Mikhail Gorbachev: The Last General Secretary of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Gorbachev
Joerg Mitter/Euro-Newsroom/ Getty Images

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union. He brought about massive economic, social, and political changes and helped bring an end to both the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

  • Dates: March 2, 1931 —
  • Also Known As: Gorby, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev

Gorbachev's Childhood

Mikhail Gorbachev was born in the small village of Privolnoye (in the Stavropol Territory) to Sergei and Maria Panteleyvna Gorbachev. His parents and his grandparents had all been peasant farmers before Joseph Stalin's collectivization program. With all farms owned by the government, Gorbachev's father went to work as a driver of a combine-harvester.

Gorbachev was ten years old when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. His father was drafted into the Soviet military and Gorbachev spent four years living in a war-torn country. (Gorbachev's father survived the war.)

Gorbachev was an excellent student in school and worked hard helping his father with the combine after school and during the summers. At age 14, Gorbachev joined the Komsomol (the Communist League of Youth) and became an active member.

College, Marriage, and the Communist Party

Rather than attend a local university, Gorbachev applied to the prestigious Moscow State University and was accepted. In 1950, Gorbachev traveled to Moscow to study law. It was at college where Gorbachev perfected his speaking and debating skills, which became a major asset to his political career.

While at college, Gorbachev became a full member of the Communist Party in 1952. Also at college, Gorbachev met and fell in love with Raisa Titorenko, who was another student at the university. In 1953, the two married and in 1957 their only child was born - a daughter named Irina.

The Beginning of Gorbachev's Political Career

After Gorbachev graduated, he and Raisa moved back to the Stavropol Territory where Gorbachev got a job with the Komsomol in 1955.

In Stavropol, Gorbachev quickly rose up in the ranks of the Komsomol and then obtained a position in the Communist Party. Gorbachev received promotion after promotion until in 1970 he reached the highest position in the territory, first secretary.

Gorbachev in National Politics

In 1978, Gorbachev, age 47, was appointed as the secretary of agriculture on the Central Committee. This new position brought Gorbachev and Raisa back to Moscow and thrust Gorbachev into national politics.

Once again, Gorbachev quickly rose up in the ranks and by 1980, he had become the youngest member of the Politburo (the executive committee of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union).

Having worked closely with General Secretary Yuri Andropov, Gorbachev felt that he was ready to become General Secretary. However, when Andropov died in office, Gorbachev lost the bid for office to Konstantin Chernenko. But when Chernenko died in office just 13 months later, Gorbachev, only 54 years old, became the leader of the Soviet Union.

General Secretary Gorbachev Presents Reforms

On March 11, 1985, Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Strongly believing that the Soviet Union needed massive liberalization in order to revitalize both the Soviet economy and society, Gorbachev immediately began implementing reforms.

He shocked many Soviet citizens when he announced the ability for citizens to freely voice their opinions (glasnost) and the need to entirely restructure the Soviet Union's economy (perestroika).

Gorbachev also opened the door to allow Soviet citizens to travel, cracked down on alcohol abuse, and pushed for the use of computers and technology. He also released many political prisoners.

Gorbachev Ends Arms Race

For decades, the United States and the Soviet Union had been competing with each other over who could amass the largest, most lethal cache of nuclear weapons.

As the United States was developing the new Star Wars program, Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union's economy was seriously suffering from the excessive spending on nuclear weapons. To end the arms race, Gorbachev met several times with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

At first, the meetings stagnated because trust between the two countries had been missing since the end of World War II. Eventually, however, Gorbachev and Reagan were able to work out a deal where not only would their countries stop making new nuclear weapons, but they would actually eliminate many that they had accumulated.


Although Gorbachev's economic, social, and political reforms, as well as his warm, honest, friendly, open demeanor, won him accolades from around the world, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, he was criticized by many within the Soviet Union. For some, his reforms had been too big and too fast; for others, his reforms had been too small and too slow.

Most importantly, however, was that Gorbachev's reforms did not revitalize the Soviet Union's economy. On the contrary, the economy took a severe downturn.

The failing Soviet economy, the ability of citizens to criticize, and the new political freedoms all weakened the power of the Soviet Union. Soon, many Eastern bloc countries abandoned Communism and many republics within the Soviet Union demanded independence.

With the falling of the Soviet empire, Gorbachev helped establish a new system of government, including the establishment of a president and the end of the Communist Party's monopoly as a political party. However, for many, Gorbachev was going too far.

From August 19-21, 1991, a group of hard-liners of the Communist Party attempted a coup and put Gorbachev under house arrest. The unsuccessful coup proved the end of both the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.

Facing pressures from other groups who wanted more democratization, Gorbachev resigned his post as president of the Soviet Union on Dec. 25, 1991, a day before the Soviet Union officially dissolved.

Life After the Cold War

In the two decades since his resignation, Gorbachev has remained active. In January 1992, he established and became president of the Gorbachev Foundation, which analyzes the changing social, economic, and political changes happening in Russia and works to promote humanistic ideals.

In 1993, Gorbachev founded and became president of the environmental organization called Green Cross International.

In 1996, Gorbachev did make one final bid for the presidency of Russia, but he only received a little over one percent of the vote.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Mikhail Gorbachev: The Last General Secretary of the Soviet Union." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/mikhail-gorbachev-1779895. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). Mikhail Gorbachev: The Last General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mikhail-gorbachev-1779895 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Mikhail Gorbachev: The Last General Secretary of the Soviet Union." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mikhail-gorbachev-1779895 (accessed May 28, 2023).