Mikhail Gorbachev

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Mikhail Gorbachev
Михаил Горбачёв
RIAN archive 850809 General Secretary of the CPSU CC M. Gorbachev (close-up).jpg
President of the Soviet Union
In office
15 March 1990 – 25 December 1991
Prime MinisterNikolai Ryzhkov
Valentin Pavlov
Ivan Silayev
Vice PresidentGennady Yanayev
Preceded byHimself
as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union
Succeeded byOffice abolished
General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
In office
11 March 1985 – 24 August 1991
DeputyVladimir Ivashko
Preceded byKonstantin Chernenko
Succeeded byVladimir Ivashko (acting)
Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union
In office
25 May 1989 – 15 March 1990
DeputyAnatoly Lukyanov
Preceded byHimself
as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet
Succeeded byHimself
as President of the Soviet Union
Anatoly Lukyanov
as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet
Additional positions
Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union
In office
1 October 1988 – 25 May 1989
Preceded byAndrei Gromyko
Succeeded byHimself
as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet
Second Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
In office
9 February 1984 – 10 March 1985
Preceded byKonstantin Chernenko
Succeeded byYegor Ligachev
Personal details
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev

(1931-03-02) 2 March 1931 (age 87)
Privolnoye, North Caucasus Krai, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
NationalitySoviet (1931–1991)
Russian (since 1991)
Political partyIndependent (1991–2001; 2004–2007; 2014–present)
Other political
Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1950–1991)
Social Democratic Party of Russia (2001–2004)
Union of Social Democrats (2007–2014)
Raisa Gorbacheva
(m. 1953; died 1999)
Alma materMoscow State University
WebsiteOfficial website

Leader of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev[a] (born 2 March 1931) is a Russian and formerly Soviet politician. The seventh and last leader of the Soviet Union, he was General Secretary of the governing Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991. He was the country's head of state from 1988 until 1991, serving as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1988 to 1989, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1989 to 1990, and President of the Soviet Union from 1990 to 1991. Ideologically a socialist, he initially adhered to Marxism-Leninism although following the Soviet collapse moved toward social democracy.

Of mixed Russian and Ukrainian heritage, Gorbachev was born in Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai to a poor peasant family. Growing up under the rule of Joseph Stalin, in his youth he operated combine harvesters on a collective farm before joining the Communist Party, which then governed the Soviet Union as a one-party state according to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. While studying at Moscow State University, he married fellow student Raisa Titarenko in 1953 prior to receiving his law degree in 1955. Moving to Stavropol, he worked for the Komsomol youth organisation and became a keen proponent of the de-Stalinization reforms of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He was appointed the First Party Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee in 1970, in which position he oversaw construction of the Great Stavropol Canal. In 1974 he moved to Moscow to become First Secretary to the Supreme Soviet and in 1979 became a candidate member of the party's governing Politburo. Within three years of the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, following the brief regimes of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the Politburo elected Gorbachev as General Secretary, the de facto head of government, in 1985.

Although committed to preserving the Soviet state and to its socialist ideals, Gorbachev believed significant reform was necessary, particularly after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. He withdrew from the Soviet–Afghan War and embarked on summits with United States President Ronald Reagan to limit nuclear weapons and end the Cold War. Domestically, his policy of glasnost ("openness") allowed for enhanced freedom of speech and press, while his perestroika ("restructuring") sought to decentralise economic decision making to improve efficiency. His democratisation measures and formation of the elected Congress of People's Deputies undermined the one-party state. Gorbachev declined to intervene militarily when various Eastern Bloc countries abandoned Marxist-Leninist governance in 1989-90, while growing internal nationalist sentiment threatened to break-up the Soviet Union. Fearing this, party hardliners unsuccessfully tried to oust him in an August 1991 coup, in the wake of which the Soviet Union dissolved and Gorbachev resigned in December. Out of office, he launched his Gorbachev Foundation, became a vocal critic of Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, and campaigned for Russia's social-democratic movement.

Widely considered one of the most significant figures of the second half of the 20th century, Gorbachev remains the subject of controversy. The recipient of a wide range of awards—including the Nobel Peace Prize—he was widely praised for his pivotal role in ending the Cold War, curtailing human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, and tolerating the fall of Marxist–Leninist administrations in eastern and central Europe. Conversely, in Russia he is often derided for not stopping the Soviet collapse, an event which brought a decline in Russia's global influence and precipitated economic crisis.

Early life[edit]

Childhood: 1931–1950[edit]

Gorbachev was born on 2 March 1931 in the village of Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai, then in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union.[4] At the time, Privolnoye was divided almost evenly between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians.[5] Gorbachev's paternal family were ethnic Russians and had moved to the region from Voronezh several generations before; his maternal family were of ethnic Ukrainian heritage and had migrated from Chernigov.[6] His parents named him Victor, but at the insistence of his mother—a devout Orthodox Christian—he had a secret baptism, where his grandfather christened him Mikhail.[7] His relationship with his father, Sergey Andreyevich Gorbachev, was close; his mother, Maria Panteleyevna Gorbacheva (née Gopkalo), was colder and punitive.[8] His parents were poor;[9] they had married as teenagers in 1928,[10] and in keeping with local tradition had initially resided in Sergei's father's house, an adobe-walled hut, before a hut of their own could be built.[11]

Gorbachev and his Ukrainian maternal grandparents, late 1930s

The Soviet Union was a one-party state governed by the Communist Party, and during Gorbachev's childhood was under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. Stalin had initiated a project of mass rural collectivisation which, in keeping with his Marxist-Leninist ideas, he believed would help convert the country into a socialist society.[12] Gorbachev's maternal grandfather joined the Communist Party and helped form the village's first kolkhoz (collective farm) in 1929, becoming its chair.[13] This farm was twelve miles outside Privolnoye village and when he was three years old, Gorbachev left his parental home and moved into the kolkhoz with his maternal grandparents.[14]

The country was then experiencing the famine of 1932–33, in which two of Gorbachev's paternal uncles and an aunt died.[15] This was followed by the Great Purge, in which individuals accused of being "enemies of the people"—including those sympathetic to rival interpretations of Marxism like Trotskyism—were arrested and interned in labour camps, if not executed. Both of Gorbachev's grandfathers were arrested—his maternal in 1934 and his paternal in 1937—and both spent time in Gulag labour camps prior to being released.[16] After his December 1938 release, Gorbachev's maternal grandfather discussed having been tortured by the secret police, an account that influenced the young boy.[17]

Following on from the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, in June 1941 the German Army invaded the Soviet Union. German forces occupied Privolnoe for four and a half months in 1942.[18] Gorbachev's father had joined the Soviet Red Army and fought on the frontlines; he was wrongly declared dead during the conflict and fought in the Battle of Kursk before returning to his family, injured.[19] After Germany was defeated, Gorbachev's parents had their second son, Aleksandr, in 1947; he and Mikhail would be their only children.[10]

The village school had closed during much of the war but re-opened in autumn 1944.[20] Gorbachev did not want to return but when he did he excelled academically.[21] He read voraciously, moving from the Western novels of Thomas Mayne Reid to the work of Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Mikhail Lermontov.[22] In 1946, he joined Komsomol, the Soviet political youth organisation, becoming leader of his local group and then being elected to the Komsomol committee for the district.[23] From primary school he moved to the high school in Molotovskeye; he stayed there during the week while walking the twelve miles home during weekends.[24] As well as being a member of the school's drama society,[25] he organised sporting and social activities and led the school's morning exercise class.[26] Over the course of five consecutive summers from 1946 onward he returned home to assist his father operate a combine harvester, during which they sometimes worked 20-hour days.[27] In 1948, they harvested over 8000 centners of grain, a feat for which Sergey was awarded the Order of Lenin and his son the Order of the Red Banner of Labour.[28]

University: 1950–1955[edit]

I would consider it a high honor to be a member of the highly advanced, genuinely revolutionary Communist party of Bolsheviks. I promise to be faithful to the great cause of Lenin and Stalin, to devote my entire life to the party's struggle for Communism.

— Gorbachev's letter requesting membership of the Communist Party[29]

In June 1950, Gorbachev became a candidate member of the Communist Party.[29] He also applied to study at the law school of Moscow State University (MSU), then the most prestigious university in the country. They accepted without asking for an exam, likely because of his worker-peasant origins and his possession of the Order of the Red Banner of Labour.[30] Aged 19, he travelled by train to Moscow, the first time he had left his home region.[31]

In the city, he resided with fellow MSU students at a dormitory in Sokolniki District.[32] He and other rural students felt at odds with their Muscovite counterparts but he soon came to fit in.[33] Fellow students recall him working especially hard, often late into the night.[34] He gained a reputation as a mediator during disputes,[35] and was also known for being outspoken in class, although would only reveal a number of his views privately; for instance he confided in some students his opposition to the Soviet jurisprudential norm that a confession proved guilt, noting that confessions could have been forced.[36] During his studies, an anti-semitic campaign spread through the Soviet Union, culminating in the Doctors' plot; Gorbachev publicly defended a Jewish student who was accused of disloyalty to the country by one of their fellows.[37]

At MSU, he became the Komsomol head of his entering class, and then Komsomol's deputy secretary for agitation and propaganda at the law school.[38] One of his first Komsomol assignments in Moscow was to monitor the election polling in Krasnopresnenskaya district to ensure the government's desire for near total turnout; Gorbachev found that most of those who voted did so "out of fear".[39] In 1952, he was appointed a full member of the Communist Party.[40] As a party and Komsomol member he was tasked with monitoring fellow students for potential subversion; some of his fellow students said that he did so only minimally and that they trusted him to keep confidential information secret from the authorities.[41] Gorbachev became close friends with Zdeněk Mlynář, a Czechoslovak student who later became a primary ideologist of the 1968 Prague Spring. Mlynář recalled that the duo remained committed Marxist-Leninists despite their growing concerns about the Stalinist system.[42] After Stalin died in March 1953, Gorbachev and Mlynář joined the crowds amassing to see Stalin's body laying in state.[43]

Gorbachev studied at Moscow State University from 1950 to 1955

At MSU, Gorbachev met Raisa Titarenko, a Ukrainian studying in the university's philosophy department.[44] She was engaged to another man but after that engagement fell apart, she began a relationship with Gorbachev;[45] together they went to bookstores, museums, and art exhibits.[46] In early 1953, he took an internship at the procurator's office in Molotovskoye district, but was angered by the incompetence and arrogance of those working there.[47] That summer, he returned to Privolnoe to work with his father on the harvest; the money earned allowed him to pay for a wedding.[48] On 25 September 1953 he and Raisa registered their marriage at Sokolniki Registry Office;[48] and in October moved in together at the Lenin Hills dormitory.[49] Raisa fell pregnant and although the couple wanted to keep the child she fell ill and required a life-saving abortion.[50]

