Overview of life
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev ( born 2 March 1931), is a former Soviet statesman, having served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, and as the first (and last) president of the Soviet Union from 1988 until its dissolution in 1991. He was the only general secretary in the history of the Soviet Union to have been born during the Communist rule.
Gorbachev was born in Stavropol Krai into a peasant Ukrainian Russian family, and in his teens operated combine harvesters on collective farms. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1955 with a degree in law. While he was at the university, he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and soon became very active within it. In 1970, he was appointed the First Party Secretary of the Stavropol Kraikom, First Secretary to the Supreme Soviet in 1974, and appointed a member of the Politburo in 1979. Within three years of the deaths of Soviet Leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary by the Politburo in 1985. Before he reached the post, he had occasionally been mentioned in western newspapers as a likely next leader and a man of the younger generation at the top level.
Gorbachev’s attempts at reform as well as summit conferences with United States President Ronald Reagan and his reorientation of Soviet strategic aims contributed to the end of the Cold War, ended the political supremacy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in 1989, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 and the Harvey Prize in 1992 as well as Honorary Doctorates from University of Calgary in 1993, Durham University in 1995, Trinity College in 2002 and University of Manster in 2005, and Eureka College in 2009.
In September 2008, Gorbachev and business oligarch Alexander Lebedev announced they would form the Independent Democratic Party of Russia, and in May 2009 Gorbachev announced that the launch was imminent. This was Gorbachev’s third attempt to establish a political party, having started the Social Democratic Party of Russia in 2001 and the Union of Social Democrats in 2007.
Early and personal life
Gorbachev was born on 2 March 1931 in Stavropol, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union, into a mixed Russian-Ukrainian family of migrants from Voronezh and Chernigov Governorates. As a child, Gorbachev experienced the Soviet famine of 1932-1933. Gorbachev recalled in a memoir that “In that terrible year nearly half the population of my native village, Privolnoye, starved to death, including two sisters and one brother of my father.” Both of his grandfathers were arrested on false charges in the 1930s; his paternal grandfather was sent to exile in Siberia.
His father was a combine harvester operator and World War II veteran, named Sergey Andreyevich Gorbachev. His mother, Maria Panteleyevna Gorbacheva (ne Gopkalo), was a kolkhoz worker. In his teens, he operated combine harvesters on collective farms. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1955 with a degree in law. In 1967 he qualified as an agricultural economist via a correspondence masters degree at the Stavropol Institute of Agriculture. While at the university, he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and soon became very active within the party.
Gorbachev met his future wife, Raisa Titarenko, at Moscow State University. They married in September 1953 and moved to Stavropol upon graduation. She gave birth to their only child, daughter Irina Mikhailovna Virganskaya, in 1957. Raisa Gorbacheva died of leukemia in 1999. Gorbachev has two granddaughters (Ksenia and Anastasia) and one great granddaughter (Aleksandra).
Rise in the Communist Party
Gorbachev attended the important twenty-second Party Congress in October 1961, where Nikita Khrushchev announced a plan to surpass the U.S. in per capita production within twenty years. At this point in his life, Gorbachev would rise in the Communist League hierarchy and worked his way up through territorial leagues of the party. He was promoted to Head of the Department of Party Organs in the Stavropol Agricultural Kraikom in 1963.
In 1970, he was appointed First Party Secretary of the Stavropol Kraikom, a body of the CPSU, becoming one of the youngest provincial party chiefs in the nation. In this position he helped reorganise the collective farms, improve workers’ living conditions, expand the size of their private plots, and gave them a greater voice in planning.
He was soon made a member of the Communist Party Central Committee in 1971. Three years later, in 1974, he was made a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union and Chairman of the Standing Commission on Youth Affairs. He was subsequently appointed to the Central Committee’s Secretariat for Agriculture in 1978, replacing Fyodor Kulakov, who had supported Gorbachev’s appointment, after Kulakov died of a heart attack. In 1979, Gorbachev was promoted to the Politburo, the highest authority in the country, and received full membership in 1980. Gorbachev owed his steady rise to power to the patronage of Mikhail Suslov, the powerful chief ideologist of the CPSU.
During Yuri Andropov’s tenure as General Secretary (1982-1984), Gorbachev became one of the Politburo’s most visible and active members. With responsibility over personnel, working together with Andropov, 20 percent of the top echelon of government ministers and regional governors were replaced, often with younger men. During this time Grigory Romanov, Nikolai Ryzhkov, and Yegor Ligachev were elevated, the latter two working closely with Gorbachev, Ryzhkov on economics, Ligachev on personnel.
Gorbachev’s positions within the CPSU created more opportunities to travel abroad, and this would profoundly affect his political and social views in the future as leader of the country. In 1972, he headed a Soviet delegation to Belgium, and three years later he led a delegation to West Germany; in 1983 he headed a delegation to Canada to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and members of the Commons and Senate. In 1984, he travelled to the United Kingdom, where he met British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Upon Andropov’s death in 1984, the aged Konstantin Chernenko took power; after his death the following year, it became clear to the party hierarchy that younger leadership was needed. Gorbachev was elected General Secretary by the Politburo on 11 March 1985, only three hours after Chernenko’s death. Upon his accession at age 54, he was the youngest member of the Politburo.
