Mikhail Gorbachev, Reformist USSR Leader

Mikhail Gorbachev, Reformist USSR Leader

“My life’s work has been accomplished. I did all that I could.” – Gorbachev


Mikhail S. Gorbachev has passed away in Moscow. His ascent to power in the Soviet Union sparked a sequence of revolutionary events that altered the geography of Europe and brought an end to the Cold War, which had put the entire world in danger of nuclear devastation. He was 91.

Mikhail Gorbachev, or Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, was the general secretary of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) from 1985 to 1991 and the president of the Soviet Union in 1990–1991 (born March 2, 1931, Privolnoye, Starvapol kray, U.S.S.R.—died August 30, 2022, Moscow, Russia).

Early life

Gorbachev was raised by Russian peasants in the kray of Stavropol in southwest Russia. In 1946, he joined the Komsomol (Young Communist League), and for the following four years, he worked as a combine harvester driver at a state farm in Stavropol. He shown his potential as a Komsomol member, and in 1952, he enrolled in Moscow State University’s law program and joined the Communist Party. After earning his law degree in 1955, he held a number of positions in Stavropol’s Komsomol and regular party organizations until ascending to the position of first secretary of the regional party committee in 1970.

General secretary of the CPSU

In 1971, Gorbachev was elected to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee. In 1978, he was made the party’s secretary for agriculture. In 1979, he joined the Politbureau as a candidate, and in 1980, he was admitted as a full member. His gradual ascent within the party was largely a result of Mkhail Suslov’s support as its top idealist. In the 15 months that Andropo served as the Communist Party’s general secretary (1982–1984), Gorbachev rose to become one of the Politburo’s most active and well-known member.

Gorbachev promptly got to work increasing his own influence inside the Soviet hierarchy. His main domestic objective was to revive the Soviet Union’s sluggish economy following years of drift and low development during Brezhnev’s rule (1964–82). In order to achieve this, he advocated for quick technical advancement, higher worker productivity, and efforts to streamline and modernize the clumsy Soviet bureaucracy.

Striking Reforms

“Without perestroika, the cold war simply would not have ended. But the world could not continue developing as it had, with the stark menace of nuclear war ever present.” (Gorbachev)

Gorbachev started more extensive reforms of the Soviet political and economic systems in 1987 and 1988 after these surface-level adjustments fell short of producing noticeable outcomes. The country’s legacy of Stalinist totalitarian rule was eventually completely repudiated by the government. Freedoms of expression and information were also greatly expanded under his new policy of Glasnost, or “openness.” The press and broadcasting were also given unprecedented latitude in their reporting and criticism.

The first modest attempts to democratize the Soviet political system were made during Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”) strategy; multicandidate elections and the secret ballot were used in some elections for party and government seats. Some limited free-market processes were also brought into the Soviet economy under perestroika, but even these modest changes faced fierce opposition from party and government officials who were hesitant to give up their hold on the country’s economic life.

It was abroad that he was hailed as heroic. To George F. Kennan, the distinguished American diplomat and Sovietologist, Mr. Gorbachev was “a miracle,” a man who saw the world as it was, unblinkered by Soviet ideology.

But the changes Mr. Gorbachev had made were seen as a catastrophe by many people inside Russia. The demise of the Soviet Union was dubbed the “biggest geopolitical calamity of the century” by President Vladimir V. Putin. The fall of the U.S.S.R. was a source of embarrassment and loss for Mr. Putin and his fellow K.G.B. veterans who now make up Russia’s inner circle of power. The invasion of Ukraine this year was intended to help rectify this.

The openness Mr. Gorbachev desired—what became known as glasnost—and his perestroika doctrine, which intended to restructure the basic foundations of society, turned out to be a double-edged sword. By attempting to address the “blank spaces” in Soviet history, as he phrased it, by being open about the nation’s mistakes, he allowed his impatient friends to criticize him and the imperiled Communist bureaucracy to wage war against him. However, his internal changes contributed to the Soviet Union’s decline until its dissolution, which President Vladimir Putin has dubbed the “biggest geopolitical calamity” of the 20th century.

After so many years of isolation and misery, U.S. President Joe Biden stated that he had believed in “glasnost and perestroika – openness and restructuring – not as empty platitudes, but as the route ahead for the people of the Soviet Union.” In reference to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that Gorbachev’s “tireless dedication to opening up Soviet society remains an inspiration to us all.”