In 1955, Gorbachev graduated with a distinction; his final paper had been on the advantages of "socialist democracy" over "bourgeois democracy".[51] He was subsequently assigned to the Soviet Procurator's office, which was then focusing on the rehabilitation of the innocent victims of Stalin's purges, but found that they had no work for him.[52] He was then offered a place on an MSU graduate course specialising in kolkhoz law, but declined.[53] He had wanted to remain in Moscow, where Raisa was enrolled on a PhD program, but instead gained employment in Stavropol; Raisa abandoned her studies to join him there.[54]

Rise in the Communist Party[edit]

Stavropol Komsomol: 1955–1969[edit]

Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader whose anti-Stalinist reforms were supported by Gorbachev

In August 1955, Gorbachev started work at the Stavropol regional procurator's office, but disliked the job and used his contacts to get a transfer to work for Komsomol,[55] becoming deputy director of Komosomol's agitation and propaganda department for that region.[56] In this position, he visited villages in the area and tried to improve the lives of their inhabitants; he established a discussion circle in Gorkaya Balka village to help its peasant residents gain social contacts.[57]

Gorbachev and his wife initially rented a small room in Stavropol,[58] taking daily evening walks around the city and on weekends hiking in the countryside.[59] In January 1957, Raisa gave birth to a daughter, Irina,[60] and in 1958 they moved into two rooms in a communal apartment.[61] In 1961, Gorbachev pursued a second degree, on agricultural production, at a local agricultural college, receiving it in 1967.[62] His wife had also pursued a second degree, attaining a PhD in sociology in 1967 from the Moscow Pedagogical Institute;[63] while in Stavropol she too joined the Communist Party.[64]

Stalin was ultimately succeeded as Soviet leader by Nikita Khrushchev, who denounced Stalin and his cult of personality in a speech given in February 1956, after which he launched a de-Stalinization process throughout Soviet society.[65] Later biographer William Taubman suggested that Gorbachev "embodied" the "reformist spirit" of the Khrushchev era.[66] Gorbachev was among those who saw themselves as "genuine Marxists" or "genuine Leninists" in contrast to what they regarded as the perversions of Stalin.[67] He helped spread Khrushchev's anti-Stalinist message in Stavropol, but encountered many who continued to regard Stalin as a hero or who praised the Stalinist purges as just.[68]

Gorbachev rose steadily through the ranks of the local administration.[69] The authorities regarded him as politically reliable,[70] and he would flatter his superiors, for instance gaining favour with prominent local politician Fyodor Kulakov.[71] With an ability to outmanoeuvre rivals, some colleagues resented his success.[72] In September 1956, he was promoted head of the Stavropol city's Komsomol;[73] in April 1958 he was made deputy head of the Komsomol for the entire region.[74] At this point he was given better accommodation: a two-room flat with its own private kitchen, toilet, and bathroom.[75] In Stavropol, he formed a discussion club for youths,[76] and helped mobilise local young people to take part in Khrushchev's agricultural and development campaigns.[77]

Gorbachev on a visit to East Germany in 1966

In March 1961, Gorbachev became First Secretary of the regional Komosomol,[78] in which position he went out of his way to appoint women as city and district leaders.[79] In 1961, Gorbachev played host to the Italian delegation for the World Youth Festival in Moscow;[80] that October, he also attended the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[81] In January 1963, Gorbachev was promoted to personnel chief for the regional party's agricultural committee,[82] and in September 1966 became First Secretary of the Stavropol City Party Organisation ("Gorkom").[83] By 1968 he was increasingly frustrated with his job—in large part because Khrushchev's reforms were stalling or being reversed—and he contemplated leaving politics to work in academia.[84] However, in August 1968, he was named deputy to Leonid Yefremov, the First Secretary of the Stavropol Kraikom, becoming the second most senior figure in the Stavrapol region.[85]

Cleared for travel to Eastern Bloc countries, in 1966 he was part of a delegation visiting East Germany, and in 1969 and 1974 visited Bulgaria.[86] In August 1968 the Soviet Union led an invasion of Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalisation in the Marxist–Leninist country. Although Gorbachev later stated that he had had private concerns about the invasion, he publicly supported it.[87] In September 1969 he was part of a Soviet delegation sent to Czechoslovakia, where he found the Czechoslovak people largely unwelcoming to them.[88] That year, the Soviet authorities ordered him to punish Fagien B. Sadykov, a Stavropol-based agronomist whose ideas were regarded as critical of Soviet agricultural policy; Gorbachev ensured that Sadykov was fired from teaching but ignored calls for him to face tougher punishment.[89] Gorbachev later related that he was "deeply affected" by the incident; "my conscience tormented me" for overseeing Sadykov's persecution.[90]

Heading the Stavropol Region: 1970–1974[edit]

In April 1970, Yefremov was promoted to a higher position in Moscow and Gorbachev succeeded him as the First Secretary of the Stavropol kraikom. This granted Gorbachev significant power over the Stavropol region.[91] He had been personally vetted for the position by senior Kremlin leaders and was informed of their decision by the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev.[92] Aged 39, he was considerably younger than his predecessors in the position.[93] As head of the Stavropol region, he automatically became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[93] As regional leader, Gorbachev initially attributed economic and other failures to "the inefficiency and incompetence of cadres, flaws in management structure or gaps in legislation", but eventually concluded that they were caused by an excessive centralisation of decision making in Moscow.[94] He began reading translations of restricted texts by Western Marxist authors like Antonio Gramsci, Louis Aragon, Roger Garaudy, and Giuseppe Boffa, and came under their influence.[94]

Part of the Great Stavropol Canal established under Gorbachev's regional leadership

Gorbachev's main task as regional leader was to raise agricultural production levels, something hampered by severe droughts in 1975 and 1976.[95] He oversaw the expansion of irrigation systems through construction of the Great Stavropol Canal.[96] For overseeing a record grain harvest in Ipatovsky district, in March 1972 he was awarded by Order of the October Revolution by Brezhnev in a Moscow ceremony.[97] Gorbachev always sought to maintain Brezhnev's trust;[98] as regional leader, he repeatedly praised Brezhnev in his speeches, for instance referring to him as "the outstanding statesman of our time".[99] Gorbachev and his wife holidayed in Moscow, Leningrad, Uzbekistan, and resorts in the North Caucusus;[100] he holidayed with the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, who was favourable towards him and who became an important patron.[101] Gorbachev also developed good relationships with senior figures like the Soviet Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin,[102] and the longstanding senior party member Mikhail Suslov.[103]

The government considered Gorbachev sufficiently reliable that he was sent as part of Soviet delegations to Western Europe; he made five trips there between 1970 and 1977.[80] In September 1971 he was part of a delegation who travelled to Italy, where they met with representatives of the Italian Communist Party; Gorbachev loved Italian culture but was struck by the poverty and inequality he saw in the country.[104] In 1972 he visited Belgium and the Netherlands and in 1973 West Germany.[105] Gorbachev and his wife visited France in 1976 and 1977, on the latter occasion touring the country with a guide from the French Communist Party.[106] He was surprised by how openly West Europeans offered their opinions and criticised their political leaders, something absent from the Soviet Union, where most people did not feel safe speaking so openly.[107] He later related that for he and his wife, these visits "shook our a priori belief in the superiority of socialist over bourgeois democracy".[108]

Gorbachev had remained close to his parents; after his father became terminally ill in 1974, Gorbachev travelled to be with him in Privolnoe shortly before the former's death.[109] His daughter, Irina, married fellow student Anatoly Virgansky in April 1978.[110]

Secretary of the Central Committee: 1974–1984[edit]

Gorbachev was sceptical of the deployment of Soviet troops in Afghanistan (pictured here in 1986)

In November 1974, Gorbachev was appointed as a Secretary of the Central Committee;[100] he was the youngest man to ever hold such a position.[111] His appointment had been approved unanimously by the Central Committee's members.[112] To fill this position, Gorbachev and his wife moved to Moscow, where they were initially given an old dacha outside the city. They then moved to another, at Sosnovka, before finally being allocated a newly built brick house.[113] He was also given an apartment inside the city, but gave that to his daughter and son-in-law; Irina had begun work at Moscow's Second Medical Institute.[114] As part of the Moscow political elite, Gorbachev and his wife now had access to better medical care and to specialised shops; they were also given cooks, servants, bodyguards, and secretaries, although many of these were spies for the KGB.[115] In his new position, Gorbachev often worked twelve to sixteen hour days.[115] He and his wife socialised little, but liked to visit Moscow's theatres and museums.[116]

In November 1978, at the 24th Party Congress, Gorbachev was elected a full member of the Central Committee.[117] That year, he was appointed to the Central Committee's Secretariat for Agriculture, replacing his old friend Kulakov, who had died of a heart attack.[118] Gorbachev concentrated his attentions on agriculture: the harvests of 1979, 1980, and 1981 were all poor, due largely to weather conditions,[119] and the country had to import increasing quantities of grain.[120] He had growing concerns about the country's agricultural management system, coming to regard it as overly centralised and requiring more bottom-up decision making;[121] he raised these points at his first speech at a Central Committee Plenum, given in July 1978.[122] He began to have concerns about other policies too. In December 1979, the Soviets sent the Red Army into neighbouring Afghanistan to support its Soviet-aligned government against Islamist insurgents; Gorbachev privately thought it a mistake.[123] At times he openly supported the government position; in October 1980 he for instance endorsed Soviet calls for Poland's Marxist–Leninist government to crack down on growing internal dissent in that country.[123]

In April 1983, Gorbachev gave a speech marking the birthday of Lenin (pictured), founder of the Soviet state.