General Secretary of the CPSU
Mikhail Gorbachev was the Party’s first leader to have been born after the Revolution. As de facto ruler of the USSR, he tried to reform the stagnating Party and the state economy by introducing glasnost (“openness”), perestroika (“restructuring”), demokratizatsiya (“democratization”), and uskoreniye (“acceleration” of economic development), which were launched at the 27th Congress of the CPSU in February 1986.
Gorbachev’s primary goal as General Secretary was to revive the Soviet economy after the stagnant Brezhnev years. In 1985, he announced that the Soviet economy was stalled and that reorganization was needed. Gorbachev proposed a “vague programme of reform”, which was adopted at the April Plenum of the Central Committee. He called for fast-paced technological modernization and increased industrial and agricultural productivity, and he attempted to reform the Soviet bureaucracy to be more efficient and prosperous.
Gorbachev soon realized that fixing the Soviet economy would be nearly impossible without reforming the political and social structure of the Communist nation. Gorbachev also initiated the concept of gospriyomka (state acceptance of production) during his time as leader, which represented state approval of goods in an effort to maintain quality control and combat inferior manufacturing.
He made a speech in May 1985 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) advocating widespread reforms. The reforms began in personnel changes; the most notable change was the replacement of Andrei Gromyko as Minister of Foreign Affairs with Eduard Shevardnadze. Gromyko, disparaged as “Mr Nyet” in the West, had served for 28 years as Minister of Foreign Affairs and was considered an ‘old thinker’. Robert D. English notes that, despite Shevardnadze’s diplomatic inexperience, Gorbachev “shared with him an outlook” and experience in managing an agricultural region of the Soviet Union (Georgia), which meant that both had weak links to the powerful military-industrial complex.
A number of reformist ideas were discussed by Politburo members. One of the first reforms Gorbachev introduced was the anti-alcohol campaign, begun in May 1985, which was designed to fight widespread alcoholism in the Soviet Union. Prices of vodka, wine, and beer were raised, and their sales were restricted. It was pursued vigorously and cut both alcohol sales and government revenue. It was a serious blow to the state budgeta loss of approximately 100 billion rubles according to Alexander Yakovlev after alcohol production migrated to the black market economy. The program proved to be a useful symbol for change in the country, however.
The purpose of reform, however, was to prop up the centrally planned economy, not transition to market socialism. Speaking in late summer 1985 to the secretaries for economic affairs of the central committees of the East European communist parties, Gorbachev said: “Many of you see the solution to your problems in resorting to market mechanisms in place of direct planning. Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But, comrades, you should not think about lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism.”
Gorbachev initiated his new policy of perestroika (literally ‘restructuring’) and its attendant radical reforms in 1986; they were sketched, but not fully spelled out, at the XXVIIth Party Congress in February March 1986. The new policy of “reconstruction” was introduced in an attempt to overcome the economic stagnation by creating a dependable and effective mechanism for accelerating economic and social progress.
According to Gorbachev, perestroika was the “conference of development of democracy, socialist self-government, encouragement of initiative and creative endeavor, improved order and disciple, more glasnost, criticism and self-criticism in all spheres of our society. It is utmost respect for the individual and consideration for personal dignity.”
Domestic changes continued apace. In a bombshell speech during Armenian SSR’s Central Committee Plenum of the Communist Party, the young First Secretary of Armenia’s Hrazdan Regional Communist Party, Hayk Kotanjian, criticised rampant corruption in the Armenian Communist Party’s highest echelons, implicating Armenian SSR Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchyan and calling for his resignation. Symbolically, intellectual Andrei Sakharov was invited to return to Moscow by Gorbachev in December 1986 after six years of internal exile in Gorky. During the same month, however, signs of the nationalities problem that would haunt the later years of the Soviet Union surfaced as riots, named Jeltoqsan, occurred in Kazakhstan after Dinmukhamed Kunayev was replaced as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan.
The Central Committee Plenum in January 1987 would see the crystallisation of Gorbachev’s political reforms, including proposals for multi-candidate elections and the appointment of non-Party members to government positions. He also first raised the idea of expanding co-operatives at the plenum. Economic reforms took up much of the rest of 1987, as a new law giving enterprises more independence was passed in June and Gorbachev released a book, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, in November, elucidating his main ideas for reform. In 1987 he rehabilitated many opponents of Joseph Stalin, another part of the De-Stalinization, which began in 1956, when Lenin’s Testament was published.
1988 would see Gorbachev’s introduction of glasnost, which gave new freedoms to the Soviet people, including greater freedom of speech. This was a radical change, as control of speech and suppression of government criticism had previously been a central part of the Soviet system. The press became far less controlled, and thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were released. Gorbachev’s goal in undertaking glasnost was to pressure conservatives within the CPSU who opposed his policies of economic restructuring, and he also hoped that through different ranges of openness, debate and participation, the Soviet people would support his reform initiatives. At the same time, he opened himself and his reforms up for more public criticism, evident in Nina Andreyeva’s critical letter in a March edition of Sovetskaya Rossiya. Gorbachev acknowledged that his liberalising policies of glasnost and perestroika owed a great deal to Alexander Dubcek’s “Socialism with a human face”.
