Skip to main content
Select Source:

Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich

GORBACHEV, MIKHAIL SERGEYEVICH

(b. 1931), Soviet political leader, general editor of the CPSU (19851991), president of the Soviet Union (19901991), 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 conservativesmost notably U.S. president Ronald Reagan and U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcheras 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 whichin particular, for the first four of his six and one-half years at the top of the Soviet political systemmade 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 19851986 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 19891990 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 Secretaryuntil 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 19901991 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 differentindeed, he was well advanced in the task of dismantling the traditional Soviet edificebut 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 internationallymost 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 eraand to a significant degree instigated by himgreatly 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

bibliography

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, 19851991. 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.

Archie Brown

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gorbachev-mikhail-sergeyevich

"Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gorbachev-mikhail-sergeyevich

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.

Private Citizen

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."

Further Reading

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). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mikhail-sergeevich-gorbachev

"Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mikhail-sergeevich-gorbachev

Gorbachev, Mikhail

Mikhail Gorbachev

Born: March 2, 1931
Privolnoe, Russia

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.

Early life

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 (18791953) 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 (19061982) 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 (19141984), 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.

U.S. relations

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 1112, 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.

Internal conflicts

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.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gorbachev, Mikhail." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Gorbachev, Mikhail." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gorbachev-mikhail

"Gorbachev, Mikhail." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gorbachev-mikhail

Gorbachev, Mikhail

Gorbachev, Mikhail 1931-

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until that countrys demise in 1991, has gone down in history for peacefully dismantling the seventy-year-old repressive Communist system and for initiating the cold wars 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 centurys 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 countrys 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 (19301997)later a prominent 1968 Prague Spring reformerbecame Gorbachevs 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 (19232005). 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 manageddespite incessant oppositionto 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 (19312007), president of the Russian Republic, dealt the final blow to Gorbachevand 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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gorbachev, Mikhail." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Gorbachev, Mikhail." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/gorbachev-mikhail

"Gorbachev, Mikhail." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/gorbachev-mikhail

Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (mēkhəyēl´ sĬrgā´yəvich gərbəchof´), 1931–, Soviet political leader. Born in the agricultural region of Stavropol, Gorbachev studied law at Moscow State Univ., where in 1953 he married a philosophy student, Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko (1932?–99). Returning to Stavropol, he moved gradually upward in the local Communist party. In 1970, he became Stavropol party leader and was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Regarded as a skilled technocrat and a reformer, Gorbachev joined (1978) the Communist party secretariat as agriculture secretary, and in 1980 he joined the politburo as the protégé of Yuri Andropov. After Andropov's ascension to party leadership, Gorbachev assumed (1983) full responsibility for the economy.

Following the death of Konstantin Chernenko (Andropov's successor) in 1985, Gorbachev was appointed general secretary of the party despite being the youngest member of the politburo. He embarked on a comprehensive program of political, economic, and social liberalization under the slogans of glasnost ( "openness" ) and perestroika ( "restructuring" ). The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl (1986) forced Gorbachev to allow even greater freedom of expression. The government released political prisoners, allowed increased emigration, attacked corruption, and encouraged the critical reexamination of Soviet history.

In a series of summit talks (1985–88), Gorbachev improved relations with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, with whom he signed an Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) arms limitation treaty in 1987. By 1989 he had brought about the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (see Afghanistan War) and had sanctioned the end of the Communist monopoly on political power in Eastern Europe. For his contributions to reducing East-West tensions, he was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize. By 1990, however, Gorbachev's perestroika program had failed to deliver significant improvement in the economy, and the elimination of political and social control had released latent ethnic and national tensions in the Baltic states, in the constituent republics of Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, and elsewhere.

A newly created (1989) Congress of People's Deputies voted in Mar., 1990, to end the Communist party's control over the government and elected Gorbachev executive president. During 1990 and 1991, however, the reform drive stalled, and Gorbachev appeared to be mollifying remaining hardliners, who were disgruntled over the deterioration of the Soviet empire and increasing marginalization of the Communist party. An unsuccessful anti-Gorbachev coup by hardliners in Aug., 1991 (see August Coup), shifted greater authority to the Russian Republic's president, Boris Yeltsin, and greatly accelerated change. Gorbachev dissolved the Communist party, granted the Baltic states independence, and proposed a much looser, chiefly economic federation among the remaining republics. With the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on Dec. 8, 1991, the federal government of the Soviet Union became superfluous, and on Dec. 25, Gorbachev resigned as president. Since 1992, Gorbachev has headed international organizations; written several books, including On My Country and the World (tr. 1999), and run unsuccessfully (1996) for the Russian presidency. He also heads the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, better know as the Gorbachev Foundation (est. 1991), a think-tank.

See his Memoirs (1996). See also A. Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (1996); S. Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000 (2001).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gorbachev-mikhail-sergeyevich

"Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gorbachev-mikhail-sergeyevich