Even though he got little respect in the years after the Soviet Union broke up, Mikhail Gorbachev was regarded by some as one of the most important figures of the 20th century Winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize and honored as Time Man of the Year twice (1987 and 1989) and Time Man of the Decade in the 1980s, he was the man who set in motion the chain of events that lead to collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

Gorbachev is given credit for bringing to an end the Soviet Union with virtually no bloodshed. Oxford historian Norman Davies wrote, Gorbachev "was the lock keeper who, seeing the dam about to burst, decided to open the floodgates and to let the water flow. The dam bursts, in any case, but it did so without the threat of violent catastrophe."

After the rapid succession of Yuriy V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko, transitional figures with deep roots in Brezhnevite tradition, the energetic Mikhail S. Gorbachev made significant changes in the economy and the party leadership. His policy of glasnost freed public access to information after decades of government repression. But Gorbachev failed to address the fundamental flaws of the Soviet system; by 1991, when a plot by government insiders revealed the weakness of Gorbachev's political position, the end of the Soviet Union was in sight.

Time described Gorbachev as “a symbol of hope for a new kind of Soviet Union: more open, more concerned with the welfare of its citizens and less with the spread of its ideology and system abroad.” His accession to first secretary in 1985 brought major changes in domestic and international policy. Gorbachev liberalized economic, political, and media policies and fostered closer relations with the West. By 1991, however, the inherent weaknesses of the Soviet Union brought about the collapse of its East European empire and then the union itself. When the union ended, the former Russian Republic became a separate country, the Russian Federation, under the leadership of Boris N. Yeltsin. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Books: Memoirs by Mikhail Gorbachev (Doubleday, 1996). Biography by Martin McClauley, a retired professor at the University of London.Books on Gorbachev and the Soviet Union collapse: “Soviet Politics from Brezhnev to Gorbachev” by Donald R. Kelley; “Gorbachev in Power” by Stephen White; “The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet” by John B. Dunlop; “The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991" by Martin Malia; “Lenin's Tomb” by David Remnick and “The End of the Soviet Empire” by Hélène Carrère d'Encausse.

Gorbachev's Early Life

Gorbachev was born of in Privoloye, a village in southern Russia, in 1931, a month earlier than Yeltsin. His mother continued to live in the house where he brought up until the 1990s when she was swindled out the house.

Gorbachev’s family was of peasant stock. Both of his grandfathers were arrested in the 1930s. One grandfather was the chairman of local collective farm and raised in rural poverty in Stavropol. He was tortured and imprisoned under Stalin.

Gorbachev worked on a collective farm in Stavropol. He told journalist David Remnick, "As early as boyhood, among the other kids, I was always the leader. This is just a natural quality, like the curiosity I have to get o the bottom of things."

Gorbachev was a law student at Moscow State University.

Gorbachev and Raisa

While attending Moscow State University Gorbachev met his future wife Raisa Itrareko. Born in the Siberian city of Rubtsovsk, she was the daughter of a railway engineer. She received a gold medal for her academic achievements in high school and studied philosophy at university.

"Our first meeting had not impressed Raisa at all," Gorbachev later wrote. "She seemed calm and indifferent—judging by the look in her eyes." Later at a party he said, "I wanted to impress her" but "I think I made a terrible fool of myself. She was reserved and was the first to suggest breaking up the gathering."

Raisa and Mikhail shared an interest in politics, theater, philosophy, and literature. In 1985, she told a told a friend, "I am very lucky with Mikhail. We are really friends, or if you prefer, we have great complicity."

After an intense courtship, Mikhail and Raisa were married in 1953. They had one daughter, Irina, born in 1956. After moving to Stavropol, Raisa completed her doctoral dissertation. Based on a large amount of self research, it was entitled "The Emergence of Characteristics in the Daily Life of Collective Farm Peasantry.”

Gorbachev's Appearance and Character

Gorbachev’s famous scar was barely visible when he was a young man. It revealed itself as he became bald. He had a southern accent that was ridiculed by his rivals. He was also short. An interesting picture in a National Geographic article showed seven-foot-three Lithuanian basketball player, Arvidas Sabonis asking a five-foot-eight Gorbachev for permission to play on the Portland Trail Blazers. "It can be discussed," Gorbachev's answered.

