Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich


Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeyevich
(1931– )
   Born in a village in Stavropol Krai, Mikhail Gorbachev experienced both the privations of Joseph Stalin’s purges and World War II, losing relatives in both. He proved to be an excellent student and was awarded a law degree from Moscow State University in 1955. While at university, he met and married his wife, Raisa Titarenko, and joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). After graduation, he retuned to his native Stavropol to take a position in the Komsomol youth organization. In the 1960s, he began to rise through the party ranks under the patronage of Mikhail Suslov, the CPSU’s chief strategist.
   In 1979, Gorbachev joined the Politburo and became its most influential member during the reign of Yury Andropov. During this period, he developed relationships with foreign leaders including Margaret Thatcher. Despite Andropov’s wish that Gorbachev succeed him, the young Communist ideologue was passed over in favor of the ailing Konstantin Chernenko in 1984. A year later, on the event of Chernenko’s death, Gorbachev became the general secretary of the CPSU. Gorbachev quickly embraced and expanded Andropov’s policy of economic acceleration (uskoreniie>), hoping to jump-start the stalled Soviet economy, which was no longer buoyed by high oil prices as was the case under Leonid Brezhnev. His tentative first steps, largely based on semi-successful economic experiments conducted in the Baltic republics, soon gave way to a more aggressive reform agenda. Hoping to improve worker productivity, he launched an ill-received anti-alcoholism campaign that sapped the state of much needed tax revenue while doing little to stanch the abuse of spirits. By 1986, Gorbachev began to face off against so-called old thinkers within the party who were set on preserving the status quo. The incident at Chernobyl, among other crises, evinced increasing tensions between the old guard and Gorbachev’s “Komsomol” generation. In order to promote genuine reform within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev instituted a grand policy known as perestroika (restructuring). In order to circumvent institutional barriers to change, he soon twinned this policy with one of glasnost (transparency), thus preventing the bureaucracy or other vested interests from blocking access to information about failures in the sprawling Soviet system.
   By 1988, Gorbachev’s economic reforms had gained steam; private ownership of certain types of businesses was legalized, creating the basis for an embryonic market economy, while also creating conditions that would lead to large-scale corruption in Russia’s post-Soviet economy. In order to protect the progress made up until this point, Gorbachev began to systematically strip the CPSU of its monopolization on political power, though genuine democratization (demokratizatsiia) would not be embraced until 1990. Meanwhile, Gorbachev had adopted a new stance in foreign relations; under the rubric of “New Thinking,” Moscow sought to redefine its relations with both Western Europe and the United States. His new orientation promoted respect for human and minority rights, as well as the inclusion of the Eastern Bloc (including the Soviet Union) into a “common European home”; the posture proved popular in European capitals. Through a series of agreements conducted with U.S.
   President Ronald Reagan, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) also agreed to reduce its nuclear arsenal and conventional weapons.
   Gorbachev also recognized the futility of continued participation in the Soviet-Afghan War, and set a timetable for withdrawal of troops; the last Soviet soldiers left Afghanistan in 1989. During that same year, Gorbachev radically altered the USSR’s relationship with its satellite states, signaling an end to the threat of Soviet invasion if any member of the Warsaw Pact abandoned socialism. The institution of the so-called Sinatra Doctrine is seen as instrumental in the rapid transition of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Central European states from one-party totalitarianism to liberal pluralism. Gorbachev’s willingness to let the Soviet satellites go stemmed partially from difficulties at home.
   Growing discontent—unintended outcomes of perestroika and glasnost—had created a volatile political situation in Russia proper, while centrifugal nationalism in the other union republics was reaching a boiling point. The situation was especially acute in the Baltic States, where the new liberalism had resulted in the rise of stridently anti-Russian elites within the political system; glasnost’s uncovering of Stalin’s crimes only fueled the fire in the region. Pro-independence movements were gaining ground elsewhere as well, including Georgia and Ukraine. In the southern Caucasus, ethnic violence erupted between Armenians and Azeris over the contested region of NagornoKarabakh. In Uzbekistan, a pogrom of Meskhetian Turks forced their evacuation, further suggesting that the Kremlin’s hold on power in the regions was disintegrating. In early 1990, Moldova saw the trends of ethnic strife and centrifugal nationalism combined, as the republic’s titular majority embraced unification with neighboring Romania while its Russophone population opted to create their own republic within the USSR to avoid such a contingency.
   Hoping to weaken the tempest, Gorbachev stripped more control from the CPSU and began to go directly to the Soviet people to gain backing for a deepening of his reform agenda. Commensurate with these developments, he assumed a new position: president of the Soviet Union. However, his greatest competition by this point was no longer with the Soviet gerontocracy, but with the former Communist Boris Yeltsin. Despite gaining new powers as president, Gorbachev continued to lose ground to the nationalists, including Yeltsin, now president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. The situation in the Baltics, particularly Lithuania, proved Gorbachev’s undoing. Unable to reign in anti-Soviet forces in the republic, he used force against the nationalists, resulting in international opprobrium and a diminution of his authority within the USSR.
   In an effort to freeze the trend toward independence while simultaneously recognizing the inevitability of the loss of the Baltics, Gorbachev moved toward revising the treaty of union that had bound the USSR together for decades. His goal of creating a genuinely voluntary union of socialist republics triggered the August Coup of 1991, led by Soviet hard-liners who feared the ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, vacationing at his dacha in Crimea, was held hostage during the crisis. Out of sight, he was quickly upstaged by Yeltsin, who turned the situation to his advantage and rallied the masses against the plotters. Ironically, the attempted coup produced exactly what it intended to avoid, the breakup of the USSR. During the autumn of 1991, Gorbachev saw his influence marginalized at the expense of republican heads in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the non-Slavic republics. In December, the Belavezha Accords—agreed to without Gorbachev’s participation—signed the death warrant for the USSR. Gorbachev, recognizing the end of his tenure, resigned as general secretary on 24 December 1991. The following day, the Soviet Union passed out of existence, giving birth to a dozen new states (the Baltic States had gained their independence earlier that year). Boris Yeltsin, now the uncontested leader of Russia, occupied Gorbachev’s offices shortly thereafter. In postindependence Russia, Gorbachev has maintained a high profile, though his popularity among average Russians remains low (as opposed to the sustained favor he enjoys in the West).
   He proved a vociferous critic of the Yeltsin administration and a strong supporter of Russia’s adoption of a social democratic model of government; he ran in the 1996 presidential elections but garnered little popular support. He dedicates much of his time to the Gorbachev Foundation, established in 1992, and support of environmentalism. Gorbachev remained rather muted on Russia’s domestic affairs under Vladimir Putin, though he did criticize the electoral reforms of 2004-2005. Conversely, he has been a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush, and even made his presence felt in local politics in America after the disaster precipitated by Hurricane Katrina in 2007. Shortly after the ascension of Dmitry Medvyedev, Gorbachev initiated a bid to return to Russian politics, hoping to field a major political party by 2010.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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