Gorbachev rose through the Communist ranks to become a reforming titan of 20th-century politics

Like the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, and his Soviet predecessor, Tsar Nicholas II, before him, Mikhail Gorbachev oversaw the collapse of a once-great power.

The eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, who died at the age of 91, did not fight his reformist side until the communist state’s dissolution in 1991.

In fact, Gorbachev signed his own letter of resignation just six years after taking office and a single year after winning the country’s only presidential election.

He took over a turmoil-shrouded Soviet Union in 1985 – eventually laying the groundwork for the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the rise of present-day President Vladimir Putin at the turn of the millennium.

Gorbachev was promoted to general secretary in 1985 on promises of revolutionary anti-Stalinist reforms, and though his efforts to shore up an ailing Soviet Union failed, he ultimately helped end the Cold War with the US.

Ronald Reagan (L) and Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev (R) at the first summit in Geneva, Switzerland, November 19, 1985

Ronald Reagan (L) and Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev (R) at the first summit in Geneva, Switzerland, November 19, 1985

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born in 1931 in the remote village of Privolnoye in southwestern Russia during the rule of Joseph Stalin.

Although his grandfather realized Stalin’s dream of collectivization by establishing the village’s first communal farm, the Soviet famine of 1932-33, in which forced crop requisitions killed an estimated five million people, was an early memory for the future Soviet leader.

Two of Gorbachev’s uncles and an aunt were killed in the shortage and both his grandfathers were sent to the notorious Gulag labor camps a few years later.

This did not prevent his family from championing the communist cause – Gorbachev’s father, Sergei, received the prestigious Order of Lenin for harvesting over 800,000 kg of grain in 1948.

This enabled Gorbachev, who had excelled both academically and politically during his childhood, to be admitted to the Moscow State University in 1950 to study law without a single exam.

It was here that he met his wife, Raisa, who later became an ardent lecturer in Marxist-Leninist philosophy before assuming the post of First Lady.

The couple sent daughter Irina to what she called an “ordinary” school in Stavropol, rather than one reserved for party officials.

Stalin’s eventual death in 1953 brought Gorbachev’s newfound hero to the fore when Nikita Khrushchev, arguably the first “reformer” of the Soviet leadership, took over as First Secretary of the Communist Party.

The initial “de-Stalinization” of the Soviet Union lasted only 11 years, with Gorbachev quietly working his way up through political office.

Rising through the ranks under Leonid Brezhnev, he initially headed the Stavropol Territory for seven years before being promoted to the coveted Central Committee in 1978.

Mikhail Gorbachev meets with workers at the Peugeot factory near Paris during his visit to France in October 1985

Mikhail Gorbachev meets with workers at the Peugeot factory near Paris during his visit to France in October 1985

When he became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, Gorbachev was finally able to flex his reformist muscles without fear of retaliation from the party’s hardliners.

“Glasnost” or “openness” – introduced in 1986 – was a key ideological turn in Soviet thought and represented a stark contrast to Stalin’s authoritarian rule.

Freedom of the press and freedom of expression first became possible in the minds of citizens when Gorbachev implemented various anti-corruption measures and encouraged an inspection of the Kremlin.

It failed to win the Soviet leader fans among hard-liners in the Communist Party, but it did launch Gorbachev’s groundbreaking “perestroika” or reconstruction plan as more liberal reforms were introduced – much to the delight of then-US President George W. Bush.

He let go of Stalin in a furious tirade in 1987, saying: “To be true to historical truth, we must see both Stalin’s undeniable contribution to the struggle for socialism and the abuses committed by him and those around him, for which our people hold a high paid the price and had serious consequences for the life of our society.

“The guilt of Stalin and his immediate entourage before the party and the people for the widespread repression and acts of lawlessness is enormous and unforgivable.”

The Soviet Union had abandoned its dreams of becoming a global socialist superpower and instead liberalized and consolidated under Gorbachev.

He took the unprecedented step of withdrawing troops from the disastrous Afghan invasion of 1988 after the Soviet Union invaded the nation nine years earlier as part of the Cold War.

His isolationism – combined with “glasnost” – arguably inspired the 1989 revolutions in which the people of Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany rose up against Moscow.

The Brezhnev Doctrine allowed the Kremlin to intervene in any socialist state—but Gorbachev all but abandoned politics, which meant citizens could rise up without fear of oppression.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who died at the age of 91, talks to US President Ronald Reagan in 1985

Mikhail Gorbachev, who died at the age of 91, talks to US President Ronald Reagan in 1985

But amid the fury of the traditional wing of the Communist Party, Gorbachev said simply in 1988: “The Soviet people want full-blooded and unconditional democracy.”

In Gorbachev’s camp, this meant further yielding to NATO and restoring ties with the US.

In 1985 he met the then US President Ronald Reagan for the first time in Geneva and at three subsequent summits laid the foundation for closer relations between Washington and Moscow – and ultimately for the end of the Cold War.

Two decades after the first landmark meeting, he would describe Reagan as “a great president with whom the Soviet leadership was able to have a very difficult but important dialogue.”

After easily winning the presidency in 1990, he proposed plans for further decentralization and privatization of the economy.

However, this meant that the reformist leader ended up caught between the old guard and new liberal challenger Boris Yeltsin, both of whom urged the leadership to choose between binary communism and capitalism.

It was Yeltsin who finally ushered his country into a new era – something political scientist Francis Fukuyama called “The End of History” – and Gorbachev out of office.

Months later, Yeltsin — believed to be backed by Washington — signed a decree along with eleven leaders of the republic dissolving the Soviet Union.

However, the last Soviet leader did not simply disappear from politics.

A harsh Putin critic, he said in 2016 that the current president was governing through “friends from school, with people he played football with, on the same street.”

The expiration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in August 2019 – after 32 years of operation – was a reminder of Gorbachev’s rare ability to seek peace with the US – something neither his predecessors nor his successors matched.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11162257/Gorbachev-rose-Communist-ranks-reforming-titan-20th-Century-politics.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 Gorbachev rose through the Communist ranks to become a reforming titan of 20th-century politics

Andrew Kugle

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