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date: 24 April 2017

Gorbachev, Mikhail

The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World

Archie Brown

Gorbachev, Mikhail. 

The leader of the Soviet Union from 11 March 1985 until 25 December 1991 and the initiator of the most far-reaching reforms in Soviet history, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was born into a peasant family in the village of Privolnoe in the Stavropol region of southern Russia on 2 March 1931. He had to combine work in the fields with study at school during and after World War II; it was the award of the Order of Red Banner of Labor for his achievements as an agricultural worker in 1949, together with scholastic success, that made possible his admission to the Law Faculty of Moscow University in 1950.

Gorbachev made the most of this unusual opportunity for a boy from a peasant family. He was active in the Law Faculty Komsomol organization and he graduated with distinction in 1955. It was at the university in 1951 that he met his wife, Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko, a student in the Philosophical Faculty; they were married in 1953. Their exceptionally close relationship ended with the death of Raisa in 1999.

Having obtained a law degree, Gorbachev returned to his native Stavropol region and embarked on a political career, first in the Komsomol apparatus and later as a Communist Party official. (He had joined the party in 1952, the year before Stalin's death.) By 1966—just four years after moving from the Komsomol apparatus to the party organization—Gorbachev was party first secretary in the city of Stavropol, and by 1970 he had become the first secretary of the regional party committee (kraikom), a post which led to entry to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1971.

Gorbachev was in charge of one of Russia's most important grain-growing areas and, as such, maintained his links with a former first secretary of that region, Fedor Kulakov, who was the secretary responsible for agriculture within the party leadership in Moscow. It was, however, Kulakov's sudden death in 1978 that led to Gorbachev's being brought to Moscow to take over agricultural administration. By 1980 Gorbachev was a full member of the Politburo as well as a secretary of the Central Committee, a combination of posts which made him a potentially powerful figure.

Gorbachev supported Yury Andropov as successor to Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, and during Andropov's leadership Gorbachev's responsibilities were widened. However, the backlash against Andropov's disciplinarian and anticorruption crackdown led the Politburo selectorate on Andropov's death to opt for a return to a safer and more predictable leadership style, choosing Brezhnev's ally of long standing, Konstantin Chernenko, in preference to his younger and much better qualified rival, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Chernenko's death in March 1985, only thirteen months after he succeeded Andropov, meant that Gorbachev's wait was over, and just a week after his fifty-fourth birthday he became general secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and leader of his country. Although the choice of Gorbachev was anathema to some of the old guard, his nomination got through the Politburo and was endorsed by the Central Committee within twenty-four hours of Chernenko's death.

What followed was one of the most dramatic periods of change in Russian as well as Soviet history, culminating in the demise of the Communist system and the disintegration of the Soviet state. Gorbachev put radical political and economic reform on the Soviet agenda, quickly signaling his intentions by his political appointments. By promoting Eduard Shevardnadze to full membership of the Politburo and appointing him foreign minister in succession to Andrei Gromyko in the summer of 1985 and by bringing Aleksandr Yakovlev into the Secretariat of the Central Committee and the Politburo, Gorbachev demonstrated his own readiness to embrace what became known as the “new political thinking” on both foreign and domestic policy.

By 1990 Gorbachev's international diplomacy had earned him the Nobel Peace Prize after relations with the United States and Western Europe had been put on a new, cooperative footing, and the Soviet Union had accepted the political autonomy of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe and even the unification of Germany within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Community (EC). Whereas Gorbachev had hoped initially to see reformed Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, he made the crucial decision to abandon the “Brezhnev doctrine” and accept free elections, which, in turn, meant accepting noncommunist systems in what had formerly been called “the Soviet bloc.”

Domestically, there was also a contrast between Gorbachev's reform initiatives—which were remarkably bold in the Soviet context—and some of their unintended consequences. The latter included interethnic violence, large-scale independence movements in almost half of the Soviet Union's fifteen republics, and the threat of the breakup of the multinational Soviet state (which became a reality in the aftermath of the failed coup of August 1991).

Soon after he became general secretary, Gorbachev began the process of replacing conservative Communists in the leadership and of promoting both political and economic reform. His personal telephone call in December 1986 to Andrei Sakharov, who had been exiled to the provincial city of Gorky (now restored to its old name of Nizhny Novgorod) by the Brezhnev leadership in 1980, symbolized a new willingness to tolerate the expression of dissident opinions. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost led to the gradual publication of numerous books previously taboo, including some—such as Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm—which called into question the foundations of the Soviet system.

The term “perestroika,” which Gorbachev had introduced at the outset of his general secretaryship, came to signify the comprehensive reform of the Soviet political and economic system. Radical reform was placed on the political agenda by Gorbachev at important Central Committee meetings in January and June 1987 and at the Nineteenth Conference of the Communist Party in 1988. In 1989 competitive elections for a new Soviet legislature—the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR (which elected an inner body, the Supreme Soviet)—took place, and this representative assembly became one in which criticism could be voiced and the executive could no longer rely on getting its every proposal accepted.

