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1985-1991 - Mikhail S. Gorbachev

In contrast to the uncertain handling of leadership vacancies in 1982 and 1984, upon the death of Chernenko the Politburo acted within hours to choose unanimously the healthy and relatively youthful Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev as general secretary. In his speech before the Central Committee, Gorbachev announced that he would emphasize policies of labor discipline and increased productivity, calling for a "scientific and technological revolution" to revive heavy industry.

How did Gorbachev become the man who dismantled the Soviet system? Childhood, of course, is where biography begins, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was born March 2, 1931 in Privolnoye village in Stavropol territory.

His father Sergei Gorbachev worked as a combine harvester operator. In June 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In August he was drafted to the regular army and put in charge of a combat engineering squad. He was in many historic battles of Great Patriotic War. In the end of May 1944 the Gorbachev family received a “killed in action” notice for Mikhail’s father. For three days the family was weeping for their loss, but, fortunately it was a mistake: Mikhail’s father had survived though was badly wounded in the leg.

For his exploits during the war he got government medals – Medal for Bravery and two Orders of the Red Star. After he returned home, Sergei Gorbachev continued to work as a machine operator and taught Mikhail to operate a combine harvester. “Father knew perfectly how to operate the combine, and he taught me,” Gorbachev recalls. “After a year or two I could adjust any mechanism. I am particularly proud of my ability to detect a fault in the combine instantly, just by the sound of it.” For outstanding results in bringing in the bumper crop in 1949 Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. He was only seventeen then and became the youngest recipient of this high award.

His mother, Maria Gorbachev (nee Gopkalo), was a farmer and all her life she worked on a collective farm.

Purges of the 1930s affected the Gorbachev family: in 1937 Mikhail Gorbachev’s grandfather Pantelei Gopkalo was arrested on charges of “being a member of a counter-revolutionary Trotskyite organization”. He was kept in prison for 14 months under investigation and torture. Assistant Attorney General of Stavropol saved him from execution. In December 1938 he was released from prison and returned home. In 1939 he was once again elected chairman of the collective farm.

The other grandfather of Mikhail Gorbachev – Andrei Gorbachev – initially was uneager to join a collective farm and farmed by himself on his individual farmstead. In 1933 there was a severe drought in southern Russia and the region was hit by mass famine. His three children out of six died of starvation. In spring 1934 Andrei Gorbachev was arrested for not fulfilling the sowing campaign plan: there was nothing to sow. As a “saboteur” Andrei Gorbachev was sent to a hard labor camp in the Irkutsk Region, Siberia, where he worked as a timber feller. Two years later, in 1935, on account of his good work he was released before his sentence term expired. He came back to Privolnoye and immediately joined the collective farm where he worked to the end of his life. Pantelei Gopkalo enjoyed great respect among his fellow-farmers.

In 1950 Gorbachev graduated from high school with a silver medal. His father insisted that the youth continued his education, and Mikhail chose the Moscow State University, the best university in the USSR. He was enrolled to the university without entrance exams and even without an interview. He was summoned to the university by cable saying that he was “enrolled and provided with a hostel accommodation”. There were several reasons for that: Gorbachev’s origin as a farmer, his work record, a high government award - the Order of the Red Banner of Labor and also the fact that in 1950 (when doing his last year of studies at the secondary school) he was admitted candidate member of the Communist Party.

When a university student, Gorbachev met his future wife Raisa Titarenko. She was also a student of the Moscow University, philosophy faculty She was one year his junior but joined the university one year before him. They married on September 25, 1953. Having received his law degree cum laude in 1955, Gorbachev returned to Stavropol. At first he was assigned to a job in the Stavropol Territorial Prosecutor’s Office.

Gorbachev joined the CPSU in 1952. Gorbachev returned to Stavropol after graduating from Moscow University, rather than remaining in or near the capital. From 1955, he was first secretary of the Stavropol Komsomol City Committee. The kind of position he hoped to land in Moscow, in the Procurator's Office, turned out to be closed to young people like him as a result of the post-Stalin's regime's realization that, under pressure from their superiors, younger Procurator staffers in Stalin's time had proven too ready and willing to overlook the terrible injustices meted out during the purges. Compared to his predecessors, Gorbachev was less directly influenced by World War II, and he made his early career in the domestic and "peaceful" sectors of Soviet society.

In 1967, he completed a correspondence course and graduated from the Stavropol Agricultural Institute. And in 1970 Gorbachev was elected to the Central Committee of the CPSU. He was appointed agriculture secretary of the Central Committee in 1978 and moved from Stavropol to Moscow. Gorbachev became a full member of the Politburo in 1980. Even in his early career there were signs that Gorbachev was more than just another bright young apparatchik on the make. The spectacular rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev apparently began earlier than once thought in the West. It soon became clear that his route to the top was assured long before his formal assumption of the General Secretary's post following the death of Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985. His rise was, in part, due to the support of influential ideologue Mikhail Suslov.

Under General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Yuri Andropov, from 1982 to 1984, Gorbachev was a prominent member of the Politburo, helping to bring a new generation of politicians into the top level of government. From 1984 to 1985, he served as chairman for the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Soviet Union. In March 1985, Gorbachev became general secretary, the first leader of the Soviet Union to have been born after the October Revolution.

