Gorbachev, Mikhail [Горбачёв, Михаил; Gorbač'ov, Mixail], b 2 March 1931 in Privolnoe, Stavropol krai, RSFSR. Soviet Communist Party official, last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and first, last, and only President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Having graduated from the faculty of law at Moscow University in 1955, he also completed studies by correspondence at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute in 1967. Before entering university he worked as a farmhand on a machine-tractor station in his home region, where as a mere teenager he earned the prestigious Red Banner of Labor. At university, he joined the CPSU in 1952 and also served as a Komsomol organizer (1952–4). Returning to Stavropol, he became a Komsomol official there, rising to first secretary of the Stavropol krai committee of the Komsomol. In 1962, he began work as a Communist Party official, eventually becoming first secretary of the Stavropol krai committee of the CPSU (1970–8) and simultaneously a member of the Central Committee (CC) of the CPSU in Moscow.
In 1978 Gorbachev was transferred to Moscow, where he served until 1983 as CC secretary responsible for agriculture, replacing his mentor, the late Fedor Kulakov. With the sponsorship of his long-time patrons there, Mikhail Suslov and Yurii Andropov, he was made a candidate member of the CC CPSU Politburo in 1979 and a full member of that top policy-making body a year later. During 1983–5, his responsibilities as secretary were broadened as he undertook the workload first of the aging and ailing Andropov (d 9 February 1984) and then of Konstantin Chernenko. On the latter’s death on 10 March 1985, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CPSU, the youngest person ever to accede to that post. Notably absent from the critical Politburo meeting at the time was the conservative First Secretary of Ukraine, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, later removed from his post by Gorbachev.
From then until 1991, Gorbachev launched a series of political reforms of the Soviet system under the rubric of perestroika (rebuilding or remodeling; known in Ukrainian as perebudova). By his dynamism and political maneuvering he was able to introduce into the USSR semi-competitive elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies (CPD) in 1989, freedom of expression and association, and free elections in the Union republics in 1990. In March 1990 he had himself elected President of the USSR by the CPD in a move to shore up his power, which was already beginning to dissipate as the principle of democracy introduced by him took effect in the Soviet political system. Despite their improvised, halfhearted and erratic nature, these liberalization measures acquired a momentum of their own, leading to the delegitimization of the CPSU and its monopoly of power, the disintegration of the USSR, and the launching of transitions to democracy in Russia, the Baltic states, and Ukraine.
Gorbachev was, however, a lifetime opponent of national self-determination (rejecting it as an option for Ukraine, which he regarded as part of Russia) as well as an adherent of the permanence of the ‘socialist choice’ made by the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917. He therefore failed either to apprehend or to control the wave of nationalism launched by his democratizing reforms. On 17 March 1991, he held a referendum on the question of the preservation of a renewed USSR, the result of which he read as giving support to his intent to maintain the USSR’s integrity. But six Union republics ignored the referendum altogether, and others, including Ukraine, added their own question on sovereignty. In Ukraine, 70 per cent of voters agreed with Gorbachev’s ‘renewed federation’; 80 per cent, with the idea of a sovereign Ukraine within a Union of Soviet Sovereign States (no longer ‘Socialist’).
Immediately thereafter, nevertheless, armed with the referendum results, he was impelled by the growing power of the presidents of the Union republics to renegotiate with them the terms of a new Union treaty (replacing that of 30 December 1922). The treaty, which had gone through several drafts and contained provisions for a greatly decentralized, but more truly federal, territorial organization, was due to be signed in Moscow on 19 August 1991. However, this action was aborted by a coup against Gorbachev staged by his own subordinates and appointees specifically to prevent the treaty’s signing and to forestall their feared dissolution of the Union. Gorbachev was deposed and placed under house arrest in Foros, Crimea, but released when the coup itself collapsed after three days. By then, however, his authority had evaporated because of his association with the coup plotters and his failure to dissociate himself from the deeply compromised Communist Party (even though he had resigned as CPSU General Secretary at the end of August). After the 1 December referendum in Ukraine had approved of independence and the foundations for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had been laid a week later near Minsk in Belarus by Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk, and Stanislau Shushkevich, it became obvious that a union without Ukraine was impossible. On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as President of the USSR. In retirement, he headed a foundation dedicated to promoting democracy and the rule of law in Russia, generally played the role of elder statesman, and was an advocate for global environmentalism. In 1996 he ran as a candidate in the Russian presidential election and gained 0.5 per cent of the vote, indicative of his abysmal popularity at home as compared to the West.
Gorbachev himself is of Ukrainian ancestry. His wife, Raisa Titarenko (b 1932 in Rubtsovsk, Siberia, d 20 September 1999 in Münster, Germany), whom he married in 1953, was also of Ukrainian origin.
Brown, A. The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford 1996)
White, S. Gorbachev and After. (Cambridge 1991)
[This article was written in 2002.]