(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich

Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich (1931-      ), leader of the Soviet Union, from 1985 to 1991, whose effort to reform the Soviet system ended in the collapse of the Communist party and of the country itself.

Early Years. Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in the village of Privolnoye in the Stavropol krai (territory), in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus range. His father worked on a collective farm. In addition to his regular schooling (which was delayed for a year in 1942–1943 during the German occupation in World War II), Gorbachev worked for several summers for a machine tractor station as an agricultural equipment operator. He graduated from a local secondary school in 1950 and entered the Communist party the same year as a candidate, becoming a full member two years later.

Gorbachev entered the law school of Moscow State University in 1950, graduating in 1955. His choice of a legal education was somewhat unusual in view of the low prestige of the legal profession in the Stalin era. During his student years Gorbachev was active in the Komsomol (Young Communist League) and became the Komsomol secretary of the law school, responsible for matters of ideology and propaganda.

Komsomol and Party Work. Gorbachev never used his legal education directly in his career. On graduation he returned to the Stavropol krai and was appointed head of a department of the Stavropol city Komsomol organization. One year later, in 1956, he was transferred to a post in the Stavropol city party organization, a significant promotion for a young party member and one ascribed to the patronage of the local Komsomol head, Vsevolod Murakhovsky. In 1960, again owing to Murakhovsky's support, Gorbachev became first secretary (or head) of the Stavropol krai Komsomol organization and a member of the Bureau (the top policy-making body) of the krai's party organization.

Meanwhile, early in 1956, Gorbachev married Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko, whom he had met at Moscow State University, where Raisa studied philosophy. Their only child, a daughter, Irina, was born later that year. Raisa continued her studies, and in 1967 she received the degree of candidate of philosophical science (the equivalent of a Ph.D.) from the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. Thereafter she was a teacher for many years in Stavropol and then at Moscow State University.

In 1962, after a stint as the head of a "territorial-production unit" in one of the Khrushchev era's numerous organizational reforms, Gorbachev became the head of the personnel department of the krai party organization, a position he held for four years. At the same time, from 1962 to 1967, he took a correspondence course offered by the Stavropol Agricultural Institute, which qualified him as an agronomist-economist.

In 1968 Gorbachev was made second secretary of the Stavropol krai party organization, with responsibility for agriculture, an important task in a region with good soil and a generally favorable climate. He was also elected for the first time to the USSR Supreme Soviet, but that was a largely symbolic position. It was the party organization that was effectively in charge of policy and management.

Party Leader in Stavropol. Promotion to first secretary of the krai party came very soon, in April 1970, owing to the transfer of Gorbachev's predecessor in that post to Moscow. Observers of Soviet politics assume that the promotion was made possible by Fyodor D. Kulakov, a Politburo member who was also the party's top agricultural official. This promotion was followed, in 1971 at the 24th national Party Congress, by Gorbachev's election to the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, a predictable step for party leaders of important krais.

Gorbachev's reputation with national party leaders grew during the 1970s because of his success in promoting agricultural innovations. Ipatovsky raion (district), located in the north of Stavropol krai, was the scene of a coordinated system of harvesting that employed large mechanized teams, in the planning of which Gorbachev and Kulakov collaborated. The teams' efficiency and their considerable harvest yield attracted national attention. Gorbachev also encouraged the use of private brigades of farm laborers, which were not strictly legal at that time; however, they were widely used by both collective and state farms.

National Party Secretary. Kulakov's unexpected death in July 1978 left an opening for a top agricultural specialist, and in November the Central Committee elected Gorbachev to the party's ten-member Secretariat. This promotion formed part of the complex personnel shifts of 1977–1978 by which Leonid I. Brezhnev finally consolidated his hold on the top party posts. In November 1979 Gorbachev became a candidate (nonvoting) member of the Politburo. In October 1980 he was promoted to full member. Early in 1982, after some delay, Gorbachev launched Brezhnev's so-called Food Program, a system for rational mobilization of agricultural resources but overall agricultural performance failed to improve.

During the brief tenure of Yuri V. Andropov, who succeeded Brezhnev in November 1982, Gorbachev's prominence increased. Andropov had helped bring about Gorbachev's recent promotions, and Gorbachev in turn supported Andropov's tentative reforms. Following Andropov's death in February 1984 and Chernenko's appointment as general secretary, Gorbachev pressed for major reforms in agricultural organization, including the so-called agro-industrial complexes, and the legitimation of the private brigades of agricultural workers. He had visited Canada in 1983 and headed a Soviet delegation to Britain in December 1984, leaving favorable impressions.

Soviet Leader. On the death of Chernenko in 1985, reformers and conservatives appeared united in supporting Gorbachev's appointment as general secretary, announced on March 11. By the end of 1985 Gorbachev had made significant changes in top posts in order to consolidate support for a program of major reforms.

Gorbachev launched his reforms under the watchwords perestroika ("restructuring") and glasnost ("openness"). The economic reforms included new powers for enterprises in a somewhat less centralized economic system and legitimation and encouragement of cooperative enterprises. Social reforms included the toleration and even encouragement of autonomous citizens' groups and organizations, except for nascent political parties. Cultural restrictions were greatly eased, and the injustices of the Stalin and post-Stalin periods were criticized publicly.

In 1988 Gorbachev began to consolidate support for perestroika through party and governmental reforms, including legislative elections. In 1989 the new Congress of People's Deputies elected him head of state and in 1990 chose him for the new post of president. Gorbachev's pursuit of reform, however, was hesitant and inconsistent. The revolution he touched off led to the near collapse of the economy, the growing irrelevance of the Communist party, and declarations of autonomy by the republics.

Although Gorbachev's reputation at home foundered, his popularity abroad grew as he withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan, espoused disarmament, encouraged political change in Eastern Europe, and helped end the Cold War. For these initiatives, which led to a reduction in world tensions, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1990.

On Aug. 19–21, 1991, a hard-liner coup against Gorbachev failed, largely because of popular opposition led by Boris Yeltsin, the recently elected and independent-minded president of the Russian Federation. The Communist party and the central leadership were discredited by the coup attempt. Gorbachev suspended the party, but his power continued to erode as the republics withheld revenues from the central government and the Russian Federation assumed responsibility for financing central institutions. On Dec. 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus asserted that the USSR no longer existed and established the Commonwealth of Independent States, which several other republics soon sought to join. Yielding to reality, Gorbachev resigned the presidency on Dec. 25, 1991, and was not replaced, thus marking the end of the USSR.

In January 1992 Gorbachev became the president of the International Foundation for Socioeconomic and Political Studies (the "Gorbachev Foundation"), which had been established by an associate the previous month. Financed with donations and with the proceeds from Gorbachev's books, articles, and lectures, the foundation engaged in scholarly and applied studies of international issues and of Russia's transition to democracy and civil society. Gorbachev's 1996 campaign for the Russian presidency attracted little attention, and he ended in seventh place with 0.51% of the vote.

Robert J. Osborn
Temple University


Brown, Archie, The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford 1996).

Chernyaev, Anatoly, My Six Years with Gorbachev (Pa. State Univ. Press 2000).

Galeotti, Mark, Gorbachev and His Revolution (St. Martin's 1997).

Gorbachev, Mikhail S., On My Country and the World (Columbia Univ. Press 1999).

McCauley, Martin, Gorbachev (Longman 1998).

Mlyná[lower_case_r_caron], Zde[lower_case_n_caron]ek, Conversations with Gorbachev (Columbia Univ. Press 2002).