Gorbachev, last leader of the USSR (1985-1991)

Gorbachev, last leader of the USSR (1985-1991)

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Short biography - Gorbachev. In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev young (54 years) rising figure of the Communist Party of Soviet Union becomes secretary general of the party and takes in hand the destinies of the second superpower of the time. Gorbachev contrasts sharply with his predecessors. Young, modern in appearance, he is seen as a moderate supporter of reducing tensions with the United States. Powerless in the face of the rise of social and political protest, too attached to the rescue of theUSSR and the internal reform of socialism, it will not survive the breakup of the USSR.

A career of apparatchik

Born March 2, 1931 near Stavropol in Russia, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, of humble origin, studied law and married a philosophy student, Raïssa Titorenko. In 1952 he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and began a political career there. A pure product of the Soviet system, he climbed all the levels: he acceded to the Supreme Soviet in 1970 and then to the Central Committee of the CPSU in 1971. After having been Minister of Agriculture, he finally entered the political bureau (politburo) in 1980, where he quickly became a potential successor to Brezhnev.

But Gorbachev is too young and has to let the old guard (Andropov, Chernenko) pass before rising to the highest office. Finally in 1985, he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which allows him to take the effective direction of affairs and radically overhaul the CPSU apparatus. His modern and "liberal" style contrasts with that of his predecessors, but the "young" leader of the USSR will quickly be confronted with a bleak reality.

A breathless system

Gorbachev is indeed inheriting a country in crisis. The USSR remains a great power, however weakened by its economy of scarcity and by afghanistan war, hampered by the rise of protest movements in the Soviet bloc and by the decline of its influence on the Third World. Well aware of the difficulties of the economic situation of his country (productivity at half mast, agricultural decline, exorbitant weight of the military-industrial complex, scientific backwardness on the United States, health problems etc ...) he proposes to set up a ambitious plan of reform, intended neither more or less to save the Soviet Union from its own demons.

Gorbachev tries to reform Soviet society by launching a program known as the perestroika, ("Restructuring") for the economic aspects and glasnost ("Transparency") for political and cultural affairs. Its multiple initiatives break with more than fifty years of arbitrary and monopolistic rule. From 1987, he allowed the return to freedom of the press, one year after having undertaken the rehabilitation of dissidents and victims of the Stalinist purges.

In 1986-1987, he initiated an economic reform which went through the recognition of the role of the market and of private property. On the political level, he put an end to the one-party regime (1988), which liberalized the political game.

Gorbachev: a popular leader ... in the West

Gorbachev's popularity, however, is more international than national. He is the man who buries the Cold War. On the external level, detente with the United States takes the form of spectacular gestures: from the withdrawal and end of the war in Afghanistan to the reduction of nuclear armaments by signing a set ofgun control agreements with US President Ronald Reagan and his successor George Bush (1985-1991). At the same time, its political management is emulated among popular democracies. "Gorby's" action and his support for opposition movements played a key role in the democratic revolutions of 1989 which led to the end of communist regimes from Eastern Europe. He will do nothing to oppose the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the reunification of Germany initiated by Helmut Kohl will be done in spite of himself.

In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded a Nobel Prize of Peace awarded for all of its international work.

Towards the collapse of the USSR

The same year, he became president of the USSR and transfers power from the Communist Party to elected legislative assemblies in the republics. However, the Soviet economy is still weakening, and no convincing results emerge from perestroika. Gorbachev faces strong political pressure. The intransigent Communists resent the idea of ​​having lost the monopoly on the Soviet Union. The champions of the market economy are calling for more radical reforms. The nationalists demand the independence of their republics.

Gorbachev's popularity is collapsing and he faces competition from Boris Yeltsin, elected by universal suffrage on June 12, 1991 as President of Russia. On August 19, 1991, while on vacation in his dacha in the Crimea, Gorbachev suffered a attempted coup led by a few conservative Communist officers and caciques. Yeltsin and his reformist supporters successfully oppose the plot that fails three days later. It is a physically and politically diminished Gorbachev who is brought back to Moscow thanks to his rival Boris Yeltsin.

Gorbachev, last president of the USSR

A vast purge is carried out in the apparatus of the Communist Party and nothing can oppose the dismantling of the USSR. At the end of December 1991 the Soviet Union, which had become little more than a legal fiction, completely collapsed. On December 25 and in a twilight atmosphere, Mikhail Gorbachev announces his resignation during a final televised address.

Gorbachev who will have favored freedom of expression and put an end to the monopoly on power of the CPSU, will thus have allowed an opposition (nationalist and liberal) to express itself and win the support of a population disoriented by the reforms. Between the partisans of a return to authoritarian socialism and those of the dismantling of the Red Empire, Gorbachev's middle path will never have won over the masses.

Once again a simple citizen, Gorbachev attempted a return to politics during the Russian presidential election in 1996, where he met with a resounding failure. Considered the "gravedigger" of the USSR, he remained very unpopular in his country. He then devoted himself mainly to its foundation and to writing, giving numerous conferences abroad. In 2019, Mikhail Gorbachev published a work in the form of a political will, the future of the global world, in which he is alarmed by the danger of a new world war and the devastating consequences of global warming.


- Gorbachev, biography of Bernard Lecomte. Perrin, 2014.

- Memoirs, by Mikhail Gorbachev. Editions du rocher, 1995.

- Six years that changed the world 1985-1991: The fall of the Soviet Empire, by Hélène Carrère d'Encausse. Fayard, 2015.

Video: History of USSR 1985-1991