The Law on Cooperatives enacted in May 1988 was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms during the early part of the Gorbachev era. For the first time since Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the service, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. The law initially imposed high taxes and employment restrictions, although these were ignored by some SSRs. Later the restrictions were revised to avoid discouraging private-sector activity. Under the provision for private ownership, cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers became part of the Soviet scene. Under the new law, the restructuring of large ‘All-Union’ industrial organisations also began. Aeroflot was split up, eventually becoming several independent airlines. These newly autonomous business organisations were encouraged to seek foreign investment.
In June 1988, at the CPSU’s Party Conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms meant to reduce party control of the government apparatus. He proposed a new executive in the form of a presidential system, as well as a new legislative element, to be called the Congress of People’s Deputies. Elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies were held throughout the Soviet Union in March and April 1989. This was the first free election in the Soviet Union since 1917. Gorbachev became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (or head of state) on 25 May 1989.
Presidency of the USSR
On 15 March 1990, Gorbachev was elected as the first executive President of the Soviet Union with 59% of the Deputies’ votes being an unopposed candidate. The Congress met for the first time on 25 May in order to elect representatives from Congress to sit on the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the Congress posed problems for Gorbachev; its sessions were televised, airing more criticism and encouraging people to expect ever more rapid reform. In the elections, many Party candidates were defeated. Furthermore, Boris Yeltsin was elected in Moscow and returned to political prominence to become an increasingly vocal critic of Gorbachev.
In contrast to his controversial domestic reforms, Gorbachev was largely hailed in the West for his ‘New Thinking’ in foreign affairs. During his tenure, he sought to improve relations and trade with the West by reducing Cold War tensions. He established close relationships with several Western leaders, such as West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who famously remarked: “I like Mr. Gorbachev; we can do business together.”
Gorbachev understood the link between achieving international dtente and domestic reform and thus began extending ‘New Thinking’ abroad immediately. On 8 April 1985, he announced the suspension of the deployment of SS-20s in Europe as a move towards resolving intermediate-range nuclear weapons (INF) issues. Later that year, in September, Gorbachev proposed that the Soviets and Americans both cut their nuclear arsenals in half. He went to France on his first trip abroad as Soviet leader in October. November saw the Geneva Summit between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Though no concrete agreement was made, Gorbachev and Reagan struck a personal relationship and decided to hold further meetings.
January 1986 would see Gorbachev make his boldest international move so far, when he announced his proposal for the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe and his strategy for eliminating all nuclear weapons by the year 2000 (often referred to as the ‘January Proposal’). He also began the process of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Mongolia on 28 July. Nonetheless, many observers, such as Jack F. Matlock Jr. (despite generally praising Gorbachev as well as Reagan), have criticized Gorbachev for taking too long to achieve withdrawal from the Afghanistan War, citing it as an example of lingering elements of ‘old thinking’ in Gorbachev. Others, such as Heritage Foundation foreign policy analyst Michael Johns, criticized Gorbachev’s military support for the Ethiopian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which Johns argued was a contributing factor to Ethiopia’s mass famine.
On 11 October 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavk, Iceland at Hfi to discuss reducing intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. To the immense surprise of both men’s advisers, the two agreed in principle to removing INF systems from Europe and to equal global limits of 100 INF missile warheads. They also essentially agreed in principle to eliminate all nuclear weapons in 10 years (by 1996), instead of by the year 2000 as in Gorbachev’s original outline. Continuing trust issues, particularly over reciprocity and Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), meant that the summit is often regarded as a failure for not producing a concrete agreement immediately, or for leading to a staged elimination of nuclear weapons. In the long term, nevertheless, this would culminate in the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987, after Gorbachev had proposed this elimination on 22 July 1987 (and it was subsequently agreed on in Geneva on 24 November).
In February 1988, Gorbachev announced the full withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. The withdrawal was completed the following year, although the civil war continued as the Mujahedin pushed to overthrow the pro-Soviet Najibullah government. An estimated 28,000 Soviets were killed between 1979 and 1989 as a result of the Afghanistan War.
Also during 1988, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine, and allow the Eastern bloc nations to freely determine their own internal affairs. Jokingly dubbed the “Sinatra Doctrine” by Gorbachev’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov, this policy of non-intervention in the affairs of the other Warsaw Pact states proved to be the most momentous of Gorbachev’s foreign policy reforms. In his 6 July 1989 speech arguing for a “common European home” before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, Gorbachev declared: “The social and political order in some countries changed in the past, and it can change in the future too, but this is entirely a matter for each people to decide. Any interference in the internal affairs, or any attempt to limit the sovereignty of another state, friend, ally, or another, would be inadmissible.” A month earlier, on 4 June 1989, elections had taken place in Poland and the communist government had already been deposed.
Moscow’s abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine allowed the rise of popular upheavals in Eastern Europe throughout 1989, in which Communism was overthrown. By the end of 1989, revolts had spread from one Eastern European capital to another, ousting the regimes built in Eastern Europe after World War II. With the exception of Romania, the popular upheavals against the pro-Soviet Communist regimes were all peaceful ones (see Revolutions of 1989). The loosening of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe effectively ended the Cold War, and for this, Gorbachev was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold in 1989 and the Nobel Peace Prize on 15 October 1990.
