Gorbachev abandoned the isolationist and confrontational approach of his predecessors and reached out to the leaders of the West. He replaced sour puss foreign minister Andrei Gromyko with a more earnest and pragmatic Eduard Shevardnadze. Gorbachev extracted the Soviet Union from the Afghanistan War and tried to move Soviet foreign policy away from “zero-sum competition with the West.”

Gorbachev initial aim seemed to be to demilitarize the Soviet Union so that more resources could be diverted to fixing the stagnant Soviet economy. Gorbachev first performance on the international stage came in 1984, when he and Raisa took a highly publicized visit to Britain. British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher praised Gorbachev as a reformer and famously said, “I like Mr. Gorbachev; we can do business together.” .

United States-Soviet relations began to improve soon after Gorbachev became general secretary. The first summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev took place in Geneva in November 1985. The following October, the two presidents discussed strategic arms reduction in Reykjavik, without making significant progress. In the late summer of 1987, the Soviet Union yielded on the long-standing issue of intermediate-range nuclear arms in Europe; at the Washington summit that December, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), eliminating all intermediate- and shorter-range missiles from Europe. In April 1988, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an accord, with the United States and Soviet Union as guarantors, calling for withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan by February 1989. The Soviet Union subsequently met the accord's deadline for withdrawal. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Gorbachev also assiduously pursued closer relations with China. Improved Sino-Soviet relations had long depended on the resolution of several issues, including Soviet support for the Vietnamese military presence in Cambodia, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the large numbers of Soviet troops and weapons deployed along China's northern border. Soviet moves to resolve these issues led the Chinese government to agree to a summit meeting with Gorbachev in Beijing in May 1989, the first since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s. *

The downing of Korean Air 007, which killed 269 people, took place on September 1, 1983 when Yuriy V. Andropov was leader of the Soviet Union. The Korean Air Boeing 747 was shot down by a Russian fighter near Sakhalin Island. Gorbachev participated in the cover-up of facts about the downing of Korean Air 007 in 1983.

Gorbachev and East Europe

Soviet relations with Europe improved markedly during the Gorbachev period, mainly because of the INF Treaty and Soviet acquiescence to the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe during 1989-90. Since the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Union had adhered to the Brezhnev Doctrine upholding the existing order in socialist states. Gorbachev was shown kissing East German leader Eric Honecker on the lips in a photograph that was printed in newspapers around the world.

Throughout the first half of Gorbachev's rule, the Soviet Union continued the Brezhnev Doctrine, but in July 1989, in a speech to the Council of Europe , Gorbachev insisted on "the sovereign right of each people to choose their own social system," a formulation that fell just short of repudiating the Brezhnev Doctrine. By then, however, the Soviet Union's control over its outer empire already was showing signs of disintegration. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

That June the communist regime in Poland had held relatively free parliamentary elections, and the communists had lost every contested seat. In Hungary the communist regime had steadily accelerated its reforms, rehabilitating Imre Nagy, the reform communist leader of the 1956 uprising, and dismantling fortifications along Hungary's border with Austria. At the end of the summer, East German vacationers began escaping to the West through this hole in the Iron Curtain. They also poured into the West German embassy in Prague. The East German state began to hemorrhage as thousands of its citizens sought a better and freer life in the West. * [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

With the East German government under increasing pressure to stem the outflow, East Germans who stayed behind demonstrated on the streets for reform. When the ouster of East German communist party leader Honecker failed to restore order, the authorities haphazardly opened the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The same night the Berlin Wall fell, the Bulgarian Communist Party deposed its longtime leader, Todor Zhivkov. Two weeks later, Czechoslovakia embarked on its "Velvet Revolution," quietly deposing the country's communist leaders. At an impromptu summit meeting in Malta in December 1989, Gorbachev and United States president George H.W. Bush declared an end to the Cold War. *

Throughout 1990 and 1991, Soviet-controlled institutions in Eastern Europe were dismantled. At the January 1990 Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) summit, several East European states called for disbanding that fundamental economic organization of the Soviet empire, and the summit participants agreed to recast their multilateral ties. At the next summit, in January 1991, Comecon dissolved itself. In March 1990, Gorbachev called for converting the Warsaw Pact to a political organization, but instead the body officially disbanded in July 1991. Soviet troops were withdrawn from Central Europe over the next four years--from Czechoslovakia and Hungary by mid-1991 and from Poland in 1993. By midsummer 1990, Gorbachev and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl had worked out an agreement by which the Soviet Union acceded to a unified Germany within NATO.

Gorbachev and the U.S.