Gorbachev quickly changed the composition of the highest CPSU and government bodies, eliminating Brezhnev-era appointees and promoting allies. The Political Bureau of the Central Committee was intended to provide collective leadership of the party and the country. However, it turned into an improvised tool for blessing the decisions of the new General Secretary. Solving this problem, Mikhail Sergeyevich already in April 1985 began to change the balance of power in the Politburo of the Central Committee. First of all, all of Gorbachev's opponents were removed from the Politburo: Romanov, Tikhonov, Shcherbitsky, Grishin, Kunayev, Aliev.Grigory Romanov, former Leningrad Party chief and once believed the most likely heir to Andropov and Chernenko, was removed from the Politburo in disgrace over abuses of his position. Other prominent figures, such as Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov and Moscow Party head Viktor Grishin were packed off into retirement.

In their place, the first to come were those who took an active part in the operation to elect him Secretary General: E. Ligachev , N. Ryzhkov and V. Chebrikov. This partly explains the adroit consolidation of power and elimination of rivals at the upper levels of the party and state which Gorbachev orchestrated in the first year of his administration.

Perhaps most important, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko was "promoted" to the largely ceremonial post of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Among the major changes in the July 1985 Central Committee plenum, Gorbachev promoted Georgian party first secretary Eduard Shevardnadze to full membership in the Politburo and nominated him as minister of foreign affairs, while Boris N. Yeltsin made his national political debut as one of two members added to the CPSU Secretariat. In December Yeltsin advanced again, this time as first secretary of the Moscow city committee of the party.

At the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in February 1986, Gorbachev reaffirmed much of the existing CPSU doctrine and policies, giving little indication of future reforms. While calling for "radical reforms" in the economy, he merely reemphasized the need to increase production and to use more advanced technology in heavy industry. The new party program contained no surprises, and the congress made few changes in high-level CPSU bodies. Among the significant changes that did occur were the appointment to the Central Committee Secretariat of Aleksandr Yakovlev, an advocate of radical reform and the exposure of Stalin's crimes, and the promotion of Yeltsin to candidate membership in the Politburo. It was at this party gathering that Yeltsin first offended conservatives by denouncing the hidden privileges of the party elite.

Gorbachev increasingly found himself caught between criticism by conservatives who wanted to stop reform and liberals who wanted to accelerate it. When one of these groups pressed too hard, Gorbachev resorted to political methods from the Brezhnev era. For example, when Yeltsin spoke out in 1987 against the slow pace of reform, he was stripped of his Politburo and Moscow CPSU posts. At the party meeting where Yeltsin was removed from his post, Gorbachev personally subjected him to verbal abuse reminiscent of the Stalin era.

Despite some setbacks, reform efforts continued. In June 1988, at the CPSU's Nineteenth Party Conference, the first held since 1941, Gorbachev launched radical reforms meant to reduce party control of the government apparatus. He again called for multicandidate elections for regional and local legislatures and party first secretaries and insisted on the separation of the government apparatus from party bodies at the regional level as well. In the face of an overwhelming majority of conservatives, Gorbachev still was able to rely on party discipline to force through acceptance of his reform proposals. Experts called the conference a successful step in promoting party-directed change from above.

At an unprecedented emergency Central Committee plenum called by Gorbachev in September 1988, three stalwart old-guard members left the Politburo or lost positions of power. Andrey Gromyko retired from the Politburo, Yegor Ligachev was relieved of the ideology portfolio within the Secretariat, and Boris Pugo replaced Politburo member Mikhail Solomentsev as chairman of the powerful Party Control Committee. The Supreme Soviet then elected Gorbachev chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. These changes meant that the Secretariat, until that time solely responsible for the development and implementation of party policies, had lost much of its power.

In the West, Gorbachev was best known for dramatically easing the tension of the Cold War, reducing arms, withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, and pushing for liberal reforms. He was the man who US President Ronald Reagan asked to tear down the Berlin wall, the symbol of a split Europe and divided world.

Domestically, however, Gorbachev was far from being universally praised, even though it was a quarter of a century since he stepped down. Under his watch the USSR went through a profound economic crisis, which eventually resulted in the savings of millions of people simply disappearing. His crusade against alcohol was disastrous, and led to a bloated black market for liquor and wasteful destruction of wineries.

The change in foreign policy under his leadership is viewed by many people at home as, at best, the mistake of a naive man, and an outright crime at worst. According to a recent opinion poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 24 percent of Russians believe that Gorbachev deliberately destroyed the Soviet Union. Forty-six percent said he was just trying to make things better for the people.

With his advancing years, Gorbachev seems to agree with some of that criticism. He now accuses Western governments, and particularly the US, of failing the trust he put in them as Soviet leader. “Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and a lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world. And they refused to heed the word of caution from many of those present here,” he said during the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 2014.

Alexander Prokhanov, author, wrote "To me, Gorbachev is a synonym for evil. He is a symbol of the collapse of my homeland. This is the man through whom we have received such a flow of disaster that we still cannot digest. This is the collapse of a great civilization, a great technosphere, a great science, a great culture, this is the collapse of an entire vector of Russian history."




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