Mikhail Gorbachev

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Mikhail Gorbachev
Term of Office: 11 March 1985 - 25 December 1991
Predecessor: Konstantin Chernenko
Successor: Vladimir Ivashko
Date of Birth: March 2, 1931
Place of Birth: Privolnoye, near Stavropol, Soviet Union
Date of Death: N/A
Place of Death: N/A
Profession: Economist/Politician
Political party: Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachyov (Gorbachev) (Russian: Михаи́л Серге́евич Горбачёв; pronunciation: /mixaˈɪɫ serˈgejevɪtʃ gərbaˈtʃof/) (born March 2, 1931), was leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991. His attempts at reform led to the end of the Cold War, but also caused the end of the political supremacy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.


Early life and political career

Mikhail Gorbachev was born into a peasant family in the village of Privolnoye near Stavropol. He studied law at Moscow University, where he met his future wife, Raisa. They were married in September 1953 and moved to Gorbachev's home region of Stavropol in southern Russia when he graduated in 1955.

Gorbachev joined the CPSU in 1952 at the age of 21. In 1966, at age 35, he graduated from the Agricultural Institute as an agronomist-economist. His career moved forward rapidly, and in 1970, he was appointed First Secretary for Agriculture and the following year made a member of the Central Committee. In 1972, he headed a Soviet delegation to Belgium and two years later, in 1974, he was made a Representative to the Supreme Soviet, and Chairman of the Standing Commission on Youth Affairs. He was elevated to the Politburo in 1979. There, Gorbachev received the patronage of Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB and also a native of Stavropol, and was promoted during Andropov's brief time as leader of the Party before Andropov's death in 1984. With responsibility over personnel, working together with Andropov, 20 percent of the top echelon of government ministers and regional governors were replaced, often with younger men. During this time Grigory Romanov, Nikolai Ryzhkov, and Yegor Ligachev were elevated, the latter two working closely with Gorbachev, Ryzhkov on economics, Ligachev on personnel. He was also close to Konstantin Chernenko, Andropov's successor, serving as second secretary.

His positions within the new CPSU created more opportunities to travel abroad that would profoundly affect his political and social views in the future as leader of the country. In 1975, he led a delegation to West Germany, and in 1983 he headed a Soviet delegation to Canada to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and members of the Canadian House of Commons and Senate. In 1984, he traveled to the United Kingdom, where he met with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

General Secretary of the CPSU

Upon the death of Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev, at age 54, was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party on March 11, 1985. He became the Party's first leader to have been born after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

As de facto ruler of the Soviet Union, he tried to reform the stagnating Communist Party and the state economy by introducing glasnost ("openness"), perestroika ("restructuring"), and uskorenie ("acceleration", of economic development), which were launched at the 27th Congress of the CPSU in February 1986.


Gorbachev in one-on-one discussions with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Gorbachev in one-on-one discussions with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Domestically, Gorbachev implemented economic reforms that he hoped would improve living standards and worker productivity as part of his perestroika program. However, many of his reforms were considered radical at the time by orthodox apparatchiks in the Soviet government.

The Law on Cooperatives enacted in May 1987 was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms during the early part of the Gorbachev era. For the first time since Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Policy, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. The law initially imposed high taxes and employment restrictions, but these were later revised to avoid discouraging private-sector activity. Under this provision, cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers became part of the Soviet scene.

Gorbachev's introduction of glasnost gave new freedoms to the people, such as a greater freedom of speech. This was a radical change, as control of speech and suppression of government criticism had previously been a central part of the Soviet system. The press became far less controlled, and thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were released. Gorbachev's goal in undertaking glasnost was to pressure conservatives within the CPSU who opposed his policies of economic restructuring, and he also hoped that through different ranges of openness, debate and participation, the Soviet people would support his reform initiatives.

In January 1987, Gorbachev called for democratization: the infusion of democratic elements such as multi-candidate elections into the Soviet political process. In June 1988, at the CPSU's Nineteenth Party Conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms meant to reduce party control of the government apparatus. In December 1988, the Supreme Soviet approved the establishment of a Congress of People's Deputies, which constitutional amendments had established as the Soviet Union's new legislative body. Elections to the congress were held throughout the USSR in March and April 1989. On March 15, 1990, Gorbachev was elected as the first executive President of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev during a visit to East Germany, 1989.
Gorbachev during a visit to East Germany, 1989.

In international affairs, Gorbachev sought to improve relations and trade with the West. He establised close relationships with several Western leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher - who famously remarked: "I like Mr. Gorbachev - we can do business together" - West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. On October 11 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik, Iceland to discuss reducing intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. This led to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987. In February 1988, Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, which was completed the following year.

Also during 1988, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine, and allow the Eastern bloc nations to determine their own internal affairs. This proved to be the most far-reaching of Gorbachev's foreign policy reforms with his Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov jokingly calling his new doctrine the Sinatra Doctrine. Moscow's abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine led to a string of revolutions in Eastern Europe throughout 1989, in which communism collapsed. With the exception of Romania, the democratic revolutions against the pro-Soviet Communist regimes were all peaceful ones. The loosening of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe effectively ended the Cold War, and for this, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 15, 1990.

