The life of Mikhail Gorbachev is a testament to the powers of education, strong will and the ideals of freedom. After starting out as a factory worker, Mikhail worked his way up to becoming the leader of the Soviet Union, and leading it out of corruption and totalitarianism to freedom and democracy. His efforts in promoting peace between Russia and the Western world have resulted in the country’s tremendous growth, and his unyielding commitment has made a significant contribution to Russia’s current state.
Call him an idealist, but that is okay for Mikhail – he actually loves it, because he believes that change happens through idealists. As he often says in interviews:
“Idealists make the world go 'round, since everything starts with ideas. Yes, ideas! Everything comes from them and everything begins there.”
He was born Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev on March 2, 1931, in the town of Stavropol, Soviet Union. He was the son of Sergey Andreyevich Gorbachev and Maria Panteleyevna Gopkalo, who were immigrants from the Voronezh and Chernigov Governatories, respectively. Mikhail’s father operated a combine harvester, while his mother was a kolkhoz worker. Both of his parents were “peasants,” and had a tough time meeting their needs due to the prevalence of poverty in their community.
In an interview many years later, Mikhail summarized his childhood in this statement:
“What I remember is a pre-war village, and the life of the peasants, since I myself come from peasant stock. It was a very poor village, the housing was very poor, and so were our clothes, and there was a great deal of work, and even more anxiety. So this was a very serious life experience for children.”
When Mikhail was only two years old, the Soviet Union plunged into a devastating famine that resulted in the deaths of millions. Known today as the “Great Soviet Famine of 1932-1933,” it ravaged Mikhail’s hometown, where nearly half of the village’s population, including his father’s siblings, died of starvation. And, although he was too young to remember much of it, he definitely saw the effects which lasted throughout the following decade.
Mikhail’s early life also gave him a glimpse of his future activism, as he witnessed the arrests of both his grandparents due to false charges (his paternal grandfather, Andrey, was sentenced to exile in Siberia for a crime he did not commit). The experience made a mark on the young Mikhail’s memory, and he would later come to question the validity of the actions of Russia’s Communist Party.
When World War II began, Mikhail’s father, Sergey, was drafted into the military to defend the country from invading German forces. In one instance during his three years at war, his family received a letter stating that he was M.I.A. (“missing in action”), causing Maria and her sons to despair for his fate. However, the letter was later proven false as Sergey returned from the war and resumed his job as a machine operator.
The war affected the young Mikhail greatly, as it affected most of his generation. Mikhail’s experiences and hardships from the war and his poor life developed in him a longing to make something of himself so he could change his and his family’s situation:
“Growing up in a peasant family, and my experience of life and the war—which I saw myself, all this blood and destruction, horrible destruction—all this had great significance. At that time, I began to feel the desire for something more; I wanted to do something to make things better. This was unconscious; it was just something that was brewing inside of me, without my really being aware of it.”
Working From a Young Age
Sergey was a great inspiration and role model for the young Mikhail, to whom he later passed on his knowledge and experience in operating machines. Unsurprisingly, Mikhail quickly learned how to operate the machines, as he inherited Sergey’s natural aptitude for mechanics. Mikhail started to work at a young age and, by age seventeen, he became the youngest recipient of the “Order of the Red Banner of Labor” for his active participation in bringing the bumper crop that year.
The Value Of Education: Mikhail’s studies
As Mikhail matured further, so did the desire within him to see change. He also came to realize that he would not achieve his goal if he remained a regular worker in a factory. And so, upon the suggestion of his father, Mikhail entered high school during his mid-teenage years:
“When my father said, 'If you want, why don't you go and try to get an education. If not, you can go on working the land with me.' And I said, 'I want to try.' I ended up at the university, and this was a completely different world, the start of a whole new life. The university was like a door opening up on the whole world. For a young man thirsting for knowledge—coming from the sticks, from the back of beyond, coming to the capital, to Moscow, to the university—it was cataclysmic.”
Mikhail certainly wasn’t wrong in his decision to study, as he proved to be a very bright student and capable leader. During his high school years, he impressed his teachers with his intellect and analytical skills, and became quite popular for his charisma and natural talent for speaking. He also showed great aptitude for politics, having become a candidate member of the Communist Party at a young age. Mikhail graduated from high school with a Silver Medal in tow, bringing great honor to his family who had never received the opportunity of a good education.
