In 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end the Cold War. Time Magazine named him Man of the Year and Man of the Decade. Former President Richard Nixon believed the Soviet leader should have been named Man of the Century for "risk[ing] his power…to save his reforms." But in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev could not control the reforms he had implemented, poor economic conditions worsened instead of improved, and he was eventually driven out of power.
Mikhail Gorbachev was born to peasants on March 2, 1931, in the famine-stricken Caucasus region. In 1950 he received a coveted invitation to Moscow State University, where he studied law and joined the Communist Party. He became a full member in 1952.
Gorbachev did not rise in the ranks of the Kremlin hierarchy until 1982, when premier Yuri Andropov adopted him as his protégé. On March 11, 1985, following the deaths of Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party. At 54, younger and healthier than his predecessors, the reform-minded Gorbachev was openly critical of Party excesses.
Gorbachev inherited from his predecessors severe domestic problems and an escalated Cold War. In 1983, to protect against the Soviet nuclear threat, Ronald Reagan had approved massive military buildup and proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), believing that only defense, not the threat of mutual annihilation, could prevent nuclear war. An expensive arms race in space threatened to tax a weak Soviet economy and overwhelm Soviet technological capabilities.
Domestically, Gorbachev began to implement reforms that he hoped would improve living standards and worker productivity. By adding a measure of democratic freedoms, he hoped to achieve glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructure). Gorbachev established ties with Western leaders, underscoring the common interests of Soviets and Europeans by discussing missile reductions.
But Reagan didn't trust the Soviet Union. In 1983 he had labeled the Soviet Union "the evil empire." Two years later, at the first arms summit in Geneva, Gorbachev put a human face on the enemy for the President. That November, Reagan said of Gorbachev, "There was warmth in his face and his style, not the coldness bordering on hatred I'd seen in most senior Soviet officials I'd met until then." He sensed then "the moral dimension in Gorbachev." Gorbachev, in turn, called Reagan a great American and a great leader.
In the three years and four summits that followed, Gorbachev and Reagan worked toward ending the Cold War, and developed a warm relationship. But there would be setbacks. When a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded on April 26, 1986, the Soviet Union did not provide a full account of the accident until May 14. Gorbachev's commitment to glasnost was questioned when he failed to apologize for the disaster in his long-overdue address.
In the 1985 Geneva summit, progress on arms control had foundered over Gorbachev's insistence on scrapping SDI, and Reagan's commitment to its development. The October 1986 summit between Reagan and Gorbachev, in Reykjavik, Iceland, also ended in a stalemate. At this second summit, Reagan still refused to budge on SDI, and Gorbachev refused to make further concessions without compromise. But at the third summit, in Washington, DC, in December 1987, Gorbachev yielded to Reagan's terms. The USSR was in dire economic straits, and Gorbachev needed a respite from the arms race.
When Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in Washington, in 1987, the first treaty to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, the United States and Western Europe rejoiced. Later when they called each other "friend" in Moscow, many saw it as "the ratification of their mutual desire for peace." For the Soviet Union, however, the end of the Cold War triggered new problems. Gorbachev's economic reforms were failing, and the far-flung Soviet republics were using glasnost to demand independence.
By the time Gorbachev was elected president in the USSR's first multi-candidate elections in March 1989, his popularity was in sharp decline. Rather than boosting the Soviet economy, his democratic reforms had an unintended outcome: the collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe. Receiving the Nobel Prize did nothing to raise Gorbachev in his people's esteem, and in 1991 Gorbachev was kidnapped by hard-line Communists in an armed coup. He was restored to power with the help of his enemy Boris Yeltsin, but Gorbachev's leadership was irreparably damaged. On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union, but only after dissolving it.
Two years after his resignation, Gorbachev founded Green Cross International. In GCI Gorbachev created a mechanism for converting military bases to civilian use, remedying the effects of nuclear contamination (particularly on children), and destroying chemical weapons stockpiles in an environmentally responsible way.
In 1996 Gorbachev ran for reelection but received only about one percent of the vote. Just as America has not forgotten Gorbachev, neither has Russia; the two countries simply remember different things.
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?