Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev, 25 Anniversary Fall of Berlin Wall. Getty Images

Summary of Mikhail Gorbachev:

Mikhail Gorbachev was leader of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, the man chiefly responsible for ending the Cold War and the key person in the reintroduction of democracy, and an end to central control of the economy, in the USSR. However, his reforms spread beyond his control and the Soviet Union broke apart, ceasing in 1991.

Mikhail Gorbachev's Youth and Early Career:

Mikhail Gorbachev was born on March 2nd 1931 to a peasant family in Privolnoye, southwest Russia. He joined the Young Communist League (Komsomol) in 1946, at one point working on a farm, but was able to enrol as a law student at Moscow State University in 1952. Here he met and married Raisa Titorenko. Gorbachev also joined the Communist Party – essential for anybody in Russia to progress in government – and after he graduated in 1955 Gorbachev held a number of positions in Komsomol and the Party itself, making a name as a reformer and becoming First Secretary of the Regional Party Committee in 1970.

Rise to Power:

Over the next fifteen years Gorbachev rose through the ranks of Soviet government: a member of the Central Committee by 1971, Party Secretary of Agriculture 1978, and a full member of the ruling group called the Politburo by 1980. Gorbachev’s swift rise was in part due to the patronage of Mikhail Suslov, a leading power broker in the government, and Yuri Andropov.

Gorbachev was at this point young for a Politburo member, but came to prominence under the government of Andropov (82 – 84), when the leader tried to encourage reforming and new thinking to counter the declining Soviet economy.

During the government of Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev was positioned to be his successor, and on March 11th 1985, one day after Chernenko died, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CPSU by the Politubro.

He was the effective leader of the Soviet Union; he was also still the youngest Politburo member. Gorbachev quickly made changes, forcing some older members into retirement and promoting younger technocrats to support his planned reforms.

Government: Glasnost and Perestroika:

While Russia was at this stage considered one of the two strongest nations in the world, and involved in the Cold War with a partly democratic power bloc headed by the United States, the nation had a stagnant and decaying economy weighed down by the arms race so vital to the Cold War. Gorbachev’s first aim was to breathe new life into this economy, and he did so by calling for modernization and greater productivity. When this failed, Gorbachev turned to two new, much more major, policies called glasnost and perestroika: a massive reform of the Soviet economic, political and cultural model.

Glasnost, literally “openness” allowed freedom of speech and the media in an attempt to first air grievances about the government and industry and then solve them, weeding out inefficiencies, vastly opening up what was allowed in culture. Perestroika, literally “reconstruction”, held that a re-ordering of the Soviet Union was needed, with limited democratic elections, better use of technology, more initiative for workers and more accountability from mangers.

More democratic processes were installed in the party and government.

Congress of People’s Deputies:

Gorbachev’s reforms took their clearest form yet when multi-candidate elections were held to create a new parliament called the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies. This in turn, in 1989, elected a new ruling body, the USSR Supreme Soviet, and Gorbachev was elected President; he remained in charge of the Soviet Union.

The End of the Cold War:

Central to Gorbachev’s understanding of Perestroika was the need to end the horrendously expensive arms race between the USSR and the West. In 1988, at an address to the UN, Gorbachev effectively ended the Cold War by announcing an end to the Brezhnev Doctrine - whereby Soviet forces propped up communist regimes in Eastern Europe - allowing democratic choice and pulling out of the arms race.

He also pulled troops out of Afghanistan. Over the next two years the communist governments of Eastern Europe, including Poland, East Germany and Hungary, collapsed, with democracy taking their place; Gorbachev gave his assent to these changes, refusing to use the army to back the old regimes and withdrawing Soviet troops. This earned Gorbachev the 1990 Nobel Prize.

Attempting a Balance:

Further democratization took place: the Communist Party’s monopoly on government and all political positions was abolished, allowing new parties to compete for places. At the same time Gorbachev was elected to a new post, President of the USSR. Gorbachev was less revolutionary when it came to the economy, refusing to introduce a free market system, and trying to maintain some control, while freeing many of the state constraints. The result was a muddle which satisfied few and made little headway into solving the USSR’s economic problems.

Coup and the End of the USSR:

Gorbachev’s reforms had angered many hard-liners and communists, and as the economy continued to fail these hardliners staged a coup in the middle of 1991. Gorbachev was placed under house arrest. The coup failed because of tough resistance led, in part, by the President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, and other reformers who had benefited from Gorbachev’s reforms. While Gorbachev returned to power, the coup had fatally weakened his position and raised that of Yeltsin.

As Gorbachev moved swiftly to dismantle the Communist Party’s hold over the KGB, the secret police, and the army, and give more power to the USSR’s constituent states, the USSR effectively fell apart as the new republics formed a new union under Yeltsin. On December 25 1991 Gorbachev resigned as President of the USSR and the old union vanished.

Life after the Presidency:

Gorbachev ran for the presidency of Russia in 1996 but received few votes; after that, he remained active in politics thanks to participation in “think-tanks”, and also made a living speaking. In 2006 he jointly purchased a newspaper, and in 2008 formed a new political party in Russia.


While the role of US President Reagan in putting renewed pressure on the Soviet Union in the arms race cannot be discounted, there is no disguising the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev was the primary mover in both the end of the Cold War and the transformation of the USSR and Eastern Europe from totalitarian states to democracies. His economic policies and perestroika may have ultimately failed to restore the Soviet system, to the extent that the USSR fell apart beneath him, but he remains arguably the key figure in late twentieth century history.