History

Mikhail Gorbachev in reflective mood at Congress of People's Deputies, Moscow, 1991

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Appointed in 1985, Gorbachev's domestic reforms and nuclear disarmament deals helped end the Cold War but ultimately led to the dramatic downfall of communism in Europe.


Photo: Mikhail Gorbachev, 1991 (Getty)

Introduction

Mikhail Gorbachev in reflective mood at Congress of People's Deputies, Moscow, 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev

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Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on 2 March 1931 in the southern Russian province of Stravropol Krai. Born to peasant farmers, he became active in the Communist Party and studied law at the Moscow State University. While at university he met and married Raisa Titarenko. The couple had one daughter, Irina.

Early political life

Gorbachev returned to Stavropol after university and worked as a regional Communist Party official. Gorbachev studied for a second degree in agriculture and began to rise through the ranks of the provincial Communist Party.

Climbing the ranks

Having made a name for himself as a regional moderniser and reformer, in 1978 he was summoned to Moscow and appointed to the agricultural central committee. Under the guidance of senior Communist Party officials Gorbachev was rapidly promoted to the Soviet Union’s executive committee, the Politburo.

Becomes General Secretary of the Soviet Union

By the 1980s the Soviet economy was in drastic need of reform. In 1985, after three elderly leaders died in quick succession, Gorbachev, a protégé of former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, was appointed General Secretary and head of the Soviet Union. At 54 he was one of the youngest leaders and was seen as the new broom that could clean up the decrepit Soviet system.

Glasnost and Perestroika

Gorbachev hinged his efforts to revitalise the Soviet Union on two plans: glasnost (meaning openness) and perestroika (meaning restructuring). By relaxing bureaucracy and censorship Gorbachev hoped to transform the Stalinist Soviet regime into a more modern social democracy. While glasnost was widely celebrated, his attempts to restructure the Soviet economy largely floundered.

Nuclear summits

Gorbachev saw that vast sums of money were being poured into the military to keep up with the US. Desperate to free up this money, Gorbachev fostered a warmer relationship with the West. In a series of high-profile summits Gorbachev met President Reagan and the two men made important nuclear disarmament agreements. The thaw in relations effectively signalled the end of the Cold War.

The rise of nationalism

Inspired by glasnost, and comforted by Gorbachev’s refusal to use military power, several Warsaw Pact nations and Soviet republics declared their intentions to free themselves from Communist rule. By the end of his tenure the Berlin Wall had been pulled down and large republics such as Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania had declared their independence.

The August Coup

In 1991 reactionary hard-liners in the Communist Party, fearing the collapse of the Soviet Union, attempted to remove Gorbachev. Imprisoned in his dacha holiday home in the Crimea Gorbachev listened on the radio as the military attempted to seize control of the Russian parliament. Thwarted by the efforts of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and mass protests the coup failed. Gorbachev returned to Moscow but soon realised that the balance of power and popular support had shifted to Yeltsin.

The end of the Soviet Union

After the failed coup Yeltsin struck two blows that effectively ended the Soviet Union – and in the process the career of Gorbachev. First, as President of Russia, he banned all Communist Party activity on Russian soil. Secondly he, along with the presidents of Ukraine and Belorussia, signed a treaty to create a new commonwealth of republics. Without these key nations the Soviet Union was defunct. Gorbachev recognised the inevitable and resigned.

Retirement

After forming several new parties and failing to win support, Gorbachev’s political career was over. In retirement he established the Gorbachev Foundation – a think-tank responsible for researching Russian political policies.