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.
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.
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.
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).