Mikhail Gorbachev: Biography, Facts & Accomplishments

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

Nobel Peace Prize winner for his assistance in the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Mikhail Gorbachev was the first President of the Soviet Union from 1990-1991.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev

A man with innovative and progressive ideas, Mikhail Gorbachev shocked the hardline communists with his reform programs. Perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) became popular movements among the progressives in the Soviet Union. With these two programs, Gorbachev attempted to both open up the Soviet Union to the world and to reform the Communist Party from the inside. In this lesson we will examine the life of Mikhail Gorbachev, his accomplishments, and how his philosophical contributions impacted the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Peasant Roots

Born on March 2, 1931 in the village of Privolnoye in the southern part of Russia, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was the only child of peasant farmers whose heritage was a mix of both Russian and Ukrainian. His father, Sergei, had fought the Nazis in World War II. When he returned home after being wounded, Sergei resumed operating farm machinery on a government collective farm. Mother Maria was the prototypical collective farm worker, spending her whole life working very diligently on the same farm. Mikhail's father taught him a great deal about harvesting and machinery. Mikhail was a quick study and showed an aptitude for mechanics.

As peasant boys do in Russia, Mikhail worked as a teenager to help the family as a tractor driver at a local machine shop. At the age of 17, Mikhail was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor for his active role in bringing in a great crop. It is believed that his quest for excellence in agriculture may have been motivated by the fact he lost two sisters and an uncle to famine. This award is given by the government to individuals or organizations that go above and beyond a normal work effort and quota production.

Beginning of Political Life

Mikhail had always been an excellent student and was accepted into Moscow University. He graduated in 1955, earning a law degree. While at Moscow University, Mikhail was granted full membership in the Communist Party. His leadership skills resulted in his selection to become the Secretary of the law department's Young Communist League. When he returned to the Stavropol area he kept rising in the league becoming Regional Secretary, and in 1961 a delegate to the Communist Party Congress. While working his way up in the political party, he continued his education studying agronomy and economics.

Mikhail became an agricultural administrator and a leader in his region, but perhaps the greatest thing he acquired was a reputation for honesty. His work focused on improving the collective farms and working conditions as well as giving the workers a greater voice in how the farms were operated. Gorbachev became a member of the Communist Party Central Committee in 1971, and by 1980 he was a full member of the Politburo, the policy making committee in the Soviet government.

Gorbachev meets President Reagan

Road to the Top

Upon the death of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov became the General Secretary. As mentor, Andropov planned to groom Gorbachev for this position. Andropov died suddenly in 1984 and, instead of Gorbachev, an aging Konstantin Chernenko came to power. A year later, Chernenko died and it became clear to the party leadership that they needed someone younger in the hierarchy. Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary on March 11, 1985 at age 54 and was the youngest member of the Politburo at that time. After years of adversarial relationships with the west, the Soviet Union was viewed in a different light due in large part to Secretary Gorbachev. World leaders such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and United States President Ronald Reagan remarked how they each felt they could work together with Gorbachev and were impressed with the direction he was taking with the Soviet Union.

Perestroika Stamp

Perestroika & Glasnost

Gorbachev's policy of perestroika began in 1986, soon after his appointment as General Secretary. The idea was to restructure the government in response to the stagnant economy. Following years of stagnation in the one of the world's largest economies, perestroika attempted to improve the lives of the citizens economically by restructuring the government and the organizations that influenced the economic sector. Perestroika met with various degrees of success; however, one change was clearly successful. Gorbachev restructured the political process so that elections were much more democratic. In 1990, Gorbachev was elected the first President of the Soviet Union by the Congress of People's Duties, a newly created parliament.

Gorbachev is also known worldwide for his promotion of openness in the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc communist nations such as East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. This policy became known as glasnost. Leaving behind an era defined by the Cold War, Gorbachev moved his country forward with a new period of detente between the east and west. He had to walk a delicate tightrope with older Communists wanting to slow down the changes on one side and the progressives demanding faster change and openness on the other side.

Gorbachev created an atmosphere of greater freedom of expression in the Soviet Union. Proof of that includes the Soviet military leaving Afghanistan, ending a controversial war. With glasnost, the satellite countries that the Soviet Union had gained after World War II also desired change and openness. Although the eastern bloc countries were to act as a buffer zone, that protective barrier was no longer necessary. Leaders of the satellite countries were informed that the Red Army would not support their existing communist regimes. Democratic opposition quickly seized this opportunity in those countries, and Gorbachev pulled his remaining troops out of Central Europe.

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