party.
A new type of Soviet leader?
As he took power in March 1985, Gorbachev brought a fresh new spirit to the Kremlin. Young, energetic and married to an attractive, stylish, and educated woman, he represented a new generation of Soviet leaders, free from the direct experiences of Stalin's terror which so hardened and corrupted many of his elders.
Gorbechev's first steps as head of the party were designed to improve economic productivity. He began an energetic campaign against inefficiency and waste and indicated his intention to "shake up" lazy and ineffective workers in every area of Soviet life, including the party. He also revealed an unusual friendliness. Shortly after taking power Gorbachev also moved to develop greater rapport with ordinary citizens, taking to the streets on several occasions to discuss his views and making a number of well-publicized appearances at factories and other industrial institutions.
As Prime Minister Gorbachev also sought to establish better relations with the United States, which might allow some reduction in Soviet defense spending in favor of consumer goods. In November 1985 he met with President Reagan (1911–) in Geneva to discuss national and international problems. Little progress was made but both leaders agreed to hold another "summit" meeting in the United States in 1986.
When new tensions developed between the two powerful countries, the leaders agreed to hold a preliminary meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland, on October 11–12, 1986. But the clearest signs of improving Soviet-American relations came in 1988 when Gorbachev made a positive impression when he entered a crowd of spectators in New York City to shake hands with people. In May and June of the same year, President Reagan visited Moscow.
Within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev promoted great political changes. His most important measure came in 1989 when he set up elections in which members of the Communist Party had to compete against opponents who were not party members. Later that same year, he called for an end to the special status of the Communist Party guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution. He also ended the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan.
Two issues, however, caused growing difficulty for Gorbachev. First, there was the problem of nationalities, as the Soviet Union consisted of nearly one hundred different ethnic groups. Many of these groups began to engage in open warfare against each other and even more serious, some ethnic groups, like the Lithuanians and the Ukrainians began to call for outright independence. Second, the country's economy was sinking deeper into crisis. Both industrial and agricultural production were declining, and the old system, in which the economy ran under centralized control of the government, no longer seemed to work.
While Gorbachev wrestled with these problems, a powerful rival began to emerge. Once considered an ally, Boris Yeltsin (1931–) became the country's leading supporter of radical economic reform (improvement). Yeltsin formally left the Communist Party in 1990, something Gorbachev refused to do, and was elected president of the Russian Republic in June 1991. Gorbachev, on the other hand, had been made president of the Soviet Union without having to win a national election. Thus, Yeltsin could claim a greater degree of popular support.
Fall from power
In August 1991 a group of Communist Party conservatives captured Gorbachev while he was on vacation in the Crimea and moved to seize power. Some of these men, like Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, were individuals Gorbachev had put in power to balance opposing political forces. But Yeltsin, not Gorbachev, led the successful resistance to the coup (takeover of the government), which collapsed within a few days. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow, he was overshadowed by Yeltsin, and there were rumors that Gorbachev himself had been involved in the coup.
By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had fallen apart. The Ukraine and the Baltic states declared themselves as independent, and real power began to shift towards the leaders of those regions, among them Yeltsin, hero of the attempted coup and president of the Russian Republic. Gorbachev formally resigned his remaining political office on Christmas Day 1991.
In the spring of 1995, Gorbachev began touring factories in Russia, spoke to university students, and criticized President Yeltsin. He stopped just short of formally announcing his candidacy for the presidency in 1996. He wrote an autobiography, which was released in 1995 in Germany and in 1997 in the United States. Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, died of cancer in September of 1999.
On May 25, 2000, Gorbachev registered his Russian Social Democratic Party, saying he wanted to support liberal ideas. The party's registration by the Justice Ministry paved the way for it to contest future polls.
Like many historical figures, Gorbachev's role will be interpreted in varying ways. While a Russian factory worker stated in Newsweek, "He destroyed a great state … the collapse of the Soviet Union started with Gorbachev," some critics in the West saw the fall of Communism as "altogether a victory for common sense, reason, democracy and common human values."
For More Information
Brown, Archie. The Gorbachev Factor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Butson, Thomas G. Gorbachev: A Biography. New York: Stein and Day, 1985.
Doder, Dusko. Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev. New York: Random House, 1986.
Gorbachev, Mikhail S. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
former president of the union of soviet socialist republics1931–
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, to a peasant family in the Stavropol region of Russia. He excelled in both the classroom and the local collective farm, winning admission to Moscow State University. While attending the university, Gorbachev joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and earned a law degree.
Gorbachev pursued his early career in Stavropol. Unlike other CPSU general secretaries, he never worked outside Russia, making it difficult for him to comprehend the ethnic problems that his reforms would unleash. He began his efforts in the local Communist Youth League and was eventually promoted to first secretary of the Stavropol region. Gorbachev transferred to Moscow in 1978 when he was named a secretary of the Central Committee. Two years later he became the youngest member of the Politburo. His youth proved to be an asset. Following the rapid deaths of three elderly CPSU general secretaries between November 1982 and March 1985, the Central Committee, perhaps hoping for stability, elected Gorbachev as its general secretary in March 1985.
Gorbachev sought to improve, not revolutionize, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). He introduced three key domestic policy initiatives: glasnost, perestroika, and democratization , all of which quickly outpaced his original intent. He had tremendous success in foreign policy, but he was much more popular abroad than at home. Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) built a solid working relationship that led to numerous summit meetings and ostensibly ended the Cold War. Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan and refused to prop up other communist leaders in Eastern Europe. For these efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
Glasnost (openness) encouraged broad discussion of the problems facing the USSR. Strict censorship and official secrecy eased, while newspapers and magazines began filling in the blank spots of history. But as secrets were revealed, the foundation of communist rule began to crumble.
Perestroika (restructuring) relaxed central controls on the economy to improve efficiency and encourage initiative. Gorbachev removed the "command"
in the Soviet economy, but without mandated production levels, output dropped. Severe shortages and hoarding resulted.
With democratization, Gorbachev sought to shift political control away from the CPSU. This brought him tremendous criticism; hardliners claimed he was going too fast, while reformists complained he was not doing enough. In 1988 he introduced a new parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies. Elections for the new Congress were held in 1989, and although multiple parties were not permitted, multiple candidates and non-Party members were. In 1990 Gorbachev ended the CPSU's monopoly on power, but he still sought to control the reform process. He gave parliament, not the people, authority to select the new president of the USSR. Gorbachev assumed the post himself.
Elections for seats in the newly established, republic-level Congress of People's Deputies in early 1990 resulted in a legislature that called for self-determination and even independence. Gorbachev ordered the drafting of a new Union Treaty to reconfigure center-periphery relations, a process that considered extensive changes. When he submitted a document that effectively gave six republics their independence, Party hardliners seized control. The August 1991 coup attempt quickly collapsed, but momentum had shifted from Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin (b. 1931).
Gorbachev spent the remainder of 1991 trying to cobble together a new Soviet state. With all of the republics proclaiming independence, however, Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991. In his retirement he established a think tank, wrote his memoirs, and became president of the Green Cross International, an environmental organization working for sustainable development.
See also: Russia.
Brown, Archie. The Gorbachev Factor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
Ann E. Robertson