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Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev

(b. 1931) Soviet statesman, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR 1985–91 and President 1988–91

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(b. 2 Mar. 1931).

General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1985–91

Early career

Born in Privolnoye near Stavropol (northern Caucasus) of a peasant family, the successful pupil and farm worker was sponsored by his local party to be educated at Moscow University in law and then at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute. He was active in the Communist Youth League (Komsomol), and joined the Communist Party in 1952. He graduated from Moscow in 1955 with the highest marks, and returned to Stavropol, where he began a rapid rise within Komsomol and the regional Communist Party. In 1970, he became regional first secretary of the party.

In 1971 Gorbachev became a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. There, he was noted not just for his intelligence, but also for his sternness and his reliability. In 1979, he became a non-voting member of the Politburo, and in 1980 he became a full member of the country's highest political body, in charge of agriculture. He failed to make a particular impact in this post, but he did come to the attention of Andropov. As party leader, Andropov put Gorbachev in charge of the entire economy. Though the more senior Chernenko was chosen in 1984 to succeed Andropov, he was able to expand his responsibilities to include party matters and ideology, as well as foreign policy. Despite considerable opposition on account of his relative youth, he became leader of the party on 11 March 1985.

Soviet leader

Gorbachev used his early popularity to bring like-minded reformers into the Politburo within a few years, thus steadily increasing his own power base. He first concentrated his reformist efforts on foreign relations, where he replaced the long-serving Andrei Gromyko (b. 1909, d. 1989) with his own protégé, Shevardnadze, as Foreign Minister in 1985. Relations with the USA, which had been at a low ebb since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, were improved, and he enjoyed more frequent meetings with a US President (i.e. Reagan and Bush) than any other Soviet leader.

In domestic politics, Gorbachev had a more difficult start. His clumsy handling of the Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 was still very much in line with his predecessors' grasp of public relations. In the summer of 1986, he embarked on his twin strategies to reform the Communist state, glasnost (opening) and perestroika (restructuring). Moreover, the Supreme Soviet, which used to lie dormant for most of the year, was given an enhanced role more like that of a parliament, whose members were chosen in contested elections (though they were still members of the Communist Party). With many of his old-guard opponents thus deselected, these reforms consolidated his own power. At the same time, his domestic popularity began to fall as the economic situation deteriorated. Gorbachev had freed the economy of old regulations, but had shied away from drastic capitalist reform. As a result, the economy found itself in a state of limbo between the old Communist world and Western capitalism, an uncertainty that led to the worst of both worlds. He was also unsettled by the growth of nationalism among the different ethnic peoples of the Soviet Union, unleashed by glasnost. It was a development whose ferocity he had clearly not foreseen, as his violent repression of the independence movements of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) showed.


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