Regarded as one of the 20th century’s most significant and controversial figures, Mikhail Gorbachev was the final leader of the Soviet Union. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his commitment to international relations and his key role in deescalating the Cold War. Nonetheless, the collapse of the Soviet Union would become the defining legacy of Gorbachev’s administration.
Gorbachev unwittingly resigned his position as de facto leader of the USSR on Christmas Day in 1991, saying, “I am leaving my post with apprehension, but also with hope, with faith in you, your wisdom and force of spirit.”
Here are 10 facts about the century-defining life of Mikhail Gorbachev.
1. He was born into a Russian-Ukrainian peasant family
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on 3 March 1931 in the village of Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai. Gorbachev’s Ukrainian mother, Maria Panteleyevna was a devout Orthodox Christian and had her baby, initially named Viktor, secretly christened ‘Mikhail’. His parents had one other son after World War Two, Aleksandr.
2. His family suffered during Stalin’s ‘Great Purge’
During the early 1930s, Stalin initiated an intense policy of systematic socialisation. Part of implementing Stalin’s vision was rapid industrialisation, collectivisation of farming and rooting out ‘class enemies’.
The result of Stalin’s policies was widespread famine in Ukraine between 1931 and 1933, in which Gorbachev’s paternal uncles and aunt died. Later, when the state sought ‘enemies of the people’, both of his grandfathers were arrested and sent to gulags.
3. Gorbachev was a firm believer in the Soviet ideal
As a student, Gorbachev was an active part of the Komsomol Soviet youth organisation, quickly rising to become leader of his local group. His incredible work ethic saw Gorbachev and his father, Sergey, often spending 20 hours a day in the fields during the summer.
So much so, in 1948 they harvested over 80 tonnes of grain, a feat for which Sergey was awarded the Order of Lenin and his son the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. Gorbachev officially became a member of the Communist Party in 1950.
4. As a student he wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo
Gorbachev joined Moscow’s law school in 1950, despite law not being a generally well-regarded topic in the Soviet Union at the time. He gained a reputation for being a mediator during conflict and outspoken in class.
On several occasions, he showed he was unafraid of questioning Soviet authority. He did not agree with the Soviet legal rule that confessions meant guilt, arguing that confessions could be forced.
He also became close friends with Zdeněk Mlynář, a Czechoslovak student who shared his Marxist-Leninist beliefs and concerns about Stalinism. Mlynář later became a leading ideologist of the 1968 Prague Spring.
5. Gorbachev rose steadily through the ranks of the Communist Party
After graduating, Gorbachev returned to his home province of Stavropol to lead the regional Komsomol. He used flattery to gain favour with influential politicians so that by 1970 he had risen to the role of First Secretary of Stavropol, giving him significant power over the region.
From there, it was easy for him to become part of the Moscow political elite. In 1978, Gorbachev was made a Secretary of the Central Committee. The promotion came with a big improvement in his standard of living: Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, now had access to better medical care, shops and even had a cook and servants.
6. He became the leader of the Soviet Union on 11 March 1985
The USSR’s elderly and ailing leader, Konstantin Chernenko, who had often been too ill to attend meetings of the Politburo, died on 10 March. Gorbachev did not expect to be recommended for the role. He was 54 and had already been passed over for the position in February 1984.
Yet Andrei Gromyko, a well-seasoned member of the Politburo carrying sway with the General Committee, suggested Gorbachev as Chernenko’s successor. He was unanimously voted as the Soviet Union’s eighth General Secretary. None of the Soviet leadership expected him to be as radical a reformer as he turned out to be.
7. He drastically reformed the Soviet Union
Gorbachev took a radically new approach to governing than his predecessors, speaking to people on the street and openly confiding in Raisa, who became the unofficial ‘first lady’. But still, Gorbachev knew he needed the support of the Politburo before making any significant changes. Within a year – faster than Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev – he had reshuffled the Soviet leadership, promoting his allies into greater authority.
Gorbachev’s notable policies of glasnost (‘openness’) and perestroika (‘restructuring’) allowed greater freedom of cultural expression and press as well as attempts to democratise by introducing the secret ballot and multi-party elections.
However, these even modest reforms were deeply unpopular with Communist hardliners and bureaucrats, who were unwilling to loosen their grip on the Union’s economy. He even faced a short-lived coup in August 1991.
8. Gorbachev had a good relationship with the United States
As well as his policies of internal reform, Gorbachev sought better relations with the Soviet Union’s Cold War adversary: the United States. In 1987, he signed a treaty with US President Ronald Reagan agreeing that both countries would destroy their remaining intermediate-range nuclear arsenals.
Gorbachev also oversaw the withdrawal of Soviet troops from occupied Afghanistan between 1988 and 1989. The Soviets had invaded in 1979 to secure Afghanistan’s alignment with them in the Cold War against the United States-backed mujahideen.
By the late 1980s, the Soviet army faced some 15,000 dead and had failed to put into place a sympathetic regime. They had little reason to remain in Afghanistan except to prevent loss of face on the international stage.
9. He was instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union
Alongside instituting a radical new programme of cultural, electoral and diplomatic reform, Gorbachev openly supported the reforms of countries in the Soviet Eastern European bloc. Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia all democratically elected non-communist governments between 1989 and 1990, and Gorbachev agreed to a phased withdrawal of Soviet troops from each country.
By the summer of 1990, Gorbachev had even agreed to the reunification of East and West Germany, tearing down the ‘Iron Curtain’ which had divided the globe during the Cold War.
10. He ran for President of Russia
In 1996, Gorbachev ran for the presidency of Russia. He only got 1% of the vote. Nonetheless, he has since remained a notable public figure in Russia as a member of several think tanks and co-owner of independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.