After Brezhnev's death in November 1982, Andropov succeeded him as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the de facto head of government in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was enthusiastic about the appointment.[124] However, although Gorbachev hoped that Andropov would introduce liberalising reforms, the latter carried out only personnel shifts rather than structural change.[125] Andropov encouraged Gorbachev to expand into policy areas other than agriculture, preparing him for future higher office.[126] With Andropov's encouragement, Gorbachev sometimes chaired meetings of the Politburo, the highest decision-making authority in the Communist Party.[127] In April 1983, Gorbachev delivered the annual speech marking the birthday of the Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin;[126] this required him re-reading many of Lenin's later writings, in which the latter had called for reform, and encouraged Gorbachev's own conviction that reform was needed.[128] In May 1983, Gorbachev was sent to Canada, where he met Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and spoke to the Canadian Parliament.[129] There, he met and befriended the Soviet ambassador, Aleksandr Yakovlev, who later became a key political ally.[130]

In February 1984, Andropov died; on his deathbed he indicated his desire that Gorbachev succeed him.[131] Many in the Central Committee nevertheless thought the 53-year old Gorbachev was too young and inexperienced.[132] Instead, Konstantin Chernenko—a longstanding Brezhnev ally—was appointed General Secretary, but he too was in very poor health.[133] Chernenko was often too sick to chair Politburo meetings, with Gorbachev stepping in last minute.[134] Gorbachev continued to cultivate allies both in the Kremlin and beyond,[135] and also gave the main speech at a conference on Soviet ideology, where he angered party hardliners by implying that the country required reform.[136] In April 1984, he was appointed chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Soviet legislature, a largely honorific position;[137] in June he travelled to Italy as a Soviet representative for the funeral of Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer.[138] In December, he visited Britain at the request of its Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; she was aware that he was a potential reformer and wanted to meet him.[139] At the end of the visit, Thatcher said: "I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together".[140] He felt that the visit helped to erode Andrei Gromyko's dominance of Soviet foreign policy while at the same time sending a signal to the United States government that he wanted to improve Soviet-U.S. relations.[141]

General Secretary of the CPSU[edit]

Gorbachev in 1985 at a summit in Geneva, Switzerland

On 10 March 1985, Chernenko died.[142] Gromyko proposed Gorbachev as the next General Secretary; as a longstanding party member, Gromyko's recommendation carried great weight among the Central Committee.[143] Gorbachev expected much opposition to his nomination as General Secretary, but ultimately the rest of the Politburo supported him.[144] Shortly after Chernenko's death, the Politburo unanimously elected Gorbachev as his successor; they wanted him over another elderly leader.[145] Few in the government imagined that he would be as radical a reformer as he proved.[146] Although not a well-known figure to the Soviet public, there was widespread relief that the new leader was not elderly and ailing.[147] Gorbachev's first public appearance as leader was at Chernenko's Red Square funeral, held on 14 March.[148] Two months after being elected, he left Moscow for the first time, traveling to Leningrad, where he spoke to assembled crowds.[149] In June he travelled to Ukraine and in September to Siberia, urging party members in these areas to take more responsibility for fixing local problems.[150]

Early years: 1985–1986[edit]

Gorbachev's leadership style differed from that of his predecessors. He would stop to talk to civilians on the street, forbade the display of his portrait at the 1985 Red Square holiday celebrations, and encouraged frank and open discussions at Politburo meetings.[151] To the West, Gorbachev was seen as a more moderate and less threatening Soviet leader; some Western commentators however believed this an act to lull Western governments into a false sense of security.[152] His wife was his closest adviser, and took on the unofficial role of a "first lady" by appearing with him on foreign trips; her public visibility was a breach of standard practice and generated resentment.[153] His other close aides were Georgy Shakhnazarov and Anatoly Chernyaev.[154]

Gorbachev was aware that the Politburo could remove him from office, and that he could not pursue more radical reform without a majority of supporters in the Politburo.[155] He sought to remove several older members from the Politburo, encouraging Grigory Romanov, Nikolai Tikhonov, and Viktor Grishin into retirement.[156] He moved Gromkyo from his role in foreign policy to that of head of state and replaced Gromyko's former role with his own ally, Eduard Shevardnadze.[157] Other allies whom he saw promoted were Yakovlev, Anatoly Lukyanov, and Vadim Medvedev.[158] Another of those promoted by Gorbachev was Boris Yeltsin, who was made a Secretary of the Central Committee in July 1985.[159] Most of these appointees were from a new generation of well-educated officials who had been frustrated during the Brezhnev era.[160] In his first year, 14 of the 23 heads of department in the secretariat were replaced.[161] Doing so, Gorbachev secured dominance in the Politburo within a year, faster than either Stalin, Khrushchev, or Brezhnev had achieved.[162]

Domestic policies[edit]

Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate in April 1986 during a visit to East Germany

Gorbachev recurrently employed the term perestroika, first used publicly in March 1984.[163] He saw perestroika as encompassing a complex series of reforms to restructure society and the economy.[164] He was concerned by the country's low productivity, poor work ethic, and inferior quality goods;[165] like several economists, he feared this would lead to the country becoming a second-rate power.[166] The first stage of Gorbachev's perestroika was uskorenie ("acceleration"), a term he used regularly in the first two years of his leadership.[167] The Soviet Union was behind the United States in many areas of production,[168] but Gorbachev claimed that it would accelerate industrial output to match that of the U.S. by 2000.[169] The Five Year Plan of 1985–90 was targeted to expand machine building by 50 to 100%.[170] To boost agricultural productivity, he merged five ministries and a state committee into a single entity, Agroprom, although by late 1986 acknowledged this merger as a failure.[171]

The purpose of reform was to prop up the centrally planned economy—not to transition to market socialism. Speaking in late summer 1985 to the secretaries for economic affairs of the central committees of the East European communist parties, Gorbachev said: "Many of you see the solution to your problems in resorting to market mechanisms in place of direct planning. Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But, comrades, you should not think about lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism."[172] Gorbachev's perestroika also entailed attempts to move away from technocratic management of the economy by increasingly involving the labour force in industrial production.[173] He was of the view that once freed from the strong control of central planners, state-owned enterprises would act as market agents.[174] Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders did not anticipate opposition to the perestroika reforms; according to their interpretation of Marxism, they believed that in a socialist society like the Soviet Union there would not be "antagonistic contradictions".[175] However, there would come to be a public perception in the country that many bureaucrats were paying lip service to the reforms while trying to undermine them.[176] He also initiated the concept of gospriyomka (state acceptance of production) during his time as leader,[177] which represented quality control.[178] In April 1986, he introduced an agrarian reform which linked salaries to output and allowed collective farms to sell 30% of their produce directly to shops or co-operatives rather than giving it all to the state for distribution.[179] In a September 1986 speech, he embraced the idea of reintroducing market economics to the country alongside limited private enterprise, citing Lenin's New Economic Policy as a precedent; he nevertheless stressed that he did not regard this as a return to capitalism.[179]

In the Soviet Union, alcohol consumption had risen steadily between 1950 and 1985.[180] By the 1980s, drunkenness was a major social problem and Andropov had planned a major campaign to limit alcohol consumption. Encouraged by his wife, Gorbachev—who believed the campaign would improve health and work efficiency—oversaw its implementation.[181] Alcohol production was reduced by around 40 percent, the legal drinking age rose from 18 to 21, alcohol prices were increased, stores were banned from selling it before 2pm, and tougher penalties were introduced for workplace or public drunkenness and home production of alcohol.[182] The All-Union Voluntary Society for the Struggle for Temperance was formed to promote sobriety; it had over 14 million members within three years.[183] As a result, crime rates fell and life expectancy grew slightly between 1986 and 1987.[184] However, moonshine production rose considerably,[185] and the reform had significant costs to the Soviet economy, resulting in losses of up to US$100 billion between 1985 and 1990.[186] Gorbachev later considered the campaign to have been an error,[187] and it was terminated in October 1988.[188] After it ended, it took several years for production to return to previous levels, after which alcohol consumption soared in Russia between 1990 and 1993.[189]

At the 27th Party Congress in February-March 1986, Gorbachev faced both hardliners who disliked his reforms and liberalisers (like Yeltsin) who thought they did not go far enough.[190]

In the second year of his leadership, Gorbachev began speaking of glasnost, or "openness".[191] According to Doder and Branston, this meant "greater openness and candour in government affairs and for an interplay of different and sometimes conflicting views in political debates, in the press, and in Soviet culture."[192] Encouraging reformers into prominent media positions, he brought in Sergei Zalygin as head of Novy Mir magazine and Yegor Yakovlev as editor-in-chief of Moscow News.[193] He made the historian Yuri Afanasiev dean of the State Historical Archive Faculty, from where Afansiev could press for the opening of secret archives and the reassessment of Soviet history.[160] Prominent dissidents like Andrei Sakharov were freed from internal exile or prison.[194] Gorbachev saw glasnost as a necessary measure to ensure perestroika by alerting the Soviet populace to the nature of the country's problems in the hope that they would support his efforts to fix them.[195] Particularly popular among the Soviet intelligentsia, who became key Gorbachev supporters,[196] glasnost boosted his domestic popularity but alarmed many Communist Party hardliners.[197] For many Soviet citizens, this newfound level of freedom of speech and press—and its accompanying revelations about the country's past—was uncomfortable.[198]

Some in the party thought Gorbachev was not going far enough in his reforms; a prominent liberal critic was Yeltsin. He had risen rapidly since 1985, attaining the role of Moscow city boss.[199] Like many members of the government, Gorbachev was sceptical of Yeltsin, believing that he engaged in too much self-promotion.[200] Yeltsin was also critical of Gorbachev, regarding him as patronising.[199] In early 1986, Yeltsin began sniping at Gorbachev in Politburo meetings.[200] At the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in February, Yeltsin called for more far-reaching reforms than Gorbachev was initiating and criticised the party leadership, although did not cite Gorbachev by name, claiming that a new cult of personality was forming.[201] Gorbachev then opened the floor to responses, after which attendees publicly criticised Yeltsin for several hours.[202] After this, Gorbachev also criticised Yeltsin, claiming that he only cared for himself and was "politically illiterate".[203] Yeltsin then resigned as both Moscow boss and as a member of the Politburo.[203] From this point, tensions between the two men developed into a mutual hatred.[204]

In April 1986 the Chernobyl disaster occurred.[205] In the immediate aftermath, officials fed Gorbachev incorrect information to downplay the incident. As the scale of the disaster became apparent, 336,000 people were evacuated from the area around Chernobyl.[206] Taubman noted that the disaster marked "a turning point for Gorbachev and the Soviet regime".[207] Several days after it occurred, he gave a televised report to the nation.[208] He cited the disaster as evidence for what he regarded as widespread problems in Soviet society, such as shoddy workmanship and workplace inertia.[209] Gorbachev later described the incident as one which made him appreciate the scale of incompetence and cover-ups in the Soviet Union.[207] From April to the end of the year, Gorbachev became increasingly open in his criticism of the Soviet system, including food production, state bureaucracy, the military draft, and the large size of the prison population.[210]

Foreign policy[edit]

U.S. President Reagan and Gorbachev meeting in Iceland in 1986

In a May 1985 speech given to the Soviet Foreign Ministry—the first time a Soviet leader had directly addressed his country's diplomats—Gorbachev spoke of a "radical restructuring" of foreign policy.[211] A major issue facing his leadership was Soviet involvement in the Afghan Civil War, which had then been going on for over five years.[212] Over the course of the war, 13,000 Soviet soldiers would be killed and there was much opposition to Soviet involvement among both the public and military.[212] On becoming leader, Gorbachev saw withdrawal from the war as a key priority.[213] In October 1985, he met with Afghan Marxist leader Babrak Karmal, urging him to acknowledge the lack of widespread public support for his government and pursue a power sharing agreement with the opposition.[213] That month, the Politburo approved Gorbachev's decision to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, although the last troops did not leave until February 1989.[214]

