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Diplomacy and Conflict • Cold War Leadership

As secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev stunned Westerners throughout the 1980s. Never before had a communist leader seemed so outgoing, intellectual, and committed to reforms approved in the West. Gorbachev set out to change the Soviet Union and the Communist Party in order to strengthen them both. His reforms led to unanticipated changes, however, and impersonal forces overpowered him and eventually the Soviet Union as well.

Early Life and Education

Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in Privolnoye, a village in the northern Caucasus region of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's parents were peasants, and as a child, he endured many hardships. Possessing little money, he had to combine schooling with farm work. At age 10, he witnessed German troops invade his homeland during World War II. His father fought against the Germans, an action Gorbachev referred to proudly in future years.

The war brought devastation. However, Gorbachev excelled at the challenge of rebuilding and in 1949 earned the Order of the Red Banner for his contribution to that year's harvest. At the same time, he did well in school, earning a silver medal for his work, and in 1950, he entered law school at the Soviet Union's prestigious Moscow State University.

Early Career

Though law was not a prestigious field at the time, Gorbachev found his first professional outlet in the Komsomol, or Communist Youth League, in which he became active as an organizer. In 1952, he joined the Communist Party. Gorbachev graduated from law school in 1955 and then advanced rapidly and impressively. He served as first secretary of the Komsomol in Stavropol from 1956 to 1958 and in the latter year, became the organization's first secretary for the entire Stavropol region.

He then shifted his efforts to the Communist Party and in 1962, worked as an organizer for the collective farm administration, thus returning to his rural background. At the same time, he attended Stavropol Agricultural Institute, where he studied agronomy. In 1966, he became first secretary for Stavropol and the following year, obtained his agronomy degree. Just three years later, he was the party's first secretary for the Stavropol region and in 1971, was named a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party—a young man in a politically powerful body dominated by older leaders.

During his tenure in Stavropol, Gorbachev gained a substantial following among workers on the collectives. He introduced reforms that allowed farmers more power in making decisions and encouraged larger private plots, where they could grow food for the open market. Gorbachev's good standing with influential men was evident in the 1970s, when party officials sent him overseas on three occasions, including in 1976 as head of a delegation visiting Paris.

Rise to Power

Gorbachev's career progressed again in 1978 when Agriculture Secretary Fyodor Kulakov died. The party chose Gorbachev to fill Kulakov's position—once more unusual for a man so young. The following year, while still serving as agriculture secretary, he gained appointment to the Politburo, the party's inner circle, as a nonvoting member. In this position, he applied his law background and, as requested by the party leadership, proposed new rules for the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor's Office. In 1978, he backed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in support of the communist regime fighting a rebellion.

Yuri Andropov, who had often served as Gorbachev's mentor, became the new secretary general of the communist party after the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982. Gorbachev's power subsequently increased, and he ranked as one of only three men who held both a Politburo position and a position as a national party secretary. Gorbachev helped Andropov carry out a purge of corrupt officials—considered necessary as the economy worsened and the party stagnated—and the general secretary revived Gorbachev's plan to increase agricultural production through incentives.

As Andropov's health worsened throughout 1983, Gorbachev assumed more duties, making important speeches and leading a delegation to Canada, where he confronted the members of Parliament. Many observers believed that Gorbachev would succeed Andropov, but when the leader died, the party chose Konstantin Chernenko. Gorbachev supported Chernenko, while taking charge of ideology and economics. In 1984, he added to his duties when he became chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Supreme Soviet (the national legislature), a development that displayed his diverse expertise and confirmed his importance beyond agricultural matters.

Gorbachev As Soviet Leader

When Chernenko died suddenly in 1985, it was not clear that Gorbachev would become the new general secretary. Several in the party's Old Guard opposed him, but in the end, the Politburo elevated him. Gorbachev set about changing the personnel and structure of the Soviet system, making appointments to the Politburo and bringing fresh blood into prominent positions. Perhaps nothing so symbolized the need for reform as the catastrophic meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986—a disaster stemming from shoddy procedures and one whose initial cover-up resulted in additional casualties.

As Gorbachev faced enormous internal challenges, he pursued an easing of tensions with the United States. He met several times with U.S. president Ronald Reagan and negotiated arms control measures. In all, Soviet-American relations improved considerably.

Within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev announced his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). With glasnost, Gorbachev allowed intellectual and political debate. Books previously banned in the Soviet Union were now allowed, including critical works by prominent Russian dissidents. Newspapers displayed editorials questioning government policies, and people gathered at meetings where they freely debated issues.