By the June 1990 Washington summit, the United States-Soviet relationship had improved to such an extent that Gorbachev characterized it as almost a "partnership" between the two countries, and President Bush noted that the relationship had "moved a long, long way from the depths of the Cold War." In August 1990, the Soviet Union joined the United States in condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and supported United Nations resolutions to restore Kuwait's sovereignty. In November 1990, the United States, the Soviet Union, and most of the European states signed the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE Treaty), making reductions in battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery, and fighter aircraft "from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains." [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

During the Gorbachev years, improvements in United States-Soviet relations were not without complications. For example, in 1991 Soviet envoy Yevgeniy Primakov's attempted mediation of the Kuwait conflict threatened to undercut the allied coalition's demand that Iraq withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait. After the signing of the CFE Treaty, disputes arose over Soviet compliance with the treaty and the Soviet military's efforts to redesignate weapons or move them so that they would not be subject to the treaty's terms. United States pressure led to the resolution of these issues, and the CFE Treaty entered into force in 1992. The Soviet crackdown on Baltic independence movements in January 1991 also slowed the improvement of relations with the United States. *

By the summer of 1991, the United States-Soviet relationship showed renewed signs of momentum, when Bush and Gorbachev met in Moscow to sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). Under START, for the first time large numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles were slated for elimination. The treaty foresaw a reduction of approximately 35 percent in United States ballistic missile warheads and about 50 percent in Soviet ballistic missile warheads within seven years of treaty ratification. Gorbachev recently had attended the Group of Seven (G-7) summit to discuss his proposals for Western aid. Gorbachev also established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and, in the waning days of the Soviet Union's existence, Israel.

Gorbachev's foreign policy won him much praise and admiration. For his efforts to reduce superpower tensions around the world, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1990. Ironically, as a result of frequent rumors of a conservative coup, the leader of the Soviet empire, whose previous rulers had kept opposition figures Lech Walesa and Andrey Sakharov from collecting their Nobel prizes, was unable to collect his own until June 1991.

Gorbachev and Reagan

Gorbachev met with Reagan at Geneva and later Reykjavik. At their first summit in November 1985 at Geneva, the two men bonded and took a long walk together and Gorbachev agreed that a nuclear war “can not be won and must never be fought.”

Earlier, before Gorbachev came to power, Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and once while testing a microphone said: “I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” For his part Gorbachev had said of Reagan that he is “not simply a conservative but a political dinosaur.”

In his memoirs Gorbachev wrote he was determined to "change relations with the West, particularly the United States, and bring the costly and dangerous arms race to an end." In 1986, Gorbachev declared that his main political objective was to eliminate nuclear weapons by the end of the century. He suggested radical cuts in the nuclear arsenals on both sides and got the super powers to agree to remove medium-range missiles from Europe.

When Gorbachev visited Washington D.C. in 1987, to the chagrin of his bodyguards, he suddenly leaped from his limousine in the middle of Connecticut Avenue and began shaking hands and embracing people on the streets. Gorbachev welcomed Reagan and his wife Nancy at the Danilov Monastery at the Moscow summit. That same year in a speech at the Berlin Wall, Reagan challenged Gorbachev by saying, “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. If you seel liberalization...tear down this wall.”

Book; Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended by Jack F. Matlock (Random House, 2004); Turmoil and Triumph by George Schultz (1993)

Gorbachev and Reagan at Reykjavik

At Reykjavik in 1986, Gorbachev was ready to strike a deal on nuclear weapons until the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, Star Wars) was brought up. In March 1983, U.S. President Reagan had announced plans for the SDI, a space-based missile system against nuclear attacks, dubbed Star Wars by the media.

In Reykjavik in 1986, policy makers stayed up into the wee hours trying to come some agreement. The two leaders came close to an agreement on nuclear disarmament. In the end the talks broke down because Gorbachev insisted that Reagan give up Star Wars and Reagan insisted he wouldn’t. Concerns about Star Wars turned out to be largely unfounded. Reagan stood grimacing as he bid farewell to Gorbachev after the Reykjavik talks collapsed.

American conservatives often point to this as the key moment in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Regan aide Jack Matlok said the failure to reach an arm agreement persuaded Gorbachev “that he had to begin reforms at home if he was going to end the arms race with the United States” which was seen as a drain on the Soviet economy.

For his part Reagan seemed to be guided by instincts and blind faith. His biographer Lou Cannon wrote; “Reagan did not know enough about nuclear weapons systems to formulate a policy to accomplish his objects.”

Raisa and Gorbachev’s Foreign Policy

On the visits to Britain in 1984, the press made a big to do about Raisa's wardrobe. Particular attention was focused on her sandals which were made of gold lame and had chain straps. When she visited France on another trip, the French press described her clothes as "elegant, but not chic."

There was a fair amount of rivalry between Nancy Reagan and Raisa. After Raisa and her husband visited Washington in 1987, Nancy accused Raisa of lecturing to people and once said, "Who does that dame think she is?" Here relationship with Barbara Bush was much friendly and she received a recipe for blueberry pie from Bush.

One Russian newspaper told the New York Times, "She wanted to represent the country in a new way. She understood that [Gorbachev] was doing was revolution, but she had many complexes, too—a natural reserve and a Soviet way of behavior that she tried to overcome."