Gorbachev had inherited a renewed period of high tension in the Cold War.[215] He believed strongly in the need to sharply improve relations with the United States; he was appalled at the prospect of nuclear war, was aware that the Soviet Union was unlikely to win the arms race, and thought that the continued focus on high military spending was detrimental to his desire for domestic reform.[215] Although privately also appalled at the prospect of nuclear war, U.S. President Ronald Reagan publicly appeared to not want a de-escalation of tensions, having scrapped détente and arms controls, initiating a military build-up, and calling the Soviet Union the "evil empire".[216]

Both Gorbachev and Reagan wanted a summit to discuss the Cold War, but each faced some opposition to such a move within their respective governments.[217] They agreed to hold a summit in Geneva, Switzerland in November 1985.[218] In the build up to this, Gorbachev sought to improve relations with the U.S.' NATO allies, visiting France in October 1985 to meet with President François Mitterrand.[219] At the Geneva summit, discussions between Gorbachev and Reagan were sometimes heated, and Gorbachev was initially frustrated that his U.S. counterpart "does not seem to hear what I am trying to say".[220] As well as discussing the Cold War proxy conflicts in Afghanistan and Nicaragua and human rights issues, the pair discussed the U.S.' Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), to which Gorbachev was strongly opposed.[221] The duo's wives also met and spent time together at the summit.[222] The summit ended with a joint commitment to avoiding nuclear war and to meet for two further summits: in Washington D.C. in 1986 and in Moscow in 1987.[221] Following the conference, Gorbachev travelled to Prague to inform other Warsaw Pact leaders of developments.[223]

Gorbachev with Erich Honecker of East Germany

In January 1986, Gorbachev publicly proposed a three-stage program for abolishing the world's nuclear weapons by the end of the 20th century.[224] An agreement was then reached to meet with Reagan at Reykjavík, Iceland in October. Gorbachev wanted to secure guarantees that SDI would not be implemented, and in return was willing to offer concessions, including a 50% reduction in Soviet long range nuclear missiles.[225] Both leaders agreed with the shared goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, but Reagan refused to terminate the SDI program and no deal was reached.[226] After the summit, many of Reagan's allies criticised him for going along with the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons.[227] Gorbachev meanwhile told the Politburo that Reagan was "extraordinarily primitive, troglodyte, and intellectually feeble".[227]

In his relations with the developing world, Gorbachev found many of the leaders professing revolutionary socialist credentials or a pro-Soviet attitude—such as Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and Syria's Hafez al-Assad—frustrating, and his best personal relationship was instead with India's Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.[212] He thought that the "socialist camp" of Marxist-Leninist governed states—the Eastern Bloc countries, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba—were a drain on the Soviet economy, receiving a far greater amount of goods from the Soviet Union than they collectively gave in return.[228] He sought improved relations with China, a country whose Marxist government had severed ties with the Soviets in the Sino-Soviet Split. In June 1985 he signed a US$14 billion five-year trade agreement with the country and in July 1986, he proposed troop reductions along the Soviet-Chinese border, hailing China as "a great socialist country".[229] He made clear his desire for Soviet membership of the Asian Development Bank and for greater ties to Pacific countries, especially China and Japan.[230]

Further reform: 1987–1988[edit]

Domestic reforms[edit]

Gorbachev and his wife Raisa on a trip to Poland in 1988

In January 1987, Gorbachev attended a Central Committee plenum where he talked about perestroika and democratisation while criticising widespread corruption.[231] He had considered putting a proposal to allow multi-party elections into his speech, but had ultimately decided against doing so.[232] After the plenum, he focused his attentions on economic reform, holding discussions with government officials and economists.[233] Many economists proposed reducing ministerial controls on the economy and allowing state-owned enterprises to set their own targets; Ryzhkov and other government figures were sceptical.[234] In June, Gorbachev finished his report on economic reform. It reflected a compromise: ministers would retain the ability to set output targets but these would not be considered binding.[235] That month, a plenum accepted his recommendations and the Supreme Soviet passed a "law on enterprises" implementing the changes.[236]

In August 1987, Gorbachev holidayed in Nizhniaia Oreanda, Ukraine, where he spent most of the time writing Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and Our World at the suggestion of U.S. publishers.[237] For the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917—which brought Lenin and the Communist Party to power— Gorbachev produced a speech on "October and Perestroika: The Revolution Continues", which he delivered to a ceremonial joint session of the Central Committee and the Supreme Soviet in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. In this speech, he praised Lenin but criticised Stalin for overseeing mass human rights abuses.[238] Party hardliners thought the speech went too far; liberalisers thought it did not go far enough.[239]

By 1987, the ethos of glasnost had spread through Soviet society: journalists were writing increasingly openly,[240] many economic problems were being publicly revealed,[241] and studies appeared that critically reassessed Soviet history.[242] Gorbachev was broadly supportive, describing glasnost as "the crucial, irreplaceable weapon of perestroika".[240] He nevertheless insisted that people should use the newfound freedom responsibly, stating that journalists and writers should avoid "sensationalism" and be "completely objective" in their reporting.[243] Nearly two hundred previously restricted Soviet films were publicly released, and a range of Western films were also made available.[244] In September 1987, the government stopped jamming the signal of the British Broadcasting Corporation and Voice of America.[245] The reforms also included greater tolerance of religion;[246] an Easter service was broadcast on Soviet television for the first time and the millennium celebrations of the Russian Orthodox Church were given media attention.[247] Independent organisations appeared, most supportive of Gorbachev, although the largest, Pamyat, was ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic in nature.[248] Gorbachev also announced that Soviet Jews wishing to migrate to Israel would be allowed to do so, something previously prohibited.[249]

Gorbachev speaking in 1987

In March 1988, the magazine Sovetskaya Rossiya published an open letter by the teacher Nina Andreyeva. It criticised elements of Gorbachev's reforms, attacking what she regarded as the denigration of the Stalinist era and arguing that a reformer clique—whom she implied were mostly Jews and ethnic minorities—were to blame.[250] Over 900 Soviet newspapers reprinted it and anti-reformists rallied around it; many reformers panicked, fearing a backlash against perestroika.[251] Gorbachev had been in Yugoslavia when it was published and only read it during his journey home; he called it "terrible, a direct attack against the Central Committee line".[252] He called a Politburo meeting to discuss the letter, at which he confronted those hardliners supporting its sentiment. Ultimately, the Politburo arrived at a unanimous decision to express disapproval of Andreyeva's letter and publish a rebuttal in Pravda.[253] Yakovlev and Gorbachev's rebuttal claimed that those who "look everywhere for internal enemies" were "not patriots" and presented Stalin's "guilt for massive repressions and lawlessness" as "enormous and unforgiveable".[254]

Although the 19th Party Conference was not scheduled until 1991, Gorbachev brought it forward to June 1988. He hoped that by allowing a broader range of people to attend than at previous conferences, he would gain additional support for his reforms.[255] With sympathetic officials and academics, Gorbachev drafted plans for reforms that would shift power away from the Politburo and towards the soviets. While the soviets had become largely powerless bodies that rubber-stamped Politburo policies, he wanted them to become year-round legislatures. He proposed the formation of a new institution, the Congress of People's Deputies, whose members were to be elected in a largely free vote.[256] This Congress would in turn elect a USSR Supreme Soviet, which would do most of the legislating.[257] He also proposed that term limits be introduced for senior leaders.[258]

These proposals reflected Gorbachev's desire for more democracy; however, in his view there was a major impediment in that the Soviet people had developed a "slave psychology" after centuries of Tsarist autocracy and Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism.[259] Held at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, the conference brought together 5000 delegates and featured arguments between hardliners and liberalisers. The proceedings were televised, and for the first time since the 1920s, voting was not unanimous.[260] In the months following the conference, Gorbachev focused on redesigning and streamlining the party apparatus; the Central Committee staff—which then numbered around 3000—was halved, the two international departments were merged, as were the three ideological departments.[261]

The Nationality Question and the Eastern Bloc[edit]

Gorbachev meeting the Romanian Marxist-Leninist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu. According to Taubman, Ceauşescu was Gorbachev's "favorite punching bag".[212]

On taking power, Gorbachev found some unrest among different national groups within the Soviet Union. In 1987, Crimean Tatars protested in Moscow to demand resettlement in Crimea, the area from which they had been deported on Stalin's orders in 1944. Gorbachev ordered a commission, headed by Gromyko, to examine their situation.[262] By 1988, the Soviet "nationality question" was increasingly pressing.[263] In February, the administration of the Nagorno-Karabakh region officially requested that it be transferred from the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic; the majority of the region's population were ethnically Armenian and wanted unification with other majority Armenian areas.[264] As rival Armenian and Azerbaijani demonstrations took place in Nagorno-Karabakh, Gorbachev called an emergency meeting of the Politburo.[264] Ultimately, Gorbachev promised greater autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh but refused the transfer, fearing that it would set off similar ethnic tensions and demands throughout the Soviet Union.[265]

That month, in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait, Azerbaijani gangs began killing members of the Armenian minority. Local troops tried to quell the unrest but were attacked by mobs.[266] The Politburo ordered additional troops into the city, but in contrast to those like Ligachev who wanted a massive display of force, Gorbachev urged restraint. He believed that the situation could be resolved through a political solution, urging talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani Communist Parties.[267]

Gorbachev rejected the "Brezhnev Doctrine", the idea that the Soviet Union had the right to intervene militarily in other Marxist-Leninist countries if their governments were threatened.[268] In December 1987 he announced the withdrawal of 500,000 Soviet troops from Central and Eastern Europe.[263] While pursuing domestic reforms, he did not publicly supported reformers elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc.[269] Hoping instead to lead by example, he later related that he did not want to interfere in their internal affairs, but he may have feared that pushing reform in Central and Eastern Europe would have angered his own hardliners too much.[270] Some Eastern Bloc leaders, like Hungary's János Kádár and Poland's Wojciech Jaruzelski, were sympathetic to reform; others, like Romania's Nicolae Ceaușescu, were hostile to it.[271] In May 1987 Gorbachev visited Romania, where he was appalled by the state of the country, later telling the Politburo that there "human dignity has absolutely no value".[272] He and Ceauşescu disliked each other, and argued over Gorbachev's reforms.[273]

Gorbachev announced in 1988 that the Soviet Union would abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine and allow the Eastern bloc nations to freely determine their own internal affairs. Jokingly dubbed the "Sinatra Doctrine" by Gorbachev's Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov, this policy of non-intervention in the affairs of the other Warsaw Pact states proved to be the most momentous of Gorbachev's foreign policy reforms. In his 6 July 1989 speech arguing for a "common European home" before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, Gorbachev declared: "The social and political order in some countries changed in the past, and it can change in the future too, but this is entirely a matter for each people to decide. Any interference in the internal affairs, or any attempt to limit the sovereignty of another state, friend, ally, or another, would be inadmissible." A month earlier, on 4 June 1989, elections had taken place in Poland, and the communist government had already been deposed.