The rest of 1989 was taken up by the increasingly problematic nationalities question and the dramatic fragmentation of the Eastern Bloc. Despite international dtente reaching unprecedented levels, with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan completed in January and U.S.-Soviet talks continuing between Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush, domestic reforms were suffering from increasing divergence between reformists, who criticised the pace of change, and conservatives, who criticized the extent of change. Gorbachev states that he tried to find the middle ground between both groups, but this would draw more criticism towards him. The story from this point on moves away from reforms and becomes one of the nationalities question and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.
On 9 November, people in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany/GDR) were suddenly allowed to cross through the Berlin Wall into West Berlin, following a peaceful protest against the country’s dictatorial administration, including a demonstration by some one million people in East Berlin on 4 November. Unlike earlier riots which were ended by military force with the help of USSR, Gorbachev, who came to be lovingly called “Gorby” in West Germany, now decided not to interfere with the process in Germany. He stated that German reunification was an internal German matter.
Coit D. Blacker wrote in 1990 that the Soviet leadership “appeared to have believed that whatever loss of authority the Soviet Union might suffer in Eastern Europe would be more than offset by a net increase in its influence in Western Europe.” Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Gorbachev ever intended for the complete dismantling of Communism in the Warsaw Pact countries. Rather, he assumed that the Communist parties of Eastern Europe could be reformed in a similar way to the reforms he hoped to achieve in the CPSU. Just as perestroika was aimed at making the USSR more efficient economically and politically, Gorbachev believed that the Comecon and Warsaw Pact could be reformed into more effective entities. Alexander Yakovlev, a close advisor to Gorbachev, would later state that it would have been “absurd to keep the system” in Eastern Europe. In contrast to Gorbachev, Yakovlev had come to the conclusion that the Soviet-dominated Comecon was inherently unworkable and that the Warsaw Pact had “no relevance to real life.”
Dissolution of the Soviet Union
While Gorbachev’s political initiatives were positive for freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies, the economic policy of his government gradually brought the country close to disaster. By the end of the 1980s, severe shortages of basic food supplies (meat, sugar) led to the reintroduction of the war-time system of distribution using food cards that limited each citizen to a certain amount of product per month. Compared to 1985, the state deficit grew from 0 to 109 billion rubles; gold funds decreased from 2,000 to 200 tons; and external debt grew from 0 to 120 billion dollars.
Furthermore, the democratisation of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had irreparably undermined the power of the CPSU and Gorbachev himself. The relaxation of censorship and attempts to create more political openness had the unintended effect of re-awakening long-suppressed nationalist and anti-Russian feelings in the Soviet republics. Calls for greater independence from Moscow’s rule grew louder, especially in the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In December 1986, the first signs of the nationalities problem that would haunt the later years of the Soviet Union’s existence surfaced as riots, named Jeltoqsan, occurred in Alma Ata and other areas of Kazakhstan after Dinmukhamed Kunayev was replaced as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Nationalism would then surface in Russia in May 1987, as 600 members of Pamyat, a nascent Russian nationalist group, demonstrated in Moscow and were becoming increasingly linked to Boris Yeltsin, who received their representatives at a meeting.
Glasnost hastened awareness of the national sovereignty problem. The free flow of information had been so completely suppressed for so long in the Soviet Union that many of the ruling class had all but forgotten that the Soviet Union was an empire conquered through military force and consolidated by the persecution of millions of people, and not a union voluntarily entered into by local populations. Thus, the extremity of local desire for independent control of their own affairs took these leaders by surprise, and the leaders were unprepared for the depth of the long pent-up feelings that were released.
Violence erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh an Armenian-populated enclave of Azerbaijan between February and April, when Armenians living in the area began a new wave of demands to transfer of NKAO from Azerbaijan to Armenia which eventually led to full scale Nagorno-Karabakh War. Gorbachev imposed a temporary solution, but it did not last, as fresh trouble arose in Nagorno-Karabakh between June and July. Turmoil would once again return in late 1988, this time in Armenia itself, when the Leninakan Earthquake hit the region on 7 December. Poor local infrastructure magnified the hazard and some 25,000 people died. Gorbachev was forced to break off his trip to the U.S. and cancel planned travels to Cuba and Britain.
In March and April 1989 elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies took place throughout the Soviet Union. This returned many pro-independence republicans, as many CPSU candidates were rejected. The televised Congress debates allowed the dissemination of pro-independence propositions. Indeed, 1989 would see numerous nationalistic protests; for example, beginning with the Baltic republics in January, laws were passed in most non-Russian republics giving precedence for the local language over Russian.
9 April would see the crackdown of nationalist demonstrations by Soviet troops in Tbilisi. There would be further bloody protests in Uzbekistan in June, where Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks clashed in Fergana. Apart from this violence, three major events that altered the face of the nationalities issue occurred in 1989. Estonia had declared its sovereignty on 16 November 1988, to be followed by Lithuania in May 1989 and by Latvia in July (the Communist Party of Lithuania would also declare its independence from the CPSU in December). This brought the Union and the republics into clear confrontation and would form a precedent for other republics.