When Mikhail was asked in an interview what first inspired him to join politics, he answered by recalling his high school years when he was praised for his natural leadership abilities:
“Among my peers I was always the one who took charge. I liked being the boss, but the main thing was my friends trusted me, and that's why I say that most likely such qualities were innate in me. I always wanted to do something, accomplish something, or take the initiative. In school they kept choosing me to be the leader. I joined the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) while the war was still going on.”
After graduating from high school, Mikhail decided to further pursue his studies and entered Moscow University (the premier university in all of the Soviet Union at the time) to study law. Having a spectacular academic record brought great favor to Mikhail, who was immediately accepted for membership by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. While at the university, Mikhail continued to demonstrate his leadership qualities and amazing intellect, and he earned his Bachelor’s degree with Cum Laude distinction in 1955.
Meeting the Love of His Life
It was in college where Mikhail met Raisa Titarenko, a fellow student to whom he immediately took a liking. After several months of dating, Mikhail and Raisa got married in 1953, and moved to Stravropol after Mikhail finished his studies two years later. They had one child, whom they named Irina Mikhailovna Virganskaya.
Mikhail’s Rise to Prominence: Working with the Communist Party
Mikhail quickly rose to fame and prominence after joining the Communist Party. After he finished his studies, he worked in the Stravropol territorial prosecutor’s office. He was later met by some of his friends in the Komsomol who had become full-time officers of the Communist Party. Remembering Mikhail to be a dedicated and organized individual during their Komsomol years, they invited him to become the Assistant Director of Propaganda for the local Komsomol in Stravropol, and he was soon promoted to become the first Secretary of the Committee.
In 1961, Mikhail was privileged to become the Komsomol delegate to the year’s Party Congress, where he was inspired by Nikita Khrushchev’s plan to surpass the United States’ per-capita production by restructuring the country’s production output. It was not long after this when Mikhail proved to be an exceptional leader, and quickly rose through the ranks to be named a member of the Communist Party Central Committee by 1971. Three years later, he was named Deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union and the Chairman of the Standing Commission on Youth Affairs.
Mikhail’s political career flourished during the late 1970s and early ‘80s; in 1978, Mikhail replaced Fyodor Kulakov as the new Central Committee’s Secretariat for Agriculture after the latter died of a heart attack. The decision to name him as the new secretariat was made in honor of Fyodor’s choice of Mikhail.
Becoming a Member of the Politburo
In 1979, Mikhail became a candidate member of the Politburo (Political Bureau of the Central Agency), the highest Communist authority in the country, and was granted full membership the following year. Immediately after joining the Politburo, Mikhail became one of the institution’s most active and visible members, especially during the tenure of Yuri Andropov.
Mikhail’s position in the Communist Party gave him further opportunities to travel abroad, which allowed him to open his mind to the cultures and politics of other countries. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mikhail led several delegations to various countries, such as to Belgium in 1972, West Germany in 1975, Canada in 1983 and the United Kingdom in 1984, where he had the privilege of meeting with then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Becoming Secretary General of the Communist Party
Ever since Mikhail joined the Communist Party, it was clear through his active participation and work achievements that he was a potential candidate to lead the party. This came to pass in 1985, when he was elected to be the General Secretary of the Politburo following the death of Konstantin Cherdenko, who had replaced Yuri Andropov a year earlier. This election made Mikhail the youngest-ever General Secretary, as well as the youngest member of the most powerful institution in the Soviet Union.
Not long after Mikhail became the party’s Secretary General, he began developing plans to reform not only the state of the party, but also the country’s economy, which suffered after several years under leaders who were often accused of corruption and totalitarian leadership. This was what Mikhail stated in an interview regarding his promotion to the position:
“I was relatively young, the youngest of the lot, actually, and I was a man with a modern education who already had a great deal of experience working independently. I had before me the experience of Khrushchev, Kosygin, and many other people who were punished for their initiative. They were seen as people who were unreliable, who undermined the system. I was given the post of General Secretary, tantamount to being a Tsar, and did not get drunk on my own power, but instead began to transform it.”