Reagan and President-elect Bush meeting with Gorbachev on Governors Island, New York City, 7 December 1988

Moscow's abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine allowed the rise of popular upheavals in Eastern Europe throughout 1989, in which Communism was overthrown. By the end of 1989, revolts had spread from one Eastern European capital to another, ousting the regimes built in Eastern Europe after World War II. Except in Romania, the popular upheavals against the pro-Soviet regimes were all peaceful (see Revolutions of 1989). The loosening of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe effectively ended the Cold War, and for this, Gorbachev was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold in 1989 and the Nobel Peace Prize on 15 October 1990.

On 9 November 1989, people in East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, GDR) were suddenly allowed to cross through the Berlin Wall into West Berlin, following a peaceful protest against the country's dictatorial administration, including a demonstration by some one million people in East Berlin on 4 November. Unlike earlier riots that were ended by military force with the help of the USSR, Gorbachev now decided not to interfere with the process in Germany.[274] He stated that German reunification was an internal German matter.

The rest of 1989 was taken up by the increasingly problematic question of nationalities and the dramatic fragmentation of the Eastern Bloc. Despite unprecedented international détente, due to Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan completed in January and continuing talks between Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush, domestic reforms suffered from increasing divergence between reformists, who wanted faster change, and conservatives, who wanted to limit change. Gorbachev states that he tried to find middle ground between both groups, but this would draw more criticism towards him.[275] The story from this point on moves away from reforms and becomes one of the nationalities question and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Relations with Western states[edit]

Gorbachev in one-on-one discussions with Reagan
Reagan and Gorbachev with wives (Nancy and Raisa, respectively) attending a dinner at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, 9 December 1987

Gorbachev tried to improve relations with the UK, France, and West Germany.[276] He publicly spoke of a "Common European Home" and of a Europe "from the Atlantic to the Urals", calling for greater pan-European co-operation.[277] Like previous Soviet leaders, he was interested in pulling Western Europe away from U.S. influence.[278] In March 1987, Thatcher visited Gorbachev in Moscow; despite their ideological differences, the pair liked and admired one another.[279] In May 1987, Gorbachev attended a Franco-Soviet Summit, and in November 1988 Mitterrand visited him in Moscow.[280] The West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, had initially offended Gorbachev by comparing him to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, although later informally apologised and in October 1988 visited Moscow.[281] Gorbachev's relationships with these West European leaders were typically far warmer than those he had with their Eastern Bloc counterparts.[282]

Following the failures of earlier talks with the U.S., in February 1987, Gorbachev held a conference in Moscow, titled "For a World without Nuclear Weapons, for Mankind's Survival", which was attended by various international celebrities and politicians.[283] By publicly pushing for nuclear disarmament, Gorbachev sought to give the Soviet Union the moral high ground and weaken the West's self-perception of moral superiority.[284] Aware that Reagan would not budge on SDI, Gorbachev focused on reducing "Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces", to which Reagan was receptive.[285] In April 1987, Gorbachev discussed the issue with U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz in Moscow; he agreed to eliminate the Soviets' SS-23 rockets and allow U.S. inspectors to visit Soviet military facilities to ensure compliance.[286] There was hostility to such compromises from the Soviet military, but following the May 1987 Mathias Rust incident—in which a West German teenager was able to fly undetected from Finland and land in Red Square—Gorbachev fired many senior military figures for incompetence.[287] In June 1988, Gorbachev visited Washington D.C., where he and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.[288] Taubman called it "one of the highest points of Gorbachev's career".[289]

Presidency of the Soviet Union[edit]

On 15 March 1990, Gorbachev was elected as the first executive President of the Soviet Union with 59% of the Deputies' votes. He was the sole candidate on the ballot. The Congress of People's Deputies met for the first time on 25 May in order to elect representatives from the Congress to sit on the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the Congress posed problems for Gorbachev: Its sessions were televised, airing more criticism and encouraging people to expect ever more rapid reform.[290] Perestroika meant changing the planned economy into a more active, self-financed system, where the duration of central planning would not exceed five years, and which would be more able to react to economic needs. Communist rule in the Soviet Union weakened, and centralized power from Moscow was unable to combat centrifugal forces in the South. In the elections, many Party candidates were defeated. Furthermore, Boris Yeltsin was elected as mayor of Moscow and returned to political prominence to become an increasingly vocal critic of Gorbachev.[275]

Gorbachev chose a vice president; but when first Shevardnadze, then Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, turned it down, Gorbachev chose Gennady Yanayev, the head of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions and a known hardliner. This decision would come back to haunt Gorbachev later.[291]

Dissolution of the Soviet Union[edit]

By the end of the 1980s, severe shortages of basic food supplies (meat, sugar) led to the reintroduction of the war-time system of distribution using food cards that limited each citizen to a certain amount of product per month. Compared to 1985, the state deficit grew from 0 to 109 billion rubles; gold funds decreased from 2,000 to 200 tons; and external debt grew from 0 to 120 billion dollars.

Furthermore, the democratisation of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had irreparably undermined the power of the CPSU and Gorbachev himself. The relaxation of censorship and attempts to create more political openness had the unintended effect of re-awakening long-suppressed nationalist and anti-Russian feelings in the Soviet republics. Calls for greater independence from Moscow's rule grew louder, especially in the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

In December 1986, the first signs of the nationalities problem that would haunt the later years of the Soviet Union's existence surfaced as riots, named Jeltoqsan, occurred in Alma Ata and other areas of Kazakhstan after Dinmukhamed Kunayev was replaced as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Nationalism would then surface in Russia in May 1987, as 600 members of Pamyat, a nascent Russian nationalist group, demonstrated in Moscow and were becoming increasingly linked to Boris Yeltsin, who received their representatives at a meeting.[275]

Gorbachev addressing the United Nations General Assembly in December 1988. During the speech he dramatically announced deep unilateral cuts in Soviet military forces in Eastern Europe.

Violence erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh between February and April, when Armenians living in the area began a new wave of demands to transfer of NKAO from Azerbaijan to Armenia, which eventually led to full scale Nagorno-Karabakh War.[292] Gorbachev imposed a temporary solution, but it did not last, as fresh trouble arose in Nagorno-Karabakh between June and July. Turmoil would once again return in late 1988, this time in Armenia itself, when the Spitak earthquake hit the region on 7 December. Poor local infrastructure magnified the hazard and some 25,000 people died.[275] Gorbachev was forced to break off his trip to the United States and cancel planned travel to Cuba and the UK.[275]

In March and April 1989 elections to the Congress of People's Deputies took place throughout the Soviet Union. These returned many pro-independence republicans, as many CPSU candidates were rejected. The televised Congress debates allowed the dissemination of pro-independence propositions, and numerous nationalistic protests occurred in 1989. Beginning with the Baltic republics in January, laws were passed in most non-Russian republics giving precedence for the local language over Russian.

On 9 April Soviet troops cracked down on nationalist demonstrations in Tbilisi, Georgia. There would be further bloody protests in Uzbekistan in June, when Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks clashed in Fergana, Uzbekistan. Apart from this violence, three major events that altered the face of the nationalities issue occurred in 1989. Estonia declared its sovereignty on 16 November 1988, followed by Lithuania in May 1989, and by Latvia in July (the Communist Party of Lithuania would also declare its independence from the CPSU in December). This brought the Union and the republics into clear confrontation and would form a precedent for other republics.

Around the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in July 1989, the Soviet government formally acknowledged that the plan had included the placing of the Baltic states into the Soviet sphere of influence, which paved the way for their annexation into the USSR in 1940. The revelation supported the long-denied proposition that the Baltic states had been involuntarily brought into the Soviet Union, and so it boosted the Baltic aspirations to reestablish their independence. Finally, the Eastern bloc fragmented in the autumn of 1989,[275] and Gorbachev made the decision not to use military force in order to maintain the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.[293] This raised hopes that Gorbachev would extend his non-interventionist doctrine to the internal workings of the USSR.[275]

Crisis of the Union: 1990–1991[edit]

In January 1990 Azerbaijanis rioted and troops were sent in to restore order, many Moldovans demonstrated in favour of unification with post-Communist Romania, and Lithuanian demonstrations continued. The same month, in a hugely significant move, Armenia asserted its right to veto laws coming from the All-Union level, thus intensifying the "war of laws" between the republics and Moscow.[275]

Soon after, the CPSU, which had already lost much of its control, began to lose even more power as Gorbachev deepened political reform. The February Central Committee Plenum advocated multi-party elections; local elections held between February and March returned a large number of pro-independence candidates. The Congress of People's Deputies then amended the Soviet Constitution in March, removing Article 6, which guaranteed the monopoly of the CPSU. Soon after the constitutional amendment, Lithuania declared independence and elected Vytautas Landsbergis as Chairman of the Supreme Council (head of state).[275]

On 15 March, Gorbachev himself was elected as the first—and as it turned out, only—President of the Soviet Union by the Congress of People's Deputies and chose a Presidential Council of 15 politicians. Gorbachev was essentially creating his own political support base independent of CPSU conservatives and radical reformers. The new Executive was designed to be a powerful position to guide the spiraling reform process, and the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union and Congress of People's Deputies had already given Gorbachev increasingly presidential powers in February. This was again criticized by reformers. Despite the apparent increase in Gorbachev's power, he was unable to stop the process of nationalistic assertion.

Further embarrassing facts about Soviet history were revealed in April, when the government admitted that the NKVD had carried out the infamous Katyn massacre of Polish army officers during World War II; previously, the USSR had blamed Nazi Germany. More significantly for Gorbachev's position, Boris Yeltsin reached a new level of prominence, as he was elected Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR in May, effectively making him the de jure leader of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Problems for Gorbachev once again came from the Russian parliament in June, when it declared the precedence of Russian laws over All-Union-level legislation.[275]

Anti-Armenian and anti-government Dushanbe riots in Tajikistan, 1990

Meanwhile, Gorbachev's personal political position continued to change. At the 28th CPSU Congress in July, Gorbachev was re-elected general secretary, but this position was now completely independent of Soviet government, and the Politburo had no say in the ruling of the country. Gorbachev further reduced Party power in the same month, when he issued a decree abolishing Party control of all areas of the media and broadcasting.

