Mikhail Gorbachev: Soviet Union’s final president who changed world history

One man can change history. Mikhail Gorbachev’s one-time Marxist comrades would dispute that. History is shifted, in the analysis, by great economic forces and class conflicts. But the man who was the last President of the Soviet Union proved them wrong. An epoch in world history came to an end directly as a result of his actions.

On Tuesday night, almost 31 years after the dramatic coup the led to his downfall, MrGorbachev’s extraordinary life came to an end at the age of 91.

It was not his intention to bring about the collapse of one of the great empires of the 20th century. He wanted to reform Russian communism and modernise it – with a speed and scale which startled both friends and foes alike all across the world.

But his efforts to democratise his country’s political system, and decentralise its economy, set in process events which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism as a global force.

He had not begun as a reformer or radical.As a child he experienced the great Soviet famine of 1932-3 in which nearly half the population of his native village, Privolnoye, died. And both of his grandfathers were arrested on false charges, with one of them sent to Siberia where he was tortured and imprisoned. But despite that Gorbachev grew up to be a loyal communist who chose Stalin as his special topic for his final school exams.

As a young man he drove a combine harvester on a state farm for four years but he was bright and went to study law at Moscow University in 1950. There he met the love of his life, Raisa Titarenko, whom he married, and another student who was also to have a pivotal influence on his life. The kindred spirit was a Czech student named Zdenek Mlynar who went on to become one of the architects of the great transformation of his native country which became known as the PragueSpring.

This Czech experiment to “give socialism a human face” was crushed within months when Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Praguein August 1968 to quell the uprising. One year later Gorbachev went to Czechoslovakiaand – having imbibed the Soviet propaganda about the incident – was shocked tofind factory workers turning their back on him and the rest of the officialRussian delegation to which he belonged. Their reaction hit him hard. He neverforgot the impact that Soviet repression had had.

But in his early years after leaving university Gorbachev was a Communist Party loyalist. His rise in the party was meteoric. By 1960 he was the top official of Komsomol, the Communist YouthOrganisation, in his region. Within another decade he was party leader there.One of the youngest provincial party chiefs in the Soviet Union he built a reputation for simultaneously reforming its collective farms and improving conditions for workers.

By 1980, at the age of just 49, he had become the youngest member of the SovietPolitburo. Then, in just three years, three elderly leaders of the Soviet Union– Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and then Konstantin Chernenko – died in quick succession. The Politburo voted for youth. In March 1985 Gorbachev became theGeneral Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – and the firstSoviet leader who had been born after the Russian Revolution.

As party leader he immediately set about replacing more conservative members of its Central Committee with younger men who shared his vision of a reform-shaped future.

His country was in a poor state. Its economy was backward. Factories and mines were decrepit and taking their toll on the environment, as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 showed. Crime, alcoholism and drugs were out of control inSoviet towns. Social unrest was growing over food shortages. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had become Russia’s Vietnam. And the United States was constantly pushing up the cost of the arms race to levels the Soviet economy could not sustain.

Gorbachev’s big vision was that communism and capitalism could work alongside each other inside the Soviet system. He introduced a number of key buzzwords into the world’s vocabulary. perestroika(restructuring) was code for liberalising the economy, encouraging private ownership, modernising technology and increasing worker productivity. Glasnost(openness) was about loosening the sclerotic Soviet political structures. Demokratizatsiya (democratisation) indicated how the party was to be reformed.And uskoreniye (acceleration) indicated the pace at which transformation was to come.

Changes were obvious on all fronts.Dissident intellectuals, like the human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, were brought out of internal exile and allowed to return to Moscow. Thousands of political prisoners were released. The press became less controlled. The secret ballot was introduced to elections in which multi-party candidates were allowed. Gorbachev even admitted that the 1940 Katyn Massacre, in which 25,000Polish soldiers were executed, was not the work of the Nazis, as Moscow had always claimed, but of Stalin.

Change happened in foreign policy too. A year before he had been elected Soviet leader Gorbachev had undertaken a tour of foreign countries including Belgium, West Germany, Canada and finally, in1984, the United Kingdom where he met the British Prime Minister MargaretThatcher. The Conservative leader was much taken with the charismatic Russian, declaring: “I like Mr Gorbachev; we can do business together”.

The mid-1980s was the era in which the arms race at the heart of the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union reached its height. The US President, Ronald Reagan, had declared the Soviet Union, to be an “evil empire” in 1983. He increased US spending on arms, developing a neutron bomb, cruise missiles and a Star Wars defence system using space satellites.

Gorbachev made an extremely bold move, announcing a proposal to eliminate all immediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe – and the abolition of all nuclear weapons by the year 2000

Gorbachev knew that Russia’s tottering economy could not support that kind of expenditure. He determined to reduceSoviet spending on arms and knew that this could only be done by obtaining the agreement of Reagan that America would do the same.

The West did not know how to react. It became obsessed with debates on whether Gorbachev – with his combination of cleverness, modern-mindedness, Slav nationalism, energy, charm, self-assurance and air of competence and confidence – could be trusted. “In Gorbachev we have an entirely different kind of leader in the Soviet Union than we have experienced before,” the US Secretary of State George Shultz said after meetingGorbachev for the first time.

Just one month after coming to power inMarch 1985, Gorbachev announced the suspension of the deployment of Russian intermediate-range missiles in Europe. In November he met Reagan at a summit in Geneva. The two men struck up a personal relationship.

Then in January 1986 Gorbachev made an extremely bold move, announcing a proposal to eliminate all immediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe – and the abolition of all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Later that year he began withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan.Then in October Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik in Iceland and, in a private meeting with no advisers present, agreed in principle to remove all such weapons from Europe and to limit the number each held globally to 100 warheads each. The world was shocked, and delighted.

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