Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev


Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (born March 2, 1931) is a Russian politician. He was the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the last head of state of the USSR, serving from 1985 until its collapse in 1991. His attempts at reform — perestroika and glasnost — as well as summit conferences with United States President Ronald Reagan, contributed to the end of the Cold War, and also ended the political supremacy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. Gorbachev is currently the leader of the Union of Social-Democrats, a political party founded after the official dissolution of the Social Democratic Party of Russia on October 20, 2007.

Gorbachev faced a very tough childhood under the totalitarian leadership of Joseph Stalin. His paternal grandfather was sentenced to nine years in the gulag for withholding grain from the collective's harvest. He lived through World War II, during which, starting in August 1942, German troops occupied Stavropol. Although they left by February 1943, the occupation increased the hardship of the community and left a deep impression on the young Gorbachev. From 1946 to 1950, he worked during the summers as an assistant combiner harvester operator at the collective farms in his area. He would take an increasing part in promoting peasant labor, which he describes as "very hard" because of enforced state quotas and taxes on private plots. Furthermore, as peasants were not issued passports, their only opportunity to leave their peasant existence was through enlisting in 'orgnabour' (organized recruitment) labor projects, which prompted Gorbachev to ask "what difference was there between this life and serfdom?"

Despite the hardship of his background, Gorbachev excelled in the fields and in the classroom. He was considered one of the most intelligent in his class, with a particular interest in history and mathematics. After he left school he helped his father harvest a record crop on his collective farm. As a result, Mikhail was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, at just 16 (1947). It was rare for someone his age to be given such an honor. It was almost certain that this award, coupled with his intelligence, helped secure his place at Moscow University, where he studied law from September 1950. Gorbachev may never have intended to practice law, however he simply may have seen it as preparation for working in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He became a candidate member of the Party that same year. While living in Moscow, he met his future wife, Raisa Maksimovna Titarenko. They married on 25 September 1953 and moved to Gorbachev's home region of Stavropol in southern Russia when he graduated in June 1955, where he immersed himself in party work. Upon graduating, he briefly worked in the Prokuratura (Soviet State Advocacy) before transferring to the Komsomol, or Communist Union of Youth. He served as First Secretary of the Stavropol City Komsomol Committee from September, 1956, later moving up to the Stavropol Krai (regional) Komsomol Committee, where he worked as Second Secretary from April 1958 and as First Secretary from March 1961. Raisa would give birth to their first child, a daughter named Irina, on 6 January 1957.

Gorbachev attended the important XXII CPSU Party Congress in October 1961, where Khrushchev announced a plan to move to a Communist society within 20 years and surpass the U.S. in per capita production. Gorbachev was promoted to Head of the Department of Party Organs in the Stavropol Agricultural Kraikom in 1963. By 1966, at age 35, he obtained a correspondence degree as an agronomist-economist from the Agricultural Institute. His career moved forward rapidly. In 1970, he was appointed First Party Secretary of the Stavropol Kraikom, becoming one of the youngest provincial party chiefs in the USSR. In this position he helped to reorganize the collective farms, improve workers' living conditions, expand the size of their private plots, and give them a greater voice in planning. His work was evidently effective, because he was made a member of the CPSU Central Committee in 1971. 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. Gorbachev was subsequently appointed to the Central Committee Secretariat for Agriculture in 1978, replacing Fyodor Kulakov, who had backed his rise to power, after Kulakov died of a heart attack.

In 1979, Gorbachev was promoted to the Politburo as a candidate member, and received full membership in 1980. Gorbachev owed his steady rise to power to the patronage of Mikhail Suslov, the powerful chief ideologist of the CPSU, and 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% 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.

Gorbachev's positions within the CPSU created more opportunities to travel abroad and this 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 delegation to Canada to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and members of the Commons and Senate. In 1984, he travelled to the UK, where he met the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Upon the death of Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev, at the age of 54, was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party on March 11, 1985, defeating Grigory Romanov, who was considered the other favorite.

He became the Party's first leader to have been born after the Revolution. As de facto ruler of the USSR, he tried to reform the stagnating Party and the state economy by introducing glasnost ("openness"), perestroika ("restructuring"), demokratizatsiya ("democratization"), and uskoreniye ("acceleration", of economic development), which were launched at the 27th Congress of the CPSU in February 1986.

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.

In 1985, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet economy was stalled and that reorganization was needed. Initially, his reforms were called uskoreniye (acceleration) but later the terms glasnost (liberalization, opening up) and perestroika (restructuring) became much more popular.

