Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born in the northern Caucasus, studied law at Moscow University and joined the CPSU (Communist Party) in 1952.
From 1955 to 1962 he worked for the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) before being appointed regional agriculture secretary.
As Stavropol party leader from 1970, he impressed Andropov and was brought into the CPSU Secretariat in 1978.
Gorbachev was promoted into the Politburo and in 1983, when Andropov was general secretary, took broader charge of the Soviet economy.
During the Chernenko administration (1984 – 1985) he was chair of the Foreign Affairs Commission. On Chernenko’s death in 1985, he was appointed party leader and served as Soviet president and general secretary of the Communist Party from 1985 to 1991.
He initiated wide-ranging reforms and broad economic restructuring and introduced campaigns against alcoholism, corruption, and inefficiency.
In the 1988 presidential election by members of the Soviet parliament, he was the sole candidate, resulting in him serving as president of the Supreme Soviet from 1988 to 1991.
During this time, he introduced liberal reforms at home – perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) – with the aim of decreasing the authority and corruption of the central government and promoting democracy and greater civil liberties.
The industrial sector was modernised and encouraged to become self-sufficient.
Glasnost involved the lifting of bans on books, plays, and films, the release of political dissidents, the tolerance of religious worship, a reappraisal of Soviet history (de-Stalinisation), the encouragement of investigative journalism to uncover political corruption and the sanctioning of greater candour in the reporting of social problems and disasters (such as Chernobyl).
These moves raised his status with Western leaders, but at home, he was not so fortunate.
Gorbachev radically changed the style of Soviet leadership, encountering opposition to the pace of change from both conservatives and radicals, but failed both to realise the depth of hostility this aroused against him in the CPSU and to distance himself from the party.
Under legislation introduced in 1990, censorship of mass media was abolished; however, publication of state secrets, calls for the overthrow of the state by force, incitement of national or religious hatred, and state interference in people’s private lives were prohibited.
Journalists’ rights to access were enshrined, and the right of reply was instituted. Citizens also finally gained the right to receive information from abroad.
He was elected to the newly created post of president of the Soviet Union in 1990, but the failure of his agricultural policies, the continuing weakness of the Soviet economy, and the desperate shortage of consumer goods rendered him increasingly unpopular, and he was further criticised for using military forces to suppress unrest in Lithuania in 1991.
His plans for economic reform failed to avert a food crisis in the winter of 1990/91 and his desire to preserve a single, centrally controlled USSR met with resistance from Soviet republics seeking more independence. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
As secessionist fervour spread through the Soviet Union, Gorbachev found himself having to tread an uneasy path between the Communist old guard and progressives like Boris Yeltsin, who demanded an acceleration of the pace of reform.
Gorbachev’s response was to accumulate formal power in his own hands, precipitating an attempted Communist takeover in August 1991.
Early in 1991, Gorbachev shifted to the right in order to placate the conservative wing of the party and appointed some of the hardliners to positions of power. In late spring, he produced a plan for a new union treaty to satisfy the demands of reformers.
This plan alarmed the hardliners, who, in late summer, temporarily removed him from office. He was saved from this attempted coup mainly by the efforts of Boris Yeltsin and the ineptitude of the plotters.
Soon after his reinstatement, Gorbachev was obliged to relinquish his leadership of the party, renounce communism as a state doctrine, suspend all activities of the Communist Party (including its most powerful organs, the Politburo and the Secretariat), and surrender many of his central powers to the states.
He continued to press for an agreement on his proposed union treaty in the hope of preventing the disintegration of the Soviet Union but was unable to maintain control, and on 25 December 1991 resigned as president, effectively yielding power to Yeltsin.
He contested the Russian presidential elections in June 1996 but attracted a humiliating 0.5% of the vote.
Out of office, Gorbachev founded a charity – Green Cross International – which focused on the toxic nuclear and environmental legacy of the Cold War.
In his later years, when he was an active campaigner for charity following the death of his wife Raisa to cancer, Gorbachev was a paradoxical figure. Internationally, he was viewed as the hero of the Cold War, whose actions – or lack of them – ushered in a freer world.
In Russia, he was largely reviled and unloved, primarily because he was publicly critical of the unsmiling ex-KGB spy Vladimir Putin, accusing him of turning the United Russia party into a bad copy of the Communist Party and of blatant authoritarianism.
Mikhail Gorbachev died in Moscow on 30 August 2022, aged 91.