Gorbachev was hated at home for not bringing about the economic revolution he had promised, even though he was hailed as a hero abroad for his role in changing the world and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. It was widely believed that Mr. Gorbachev could be elected president of any country other than the Soviet Union in a democratic election.

When he came to power, Mr. Gorbachev was a loyal son of the Communist Party, but had come to see things with new eyes. “We cannot live this way any longer,” he once said. (Credit New York Times).

Foreign Policy

“Political leaders still think things can be done through force, but that cannot solve terrorism. Backwardness is the breeding ground of terror, and that is what we have to fight.” (Gorbachev).

Gorbachev established more cordial ties and increased commerce with the industrialized countries in the West and the East from the start. He and U.S. President Ronald Reagan agreed to eliminate all stocks of intermediate-range nuclear-tipped missiles in December 1987 by signing a document. He managed the Soviet military’s departure from Afghanistan in 1988–1989 following a nine-year occupation of that nation.

The set of events in late 1989 and early 1990 that changed Europe’s political landscape and signalled the start of the Cold War’s conclusion were most significantly started by Gorbachev. Gorbachev tacitly approved of the demise of the communist governments in those nations when they fell in late 1989 as a result of his relentless advocacy for reforming communists in the Soviet-bloc nations of eastern Europe. Gorbachev consented to the gradual departure of Soviet forces from those nations when democratically elected, non-communist governments took office in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in late 1989 and early 1990. By the summer of 1990, he had consented to the reunification of East and West Germany and had even expressed his support for the idea that the newly united country may join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a group that had long been a foe of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his outstanding contributions to world affairs.

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, worked to bring about the reunification of Germany by negotiating armaments reduction agreements with the United States and forming alliances with Western nations.

Civil unrest and outright efforts at independence occurred in some of the component republics (such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan) as a result of Gorbachev’s reform and decentralization of his country’s political structure (e.g., Lithuania). In 1989–1990, Gorbachev responded by using military action to quell brutal interethnic conflict in a number of Central Asian republics, while constitutional provisions were developed to allow for the legitimate secession of a republic from the USSR.

Gorbachev further expedited the transfer of power from the party to elected governmental institutions in 1990 as the CPSU’s hold on power and reputation grew weaker in the face of growing pressure for democratic political processes. He was chosen by the Congress of People’s Deputies to fill the newly established position of president of the USSR, which came with broad administrative authority, in March of that year. At the same time, the Congress, under his direction, ended the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power in the Soviet Union, which was protected under the country’s constitution. This opened the door for the licensing of other political parties.

In tearing down the dictatorial elements of the Soviet Union and guiding his nation toward a truly representative democracy, Gorbachev was notably successful. However, he shown a lesser willingness to free the Soviet economy from monolithic state control. Gorbachev rejected the authoritarian use of force that had historically kept the Soviet economy running, but he also fought any significant change toward private ownership and the application of free-market principles. Gorbachev unsuccessfully attempted to reach a middle ground between these two radically opposed options, and as a result, the centrally planned economy continued to disintegrate without being replaced by the private sector.

Although Gorbachev continued to be the uncontested leader of the faltering Communist Party, his efforts to increase his presidential authority through decrees and administrative reorganizations were ineffective, and the legitimacy and efficacy of his administration rapidly declined. Gorbachev changed his course in late 1990, aligning himself with party conservatives and the security apparatus in response to the economy’s collapse, growing popular resentment, and the continuous transfer of power to the component republics.

Gorbachev and his family were briefly placed under house arrest from August 19 to 21, 1991, during a brief coup by the Communist hardliners, but they proved to be unreliable allies after replacing reformers in the government. Gorbachev resumed his duties as Soviet leader after the coup failed in the face of steadfast resistance from Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other reformers who had come to power as a result of democratic reforms, but his position had already been irreparably damaged. Gorbachev left the Communist Party, abolished its Central Committee, and backed actions to deprive the party of control over the KGB and the armed forces before forging an inescapable alliance with Yeltsin. Gorbachev also moved swiftly to give the republics that made up the Soviet Union more control over basic political decisions. However, he was outrun by events, and Yeltsin’s Russia quickly took up the responsibilities of the crumbling Soviet Union as the individual republics decided to create a new commonwealth under his leadership. Gorbachev handed in his resignation as president of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991.

However, Gorbachev ultimately enjoyed greater respect abroad than he did at home. He received scorn in Russia from some for overthrowing the Soviet Union and from others for taking too long to liberate his country from communism. But in the West, he is still remembered as the Cold War’s principal architect and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.


The writer is a PhD scholar at Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. [email protected]

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