Gorbachev was not operating within a vacuum. Although the Brezhnev era is usually thought of as one of economic stagnation, a number of economic experiments (particularly in the organization of business enterprises, and partnerships with Western companies) did take place. A number of reformist ideas were discussed by technocratic-minded managers, who often used the facilities of the Young Communist League as discussion forums. The so-called 'Komsomol Generation' would prove to be Gorbachev's most receptive audience, and the nursery of many post-Communist businessmen and politicians, particularly in the Baltic republics.

After becoming General Secretary, Gorbachev proposed a "vague program of reform", which was adopted at the April Plenum of the Central Committee. He made a speech in May in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) advocating widespread reforms. The reforms began in personnel changes; the most notable change was the replacement of Andrei Gromyko with Eduard Shevardnadze as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Gromyko, disparaged as 'Mr. No' in the West, had served for 28 years as Minister of Foreign Affairs and was considered an 'old thinker'. Robert D. English notes that, despite Shevardnadze's diplomatic inexperience, Gorbachev "shared with him an outlook" and experience in managing an agricultural region of the Soviet Union (Georgia), which meant that both had weak links to the powerful military-industrial complex.

The first major reform program introduced under Gorbachev was the 1985 alcohol reform, which was designed to fight widespread alcoholism in the Soviet Union. Prices of vodka, wine and beer were raised, and their sales were restricted. People who were caught drunk at work or in public were prosecuted. Drinking on long-distance trains and in public places was banned. Many famous wineries were destroyed. Scenes of alcohol consumption were cut out from films. The reform did not have any significant effect on alcoholism in the country, but economically it was a serious blow to the state budget (a loss of approximately 100 billion rubles according to Alexander Yakovlev) after alcohol production migrated to the black market economy.

Perestroika and its attendant radical reforms were enunciated at the XXVIIth Party Congress between February and March, 1986. Nonetheless, many found the pace of reform too slow.

Many historians, including Robert D. English, have explained this by the rapid mutual estrangement within the Soviet elite of the 'New Thinkers' and conservatives; conservatives were deliberately blocking the process of change. This was exposed in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. In this incident, as English observes, Gorbachev and his allies were "misinformed by the military-industrial complex" and "betrayed" by conservatives, who blocked information concerning the incident and thus delayed an official response. Jack F. Matlock Jr. stresses that at the time Gorbachev demanded the authorities give "full information" but that the "Soviet bureaucracy blocked the flow". This situation brought international ire upon the Soviets and many blamed Gorbachev himself. Despite this, English suggests that there was a "positive fallout" to Chernobyl, as Gorbachev and his fellow reformers received an increased domestic and international impetus for reform.

The Central Committee Plenum in January 1987 would see the crystallization of Gorbachev's political reforms, including proposals for multi-candidate elections and the appointment of non-Party members to government positions. He also first raised the idea of expanding co-operatives at the plenum. Later that year, May would be a month of crisis. In an almost incredible incident, a young West German, Mathias Rust, managed to fly a plane into Moscow and land near Red Square without being stopped. This massively embarrassed the military and Gorbachev made sweeping personnel changes, beginning at the top, where he appointed Dmitry Yazov as Minister of Defence.

Economic reforms took up much of the rest of 1987, as a new law giving enterprises more independence was passed in June and Gorbachev released a book, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, in November, elucidating his main ideas for reform. Nevertheless, at the same time, the personal and professional acrimony between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin increased; after Yeltsin criticized Gorbachev and others at the October Plenum, he was replaced as First Secretary of the Moscow Gorkom Party. This move only temporarily removed Yeltsin's influence.

In 1987 he rehabilitated many opponents of Stalin, another part of the De-Stalinization, which began 1956, when Lenin's Testament was published as a booklet there.

1988 would see Gorbachev's introduction of glasnost, which 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. At the same time, he opened himself and his reforms up for more public criticism.

The Law on Cooperatives enacted in May 1988 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. It should be noted that some of the SSRs ignored these restrictions. In Estonia, for example, cooperatives were permitted to cater to the needs of foreign visitors and forge partnerships with foreign companies. The large 'All-Union' industrial organizations started to be restructured. Aeroflot, for example, was split into a number of independent enterprises, some of which became the nucleus for future independent airlines. These newly autonomous business organizations were encouraged to seek foreign investment.

In June 1988, at the CPSU's XIXth Party Conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms meant to reduce party control of the government apparatus. He proposed a new executive in the form of a presidential system, as well as a new legislative element, to be called the Congress of People's Deputies.