Around the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in July 1989, the Soviet government formally acknowledged that the plan had included the inclusion of the Baltic states into the Soviet sphere of influence, which preceded and paved the way for their annexation into the USSR in 1940. The revelation supported the long-denied proposition that the Baltic states had been involuntarily brought into the Soviet Union and substantially boosted the Baltic aspirations to re-establish their independence. Finally, the Eastern bloc fragmented in the autumn of 1989, raising hopes that Gorbachev would extend his non-interventionist doctrine to the internal workings of the USSR.
Crisis of the Union: 1990-1991
1990 began with nationalist turmoil in January. Azerbaijanis rioted and troops were sent in to restore order; many Moldovans demonstrated in favour of unification with post-Communist Romania; and Lithuanian demonstrations continued. The same month, in a hugely significant move, Armenia asserted its right to veto laws coming from the All-Union level, thus intensifying the ‘war of laws’ between republics and Moscow.
Soon after, the CPSU, which had already lost much of its control, began to lose even more power as Gorbachev deepened political reform. The February Central Committee Plenum advocated multi-party elections; local elections held between February and March returned a large number of pro-independence candidates. The Congress of People’s Deputies then amended the Soviet Constitution in March, removing Article 6, which guaranteed the monopoly of the CPSU. The process of political reform was therefore coming from above and below, and was gaining a momentum that would augment republican nationalism. Soon after the constitutional amendment, Lithuania declared independence and elected Vytautas Landsbergis as Chairman of the Supreme Council (head of state).
On 15 March, Gorbachev himself was elected as the only President of the Soviet Union by the Congress of People’s Deputies and chose a Presidential Council of 15 politicians. Gorbachev was essentially creating his own political support base independent of CPSU conservatives and radical reformers. The new Executive was designed to be a powerful position to guide the spiraling reform process, and the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union and Congress of People’s Deputies had already given Gorbachev increasingly presidential powers in February. This would be again a source of criticism from reformers. Despite the apparent increase in Gorbachev’s power, he was unable to stop the process of nationalistic assertion. Further embarrassing facts about Soviet history were revealed in April, when the government admitted that the NKVD had carried out the infamous Katyn Massacre of Polish army officers during World War II; previously, the USSR had blamed Nazi Germany. More significantly for Gorbachev’s position, Boris Yeltsin was reaching a new level of prominence, as he was elected Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR in May, effectively making him the de jure leader of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Problems for Gorbachev would once more come from the Russian parliament in June, when it declared the precedence of Russian laws over All-Union level legislation.
Gorbachev’s personal position continued changing. At the 28th CPSU Congress in July, Gorbachev was re-elected General Secretary but this position was now completely independent of Soviet government, and the Politburo had no say in the ruling of the country. Gorbachev further reduced Party power in the same month, when he issued a decree abolishing Party control of all areas of the media and broadcasting. At the same time, Gorbachev was working to consolidate his presidential position, culminating in the Supreme Soviet granting him special powers to rule by decree in September in order to pass a much-needed plan for transition to a market economy. However, the Supreme Soviet could not agree on which program to adopt. Gorbachev pressed on with political reform, his proposal for setting up a new Soviet government, with a Soviet of the Federation consisting of representatives from all 15 republics, was passed through the Supreme Soviet in November. In December, Gorbachev was once more granted increased executive power by the Supreme Soviet, arguing that such moves were necessary to counter “the dark forces of nationalism”. Such moves led to Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation; Gorbachev’s former ally warned of an impending dictatorship. This move was a serious blow to Gorbachev personally and to his efforts for reform.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev was losing further ground to nationalists. October 1990 saw the founding of DemRossiya, the Russian pro-reform coalition; a few days later, both Ukraine and Russia declared their laws completely sovereign over Soviet level laws. The ‘war of laws’ had become an open battle, with the Supreme Soviet refusing to recognise the actions of the two republics. Gorbachev would publish the draft of a new union treaty in November, which envisioned a continued union called the Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics, but, going into 1991, the actions of Gorbachev were steadily being overtaken by the centrifugal secessionist forces.
January and February would see a new level of turmoil in the Baltic republics. On 10 January 1991 Gorbachev issued an ultimatum-like request addressing the Lithuanian Supreme Council demanding the restoration of the validity of the constitution of the Soviet Union in Lithuania and the revoking of all anti-constitutional laws. In his Memoirs, Gorbachev asserts that, on 12 January, he convened the Council of the Federation and political measures to prevent bloodshed were agreed, including sending representatives of the Council of the Federation on a “fact-finding mission” to Vilnius. However, before the delegation arrived, the local branches of the KGB and armed forces had worked together to seize the TV tower in Vilnius; Gorbachev asked the heads of the KGB and military if they had approved such action, and there is no evidence that they, or Gorbachev, ever approved this move. Gorbachev cites documents found in the RSFSR Prokuratura after the August coup, which only mentioned that “some ‘authorities'” had sanctioned the actions.