Gorbachev has been described as "earnest, forceful, self-centered." vain with blind spots, charming, self-deluded and stubbornly clung to his belief in Leninism Nancy Reagan wrote her husband she "found Gorbachev very comfortable, very easy to be with. He sensed that underneath all the Communist beliefs, that in Gorbachev there was a deep spiritual belief—and a belief in destiny."

Gorbachev was also know for his long, dull speeches and described as "didactic, long winded but ever thoughtful." In Russia they called him a boltun—a windbag. One on one. Warrne Hode wrote in the New York Times, “Gorbachev...speaks with brusque jollity. He punctuates his animated speech with outstretched arms and hands that are constantly in motion while his interpreter at his side lays a succinct English soundtrack on top of his robustly enunciated Russian.”

One journalist said that Gorbachev had the rare quality of giving attention to the person he is speaking to as if no one else matters. Remnick wrote: "He has a gift. You sit across from Gorbachev and react with an idiot's awe, a fixed smile intermittent nods of agreement. He takes you in before you've had a chance to sort out what he actually said."

Gorbachev's Political Career

After graduating from Moscow State University with a law degree, Gorbachev first hoped to get a job as a state prosecutor but there was a hiring ban at that time in Moscow so he returned home to Stavropol in 1955 and worked as a prosecutor there. Gorbachev didn't like the work, quit and was hired by the local Kosmomol—Young Communist League—committee as deputy head of the agitation and propaganda department, a dreary job in which he urged people to be model workers and follow the Five-Year plans.

Gorbachev told Remnick, "It never occurred to me to get into politics. But when I got involved in Komsomol politics someone said, O.K.. who here is Gorbachev ? I stood up and climbed on my chair. Then, suddenly, someone pulled the chair out from under me, and everyone laughed. That's how my career began. But my conclusion was always to get up off the floor and keep going. That's what my experience tells me."

Gorbachev rose through the Communist system while remaining a closet dissident. In his time, the Communist Party was the only avenue for real advancement and he was able to rise by winning over superiors and stifling his true feelings. After becoming the first party secretary in Stavropol he was sent to Moscow and promoted to Central Committee secretary in charge of agriculture. Raisa won a job as a lecturer in philosophy at Moscow University.

Gorbachev rose into the upper echelons of the Soviet hierarchy with the help of his patron, Yuri Andropov, the longtime head of the KGB. In his memoirs, Gorbachev described their relationship as distant and formal. Gorbachev helped Brezhnev and other aging party elite by helping them clarify their thoughts and make themselves presentable. Gorbachev wrote in Time: “With Chernenko so feeble and ill, it was I who had to preside over the Politburo session throughout most of his tenure. Thus it fell to me to convene the emergency session at his death.”

Gorbachev Becomes Leader of the Soviet Union

Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985 after Chernenko's death. He was 54 when he took office and served six years as General Secretary of the Communist Party (March 1985- August 1991). In his memoirs, Gorbachev offered no information on how he managed to land the position of Secretary General. Gorbachev replaced Andrei Gromyko as president of the Soviet Union on October 1, 1988.

Gorbachev was regarded as youthful leader that was going to help revitalize the Communist party. After taking office he replaced many Brezhnev-era hardliners with younger people and launched a campaign to reform the economy and the political system. Once describing himself as a "confirmed Leninist," Gorbachev relied on KGB support to secure his political base and to carry out his reforms.

Gorbachev came to power during a long period stagnation. After some experimentation with economic reforms in the mid-1960s, the Soviet leadership reverted to established means of economic management. Industry showed slow but steady gains during the 1970s, while agricultural development continued to lag. In contrast to the revolutionary spirit that accompanied the birth of the Soviet Union, the prevailing mood of the Soviet leadership at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982 was one of aversion to change. Two developments dominated the decade that followed: the increasingly apparent crumbling of the Soviet Union's economic and political structures, and the patchwork attempts at reforms to reverse that process. *[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Describing the state of the Soviet Communism when he took power, Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs, "the very system was dying away; its's sluggish, senile blood no longer contained any vital juices." Gorbachev offered hope because he seemed on top of issues and appeared relatively young and healthy, and wasn't going to drop dead after a couple of weeks in office. In perhaps his most important speech, in November 1987, marking the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, Gorbachev picked up where Khrushchev left off and condemned the Stalin regime as "criminal" and said that criticism and review of Soviet history was needed.