Gorbachev was a proponent of competitive elections, but initially he aimed at a one-party pluralism in which electoral choice would be linked to democratization of the Communist Party and the legitimation of different opinion groupings and regional interests within it. It was only in early 1990 that he publicly accepted the need to legalize the creation of other political parties and to take the reference to the “leading role” of the Communist Party out of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution. When elections were held in the various Soviet republics in 1990, several of them produced non-Communist majorities. Most troubling for Gorbachev was the choice of Boris Yeltsin in May 1990 as chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic. Yeltsin, who left the Communist Party in July of the same year, had become a more popular politician within Russia than Gorbachev himself, whose domestic prestige was by this time significantly lower than his international standing.

Faced by mounting problems, Gorbachev attempted in 1990 to increase his personal power not within the Communist Party, whose institutions (including that of the Politburo) he downgraded, but in a new state presidency. In March 1990 he became the Soviet Union's first prezident and later in the year acquired the power to rule by decree. Those reformers who supported these moves hoped that Gorbachev would now be able to take more resolute steps toward the introduction of a market economy, which he had embraced in principle but which was extraordinarily difficult to introduce in practice. He was criticized, however, both by those who feared a return to capitalism and by radicals who felt that he was moving too slowly with economic reform.

After a period of half a year during the winter of 1990–91 in which he made significant concessions to those who were pressing for a more conservative approach to the Soviet Union's economic and interethnic problems, Gorbachev established a new modus vivendi with the more radical proponents of change, including those from a majority of the Soviet republics, when he initiated a series of “nine-plus-one” meetings in April 1991. This involved an effort to agree on a new union treaty with the nine republics willing to remain in a renewed and decentralized Soviet federation. Over the next few months he took steps also to mend fences with Yeltsin, who had acquired substantially increased power and authority through his election as president of the Russian Republic in June 1991. By this time Gorbachev could speak for the Soviet Union only after a prior process of negotiation and accommodation with the leaders of the major Soviet republics.

The draft Union Treaty which emerged from the protracted negotiations between Gorbachev and a majority of republican leaders, including Yeltsin, not only devolved a great deal of federal power to the republics but came close to creating a confederation. It was, above all, to preempt this further diminution of central power that the leaders of the Soviet army, government, KGB, Ministry of Interior, and military industry joined forces in an attempted coup which began on 18 August 1991 when Gorbachev was put under house arrest in his holiday home on the Crimean coast. The coup was over by the evening of 21 August. Widespread resistance in Moscow, led by Boris Yeltsin in the Russian White House, played a crucial part in the defeat of the putschists, but just as important was the refusal of Gorbachev to have any truck with the coup leaders. This deprived the putschists of a constitutional fig-leaf to cover their seizure of power.

For Gorbachev the coup was the beginning of the end of the main part of his political career. Insofar as it accelerated the breakup of the Soviet Union, it naturally called into question its presidency. Gorbachev, weakened by the fact that he had himself appointed the senior politicians and officials who in August 1991 betrayed him, strove to preserve a renewed union and warned of the dangers ahead if the Soviet Union split into fifteen separate states (with the prospect of further interethnic conflict and fissiparous movements to follow). Nevertheless, a Ukrainian referendum vote for independence on 1 December 1991 was followed by a meeting on 8 December of the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus at which they declared that the Soviet Union was “ceasing its existence” and at which they announced they would be establishing a Commonwealth of Independent States. On 25 December 1991 Gorbachev made a televised speech, announcing his resignation as president of the Soviet Union, and on the same day he handed over his functions as commander-in-chief of the armed forces (and control over nuclear weapons) to Yeltsin. By the end of the month, the Soviet Union had formally ceased to exist.

In the perspective of Russian and Soviet history, Gorbachev must be counted a great reformer. The system he inherited, however, required comprehensive transformation rather than mere reform. Gorbachev increasingly recognized this, but he had to take account of powerful conservative interests as well as of radical centrifugal tendencies. Moreover, the dual challenge of democratization and marketization in the face of growing and competing nationalisms and of “left”-“right” ideological polarization made the task of a transition leader in the Soviet Union far more daunting than in any other European country. Given the national tensions that had been suppressed for so long, it is far from clear that any leader could have accomplished the enormously difficult task of combining democratization of the system with preservation of the union.

Domestically, for better or worse (and mostly for better), Gorbachev's impact on Russian history has been immense. Internationally, he did more than anyone else to end the Cold War by allowing the East European states to regain their national independence and by breaking with Soviet traditional foreign policy. Since leaving office Gorbachev has headed his own think tank in Moscow. From an essentially social democratic position he has been a trenchant critic both of the Yeltsin administration and of the Russian Communist Party.

(See also Communist Party States; Post-Communism.)


Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford, 1996).Find this resource:

Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (New York, 1996).Find this resource:

Archie Brown

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