Mikhail’s “Perestroika” And “Glasnost” Policies
During his term as the Secretary General of the Communist Party, Mikhail developed several policies that were significant in the transitions between Soviet and [new] Russian operations. Among these policies was the “Perestroika,” which he described as the “development of democracy and self-government.” Then there was the “Glasnost,” which literally turned Russia into a democratic state with increased emphasis on freedoms that were not previously granted to the Russian people:
“I had democratic convictions since I was young, and they became my defining characteristic, my credo: devotion to democracy, respect for the worth of the individual. But the system had suppressed all that; it did not allow an individual the freedom to actualize himself. I did not accept this.”
Mikhail sought not only to improve the lives of his countrymen, but also the country’s relations with the Western world – especially the United States, which was the Soviet Union’s greatest enemy during the Cold War. When then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan came to meet Mikhail personally at the 1983 Geneva arms summit, he was amazed by the “warmth” and “moral dimension” which Mikhail carried. This led to further meetings between the leaders of the world’s two superpowers, and together they worked to end the Cold War.
From the time that Mikhail took the position of Secretary General, his actions had already hinted that he was going to bring a kind of change to the country that had never been experienced before. And, while there were those who opposed the changes, they could not stop Mikhail from enacting his policies because of his support from both Russian citizens and the international community.
Mikhail described in an interview one of the reasons that led him to change Russia’s system of government:
“When we found ourselves active participants in life, in work, and in politics, then we began to see a great deal and see it clearly. Little by little there came the awareness that in this country, this society, this system, no matter how hard we tried, no matter how sincere our convictions were, very little good could be achieved. Therefore the system had to be changed.”
The Manifestation of Change: From the Soviet Union to Russia
In 1990, the first stages of change began to manifest when the dissolution of the Soviet Union came into effect and the office of the Secretary General was removed, paving the way for the first free election of Russia’s first President. Mikhail won the election via split decision, receiving 59% of the votes. During his presidency, Mikhail further established peaceful relations with other countries, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
The peaceful transition for which Mikhail hoped did not go exactly as planned, as many of his previous allies in the Communist Party turned against him because of the changes he made. Furthermore, as a result of previous leaderships, Russia was falling behind both economically and politically, and many of its citizens were discontented because the changes were not happening as fast as everyone had hoped.
With the growing opposition of the Communist Party hindering the country’s drive towards progress, Mikhail decided to resign from his position as its leader:
“The Soviet Communist Party was a huge machine. At some point, it began throwing spokes into the wheels. It was the initiator of perestroika, but then it became its biggest obstacle. I understood that nothing would work without deep-seated political reforms. After suffering a defeat in the first democratic elections, the establishment joined forces and openly attacked me at a meeting of the party leadership. That was when I announced my resignation and left the plenary chamber.”
Eventually, Mikhail decided to step down in order to keep the peace in Russia. While he did not want the Soviet Union to be completely dissolved (he instead simply wanted to reform the government system), he was unable to stop it from happening after several incidents, including a coup in 1991, turned the public attention to his political opponent, Boris Yeltsin. By the end of the year, Mikhail announced his resignation as Russia’s President, and the Soviet Union was completely dissolved the following day.
Life after Presidency
After his resignation, Mikhail remained active in Russian politics and became one of the leading critics of then-President Boris Yeltsin. When President Yeltsin called for a referendum in 1993 to receive greater presidential powers, Mikhail called for new presidential elections entirely.
Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Mikhail remained active in politics, keeping watch on whoever was in authority to ensure they would not go beyond the power vested in them and turn Russia back into the totalitarian state it once was. In 1996, Mikhail established the Democratic Party of Russia in order to unite the various social democratic parties in the country. He eventually resigned as the party leader in 2004 after disputes with the chairman during the 2003 election campaign.
Aside from remaining active in Russian politics, Mikhail has also focused his time and efforts on a global scale by founding several non-profit organizations, including the “Gorbachev Foundation” and the “Green Cross Foundation,” both of which now operate internationally. He has also made significant contributions to peace and preservation of the planet, as he supports Al Gore’s campaign to prevent the global warming disaster.
When former U.S. President Ronald Reagan died in 2004, Mikhail represented Russia at the funeral. Three years later, at the funeral of Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail gave a eulogy for him, stating that Boris should be commended for bearing the difficult task of leading Russia into the post-Soviet era.
