Mikhail Gorbachev: The Unsung Leader of the Soviet Union Who Ended the Cold War

While respected outside of Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev continues to be loathed within his own country.

6 min read
Edited By :Saundarya Talwar

Few international political figures have created a division of opinion as sharp as Mikhail Gorbachev.

The former leader of the Soviet Union, the man who could arguably take most of the credit for bringing an end to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, died at the age of 91 on Tuesday, 30 August, due to a "severe and prolonged illness."

Incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly offered his condolences, although this is the same man who famously said that "it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union (which Gorbachev oversaw) was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

It is not just him, however. Scores of political leaders from Boris Johnson to Emmanuel Macron to Ursula von der Leyen and António Guterres tweeted in memory of Gorbachev.

While he is respected outside of Russia, he continues to be loathed within his own country. According to a poll conducted as recently as last year, more than 70 percent of Russians believe that their country had suffered during his tenure as the supreme leader. Gorbachev has also, in the past, been ranked as the most unpopular Russian leader of the 21st Century.

So, what is Mikhail Gorbachev's track record as a political leader? What did he believe in? How did he make a difference?


Early Life

Gorbachev was born in Stalin's Russia, in a village in Stavropol Krai to an ethnic Russian family. His parents, who worked as peasants, were not well-off. On his mother's side, his family had Ukrainian heritage.

During the famine of 1930-33 (often classified as a genocide induced by Stalin), two of his paternal uncles and an aunt lost their lives.

He studied at his village school, which remained shut during a majority of the Second World War (1939-1945). One year after the victory of the Allied forces, he joined a Soviet political youth organisation called the Komsomol, also known as the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League.

According to William Taubman, author of Gorbachev: His Life and Times, the former Soviet leader was also into sports and drama. He went on to study law at Moscow State University and even became a candidate member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).


Rise Within the Communist Party

Gorbachev's initial time as a leader within the CPSU was in the city of Stavropol. In 1956, he became the First Secretary of the Stavropol city's Komsomol, and two years later, he became the deputy head of the youth organisation for the entire Stavropol Krai region.

In 1961, he became the First Secretary and in 1966, he was promoted to First Secretary of the Stavropol City Party Organization, with his main tasks being to raise agricultural production levels and oversee the irrigation system of the region. For overseeing record grain harvests, he was awarded the the Order of the October Revolution by the then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

His real rise within the ranks, however, came in November 1978, when Gorbachev was appointed as a Secretary of the Central Committee. Within the committee's politburo, he became the closest ally of Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov, the then paramount leader of the Soviet Union.

When Andropov died in February 1984, he, on his deathbed, expressed his desire that Gorbachev become his successor, but the leadership post was given to Konstantin Chernenko. It was Gorbachev, however, who had to chair several meetings and conduct crucial political matters, given that Chernenko's health was not doing well at all.

After Chernenko died, Gorbachev was unanimously appointed as the next General Secretary of the CPSU, and the eighth (and final) paramount leader of the Soviet Union.


Perestroika and Glasnost

Every textbook on Soviet history, or the history of the Cold War, remembers Gorbachev for these two terms – perestroika ("restructuring" or "reform") and glasnost ("openness").

His efforts to make the Soviet Union more democratic and his deliberate incorporations of capitalism to into the Soviet economy in order to rejuvenate it made sure that Gorbachev's name went down in history as a reformer and a leader who tried to make a change despite all odds.

With glasnost, his main objective was a freer media. He famously said, in a 1986 speech, "Those who attempt to suppress the fresh voice, the just voice, according to old standards and attitudes, need to get out of the way."

And with perestroika, Gorbachev sought to undermine the one-party state and decentralise decision-making in order to make the economy more efficient and productive.

As he kept reiterating in his 1988 speech to the United Nations, "For our society to participate in efforts to implement the plans of perestroika, it had to be democratised in practice. Under the sign of democratisation, perestroika has now spread to politics, the economy, intellectual life and ideology. The guarantee that the overall process of perestroika will steadily move forward and gain strength lies in a profound democratic reform of the entire system of power and administration."

Gorbachev famously appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial along with his granddaughter Anastasia. It shows them walking into an outlet of the popular American pizza franchise in Moscow.

Upon entering, a family seated beside the duo gets into a discussion on the impact Gorbachev has had on the economy of Russia. A lady interrupts the heated argument by saying, "Because of him we have many things... like Pizza Hut."


Renouncing the Use of Force in Eastern Europe

Another one of Gorbachev's most significant contributions to Soviet history was his categorical rejection of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the policy that the Soviet Union had been following since the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The idea was that the Soviets had the right to militarily intervene in other socialist countries, especially in eastern and central Europe, if their governments were threatened by 'capitalist counterrevolutionaries.'

Gorbachev, however, insisted that the people of these countries had the right to choose their own governments and Moscow's will would not be imposed upon them anymore.

Famously, on 7 July 1989, he renounced the use of force against other nations of the Soviet bloc, stating in his speech that "any interference in domestic affairs and any attempts to restrict the sovereignty of states—friends, allies or any others—are inadmissible." His rejection of the Brezhnev Doctrine was jokingly known as the Sinatra Doctrine, in a reference to Frank Sinatra's famous song, "My Way."

Poland became the first country to emancipate itself from the Soviet Union's grasp, followed by other countries like Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the others.

And on 9 November 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the people of East Germany were allowed to cross freely into West Berlin, Gorbachev refused to send in tanks and troops, asserting that Germany's people have a right to decide what they want in their life.


Ending the Cold War and Fall From Power

Gorbachev had inherited an economic mess (what he himself referred to as the Era of Stagnation), conflicts like the war in Afghanistan, and heightened tensions with the United States.

He forged close relationships with important leaders of the western bloc at the time like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He struck nuclear arms deals with the United States like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and brought the two states closer to each other to an extent unseen since they defeated Nazi Germany together in the Second World War.

He began to be despised for his efforts within the Communist Party, with many close aides perceiving him to be an enemy of the socialist state, fearing that communism was going to get buried.

Gorbachev even had to endure a failed coup in August 1991 by an "Emergency Committee" that included the KGB chief, the prime minister, the defence minister and the vice president of the Soviet Union.

Eventually, a very popular leader (at the time) named Boris Yeltsin, who was president of the Soviet Union at the time and had prevent the coup against Gorbachev from succeeding, suspended all Communist Party activities on Russian soil, effectively ending whatever influence Gorbachev had left.

And that was it. In the 1996 presidential elections, Gorbachev finished seventh with around 3,86,000 votes, or around 0.5 percent of the total votes cast.

He continues to be a deeply loathed man within Russia, with the people blaming him for the collapse of the Soviet Union and a humiliating defeat at the hands of the United States.

Outside of Russia, however, he is seen as a pragmatic leader who had the sense and the sensitivity to end the Cold War because he realised that it is what is best for the world and for his own people. As Thatcher famously said, "I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together."

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Topics:  Russia   Mikhail Gorbachev 

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