A book called Alpha the KGB’s Top Secret Unit also suggests that a “KGB operation co-ordinated with the military” was undertaken by the KGB Alpha Group. Archie Brown, in The Gorbachev Factor, uses the memoirs of many people around Gorbachev and in the upper echelons of the Soviet political landscape, to implicate General Valentin Varennikov, a member of the August coup plotters, and General Viktor Achalov, another August coup conspirator. These persons were characterised as individuals “who were prepared to remove Gorbachev from his presidential office unconstitutionally” and “were more than capable of using unauthorised violence against nationalist separatists some months earlier”. Brown criticises Gorbachev for “a conscious tilt in the direction of the conservative forces he was trying to keep within an increasingly fragile coalition” who would later betray him; he also criticises Gorbachev “for his tougher line and heightened rhetoric against the Lithuanians in the days preceding the attack and for his slowness in condemning the killings” but notes that Gorbachev did not approve any action and was seeking political solutions.
As a result of continued violence, at least 14 civilians were killed and more than 600 injured from 11-13 January 1991 in Vilnius, Lithuania. The strong Western reaction and the actions of Russian democratic forces put the president and government of the Soviet Union into an awkward situation, as news of support for Lithuanians from Western democracies started to appear. Further problems surfaced in Riga, Latvia, on 20 and 21 January, where OMON (special Ministry of the Interior) troops killed 4 people. Archie Brown suggests that Gorbachev’s response this time was better, condemning the rogue action, sending his condolences and suggesting that secession could take place if it went through the procedures outlined in the Soviet constitution. According to Gorbachev’s aide, Shakhnazarov (quoted by Archie Brown), Gorbachev was finally beginning to accept the inevitability of “losing” the Baltic republics, although he would try all political means to preserve the Union. Brown believes that this put him in “imminent danger” of being overthrown by hard-liners against the secession.
Gorbachev thus continued to draw up a new treaty of union which would have created a truly voluntary federation in an increasingly democratised Soviet Union. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, who needed the economic power and markets of the Soviet Union to prosper. However, the more radical reformists, such as Russian SFSR President Boris Yeltsin, were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required and were more than happy to contemplate the disintegration of the Soviet Union if that was required to achieve their aims. Nevertheless, a referendum on the future of the Soviet Union was held in March (with a referendum in Russia on the creation of a presidency), which returned an average of 76.4% in the nine republics where it was taken, with a turn-out of 80% of the adult population. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova did not participate. Following this, an April meeting at Novo-Ogarevo between Gorbachev and the heads of the nine republics issued a statement on speeding up the creation of a new Union treaty.
In May, a hardline newspaper published Architect amidst the Ruins, an open letter criticizing Yakovlev (often referred to as the Architect of Perestroika) which was signed by Gennady Zyuganov. Many also saw this publication as the start of a campaign to oust Gorbachev.
Meanwhile, on 12 June 1991 Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Federation by 57.3% of the vote (with a turnout of 74%).
The August 1991 coup
Soviet coup attempt of 1991
In contrast to the reformers’ moderate approach to the new treaty, the hard-line apparatchiks, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were completely opposed to anything which might lead to the break-up of the Soviet Union. On the eve of the treaty’s signing, hardliners in the Soviet leadership, calling themselves the ‘State Emergency Committee’, launched the August coup in 1991 in an attempt to remove Gorbachev from power and prevent the signing of the new union treaty. During this time, Gorbachev spent three days (19, 20 and 21 August) under house arrest at a dacha in the Crimea before being freed and restored to power. However, upon his return, Gorbachev found that neither union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands as support had swung over to Yeltsin, whose defiance had led to the coup’s collapse.
Furthermore, Gorbachev was forced to fire large numbers of his Politburo and, in several cases, arrest them. Those arrested for high treason included the “Gang of Eight” that had led the coup, including Kryuchkov, Yazov, Pavlov and Yanayev. Pugo was found shot; and Akhromeyev, who had offered his assistance but was never implicated, was found hanging in his Kremlin office. Most of these men had been former allies of Gorbachev’s or promoted by him, which drew fresh criticism.
Aftermath of the coup and the final collapse
For all intents and purposes, the coup was the end politically for Gorbachev. On 24 August, Gorbachev advised the Central Committee to dissolve, resigned as General Secretary and disbanded all party units within the government. Shortly afterward, the Supreme Soviet suspended all Party activities on Soviet territory. In effect, Communist rule in the Soviet Union had ended–thus eliminating the only unifying force left in the country.
Gorbachev’s hopes of a new Union were further hit when the Congress of People’s Deputies dissolved itself on 5 September. Though Gorbachev and the representatives of eight republics (excluding Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) signed an agreement on forming a new economic community on 18 October, events were overtaking Gorbachev. The Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed during the fall of 1991, as one republic after another declared independence. By the start of fall, Gorbachev could no longer influence events outside of Moscow, and he was challenged even there by Yeltsin. Following the coup, Yeltsin suspended all CPSU activities on Russian territory and closed the Central Committee building at Staraya Square. He also ordered the Russian flag raised alongside the Soviet flag at the Kremlin. As the fall of 1991 wore on, Russia began taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin.
With the country in a rapid state of deterioration, the final blow to Gorbachev’s vision was effectively dealt by a Ukrainian referendum on 1 December, where the Ukrainian people voted for independence. Ukraine had been the second most powerful republic in the Soviet Union after Russia, and its secession ended any realistic chance of the Soviet Union staying united even on a limited scale. The presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met in Belovezh Forest, near Brest, Belarus, on 8 December, founding the Commonwealth of Independent States and declaring the end of the Soviet Union in the Belavezha Accords. Gorbachev initially denounced this move as illegal. However, on 17 December, he accepted the fait accompli and reluctantly agreed with Yeltsin to dissolve the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned on 25 December and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved the following day. Two days after Gorbachev left office, on 27 December, Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev’s old office.