Gorbachev After the Break Up of the Soviet Union

Gorbachev's retirement package included a dacha in the outskirts of Moscow, some office space for his foundation and a pension worth $140 a month in 1996. In his government dacha, Gorbachev had a television in every room. In the mid 2000s, Gorbachev worked from his office at the Gorbachev Foundation in a modern bank building on the outskirts of Moscow.

Gorbachev ran for president in 1996. He received only 0.51 percent of the vote. In the campaign, people jeered him and shouted at him "Get out, you Judas. You sold our country." One diplomat told the Los Angeles Times, "It's sad. He's like an aging beauty queen who can't believe she's lost the power to attract."

Of the $1 million he received for his memoirs, Gorbachev paid 30 percent in taxes, put a third in the Gorbachev Fund and put $400,000 in the Inkombank. Gorbachev lost a lot of money in August 1998 when the ruble was devalued and Inkombank lost its license and went bankrupt. When asked about the problem, he told Reuters, "Its hard of course. We are now searching for the money." When asked if he faced poverty, "Of course not. My books still sell and I earn fees. There is something to live on."

Raisa Gorbachev died of leukemia on September 20, 1999 in Munster, Germany. Gorbachev was at her side night when she died. He wept uncontrollably and kissed her over and over at her funeral.

Andrei Razin, the lead singer in pop group called Sweet May, tricked Gorbachev's ailing mother into selling her house and the told an interviewer that Gorbachev had abandoned his mother. At first Gorbachev often lost his cool when he was criticized and sometimes turned bright red and was so angry he didn't make any sense when he talked to reporters. But after a while he got used to the slights and lies and learned to ignore them.

Gorbachev's International Activities and Pizza Hut

Gorbachev founded a foundation called the Gorbachev Fund, dedicated to political and economic reform. He traveled quite a bit and gave lectures and wrote columns. In October 1997, James Bond (actor Pierce Brosnan) appeared with Gorbachev at news conference in Los Angeles to help him raise money.

Gorbachev also founded an environmental group called Green Cross International after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Based in Geneva, the group is dedicated to controlling convention weapons, reducing global warming, and reducing the use of renewable resources, In the 1990s and 2000s, Gorbachev spent much of his time traveling around the world speaking one behalf of dolphins and rain forest animals and advocating careful use of resources such as water and oil.

In 1997, Gorbachev was paid $1 million to appear in a Pizza Hut commercial in which he emerges from a limousine with his granddaughter at Pizza Hut and interrupts a debate on his legacy. "Because of him, we have economic confusion," an old man complains. No says, a younger, handsomer man, "Because of him, we have opportunity." The debate ends when a woman holds up a slice of pizza and says, "Because of him we have things like Pizza Hut." Gorbachev then smiles as patrons in the restaurant hold aloft slices of pizza in tribute. (Gorbachev doesn't eat any pizza in the ad).

Gorbachev was widely ridiculed in Russia for making the Pizza Hut ads. Explaining why he made them, Gorbachev told the New York Times, "I thought that it is a people matter—food. This why my if my name works for the benefit of consumers, to hell with it—I can risk it." Gorbachev also featured on an Italian musical variety TV show. He appeared in a cameo appearance in a Wim Wenders film, improvising a soliloquy on Dostoevsky.

Sentiment Towards Gorbachev

Gorbachev is regarded as a hero in the West. He ended authoritarianism in the Soviet Union with a minimum of bloodshed and is credited with improving the United States economy and reducing the budget deficit with a peace dividend brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1998 the United States defense budget was 3 percent of the GNP ($266 billion) down from 6 percent in 1988 (a savings of $260 billion).

Gorbachev is largely hated in Russia—or at least he was, now he now has been forgotten. In a 2001 poll, 33 percent of Russians blamed Gorbachev for their troubles. Communist hate him for taking away their power and perks. Nationalists and conservatives hate him for destroying the Soviet empire. Reformers hate him for not going far enough with his reforms. And ordinary Russians hate him because they blame him for the problems that enveloped Russia after the end of Communist rule.

Gorbachev has been spat on, slapped, heckled by his countrymen and accused of stealing Russia's gold reserves. He has noticeably scarred when he got whacked in the face by a young man in Omsk in what some newspapers described as an "assassination attempt." In Volgograd an air force general rose to his feet as a band played and shouted: "You bastard. You traitor. You destroyed the motherland." In the same town a local news agency accused him of leaving without paying the equivalent of £2,000 in hotel bills.

In 1995, the one of the biggest hits on Moscow dance floors was techno piece made of snippets from Gorbachev’s speeches that were made to sound like he was having a row with Raisa. In a similar song Raisa, says "happiness exists; it can't be otherwise" and Gorbachev answers "I found it." The most popular one, by Mr. Daduda, interspersed famous Gorbachev lines like "In the village, cattle mortality rates are up" with orgasmic cries reportedly coming from Raisa.

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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