At the same time, Gorbachev worked to consolidate his presidential position, culminating in the Supreme Soviet granting him special powers to rule by decree in September in order to pass a much-needed plan for transition to a market economy. However, the Supreme Soviet could not agree on which program to adopt. Gorbachev pressed on with political reform; his proposal for setting up a new Soviet government, with a Soviet of the Federation consisting of representatives from all 15 republics, was passed through the Supreme Soviet in November. In December, Gorbachev was once more granted increased executive power by the Supreme Soviet, arguing that such moves were necessary to counter "the dark forces of nationalism". Such moves led to Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation; Gorbachev's former ally warned of an impending dictatorship. This move was a serious blow to Gorbachev personally and to his efforts for reform.[275]

Meanwhile, Gorbachev was losing further ground to nationalists. In October 1990, DemRossiya, a Russian pro-reform coalition, was founded; a few days later, both Ukraine and Russia declared their laws completely sovereign over Soviet laws. The 'war of laws' had become an open battle, with the Supreme Soviet refusing to recognise the actions of the two republics. Gorbachev published the draft of a new union treaty in November, which envisioned a continued union called the Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics, but in 1991, Gorbachev's actions were steadily overpowered by secessionism.[275]

Berlin Wall, "Thank you, Gorbi!", October 1990

The Baltic republics reached a new level of turmoil in January and February 1991. On 10 January, Gorbachev issued an ultimatum-like request addressing the Lithuanian Supreme Council, demanding the restoration of the validity of the constitution of the Soviet Union in Lithuania and revocation of all anti-constitutional laws.[294] In his Memoirs, Gorbachev asserts that on 12 January he convened the Council of the Federation which agreed to political measures to prevent bloodshed, including sending representatives of the Council of the Federation on a "fact-finding mission" to Vilnius. However, before the delegation arrived, the local branches of the KGB and armed forces had worked together to seize the TV tower in Vilnius; Gorbachev asked the heads of the KGB and military if they had approved such action, and there is no evidence that they, or Gorbachev, ever did. Gorbachev cites documents found in the RSFSR Prokuratura after the August coup, which only mentioned that "some 'authorities'" had sanctioned the actions.[275]

The book Alpha – the KGB's Top Secret Unit also suggests that a "KGB operation co-ordinated with the military" was undertaken by the KGB Alpha Group.[295] Archie Brown, in The Gorbachev Factor, uses the memoirs of many people around Gorbachev and in the upper echelons of the Soviet political landscape, to implicate General Valentin Varennikov, a member of the August coup plotters, and General Vladislav Achalov, another August coup conspirator. These persons were characterised as individuals "who were prepared to remove Gorbachev from his presidential office unconstitutionally" and "were more than capable of using unauthorised violence against nationalist separatists some months earlier". Brown criticises Gorbachev for "a conscious tilt in the direction of the conservative forces he was trying to keep within an increasingly fragile coalition" who would later betray him; he also criticises Gorbachev "for his tougher line and heightened rhetoric against the Lithuanians in the days preceding the attack and for his slowness in condemning the killings" but notes that Gorbachev did not approve any action and was seeking political solutions.[296]

In continued violence, at least 14 civilians were killed and more than 600 injured from 11–13 January 1991 in Vilnius, Lithuania. News of support for the Lithuanians from Western governments began to appear. The strong Western reaction and the actions of Russian democratic forces put the Soviet president and government into a very awkward position. Further problems surfaced in Riga, Latvia, on 20 and 21 January, where OMON (special Ministry of the Interior troops) killed 4 people. Archie Brown suggests that Gorbachev's response this time was better, condemning the rogue action, sending his condolences and suggesting that secession could take place if it went through the procedures outlined in the Soviet constitution. According to Gorbachev's aide, Shakhnazarov, Gorbachev was finally beginning to accept the inevitability of "losing" the Baltic republics, although he would try all political means to preserve the Union. Brown believes that this put him in "imminent danger" of being overthrown by hard-liners opposing secession.[296]

Gorbachev continued to work on drafting a new treaty of union which would have created a truly voluntary federation in an increasingly democratised Soviet Union. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, who needed the economic power and markets of the Soviet Union to prosper. However, the more radical reformists, such as Russian SFSR President Boris Yeltsin, were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required and were more than happy to contemplate the disintegration of the Soviet Union if that was required to achieve their aims. Nevertheless, a referendum on the future of the Soviet Union was held in March (with a referendum in Russia on the creation of a presidency), which returned an average of 76.4% in the nine republics where it was taken, with a turnout of 80% of the adult population.[296] Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova did not participate. Following this, an April meeting at Novo-Ogarevo between Gorbachev and the heads of the nine republics issued a statement on speeding up the creation of a new Union treaty.

In May, a hardline newspaper published "Architect amidst the Ruins", an open letter criticizing Yakovlev (often referred to as the "architect of perestroika") which was signed by Gennady Zyuganov. Many also saw this publication as the start of a campaign to oust Gorbachev.

Meanwhile, on 12 June 1991 Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Federation by 57.3% of the vote (with a turnout of 74%).[275]

Coup of August 1991[edit]
George H.W. Bush with Gorbachev in 1990. Bush condemned the coup and the actions of the "Gang of Eight".

In contrast to the reformers' moderate approach to the new treaty, the hard-line apparatchiks, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, completely opposed anything which might lead to the break-up of the Soviet Union. On the eve of the treaty's signing, hardline Soviet leaders, calling themselves the 'State Committee on the State of Emergency', launched the August coup in an attempt to remove Gorbachev from power and prevent the signing of the new union treaty.

Under the pretense that Gorbachev was ill, his vice president, Yanayev, took over as president. Gorbachev spent three days (19, 20, and 21 August) under house arrest at his 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 killed his wife and then shot himself after the coup. 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 or had been promoted by him, which drew fresh criticism.

Final collapse[edit]
Leaders of the Soviet Republics sign the Belovezha Accords which eliminated the USSR and established the Commonwealth of Independent States, 1991

For all intents and purposes, the coup destroyed Gorbachev politically. On 24 August, he advised the Central Committee to dissolve, resigned as general secretary and dissolved all party units within the government. Shortly afterward, the Supreme Soviet suspended all Party activities on Soviet territory. In effect, Communist rule in the Soviet Union had ended.

Gorbachev's hopes of a new Union were further hit when the Congress of People's Deputies dissolved itself on 5 September. Though Gorbachev and the representatives of eight republics (excluding Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) signed an agreement on forming a new economic community on 18 October, events were overtaking him.[275] The Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed during the latter part of 1991, as one republic after another declared independence. By the autumn, Gorbachev could no longer influence events outside Moscow, and he was challenged even there by Yeltsin. Following the coup, Yeltsin suspended all CPSU activities on Russian territory and closed the Central Committee building at Staraya Square. He also ordered the Russian flag raised alongside the Soviet flag at the Kremlin. In the waning months of 1991, Russia began taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin.

Changes in national boundaries in post-Soviet states after the collapse of communism followed by a resurgence of nationalism

With the country in a state of near collapse, Gorbachev's vision of a renewed union effectively received a fatal blow by a Ukrainian referendum on 1 December, where the Ukrainian people overwhelmingly voted for independence. Ukraine had been the second most powerful republic in the Soviet Union after Russia, and its secession ended any realistic chance of the Soviet Union staying united even on a limited scale. The presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met in Belovezha Forest, near Brest, Belarus, on 8 December and signed the Belavezha Accords, which declared the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and formed the Commonwealth of Independent States as its successor. Gorbachev initially denounced this move as illegal.[275] Nonetheless, there was no longer any doubt that the Soviet Union, in the words of the Accords' preamble, no longer existed "as a subject of international law or geopolitical reality."

However, on 12 December, the RSFSR Supreme Soviet ratified the Belevezha Accords and denounced the 1922 Union Treaty. It was now apparent that the momentum towards dissolution could not be stopped. Shortly after the RSFSR ratified the Accords, Gorbachev hinted that he was considering stepping aside.[297] On 17 December, he accepted the fait accompli and reluctantly agreed with Yeltsin to dissolve the Soviet Union.[275] Four days later, the leaders of 11 of the 12 remaining republics—all except Georgia (the Baltic states had already seceded in August)—signed the Alma-Ata Protocol which formally established the CIS. They also preemptively accepted Gorbachev's resignation. When Gorbachev learned what had transpired, he told CBS that he would resign as soon as he saw that the CIS was indeed a reality.[298]

On the night of 25 December, in a nationally televised speech, Gorbachev announced his resignation as president—as he put it, "I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." He declared the office extinct and handed over its functions—including control of the Soviet nuclear codes—to Yeltsin. That same night after he left office, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin and was replaced with the Russian tricolor flag. The next day, 26 December, the Soviet of the Republics, the upper chamber of the Supreme Soviet, declared that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist as a functioning state, and formally voted both itself and the Union out of existence. Two days after Gorbachev left office, on 27 December 1991, Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev's old office.[275]

Gorbachev had aimed to maintain the CPSU as a united party but move it in the direction of Scandinavian-style social democracy.[299] But when the CPSU was proscribed after the August coup, Gorbachev was left with no effective power base beyond the armed forces. In the aftermath of the coup, his rival Yeltsin quickly worked to consolidate his hold on the Russian government as well as the remnants of the Soviet armed forces, paving the way for Gorbachev's downfall.

Gorbachev was only the second Soviet leader, after Khrushchev, not to die in office.[300]


Initial years: 1991–1999[edit]

Gorbachev visiting Ronald Reagan, both in western wear, at Rancho del Cielo, 1992

Out of office, Gorbachev had more time to spend with his wife and family.[301] He and Raisa initially lived in their dilapidated dacha on Rublevskoe Shosse, although were also allowed to privatise their small apartment on Kosygin Street.[301] He focused on establishing his International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, often known simply as the Gorbachev Foundation.[300] The foundation was launched in March 1992,[302] with Yakovlev and Grigory Revenko as its first Vice Presidents.[302] Its initial tasks were in analysing and publishing material on the history of perestroika, as well as defending the policy from what it called "slander and falsifications". The foundation also tasked itself with monitoring and critiquing life in post-Soviet Russia and presenting alternate forms of development from those pursued by Yeltsin.[302] In 1993, Gorbachev also launched Green Cross International, which focused on encouraging sustainable futures, and then the World Political Forum.[303]

To finance his foundation, Gorbachev began lecturing internationally, charging large fees to do so.[302] On a visit to Japan, he was well received and given multiple honorary degrees.[304] In 1992, he toured the U.S. in a Forbes private jet to raise money for his foundation. During the trip he met up with the Reagans for a social visit.[304] From there he went to Spain, where he attended the Expo '92 world fair in Seville and also met with Prime Minister Felipe González, who had become a friend of his.[305] In March, he visited Germany, where he was received warmly by many politicians who praised his role in facilitating German reunification.[306] To supplement his lecture fees and book sales, Gorbachev appeared in print and television adverts for companies like Pizza Hut and Louis Vitton, enabling him to keep the foundation afloat.[307] With his wife's assistance, Gorbachev worked on his memoires, which were published in 1995.[308] He also began writing a monthly syndicated column for The New York Times.[309]