Gorbachev had aimed to maintain the CPSU as a united party but move it in the direction of social democracy. But when the CPSU was proscribed after the August coup, Gorbachev was left with no effective power base beyond the armed forces. In the aftermath of the coup, his rival Yeltsin quickly worked to consolidate his hold on the Russian government as well as the remants of the Soviet armed forces, paving the way for Gorbachev’s downfall.
Following his resignation and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev remained active in Russian politics. During the early years of the post-Soviet era, he expressed criticism at the reforms carried out by Russian president Boris Yeltsin. When Yeltsin called a referendum for 25 April 1993 in an attempt to achieve even greater powers as president, Gorbachev did not vote and instead called for new presidential elections.
Following a failed run for the presidency in 1996, Gorbachev established the Social Democratic Party of Russia, a union between several Russian social democratic parties. He resigned as party leader in May 2004 following a disagreement with the party’s chairman over the direction taken in the 2003 election campaign. The party was later banned in 2007 by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation due to its failure to establish local offices with at least 500 members in the majority of Russian regions, which is required by Russian law for a political organization to be listed as a party. Later that year, Gorbachev founded a new political party, called the Union of Social-Democrats. In June 2004, Gorbachev represented Russia at the funeral of Ronald Reagan.
Gorbachev has also appeared in numerous media channels since his resignation from office. In 1993, Gorbachev appeared as himself in the Wim Wenders film Faraway, So Close!, the sequel to Wings of Desire. In 1997, Gorbachev appeared with his granddaughter Anastasia in an internationally screened television commercial for Pizza Hut. The U.S. corporation’s payment for the 60-second ad went to Gorbachev’s not-for-profit Gorbachev Foundation. In 2007, French luxury brand Louis Vuitton announced that Gorbachev would be shown in an ad campaign for their signature luggage.
Following Boris Yeltsin’s death on 23 April 2007, Gorbachev released a eulogy for him, stating that Yeltsin was to be commended for assuming the “difficult task of leading the nation into the post-Soviet era”, and “on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors.”
On 16 June 2009, Gorbachev announced that he had recorded an album of old Russian romantic ballads entitled Songs for Raisa to raise money for a charity dedicated to his late wife. On the album, he sings the songs himself accompanied by Russian musician Andrei Makarevich.
Since his resignation, Gorbachev has remained involved in world affairs. He founded the Gorbachev Foundation in 1992, headquartered in San Francisco. He later founded Green Cross International, with which he was one of three major sponsors of the Earth Charter. He also became a member of the Club of Rome and the Club of Madrid, an independent non-profit organization composed of 81 democratic former presidents and Prime Ministers from 57 different countries.
In the decade that followed the Cold War, Gorbachev opposed both the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the U.S.-led Iraq War in 2003. On 27 July 2007, Gorbachev criticized U.S. foreign policy: What has followed are unilateral actions, what has followed are wars, what has followed is ignoring the UN Security Council, ignoring international law and ignoring the will of the people, even the American people, he said. That same year, he visited New Orleans, a city hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina, and promised he would return in 2011 to personally lead a local revolution if the U.S. government had not repaired the levees by that time. He said that revolutionary action should be a last resort.
Concerning the 2008 South Ossetia war, in a 12 August 2008 op-ed essay in The Washington Post, Gorbachev criticized the U.S. support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and for moving to bring the Caucasus into the sphere of its national interest. He later said the following:
Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili…. The decision by the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, to now cease hostilities was the right move by a responsible leader. The Russian president acted calmly, confidently and firmly… The planners of this campaign clearly wanted to make sure that, whatever the outcome, Russia would be blamed for worsening the situation. The West then mounted a propaganda attack against Russia, with the American news media leading the way.”
In September 2008 Gorbachev announced he would make a comeback to Russian politics along with a former KGB officer, Alexander Lebedev. Their party is known as the Independent Democratic Party of Russia. He also is part owner of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
On 20 March 2009, Gorbachev met with United States President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in efforts to “reset” strained relations between Russia and the United States.
On 27 March 2009, Gorbachev visited Eureka College, Illinois, which is the alma mater of former U.S. president Ronald W. Reagan with whom he negotiated historic nuclear arms reduction treaties. Gorbachev toured the Reagan Museum on campus, met with students, and spoke at a convocation in the Reagan Center; he then traveled to the nearby Peoria Civic Center in Peoria, Illinois as the keynote speaker at the combined George Washington/Ronald Reagan Day Dinner where college president Dr. J. David Arnold named him an Honorary Reagan Fellow of Eureka College.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev accompanied former Polish leader Lech Walesa and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a celebration in Berlin on 9 November 2009.