Coup and collapse

Although intended to revitalize Soviet socialism, the democratization of the USSR and Eastern Europe irreparably undermined the power of the CPSU and Gorbachev himself. Gorbachev's relaxation of censorship and attempts to create more political openness had the unintended effect of re-awakening long-suppressed nationalist and anti-Russian feelings in the Soviet republics. Calls for greater independence from Moscow's rule grew louder, especially in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in the Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Gorbachev had accidentally unleashed a force that would ultimately destroy the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev's response to growing republic separatism was to draw up a new treaty of union which would have created a truly voluntary federation in an increasingly democratised USSR. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, who needed the economic power and markets of the Soviet Union to prosper. However, the more radical reformists, such as Russian SFSR President Boris Yeltsin, were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required and were more than happy to contemplate the disintegration of the USSR if that was required to achieve their aims.

In contrast to the reformers' lukewarm approach to the new treaty, the hard-line apparatchiks, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were completely opposed to anything which might lead to breakup of the Soviet motherland. On the eve of the treaty's signing the hardliners struck.

Gorbachev accused Boris Yeltsin, his old rival and Russia's first post-Soviet president, of tearing the country apart out of a desire to advance his own personal interests.
Gorbachev accused Boris Yeltsin, his old rival and Russia's first post-Soviet president, of tearing the country apart out of a desire to advance his own personal interests.

Hard-liners in the Soviet leadership launched the August Coup in 1991 in an attempt to remove Gorbachev from power and prevent the signing of the new union treaty. During this time, Gorbachev spent three days (August 19 to 21) under house arrest at a dacha in the Crimea before being freed and restored to power. However, upon his return, Gorbachev found that neither union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands as support had swung over to Yeltsin. Furthermore, Gorbachev was forced to fire large numbers of his Politburo and, in several cases, arrest them. Those arrested for high treason include the "Gang of Eight" that had led the coup.

Gorbachev had aimed to maintain the CPSU as a united party but move it in the direction of social democracy. The inherent contradictions in this approach - praising Lenin, admiring Sweden's social model and seeking to maintain the annexation of the Baltic states by military force - were difficult enough. But when the CPSU was proscribed after the August coup, Gorbachev was left with no effective power base beyond the armed forces. In the end Yeltsin won them round too with promises of more money. Gorbachev eventually resigned on December 25, 1991 as the USSR was officially dissolved.

Gorbachev is generally well regarded in the West for having ended the Cold War. However in Russia, his reputation is very low because he is perceived to have brought about the collapse of the country and is held responsible for the economic misery that followed. Nevertheless, polls indicate that a majority of Russians are pleased with the result of the individual aims of perestroika, Gorbachev's chief legislative legacy, and the freedom that came about as a result.

Political activity after resignation

Gorbachev founded the Gorbachev Foundation in 1992. In 1993, he also founded Green Cross International, of which he was one of three major sponsors of the Earth Charter. He also became a member of the Club of Rome.

In 1996, Gorbachev ran for President in Russia, but received approximately 1 percent of the vote.

In 1997, Gorbachev starred in a Pizza Hut commercial made for the USA to raise money for the Perestroika Archives.

On November 26, 2001, Gorbachev also founded the Social Democratic Party of Russia—which is a union between several Russian social democrat parties. He resigned as party leader in May 2004 over a disagreement with the party's chairman over the direction taken in the December 2003 election campaign.

In early 2004, Gorbachev moved to trademark his famous port wine birthmark, after a vodka company featured the mark on labels of one of their drinks to capitalize on its fame. The company now no longer uses the trademark. Gorbachev to Trademark his Forehead

In June 2004, Gorbachev represented Russia at the funeral of Ronald Reagan.

In September 2004, following Chechen terrorist attacks across Russia, President Vladimir Putin launched an initiative to replace the election of regional governors with a system whereby they would be directly appointed by the President and approved by regional legislatures. Gorbachev, together with Boris Yeltsin, criticized Putin's actions as a step away from democracy.

In 2005, Gorbachev was awarded the Point Alpha Prize for promoting German reunification along with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. He also received an honorary Doctorate from the University of Münster.


In the West, Gorbachev was colloquially known as 'Gorby', in part because of a perception that he was less austere than his predecessors.

In 1987, Gorbachev acknowledged that his liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika owed a great deal to Alexander Dubček's "socialism with a human face." When asked what the difference was between the Prague Spring and his own reforms, Gorbachev replied, "Nineteen years."

In 1989, on an official visit to China during the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, shortly before the imposition of martial law in Beijing, Gorbachev was asked for his opinion on the Great Wall of China: "It's a very beautiful work", he replied, "but there are already too many walls between people". A journalist asked him, "would you like the Berlin Wall to be taken down?" Gorbachev replied very seriously, "Why not?"

Gorbachev was ranked #95 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history.

Religious affiliation

Baptized in the Russian Orthodox church as a child, Gorbachev is an atheist. He maintains respect for the faiths of people of all religions, as evidenced by his leading role in the establishment of freedom of religion laws in the former Soviet Union.

Naevus flammeus

Gorbachev is the most famous person in modern times with visible naevus flammeus. The crimson birthmark on the top of his bald head was the source of much satire among critics and cartoonists.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1988, ISBN 0-06-091528-5

Preceded by:
Konstantin Chernenko
General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party
Succeeded by:
Vladimir Ivashko (coup) then Gorbachev resigned and the CPSU was banned
Preceded by:
President of the Soviet Union
Succeeded by:

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