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Who is Mikhail Gorbachev?

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union, renowned for his pivotal role in ending the Cold War. His policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) aimed to revitalize the USSR but ultimately led to its dissolution in 1991. Discover how Gorbachev's legacy continues to shape our world today. What impact did his actions have on your life?
J. Beam
J. Beam

Mikhail Gorbachev, 1990 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and former leader of the Soviet Union, is the man the Western world credits with helping to end the Cold War. He is most famously recognized by his unique birthmark located on top of his head. The Russian politician graced the cover of Time magazine several times while he was in office, including as Man of the Year in 1988. Gorbachev is considered by many to be one of the most innovative and revolutionary world leaders of all time.

Mikhail Gorbachev was born on 2 March 1931 to an impoverished family living near Stavropol. Despite his family’s economic position, Mikhail joined the Communist Party and earned a law degree at Moscow University in 1953. His political career began in the early 1960s when he became the head of the Stavropol region’s department of agriculture. Throughout the next two decades, he garnered the attention of top party political figures who all shared an interest in political reform and ending corruption and inefficiency within the country’s government.

A map of the Soviet Union, with the star, sickle, and hammer that appeared on its flag.
A map of the Soviet Union, with the star, sickle, and hammer that appeared on its flag.

At age 54, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party. Though many of his ideas were considered radical at the time, he began implementing domestic policies that he hoped would help the economy and improve the standards of living in the Soviet Union. Beginning early in office with alcohol reform, a move Gorbachev hoped would reduce the rising rates of alcoholism in Russia, many of his policies weakened an already stalling economy.

Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union, was instrumental in ending the Cold War.
Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union, was instrumental in ending the Cold War.

Though many in his country saw Gorbachev as a threat to domestic stability, foreign policy yielded different challenges. From the beginning of his six-year term, he was in favor of ending the arms race with the West. His political initiatives served as a positive catalyst for freedom and democracy, but his economic policies were slowly causing the country to collapse. As political reform made headway, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began to lose control.

Gorbachev oversaw the Soviet space program -- including the Mir space station.
Gorbachev oversaw the Soviet space program -- including the Mir space station.

Gorbachev became the first-ever President of the Soviet Union, elected by the Congress of People’s Deputies on 15 March 1990. The newly elected president created a presidential council of 15 politicians, but his position would be short-lived as the Soviet Union had already begun to disintegrate. As Boris Yeltsin (1931 – 2007) gained popularity and power as president of the Russian Federation, following the Soviet coup attempt in 1991, Gorbachev was forced to resign as president of a country that no longer existed.

Mikhail Gorbachev is widely recognized as a strong influence and perpetuator of worldwide freedom. He was the first recipient of The Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 1992, after already having received a Nobel Peace Prize. Even after his resignation from political office, he continued to remain politically active on a global scale, and he represented Russia at Ronald Reagan’s funeral in 2004.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Mikhail Gorbachev and why is he significant?

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union, serving as General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1985 until 1991 and as the country's head of state from 1988 until its dissolution. He is significant for his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), which aimed to modernize the Soviet economy and society but ultimately led to the end of the Cold War, the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. His leadership marked a pivotal turn in 20th-century history.

What were Mikhail Gorbachev's major policies and their impact?

Gorbachev's major policies included glasnost, which increased transparency and freedom of information in the Soviet Union, and perestroika, which reformed the command economy towards a more market-oriented approach. These policies reduced censorship, allowed for greater political discussion, and led to the signing of arms reduction treaties with the United States. However, they also inadvertently unleashed forces that led to nationalist movements, economic turmoil, and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

How did Mikhail Gorbachev contribute to the end of the Cold War?

Mikhail Gorbachev played a crucial role in ending the Cold War through his willingness to engage in dialogue with the West, particularly with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. His foreign policy moves, including the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, helped ease tensions. Gorbachev's internal reforms weakened the Soviet Union's grip on Eastern Europe, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet bloc.

What awards and recognitions did Mikhail Gorbachev receive for his work?

Mikhail Gorbachev received numerous awards and recognitions for his efforts in international diplomacy and promoting peace. Most notably, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for "his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community." He was also honored with various international prizes and honorary degrees from prestigious universities for his role in changing the geopolitical landscape of the late 20th century.

What happened to Mikhail Gorbachev after the fall of the Soviet Union?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev faced a period of political obscurity within Russia, as the country transitioned under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin. He established the Gorbachev Foundation in 1992, which focused on global social and political issues, and later created the Green Cross International to address environmental challenges. Despite his diminished political influence in Russia, Gorbachev remained an active voice in global affairs and continued to advocate for peace and democracy until his death.

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Discussion Comments

anon269394

This man saved the world from a nuclear war.

uzumba2

Speaking from experience, it was a relief to see the U.S. and the former Soviet Union's leaders finally bringing an end to the hatred and distrust between the two nations. It was a heady time.

One of Mikhail Gorbachev's quotes that I always liked still inspires: "If what you have done yesterday still looks big to you, you haven't done much today."

chrysalis

Nothing was mentioned here about Mikhail Gorbachev's wife, Raisa. She was so cultured and smart, together they really helped to change the way the former Soviet Union was viewed by the rest of the world.

They also had to rise above the name that Ronald Reagan used to describe the Soviet Union — "the evil empire", can you imagine? I guess it was just a different time.

Denha

When I see him in the news at public events, Gorbachev always seems like a very calm man. I can imagine that anyone less calm might not have accomplished the things he did, at least not while maintaining some level of peace.

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    • A map of the Soviet Union, with the star, sickle, and hammer that appeared on its flag.
      By: axellwolf
      A map of the Soviet Union, with the star, sickle, and hammer that appeared on its flag.
    • Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union, was instrumental in ending the Cold War.
      By: S_E
      Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union, was instrumental in ending the Cold War.
    • Gorbachev oversaw the Soviet space program -- including the Mir space station.
      By: Waldemar Stach
      Gorbachev oversaw the Soviet space program -- including the Mir space station.