On 7 June 2010, Gorbachev gave an interview before an “almost an annual pilgrimage” to London for a summer gala to raise money for The Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, which funds cancer care for children. The clinic in St. Petersburg can house 80 child patients. From the Interview: “Her death, after several years of ill-health, left Gorbachev bereft. He lives in Moscow, has not remarried and finds solace with his daughter and grand-daughters. He would not be coaxed to talk about Raisa, except fleetingly in the context of the charity. ”
Criticism of Vladimir Putin
Although he has credited Vladimir Putin for stabilizing Russia in the aftermath of the initial and turbulent years of the post-Soviet era, Gorbachev has become critical of both Putin and his successor (and predecessor) Dmitry Medvedev since at least March 2011. His main grievances about the “tandem” are backsliding on democracy, corruption and the dominance of security officers. Gorbachev is also dissatisfied by the fact that he has not been allowed to register his social democratic party.
When being interviewed by the BBC to reflect on the 20th anniversary of the August Coup, Gorbachev again announced his dissatisfaction with the policies and rule of Putin. Speaking of the status of democracy in the Russian Federation, he proclaimed: “The electoral system we had was nothing remarkable but they have literally castrated it.” Gorbachev also stated that he believed that Putin should not have sought a third term as the Russian president in 2012.
In response to the 2011 Russian protests as a result of United Russia’s controversial victory in the Russian legislative election, 2011, he called on the authorities to hold a new election, citing electoral irregularities and ballot box stuffing.
Call for global restructuring
Gorbachev calls for a kind of perestroika or restructuring of societies around the world, starting in particular with that of the United States, because he is of the view that the late-2000s financial crisis shows that the Washington Consensus economic model is a failure that will sooner or later have to be replaced. According to Gorbachev, countries that have rejected the Washington consensus and the International Monetary Fund approach to economic development, such as Brazil and China, have done far better economically on the whole and achieved far more fair results for the average citizen, than countries that have accepted it.
Gorbachev is also a member of the Club de Madrid, a group of more than 80 former leaders of democratic countries, which works to strengthen democratic governance and leadership.
Honours and accolades
Soviet Union and Russia Decorations
- Order of St. Andrew (2011), The highest state decoration of Russia. He was awarded because of his hard work during his USSR leadership.
- Order of Honour (2001)
- Order of Lenin (1971, 1973, 1981)
- Order of October Revolution (1978)
- Order of the Badge of Honour (1966)
- Order of the Red Banner of Labour (1947) He was awarded when he was only 16 and was one of the youngest recipient of the award.
- Medal “For Labour Valour”
- Medal “For Strengthening Military Cooperation”
- Medal “In Commemoration of the 1500th Anniversary of Kiev”
- Jubilee Medal “Forty Years of Victory in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945”
Foreign decorations and awards
- In 1987, Gorbachev was awarded the Indira Gandhi Prize from government of India
- In 1989, Gorbachev was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold of the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin for “his contributions to nuclear disarmament of the great powers and the creation of a fundamentally new political order in Europe.”
- In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community.”
- On 4 May 1992, Gorbachev was awarded the first ever Ronald Reagan Freedom Award at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
- On 6 May 1992, Gorbachev was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.
- In 1993 Gorbachev was awarded a Legum Doctor, honoris causa from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He was also given an honorary degree from The University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In the same year, he was conferred with the Freedom of the City of Aberdeen.
- Gorbachev was the 1994 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for improving world order, awarded by the University of Louisville, Kentucky.
- In 1995, Gorbachev received an Honorary Doctorate from Durham University, County Durham, England for his contribution to “the cause of political tolerance and an end to Cold War-style confrontation”.
- For his historic role in the evolution of glasnost, and for his leadership in the disarmament negotiations with the United States during the Reagan administration, Gorbachev was awarded the Courage of Conscience award 20 October 1996.
- In 2002, Gorbachev received an honorary degree of a Doctor in Laws (LL.D.) “in recognition of his political service and contribution to peace” from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.
- Gorbachev, together with Bill Clinton and Sophia Loren, were awarded the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children for their recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
- In 2005, Gorbachev was awarded the Point Alpha Prize for his role in supporting German reunification. He also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Manster.
- In 2011, Gorbachev was awarded a honoris causa doctorate from University of Lige in Lige, Belgium.
At the end of a November 1996 interview on CSPAN’s Booknotes, Gorbachev described his plans for future books. He made the following reference to God: “I don’t know how many years God will be giving me, what His plans are.”
In 2005, he said that Pope John Paul II’s “devotion to his followers is a remarkable example to all of us” following the pontiff’s death. “What can I say it must have been the will of God. He acted really courageously.” In a 1989 meeting, he had told him “We appreciate your mission on this high pulpit, we are convinced that it will leave a great mark on history.”
Gorbachev was the recipient of the Athenagoras Humanitarian Award of the Order of St. Andrew Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople on 20 November 2005.
On 19 March 2008, during a surprise visit to pray at the tomb of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy, Gorbachev made an announcement which has been interpreted to the effect that he was a Christian. Gorbachev stated that “St Francis is, for me, the alter Christus, another Christ. His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life.” He added, “It was through St Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb.”
However, a few days later, he reportedly told the Russian news agency Interfax, “Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies. I can’t use any other word about my secret Catholicism, To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist.”
Gorbachev has become known for his prominent port-wine stain. The crimson birthmark on the top of his bald head was the source of much satire among critics and cartoonists. Though some suggested that he might have the mark surgically removed, Gorbachev opted not to, as once he was publicly known to have the mark, he believed it would be perceived as his being more concerned with his appearance than other more important issues.