Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was general secretary of the Communist Party, then president of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. He was a reformer who attempted to fix the economic problems of the system and wanted democracy to grow within the country. He presided over the dismemberment and collapse of his nation.

Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in a small village in the Stavropol region in south Russia. Both his grandfathers were arrested as kulaks during a collectivization drive of 1928–33. His father joined the Communist Party and was a veteran of the Great Patriotic War (1941–45).

Gorbachev himself was an eager student, joined the Communist Youth League, and gained acceptance to the law faculty at Moscow State University in 1950. He completed his studies in 1955. During his time in Moscow he met his future wife, Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko, who would play a crucial supporting role in his reforms throughout their lives.

While in Moscow, Gorbachev gained a reputation as something of a liberal, publicly approving of the reformist efforts of the current leader, Nikita Khrushchev. He also became close friends with a Czech student, Zdenek Mlynar, who would be active in Czechoslovak politics during the reformist Prague Spring of 1968.

After graduation, Gorbachev returned to Stavropol, where he practiced law for a few years. He was elected first secretary of the Stavropol city Komsomol committee in 1956. From there he began a quick ascent. In 1962 he moved to the Communist Party administration. He became first secretary of the Stavropol city party organization in 1966.

In 1970 he rose to first secretary of the Stavropol region. After eight years he moved to Moscow, where he became the Central Committee secretary for agriculture. Within two years he was a full member of the Politburo, the ruling council of the Soviet state. Finally, in March 1985, he was chosen as general secretary of the Communist Party.

Even before Gorbachev became general secretary, he was thinking about ways to reform the system. His initiatives followed a path laid out by the previous general secretary, Yuri Andropov. These were fairly conservative, calling for higher levels of productivity of labor. In 1986 Gorbachev announced a set of more radical proposals that he called perestroika, or restructuring.

Perestroika called for decentralization and self-accounting for industries. He continued to innovate, even allowing cooperatives in order to gain control of illegal economic activities. None of his reforms challenged the basic nature of the Soviet Union’s planned economic system.


Political reforms became an integral part of perestroika. Because Gorbachev’s economic reforms were criticized and often ignored by entrenched party officials, he sought to remove them and bring new initiative through democratization.

Multicandidate elections within the Communist Party were announced in 1987. Those elections were held in 1988, with thousands of contests throughout the country. When the Congress of People’s Deputies met afterward, it represented a newly reformed Communist Party that pushed Gorbachev to implement additional changes.

Perhaps the most traumatic moment of Gorbachev’s reign occurred when the Chernobyl nuclear station exploded in April 1986. A mix of unsafe construction, insufficient maintenance, and human error led to the worst radiation leak in history.

In its wake, Gorbachev launched the policy of glasnost, or openness, in earnest. At first it involved a few magazines and journals, such as Ogonek and Moscow News, but it quickly spread to almost all other media. These outlets began to publish stories that openly revealed the problems that faced the Soviet Union—including poverty, corruption, and divorce.

In addition, there was a broad reexamination of Soviet history, leading to harsh criticism of Joseph Stalin and even Vladimir Lenin. Literary works and authors that had been banned reappeared, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.

Glasnost brought an ambivalent response from the Soviet public. Many were happy to see the truth of the past revealed but many, perhaps a majority, felt that these revelations unnecessarily blackened the reputation of the Soviet Union.

The pent-up hostility of the nations inside the Soviet Union was also released by Gorbachev’s economic, political, and cultural reforms. Beginning in Uzbekistan in 1986 national groups began to resist decisions made in Moscow. Arguments between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over a small piece of territory led to violent clashes in 1988 and demonstrated the increasing weakness of central authority.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania announced their sovereignty starting in 1988. A movement even began among the Russians, led by Boris Yeltsin, to limit the power of the Soviet government over their territory. The increasing pressure from these national groups weakened Gorbachev’s ability to hold the Soviet Union together.

Meeting with Reagan

Mikhail Gorbachev meeting with Ronald Reagan
Mikhail Gorbachev meeting with Ronald Reagan

Foreign affairs were the area where Gorbachev had the most success. Gorbachev pursued a policy of reducing international tension from the beginning of his rule. After 1985 Gorbachev quickly moved toward negotiations that would eventually lead to the end of the cold war. He met with U.S. president Ronald Reagan repeatedly throughout the 1980s.

These meetings culminated in the first arms control treaty in a decade, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which removed both U.S. and Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles from Europe. The good relations continued with President George H. W. Bush, although Gorbachev was never able to gain the large restructuring loans that he had hoped for from the Western powers.

The Soviet allies in eastern Europe benefited from Gorbachev’s approach to foreign policy. The centripetal forces unleashed by perestroika did not stop at the Soviet border. Gorbachev, however, felt that it was unwise to attempt to keep eastern Europe forcibly under Soviet control. Conservative regimes in the Soviet bloc were unable to respond to perestroika and glasnost.

When they appealed to Gorbachev for military help, he refused. Once his policy of nonintervention became clear, these regimes unraveled very quickly. All of the communist states collapsed in 1989. Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his leading role in the reduction of international tensions and the generally peaceful transition to democracy.

With the end of Soviet dominance over eastern Europe, Gorbachev faced increasing internal resistance to his reforms. He tried to strengthen his political position by convincing the Congress of People’s Deputies to create a new position—president of the Soviet Union— and elect him to it in March 1990.

He also proposed the most radical transformation of the Soviet economy so far. Called “the 500 Days,” it was supposed to move the planned economy quickly to a market-based one. He abandoned it before it truly started. Within a few months Gorbachev moved in the opposite direction.

He brought in new advisers who held a conservative vision for the future of the Soviet Union. This conservative swing reached its peak in January 1991, when Soviet troops moved into Lithuania in an attempt to prevent its declaration of independence.

In spring 1991 Gorbachev proposed a new arrangement that would greatly decentralize power but keep the Soviet Union together. He called a nationwide referendum to vote on this new structure. It was approved by almost 75 percent of those who voted in March.

However, Gorbachev’s archrival Boris Yeltsin used the referendum to create a position of president of the Russian Federation, from which he was able to undermine Gorbachev and his plans to hold the Soviet Union together. The new, weaker union was scheduled to go into effect on August 20, 1991.

The weakness in this agreement led a group of conservatives to attempt to restore the centralized power of the Soviet state. A coup attempt was launched on August 19 by men that Gorbachev had appointed earlier. Gorbachev was placed under house arrest and the plotters declared martial law. The coup attempt was quickly defeated.

Resistance from Boris Yeltsin, now president of the Russian Federation, and thousands of Muscovites who gathered outside the Russian parliament convinced the army to remain uninvolved in the political struggle. The coup plotters gave in a few days later. When Gorbachev returned from house arrest, his power was fatally weakened.

Yeltsin took the initiative after the failed coup. Yeltsin banned the Communist Party in Russia and undermined Gorbachev’s last attempts to hold the state together. After months of futile negotiation, Gorbachev resigned as president on December 25, and the Soviet Union was officially disbanded on December 31, 1991.

Gorbachev remains active in Russian political life, though he is intensely disliked by most Russians. He ran for president of Russia in 1996 but received less than 1 percent of the vote. In 2006 he was the head of the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow and traveled the world giving speeches. He is also the author of numerous books and a commentator on Russian and world politics.