Gorbachev had promised to refrain from criticising Yeltsin while the latter pursued democratic reforms, but soon the two men were publicly criticising each other again.[310] After Yeltsin's decision to lift price caps generated massive inflation and plunged many Russians into poverty, Gorbachev openly criticised him, comparing the reform to Stalin's policy of forced collectivisation.[310] After pro-Yeltsin parties did poorly in the 1993 legislative election, Gorbachev called on him to resign.[311] In 1995 his foundation held a conference on "The Intelligentsia and Perestroika". It was there that Gorbachev proposed to the Duma a law that would reduce many of the presidential powers established by Yeltsin's 1993 constitution.[312] Gorbachev continued to defend perestroika but acknowledged that he had made tactical errors as Soviet leader.[303] While he still believed that Russia was undergoing a process of democratisation, he concluded that it would take decades rather than years, as he had previously thought.[313]

Gorbachev, daughter Irina and his wife's sister Lyudmila at the funeral of Raisa, 1999

The Russian presidential elections were scheduled for June 1996, and although his wife and most of his friends urged him not to run, Gorbachev decided to do so.[314] He hated the idea that the election would result in a run-off between Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation candidate whom Yeltsin saw as a Stalinist hardliner. He never expected to win outright but thought a centrist bloc could be formed around either himself or one of the other candidates with similar views, such as Grigory Yavlinsky, Svyatoslav Fyodorov, or Alexander Lebed.[315] After securing the necessary one million signatures of nomination, he announced his candidacy in March.[316] Launching his campaign, he travelled across Russia giving rallies in twenty cities.[316] He repeatedly faced anti-Gorbachev protesters, while some pro-Yeltsin local officials tried to hamper his campaign by banning local media from covering it or by refusing him access to venues.[317] In the election, Gorbachev came seventh with circa 386,0000 votes, or around 0.5% of the total.[318] Yeltsin and Zyuganov went through to the second round, where the former was victorious.[318]

In contrast to her husband's political efforts, Raisa had focused on campaigning for children's charities.[319] In 1997 she founded a sub-division of the Gorbachev Foundation known as Raisa Maksimovna's Club to focus on improving women's welfare in Russia.[320] The Foundation had initially been housed in the former Social Science Institute building, but Yeltsin introduced limits to the number of rooms it could use there;[321] the American philanthropist Ted Turner then donated over $1 million to enable the foundation to build a new premises on the Leningradsky Prospekt.[322] In 1999, Gorbachev made his first visit to Australia, where he gave a speech to the country's parliament.[323] Shortly after, in July, Raisa was diagnosed with leukaemia. With the assistance of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, she was transferred to a cancer centre in Münster, Germany and there underwent chemotherapy.[324] In September she fell into a coma and died.[213] After Raisa's passing, Gorbachev's daughter Irina and his two granddaughters moved into his Moscow home to live with him.[325] When questioned by journalists, he said that he would never remarry.[309]

Promoting social-democracy in Putin's Russia: 1999–2008[edit]

Gorbachev attended the Inauguration of Vladimir Putin in May 2000

In August 1999, Yeltsin resigned and was succeeded by his deputy, Vladimir Putin, who then won the March 2000 presidential election.[326] Gorbachev attended Putin's inauguration ceremony in May, the first time he had entered the Kremlin since 1991.[327] Gorbachev initially welcomed Putin's rise, seeing him as anti-Yeltsin figure.[303] Although he spoke out against of the Putin government's actions, Gorbachev also had praise for the new regime; in 2002 he said that "I've been in the same skin. That's what allows me to say what [Putin's] done is in the interest if the majority".[328] At the time, he believed Putin to be a committed democrat who nevertheless had to use "a certain dose of authoritarianism" to stabilize the economy and rebuild the state after the Yeltsin era.[327] At Putin's request, Gorbachev became co-chair of the "Petersburg Dialogue" project between high-ranking Russians and Germans.[326]

In 2000, Gorbachev helped form the Russian United Social Democratic Party.[329] In June 2002 he had a meeting with Putin in which the latter praised the venture, suggesting that a centre-left party could be good for Russia and that he would be open to working with it.[328] In 2003, Gorbachev's party merged with the Social Democratic Party to form the Social Democratic Party of Russia.[329] The party faced much internal division and failed to gain traction with voters.[329] He resigned as party leader in May 2004 following a disagreement with the party's chairman over the direction taken in the 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 a party.[330] Later that year, Gorbachev founded a new political party, called the Union of Social Democrats.[331]

Gorbachev was critical of U.S. hostility to Putin, arguing that the U.S. government "doesn't want Russia to rise" again as a global power and wants "to continue as the sole superpower in charge of the world".[332] More broadly, Gorbachev was critical of U.S. policy following the Cold War, arguing that the West had attempted to "turn [Russia] into some kind of backwater".[333] He rejected the idea — expressed by U.S. President George H. W. Bush — that the U.S. had "won" the Cold War, arguing that both sides had cooperated to end the conflict.[333] He claimed that since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S., rather than cooperating with Russia, had conspired to build a "new empire headed by themselves".[334] He was critical of how the U.S. had expanded NATO right up to Russia's borders despite their initial assurances that they would not do so, citing this as evidence that the U.S. government could not be trusted.[333][335] He spoke out against the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia because it lacked UN backing, as well as the 2003 U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.[333] In June 2004 he nevertheless visited the U.S. to attend Reagan's state funeral,[336] and in 2007 visited New Orleans to see the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.[337]

Growing criticism of Putin: 2008–[edit]

Barred by the constitution from serving more than two consecutive terms as President, Putin stood down in 2008 and was succeeded by his Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who reached out to Gorbachev in ways that Putin had not.[332] In September 2008, Gorbachev and business oligarch Alexander Lebedev announced they would form the Independent Democratic Party of Russia,[338] and in May 2009 Gorbachev announced that the launch was imminent.[339] After the outbreak of the 2008 South Ossetia war between Russia and South Ossetian separatists on one side and Georgia on the other, Gorbachev spoke out against U.S. support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and for moving to bring the Caucasus into the sphere of its national interest.[340][341] Gorbachev nevertheless remained critical of Russia's government and criticised the 2011 parliamentary elections as being rigged in favour of the governing party, United Russia, and called for them to be re-held.[342] After protests broke out in Moscow over the election, Gorbachev praised the protesters.[342][343]

Gorbachev (right) being introduced to Barack Obama by Joe Biden, March 2009

In 2009 he released Songs for Raisa, an album of Russian romantic ballads, sung by him and accompanied by musician Andrei Makarevich, to raise money for a charity devoted to his late wife.[344] That year he also met with U.S. President Barack Obama in efforts to "reset" strained U.S.-Russian relations,[345] and attended an event in Berlin commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.[346] In 2011, an eightieth birthday gala for him was held at London's Royal Albert Hall, featuring tributes from Simon Peres, Lech Wałęsa, Michel Rocard, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Proceeds from the event went to the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation.[347] That year, Medvedev awarded him the Order of St Andrew the Apostle the First-Called.[342]

In 2012, Putin announced that he was standing again as President, something Gorbachev was critical of.[348][349][350] He complained that Putin's new measures had "tightened the screws" on Russia and that the president was trying to "completely subordinate society", adding that United Russia now "embodied the worst bureaucratic features of the Soviet Communist party".[348] In 2013, he noted that in Russia, "politics is increasingly turning into imitation democracy" with "all power in the hands of the executive branch".[351]

Gorbachev was in increasingly poor health; in 2011 he had spinal operation and in 2014 oral surgery.[342] In 2015, Gorbachev ceased his pervasive international traveling.[352] He continued to speak out on issues affecting Russia and the world. In 2014, he defended the Crimean status referendum that led to Russia's annexation of Crimea.[333] He noted that while Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, when both were part of the Soviet Union, the Crimean people had not been asked at the time, whereas in the 2014 referendum they had.[353] After sanctions were placed on Russia as a result of the annexation, Gorbachev spoke out against them.[354] His comments led to Ukraine banning him from entering the country for five years.[355]

Russia can succeed only through democracy. Russia is ready for political competition, a real multiparty system, fair elections and regular rotation of government. This should define the role and responsibility of the President.

— Gorbachev, 2017[356]

At a November 2014 event marking 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev warned that the Ukraine conflict had brought the world to the brink of a new cold war, and he charged western powers, particularly the United States, with adopting an attitude of "triumphalism" towards Russia.[357][358][359] In July 2016, Gorbachev criticized NATO amid escalating tensions between the military alliance and Russia.[360] Gorbachev has accused NATO of preparing for a "hot" war against Russia, saying that "All the rhetoric in Warsaw just yells of a desire almost to declare war on Russia. They only talk about defence, but actually they are preparing for offensive operations."[361] In June 2018, he welcomed the 2018 Russia–United States summit between Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump,[362] although in October criticised Trump's threat to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, saying the move "is not the work of a great mind." He added: "all agreements aimed at nuclear disarmament and the limitation of nuclear weapons must be preserved for the sake of life on Earth."[363]

Gorbachev is also a member of the Club of Madrid, a group of more than 80 former leaders of democratic countries, which works to strengthen democratic governance and leadership.[364]

Political ideology[edit]

Even before he left office, Gorbachev had become a kind of social democrat—believing in, as he later put it, equality of opportunity, publicly supported education and medical care, a guaranteed minimum of social welfare, and a "socially oriented market economy"—all within a democratic political framework. Exactly when this transformation occurred is hard to say, but surely by 1989 or 1990 it had taken place.