In 2008, he announced his plans of making a comeback to Russian politics by establishing the Independent Democratic Party of Russia, along with former KGB Officer Alexander Lebedev. However, in spite of their efforts to register the party, the current government has not yet done so. Regarding the dilemma, Mikhail said:
“Putin wants to stay in power, but not so that he can finally solve our most pressing problems: education, health care, poverty. The people are not being asked, and the parties are puppets of the regime. Governors are no longer directly elected. Direct mandates in elections were eliminated. Everything works through party lists now. But new parties are not being allowed, because they get in the way.”
Current Activities: The ongoing fight for Democracy and Freedom in Russia
Currently, Mikhail is known as one of President Vladimir Putin’s critics. He has stated in various interviews that President Putin’s policies are leading Russia to greater corruption, less democracy and the domination of security officers. In a recent interview, he talked about how the current Russian government is slowly sliding back to its “old Communist” heritage:
“What troubles me is what the United Russia party, which is led by Putin, and the government are doing. They want to preserve the status quo. There are no steps forward. On the contrary, they are pulling us back into the past, while the country is urgently in need of modernization. Sometimes United Russia reminds me of the old Soviet Communist Party.”
Mikhail knows that much still needs to be done in order for Russia to move forward, and that is why he’ll always be active in the country’s politics. And while he faces strong opposition to his ideals of democracy and freedom, he is neither afraid nor deterred to stand up for what is right; he embodies the true Russian hero, boldly and courageously fighting for the good of his people:
“One can and must understand that one cannot do or know everything. Even God, who created us, doesn't lead us through life by the hand, but wishes and hopes that we will think and act in life in accordance with His commandments and expectations, and to rouse people to take the initiative, to have faith in themselves, and the desire to live as their conscience dictates. That means to awaken great feelings, which cannot help but make life into something completely different.”
- 1978-1991: Member of the Secretariat
- 1979-1991: Member of the Politburo
- 1985-1991: General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
- 1988-1989: Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet
- 1989-1990: Chairman of the Supreme Soviet
- 1990-1991: President of the Soviet Union
Organizations and Programs Supported
- The Gorbachev Foundation
- The Communist Party Central Committee
- Glasnost Policy
- Perestroika Policy
- Green Cross International
- Earth Charter
- Club of Rome
- Club of Madrid
- Raisa Gorbachev Foundation
- New Policy Forum
- Novaya Gazeta
Awards and Achievements
- 1947: Conferred the Order of the Red Banner of Labor
- 1966: Conferred the Order of the Badge of Honour
- 1971: Conferred the Order of Lenin
- 1978: Conferred the Order of October Revolution
- 1981: Conferred the Order of Lenin
- 1982: Awarded a medal “In Commemoration of the 1500th Anniversary of Kiev"
- 1987: Won the “Indira Gandhi Prize”
- 1989: Awarded the “Otto Hahn Peace Medal”
- 1990: Won the Nobel Peace Prize
- 1992: Won the “Harvey Prize” and received the first-ever “Ronald Reagan Freedom Award”
- 1993: Conferred the Freedom of the City of Aberdeen
- 1994: Received the “Grawemeyer Award”
- 1996: Received the “Courage of Conscience Award”
- 2001: Conferred the Order of Honour
- 2004: Won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Album for Children (Peter and the Wolf)
- 2005: Won the “Point Alpha Prize” for his support of German reunification and received the “Athenagoras Humanitarian Award” from the order of St. Andrew Archons
- 2011: Conferred the Order of St. Andrew, the highest state decoration of the Russian Federation
- Awarded the “Medal For Labour Valour”
- Awarded the “Medal for Strengthening Military Cooperation”
- Awarded the Jubilee Medal for “Forty Years of Victory in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945”
- 1992: Honorary Doctor of Laws from Westminster College, U.S.A.
- 1993: Honorary Legum Doctor from Carleton University, Canada
- 1993: Honorary Doctorate from the University of Calgary, Canada
- 1995: Honorary Doctorate from Durham University, United Kingdom
- 2002: Honorary Doctor of Laws from Trinity College, Ireland
- 2011: Honorary Doctorate from the University of Liege, Belgium
Wikipedia (Mikhail Gorbachev)
Biography.com (Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev biography)
Spiegel Online (SPIEGEL Interview with Mikhail Gorbachev: 'They Were Truly Idiots')
Achievement.org (Mikhail Gorbachev)