With perestroika, Gorbachev pursued extensive political and economic change. In 1989, he initiated competitive elections for a new Congress of People's Deputies, which had the responsibility of electing the more powerful Supreme Soviet. Furthermore, whereas in the past the Supreme Soviet seldom met—the Politburo within the Communist Party approved all major decisions—it now was to convene regularly. The same year, Gorbachev added to his duties that of chairman of the Supreme Soviet, meaning he served as the legislature's speaker.

More importantly, in 1990, the Supreme Soviet created the office of national president as a powerful position and made it elective—a crucial development in weakening the Politburo. Initially, Gorbachev was elected to the presidency by the Congress of People's Deputies, but subsequent elections were to be by popular vote.

Gorbachev also promoted an increased role for leaders from the republics that made up the Soviet Union. They represented different ethnic groups, and Gorbachev intended to calm their secessionist desires. In the economy, Gorbachev lessened the state's role and developed plans to introduce free-market practices. He moved cautiously, however, ever fearful that reforms, such as the end to price controls and guaranteed jobs, would lead to inflation and unemployment, and consequently social unrest.

Overall, glasnost encouraged criticism, and rather than calm separatist desires in the outlying republics, it intensified ethnic pride and nationalism. Perestroika, despite its modest nature, produced economic dislocation and angered both conservatives—who detected an assault against communism—and liberals, who believed the economy needed quicker, more extensive change—a "shock treatment."

However, Gorbachev seemed unable to advance beyond his communist outlook, and his belief that the system in which he advanced his career should not be totally dismantled. Furthermore, by 1990, his effort to subordinate the military to other interests produced rumblings of discontent from powerful generals.

End of Soviet Union

Amid these developments, the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe collapsed. Forces similar to those in the Soviet Union had been at work there, and such nations as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia ended their communist regimes and exerted their independence. As promoter of glasnost and beset with internal difficulties, Gorbachev, for the most part, let these nations go their own way, even agreeing to the reunification of Germany. He took a firmer stand toward the Baltic republics, where many ethnic Russians lived, but these nations also gained their independence.

At home, Gorbachev faced an uprising in the Russian Republic, the largest of the Soviet republics, when its leader, Boris Yeltsin, demanded more radical reform. Then, on August 18, 1991, conservative communists tried to overthrow Gorbachev. They isolated him while he was away from Moscow and cut his communications.

Yeltsin, however, rallied the Russian people, promoting a general strike and huge demonstrations. His supporters surrounded and fortified the Parliament building to protect it. On August 21, the Soviet coup attempt collapsed, and Gorbachev resumed his presidency. Within days, he resigned as general secretary, and the government suspended all communist party activities. Meanwhile, several republics declared their independence, including Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, and others prepared to do the same.

Still, it was Yeltsin, not Gorbachev, who emerged the hero. His courageous stand and call for democracy and a market economy won him an enormous following (including U.S. president George Bush). At the same time, the coup attempt was the death blow to the Soviet Union, which formally collapsed in December 1991. Gorbachev and Yeltsin cooperated in forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation consisting of Russia and 10 other former Soviet republics.

Later Career

With the Soviet Union defunct and Yeltsin as Russia's leader, Gorbachev retired from the political scene. His reputation in shambles among the Russian people, he stayed out of the public eye for the next several years but reemerged to participate in the June 1996 presidential elections. He won only half of 1% of the national vote.

In 2001, Gorbachev cofounded the Russian United Social Democratic Party in an attempt to avoid liberal and communist economic extremes. He led the party until May 22, 2004, when he resigned citing dissatisfaction with the party's direction under co-leader Konstantin Titov.

"shock treatment."
Neil A. Hamilton
Dr. Neil A. Hamilton is a professor of history at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and an adjunct professor of American history at the University of South Alabama. He received his PhD in American history at the University of Tennessee after graduating with a BA and MA from the University of Miami. A member of the Organization of American Historians, Hamilton has authored or coauthored a number of articles for historical journals and such books as The ABC-Clio Companion to the 1960s Counterculture in America (ABC-CLIO, 1997), Atlas of the Baby Boom Generation (Macmillan, 2000), American Social Leaders and Activists (Facts on File, 2002), The 1970s (Facts on File, 2006), Scientific Exploration and Expeditions: From the Age of Discovery to the Twenty-First Century (Sharpe, 2011), Outlaws Still At Large!: A Saga of Roots Country Music Since the 1970s (Outlaw Press, 2013), and Rebels and Renegades: a Chronology of Social and Political Dissent in the United States (Taylor and Francis, 2016).

Further Reading

Matlock, Jack F. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. New York: Random House, 2004; Morrison, Donald, ed. Mikhail S. Gorbachev: An Intimate Biography. New York: Time, 1988; Smith, Hedrick. The New Russians. New York: Random House, 1990.

MLA Citation

Hamilton, Neil. "Mikhail Gorbachev." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/314703. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2155829

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