— Gorbachev biographer William Taubman, 2017[329]

Gorbachev was a socialist.[365] His friend Mlynář, with whom he studied at university, related that in the early 1950s "Gorbachev, like everyone else at the time, was a Stalinist."[366] Mlynář added that "Unlike most Soviet students, [Gorbachev] did not see Marxist theory as a collection of axioms to be committed to memory."[367] Biographers Doder and Branson related that after Stalin's death, Gorbachev's "ideology would never be doctrinal again",[368] but noted that he remained "a true believer" in the Soviet system.[369] Gorbachev's political outlook was shaped by the 23 years he served as a party official in Stavropol.[370] Doder and Branson noted that at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in 1986, Gorbachev was seen to be "a communist, a true believer, and a Russian patriot".[371] In the early years of his rule, Gorbachev argued that the Communist Party had to adapt to changing circumstances, and engage in creative thinking much as Lenin had creatively interpreted and adapted the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to the situation of early 20th century Russia.[372] For instance, he thought that rhetoric about global revolution and overthrowing the bourgeoise—which had been integral to Leninist politics—had become too dangerous in an era where nuclear warfare could obliterate humanity.[373]

They added that throughout most of his political career prior to becoming General Secretary, "his publicly expressed views almost certainly reflected a politician's understanding of what should be said, rather than his personal philosophy. Otherwise he could not have survived politically."[374] Like many Russians, Gorbachev sometimes thought of the Soviet Union as being largely synonymous with Russia and in various speeches described it as "Russia"; in one incident he had to correct himself after calling the USSR "Russia" while giving a speech in Kiev, Ukraine.[370]

Taubman described Gorbachev as "a true believer—not in the Soviet system as it functioned (or didn't) in 1985 but in its potential to live up to what he deemed its original ideals."[365] He added that "until the end, Gorbachev reiterated his belief in socialism, insisting that it wasn't worthy of the name unless it was truly democratic."[375] As Soviet leader, Gorbachev believed in incremental reform rather than a radical transformation;[376] he later referred to this as a "revolution by evolutionary means".[376] Taubman noted that by 1989 or 1990, Gorbachev had transformed into a social democrat.[329]

In 2006, he expressed his continued belief in Lenin's ideas: "I trusted him then and I still do".[365] He claimed that "the essence of Lenin" was a desire to develop "the living creative activity of the masses".[365] Taubman believed that Gorbachev identified with Lenin on a psychological level.[377]

Personal life[edit]

The official Soviet portrait of Gorbachev had been retouched to remove the birthmark.

Gorbachev often referred to himself in the third person.[378] Gorbachev was self-confident,[379] polite,[380] and tactful;[380] he had a happy and optimistic temperament.[381] He used self-deprecating humour,[382] and sometimes used profanities.[382] His university friend, Mlynář, described him as "loyal and personally honest".[367] He was a skilled manager,[79] and had a good memory.[383] Since studying at university, he considered himself an intellectual;[33] Doder and Branson thought that "his intellectualism was slightly self-conscious",[384] noting that unlike most Russian intelligentsia, Gorbachev was not closely connected "to the world of science, culture, the arts, or education".[385] When living in Stavropol he and his wife collected hundreds of books.[386] Among his favourite authors were Arthur Miller, Dostoevsky, and Chingiz Aitmatov, while he also enjoyed reading detective fiction.[387] He enjoyed walking as a hobby,[388] and had a love of natural environments.[111]

He favoured small gatherings where the assembled discussed topics like art and philosophy rather than the large, alcohol-fuelled parties common among Soviet officials.[389] Taubman called him "a remarkably decent man";[390] he thought Gorbachev to have "high moral standards".[391] He also noted that the former Soviet leader has a "sense of self-importance and self-righteousness" as well as a "need for attention and admiration" which grated on some of his colleagues.[391] A number of his colleagues thought that he was easily offended,[392] and were often frustrated that he would leave tasks unfinished.[393] He was a hard worker; as General Secretary, he would rise at 7 or 8 in the morning and not go to bed until 1 or 2.[394] Biographers Doder and Branson thought that Gorbachev was "a puritan" with "a proclivity for order in his personal life".[395]

Doder and Branson thought Gorbachev "a Russian to the core, intensely patriotic as only people living in the border regions can be."[370]

As an adult, Gorbachev reached five foot nine in height.[396] He had a distinctive port-wine birthmark on the top of his head;[397] by 1955 his hair was thinning,[398] and by the late 1960s he was bald.[399] Throughout his life, he tried to dress fashionably.[400] He spoke in a southern Russian accent,[401] and was known to sing both folk and pop songs.[402] Throughout the 1960s he struggled against obesity and dieted to control the issue;[84] Doder and Branson characterised him as "stocky but not fat".[396] Ever since he was a young man, he had an aversion to hard liquor;[403] he drank sparingly and did not smoke.[380] He was protective of his private life and avoided inviting people to his home.[108] Gorbachev cherished his wife,[390] who in turn was extremely protective of him.[100] He was an involved parent and grandparent.[404] He sent his daughter to a local school in Stavropol rather than to a school set aside for the children of party elites.[405] Unlike many of his contemporaries in the Soviet administration, he was not a womaniser and was known for treating women respectfully.[79]

Gorbachev at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, 16 June 1992

In 2013, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported a 1992 meeting between Gorbachev and Otis Gatewood, a Christian minister sent with a relief effort for orphans and elderly people in Russia by Churches of Christ in Texas. In the meeting, Gorbachev reportedly claimed that he was "indeed a Christian and had been baptized by his grandfather in the Volga River many years before".[406] On 19 March 2008, during a surprise visit to pray at the tomb of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy, Gorbachev made an announcement which has been interpreted to the effect that he was a Christian. Gorbachev stated: "St Francis is, for me, the alter Christus, another Christ. His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life". He added: "It was through St Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb".[407] However, a few days later, he told the Russian news agency Interfax: "Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies—I can't use any other word—about my secret Catholicism, [...] To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist".[408]


Opinions on Gorbachev are deeply divided.[378] Many, particularly in Western countries, see him as the greatest statesman of the second half of the twentieth century.[378] In September 1990 U.S. Secretary of State James Baker told him "nobody in the world has ever tried what you and your supporters are trying today...I've seen a lot, but I've never met a politician with as much bravery and courage as you have."[409] Taubman characterised him as "a visionary who changed his country and the world—though neither as much as he wished."[410] His negotiations with the U.S. helped bring an end to the Cold War and reduced the threat of nuclear conflict.[410] His decision to allow the Eastern Bloc to break apart prevented significant bloodshed in Central and Eastern Europe; as Taubman noted, this meant that the "Soviet Empire" ended in a far more peaceful manner than the British Empire several decades before.[410] Taubman regarded Gorbachev as being "exceptional... as a Russian ruler and a world statesman", highlighting that he avoided the "traditional, authoritarian, anti-Western norm" of both predecessors like Brezhnev and successors like Putin.[411]

Gorbachev succeeded in destroying what was left of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union; he brought freedom of speech, of assembly, and of conscience to people who had never known it, except perhaps for a few chaotic months in 1917. By introducing free elections and creating parliamentary institutions, he laid the groundwork for democracy. It is more the fault of the raw material he worked with than of his own real shortcomings and mistakes that Russian democracy will take much longer to build than he thought.

— Gorbachev biographer William Taubman, 2017[410]

In Russia, he is widely despised for his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic collapse.[378] General Varennikov, one of those who orchestrated the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev, for instance called him "a renegade and traitor to your own people".[312] Many of his critics attacked him for allowing the Marxist-Leninist governments across Eastern Europe to fall,[412] and for allowing a reunited Germany to join NATO, something they deem to be contrary to Russia's national interest.[413] During his career, Gorbachev attracted the admiration of some colleagues, but others came to hate him.[391] Many Russians saw his emphasis on persuasion rather than force as a sign of weakness.[375]

The historian Mark Galeotti stressed the connection between Gorbachev and his predecessor, Andropov. In Galeotti's view, Andropov was "the godfather of the Gorbachev revolution", because—as a former head of the KGB—he was able to put forward the case for reform without having his loyalty to the Soviet cause questioned, an approach that Gorbachev was able to build on and follow through it.[414]

Honours and accolades[edit]

Former President of the United States Ronald Reagan awards Gorbachev the first ever Ronald Reagan Freedom Award at the Reagan Library, 4 May 1992

Foreign decorations and awards[edit]

Gorbachev on 12 March 2013


  • Gorbachev, Mikhail. Memoirs. Doubleday (1996). ISBN 0-385-40668-1.
  • Gorbachev, Mikhail and Daisaku Ikeda (2005). Moral Lessons of the Twentieth Century: Gorbachev and Ikeda on Buddhism and Communism. I. B. Tauris. ISBN 1-85043-976-1.
  • Gorbachev, Mikhail. The New Russia. Polity (2016). ISBN 978-1-5095-0387-2.
  • Gorbachev, Mikhail. In a changing world. (2018).[431]

See also[edit]




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  2. ^ "Gorbachev, Mikhail" (US) and "Gorbachev, Mikhail". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved February 4, 2019.
  3. ^ "Gorbachev". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved February 4, 2019.
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  14. ^ Taubman 2017, p. 14.
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  20. ^ Taubman 2017, p. 27.
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Bhattacharya, Jay; Gathmann, Christina; Miller, Grant (2013). "The Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia's Mortality Crisis". American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. 5 (2). pp. 232–260. JSTOR 43189436.
Doder, Dusko; Branson, Louise (1990). Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin. London: Futura. ISBN 978-0708849408.
Galeotti, Mark (1997). Gorbachev and his Revolution. London: Palgrave. ISBN 978-0333638552.
Tarschys, Daniel (1993). "The Success of a Failure: Gorbachev's Alcohol Policy, 1985-88". Europe-Asia Studies. 45 (1). pp. 7–25. JSTOR 153247.
Taubman, William (2017). Gorbachev: His Life and Times. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1471147968.
McCauley, Martin (1998). Gorbachev. Profiles in Power. London and New York: Longman. ISBN 978-0582215979.

Further reading[edit]

  • Albuquerque, Cesar. Perestroika in progress: an analysis of the evolution of Gorbachev's political and economic thinking (1984–1991). (2015) [1] - (in Portuguese)
  • Albuquerque, Cesar. "Gorbachev as a Thinker: The Evolution of Gorbachev's Ideas in Soviet and Post-Soviet Times". In: SEGRILLO, A. (ed.) Karl Marx and Russia: Pre-Socialist, Socialist and PostSocialist Experiences and Visions. - São Paulo: FFLCH/USP, 2019. ISBN 978-85-7506-349-1. (In English)
  • Cline, Ray S. (1989). Behind the Smile Are Teeth of Iron: 86 Photos and Illustrations Few People in America Have Ever Seen. Washington, D.C.: United States Global Strategy Council. Without ISBN
  • Wilson, James Graham (2014). The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-5229-1.
  • Трофимов В.Н. Коллаборационисты: мнимые и настоящие. Субхас Чандра Бос, Махатма Ганди, Шарль де Голль, Андрей Власов, Михаил Горбачев. М., Отпечатано в типографии "Ваш Формат" (2015) – ISBN 978-5-9905971-9-8
  • Sheehy, Gail (1991). The Man Who Changed The World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

External links[edit]

Interviews and articles
Party political offices
Preceded by
Leonid Yefremov
First Secretary of the Stavropol CPSU Regional Committee
Succeeded by
Vsevolod Murakhovsky
Preceded by
Konstantin Chernenko
General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
Succeeded by
Vladimir Ivashko (Acting)
Political offices
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Andrei Gromyko
as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet
Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (1988–1989)
Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (1989–1990)
President of the Soviet Union (1990–1991)

Position abolished
Awards and achievements
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14th Dalai Lama
Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize
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Aung San Suu Kyi
Award established Recipient of the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award
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Colin Powell