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Prominent Russians: Mikhail Gorbachev

Born March 2, 1931

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The man who brought the ideas of Glasnost and Perestroika to the Soviet Union and the only President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to beat widespread alcoholism in the country and breathe new life into the staggering Soviet economy. Some call him a legendary reformist, others say he’s enemy number one, responsible for the collapse of a Superpower… This is Mikhail Gorbachev.

Road to power

Born into a peasant family in the Stavropol Region, it’s highly unlikely anyone expected Mikhail Gorbachev would become the last leader of the Soviet Union, when in his teens he operated combine harvesters on collective farms. But life changed dramatically when Mikhail managed to get into Moscow State University, graduating with a degree in law in 1955. It was during his student years that Gorbachev joined the Communist Party, taking on a political career. Within a few years he managed to quickly work his way up through the Party, becoming the Head of the Department of Party Organs in his home region in 1963. Seven years later came another achievement – Gorbachev was appointed the First Party Secretary of the region, becoming one of the youngest provincial Party chiefs in the country. After several new appointments, in 1980 Gorbachev became the youngest member of the Politburo – the highest authority in the Soviet Union.

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During Yury Andropov’s leadership of the USSR (1982-1984) Mikhail Gorbachev became one of Politburo’s most visible and active members. Responsible for personnel, together with Andropov they managed to replace around 20 percent of government ministers, often with younger men. Gorbachev’s job gave him a unique opportunity to travel abroad, which was impossible for most. It’s thought that these trips, especially to Western countries, were responsible for the political views he developed and later put into reality as the leader of the country. After Andropov’s death in 1982, aged Konstantin Chernenko took power but soon died, making it clear – it was time for a younger leader. Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Politburo in 1985, only three hours after Chernenko’s death.


After coming to power, Mikhail Gorbachev announced his main goal was to revive the Soviet economy, which was stalled. He called for urgent reorganization and modernization, but soon realized that without reforming the political and social structure of the whole nation, reaching this goal would be impossible.

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The anti-alcohol campaign in 1985 was among the first reforms Gorbachev introduced. It was designed to fight widespread alcoholism in the USSR by raising prices for vodka, wine and beer. However, the ambitious plan served as a huge blow to the economy, cutting both alcohol sales and government revenues.

The “Perestroika” policy was announced in 1986 and was another attempt to reorganize the economy. For the first time in Soviet history, the word “Glasnost” was spelled out to the nation. Gorbachev wanted to bring freedom to the people, ease the Party’s control over the media and release thousands of political prisoners. This was a radical change since control of speech and suppression of any government criticism had previously been the foundation of the Soviet regime.

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In 1988 the Law on Cooperatives became among the most radical economic reforms Gorbachev started. For the first time since Vladimir Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” in the 1920s, the bill permitted private business in the country. As a result, private restaurants, shops and other businesses were introduced to the Soviet public, while several major “All-Union” companies fell into restructuring. Air giant Aeroflot was split up, eventually becoming several independent airlines that were encouraged to seek foreign investment.

In his strive to reduce the Party’s control over the government, Gorbachev proposed a change to a presidential system and created a new political body known as the Congress of People’s Deputies which was formed in the Soviet Union’s first free democratic election. On 15 March 1990, following another vote, Mikhail Gorbachev became President of the USSR.

For details on the Peresroika policy check RT's documentary .

First Lady

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Mikhail Gorbachev was an innovator not only in the policies he put forward but also in the image he projected of himself to the world. And this is largely because of his wife Raisa Gorbacheva. Accompanying her husband on all trips, holding his hand in public, wearing fashionable dresses - Raisa Maksimovna truly became the Soviet Union's first First Lady. She even replaced Valentina Tereshkova, the legendary Soviet female cosmonaut, in what used to be her privileged duty - to meet foreign delegations. In 1987 Raisa was named "Woman of the Year" by British magazine "Woman's Own" and presented the "Women for Peace" prize from the "Together for Peace" foundation. The First Lady dedicated much of her time to culture. She was one of the founders of the "Soviet Culture Fund," which reportedly accumulated more than one hundred million dollars from 1986 to 1991 that was used to restore Orthodox Christian Cathedrals, regain Russian art and cultural heritage taken abroad during the Communist Revolution, support dozens of museums and much more. Tragically, in 1999 Raisa Maksimovna was diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors said one of the possible reasons for her getting ill was the radiation Raisa received when she visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after the disaster in 1986. For several months some of the best oncologists in Europe fought for her life in Germany but their efforts were hopeless. On 20 September 1999 Raisa Maksimovna Gorbacheva passed away.