Elections to the Congress of People's Deputies were held throughout the Soviet Union in March and April 1989. He became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (head of state) on May 25, 1989. On March 15, 1990, Gorbachev was elected as the first executive President of the Soviet Union with 59% of the Deputies' votes being an unopposed candidate. The Congress met for the first time on May 25. Their first task was to elect representatives from Congress to sit on the Supreme Soviet. Nonetheless, the Congress posed problems for Gorbachev. Its sessions were televised, airing more criticism and encouraging people to expect evermore rapid reform. In the elections, many Party candidates were defeated. Furthermore, Yeltsin was elected in Moscow and returned to political prominence to become an increasingly vocal critic of Gorbachev.

The rest of 1989 was taken up by the increasingly problematic nationalities question and the dramatic collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Despite international détente reaching unprecedented levels, with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan completed in January and U.S.-Soviet talks continuing between Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush, domestic reforms were suffering from increasing divergence between reformists, who criticized the pace of change, and conservatives, who criticized the extent of change. Gorbachev states that he tried to find the middle ground between both groups, but this would draw more criticism towards him. The story from this point on moves away from reforms and becomes one of the nationalities question and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

On November 9th, people in the "German Democratic Republic" (East Germany, GDR) broke down the Berlin Wall after a peaceful riot against the country's dictatorial administration, including a demonstration by some one million people in East Berlin on November 4th. Unlike earlier riots which were ended by military force with the help of USSR, Gorbachev, who came to be lovingly called "Gorby" in West Germany, now decided not to interfere with the process in Germany. He stated that German reunification was an internal German matter.

Collapse of the Soviet Union

Hardliners in the Soviet leadership, calling themselves the 'State Emergency Committee', 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 19th, 20th and 21st) 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, whose defiance had led to the coup's collapse. Furthermore, Gorbachev was forced to fire large numbers of his Politburo and, in several cases, arrest them. Those arrested for high treason included the "Gang of Eight" that had led the coup, including Kryuchkov, Yazov, Pavlov and Yanayev. Pugo was found shot; and Akhromeyev, who had offered his assistance but was never implicated, was found hanging in his Kremlin office. Most of these men had been former allies of Gorbachev's or promoted by him, which drew fresh criticism.

Between August 21st and September 22nd, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, and Turkmenistan declared their independence. Simultaneously, Boris Yeltsin ordered the CPSU to suspend its activities on the territory of Russia and closed the Central Committee building at Staraya Ploschad. The Russian flag now flew beside the Soviet flag at the Kremlin. In light of these circumstances, Gorbachev resigned as General Secretary of the CPSU on August 24th and advised the Central Committee to dissolve. Gorbachev's hopes of a new Union were further hit when the Congress of People's Deputies dissolved itself on September 5th. Though Gorbachev and the representatives of 8 republics (excluding Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldavia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) signed an agreement on forming a new economic community on October 18th, events were overtaking Gorbachev.

The final blow to Gorbachev's vision was effectively dealt by a Ukrainian referendum on December 1st, where the Ukrainian people voted for independence. The presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met in Belovezh Forest, near Brest, Belarus, on December 8th, founding the Commonwealth of Independent States and declaring the end of the Soviet Union in the Belavezha Accords. Gorbachev was presented with a fait accompli and reluctantly agreed with Yeltsin, on December 17th, to dissolve the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned on December 25th and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved the next day. Two days later, on December 27th, Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev's old office.

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 keep the three Baltic states, 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 around with promises of better payment.

Following his resignation and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev remained active in Russian politics. Following a failed run for the presidency in 1996, Gorbachev established the Social Democratic Party of Russia, a union between several Russian social democratic 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. The party was later banned in 2007 by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation due to its failure to establish local offices with at least 500 members in the majority of Russian regions, which is required by Russian law for a political organization to be listed as party. Later that year, Gorbachev founded a new political party, called the Union of Social-Democrats. In June 2004, Gorbachev represented Russia at the funeral of Ronald Reagan.

Since his resignation, Gorbachev has remained involved in world affairs. He founded the Gorbachev Foundation in 1992, headquartered in San Francisco, California. He later founded Green Cross International, with which he was one of three major sponsors of the Earth Charter. He also became a member of the Club of Rome. On July 27, 2007, Gorbachev criticized recent U.S. foreign policy for sowing world disorder. In 2007, Gorbachev on a visit to New Orleans promised to a crowd of listeners that he would return in 2011 to personally lead a local revolution if the U.S. government had failed by then to repair the levees. His comments were greeted with enthusiasm by the crowd, but he claimed that revolutionary action should be a last resort.

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