Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, to a Russian-Ukrainian family in the village of Privolnoye, in the Krasnogvardeisky District near the Stavropol Territory of southern Russia.
Gorbachev’s parents were peasants. His father, Sergei, operated a combine harvester for a living. Sergei was drafted into the Russian Army when the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941. Three years later, he was wounded in action and returned home to resume operating farm machinery. Sergei passed on his experience with a combine harvester to his young son, Mikhail. Mikhail Gorbachev was a quick learner and showed an aptitude for mechanics.
As a teenager, Gorbachev contributed to the family’s income by driving tractors at a local machine station. So hard a worker was he that, by the age of 17, Gorbachev was the youngest ever to win the Order of the Red Banner of Labor for his active role in bringing in that year’s bumper crop. Gorbachev’s mother, Maria, exemplified this tireless work ethic with her lifelong toil on a collective farm.
The political climate during Mikhail Gorbachev’s upbringing was turbulent. In the 1930s, when Gorbachev was still very young, he suffered the trauma of seeing his maternal grandfather, Pantelei Gopkalo, arrested during the Great Purge. Gopkalo was accused of being a Trotskyite counterrevolutionary and was imprisoned and tortured for 14 months. To his family’s great relief, he was spared execution.
The economic climate during Mikhail Gorbachev’s childhood was also one of turmoil. In 1933, southern Russia endured a major drought. Since the region depended on farming for both food and income, its residents suffered from famine, and many died of starvation.
As a child, Gorbachev had a passion for learning. When he graduated from high school with a silver medal in 1950, his father persuaded him to continue on to university. Gorbachev’s academic record was stellar, and he was accepted into Moscow University, the premier school in the Soviet Union, without having to take the entrance exam. The university even provided him with free living accommodations at a nearby hostel. Gorbachev graduated from Moscow University cum laude with a law degree in 1955 and shortly afterward returned to his hometown with his new wife, Raisa, a fellow Moscow University alumnus.