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Mr. Gorbachev

Gorbachev was hailed in the West for his “new thinking.” After sacking Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko, also known as “Mr. Nyet” (Mr. No), who’d served for 28 years in the post, Gorbachev managed to cool the tensions of the Cold War. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said: “I like Mr. Gorbachev, we can do business together.” With the end of the Cold War, “Mr. Gorbachev” was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold in 1989 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

The dark side

Despite Gorbachev’s positive initiatives for freedom and democracy, his economic policies ended up bringing the USSR even closer to its collapse. By the end of Perestroika, the country began experiencing severe shortages of food supplies, forcing him to reintroduce a wartime food card system. Compared to 1985 the Soviet Union’s gold funds decreased from 2000 to 200 tons and foreign dept grew from zero to 120 billion dollars. Furthermore, the relaxation of censorship led to the rise of nationalist and anti-Russian feelings in Soviet Republics, especially in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan. At the same time, all meetings of the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies were shown on TV, airing criticism of Gorbachev’s policies.

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The collapse

By the end of Perestroika more Soviet republics wanted to quit the Union, spurring violent protests in the Baltics and several Central Asian republics. Gorbachev wanted to preserve the country by all means and drew up plans of a new treaty that would have created a truly voluntary federation. It was strongly supported in Central Asia, but more radical reformists demanded a faster transition to the market economy and seemed more than happy to dissolve the Union if it was required. One of these critics was Boris Yeltsin, who was elected President of the Russian Federation (not the USSR) in June 1991. However, some hard-line Soviet minds still remained highly influential in the military and were completely opposed to anything that had to do with the break-up of the USSR.

In August 1991 on the eve of the signing of the new treaty, they formed the so-called “State Emergency Committee” and launched a coup trying to remove Gorbachev from power and prevent the signing. Gorbachev spent three days under house arrest at his government “dacha” in the Crimea. However, when he was released the only President of the USSR found himself powerless, since all public support had swung over to Boris Yeltsin, who managed to suppress the coup and continue the course towards further democratization.

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By mid-September 14 Soviet republics voiced their will to leave the Union. Yeltsin ordered the Communist Party to suspend its activities. The Russian flag, taken from pre-communist times, was raised beside the Soviet flag at the Kremlin. Gorbachev had no choice but to resign as General Secretary of the Party and his hopes for containing the Union were completely shattered when the Congress of People’s Deputies dissolved itself. On 8 December the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus founded the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leaving Gorbachev with no choice but to agree with Yeltsin to dissolve the Soviet Union. On 25 December 1991, in a live TV address to the nation, Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down from power. In his farewell speech, the outgoing President warned of the consequences of the nation stopping to act like citizens of a “great power,” but at the same time stressed he had “faith in the people, their wisdom and strong spirit” to build a better future. On the day after the speech, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

After politics

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After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev remained active in Russian politics. He ran for President in 1996 and later established the Social Democratic Party of Russia. He stepped down as its leader in 2004 allegedly over a disagreement with its chairman. That same year Gorbachev founded a new party – the Union of Social Democrats.

Gorbachev has also taken part in various media events, including appearing with his granddaughter Anastasia in an internationally screened TV commercial for Pizza Hut in 1997. Three years ago French Brand Louis Vuitton also announced its plans to include him in an ad campaign.

Gorbachev founded the Gorbachev Foundation in 1992 and Green Cross International – one of the three major sponsors of the Earth Charter. In 2004 the only President of the USSR, along with Bill Clinton and Sophia Loren, was awarded a Grammy Award for the Best Spoken Word Album for Children for their version of the Peter and the Wolf fairytale. Last June Gorbachev announced he had recorded an album of old Russian romantic ballads to raise money for a charity, dedicated to his wife.

Recently Mikhail Gorbachev has been calling for another Perestroika, this time, around the world and beginning with the United States. He says the global economic crisis has shown that the Washington-oriented economic model has failed and will be replaced sooner or later.

Written by Egor Piskunov, RT

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