Gorbachev's First Year

Gorbachev quickly changed the composition of the highest CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and government bodies, eliminating Brezhnev-era appointees and promoting allies. Among the major changes in the July 1985 Central Committee plenum, Gorbachev promoted Georgian party first secretary Eduard Shevardnadze to full membership in the Politburo and nominated him as minister of foreign affairs, while Boris N. Yeltsin made his national political debut as one of two members added to the CPSU Secretariat. In December Yeltsin advanced again, this time as first secretary of the Moscow city committee of the party.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

At the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in February 1986, Gorbachev reaffirmed much of the existing CPSU doctrine and policies, giving little indication of future reforms. While calling for "radical reforms" in the economy, he merely reemphasized the need to increase production and to use more advanced technology in heavy industry. The new party program contained no surprises, and the congress made few changes in high-level CPSU bodies. Among the significant changes that did occur were the appointment to the Central Committee Secretariat of Aleksandr Yakovlev, an advocate of radical reform and the exposure of Stalin's crimes, and the promotion of Yeltsin to candidate membership in the Politburo. It was at this party gathering that Yeltsin first offended conservatives by denouncing the hidden privileges of the party elite. *

"New Thinking" was Gorbachev's slogan for a foreign policy based on shared moral and ethical principles to solve global problems rather than on Marxist-Leninist concepts of irreconcilable conflict between capitalism and communism. Rather than flaunt Soviet military power, Gorbachev chose to exercise political influence, ranging from the enhancement of diplomatic relations and economic cooperation to personally greeting the public in spur-of-the-moment encounters at home and abroad. Gorbachev used the world media skillfully and made previously unimaginable concessions in the resolution of regional conflicts and arms negotiations. In addition to helping the Soviet Union gain wider acceptance among the family of nations, the New Thinking's conciliatory policies toward the West and the loosening of Soviet control over Eastern Europe ultimately led to the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. *

Raisa Gorbachev as the Russia First Lady

Raisa Gorbachev broke the tradition of Communist Party wives who traditionally remained in the shadows of their husbands by staying anonymous and out of public view. She was very visible. She became a vocal member of various organizations and often appeared with her husband at high profile public events and on foreign trips. As a board member of the Soviet Cultural Foundation she played a key roll as an intermediary between the Party elite and Russian intellectuals.

Raisa once told NBC News that she discussed "everything" including "affairs of the highest level" with her husband. Mikhail and Raisa reportedly often had serious discussion in their garden, out of range of K.G.B. listening devices.

Raisa came across as stylish, poised and well-educated. She carried an American Express card and was not popular with ordinary Russians who regarded her as too pushy, too ambitious, too powerful and too flashy.

Gorbachev's Effort to Ban Alcohol

Mikhail Gorbachev tried to improve national health and economic productivity by controlling vodka consumption by regulating shops that sold vodka and introducing a rationing scheme. The campaign entitled “On Measures to Overcome Drunkenness and Alcoholism” began in May 1985, just two months after Gorbachev became the General Secretary.

During the Gorbachev crackdown, liquor stores, distilleries, and breweries were closed. The serving of alcohol at official functions was banned. Homes stills were smashed and bootleggers were arrested. Even vineyards in Georgia, the Crimea and Moldova were bulldozed over. The move, needless to say, made Gorbachev very unpopular. He was called “the mineral water Secretary.”

Getting a bottle of vodka often times required a three or four hour wait. Some Russians waited in line for hours only to find the supplies had run out by the time it was their turn. Those that could afford it obtained bottles of vodka by paying off workers at the loading docks.

The campaign was abandoned in 1987 after two years when it when became clear that for it to be successful they would have to lock up half the nation. When Yeltsin ran for office he made a campaign pledge to keep vodka cheap, saying, "People have a special feeling towards this drink. They don't mind a nip or two after work."

Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign was criticized but it did improve the health of the nation. Demographers said that 900,000 fewer people died than would be expected. The life expectancy in 1987 was 64.9 for men and 74.6 for women, the highest in the Soviet-Russian history. The birth rate rose as, Gorbachev said, “wives finally got to see their husbands. The restriction on vodka produced a drop in cases of alcohol poisoning, but many people were killed as they scrambled for alternatives. Everything from shoe polish to insecticide showed up in autopsies. There were serious sugar shortages as Russians hoarded sugar to make moonshine. People became so desperate they would drink about anything to get drunk, even tractor oil.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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