Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev Biography

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General Secretary

In 1984, Gorbachev’s mentor at the Kremlin, Yuri Andropov, general secretary of the Communist Party, died. An important year in Gorbachev's timeline, 1984 was also when he first met Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of Great Britain, with whom he would develop a strong relationship. In 1985, when Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, also died, Gorbachev was elected general secretary of the Communist Party. Gorbachev inherited the issues that Andropov and Chernenko had been struggling to tackle, including serious domestic problems and escalating Cold War tensions. But Gorbachev’s youthful energy and enthusiasm gave the Soviet Union hope that a new generation of leaders geared toward positive change had taken charge.

During his term as general secretary, Gorbachev was engaged with U.S. president Ronald Reagan in a costly race to amass nuclear weapons in space. The expense put further stress on the already suffering Soviet economy. Gorbachev worked diligently to create reforms that he believed would improve the Soviet standard of living. By providing more freedom and democracy to Soviets, he strove toward “glasnost” and “perestroika,” openness and restructure. He worked toward establishing a market economy that was more socially oriented. Gorbachev’s reforms were also geared toward increasing productivity and reducing waste.

Even a couple of years prior to his appointment, Gorbachev had attempted to improve Soviet relations with the leaders of Western nations. Ronald Reagan was initially distrustful, but when he met with Gorbachev at the first Geneva arms summit in November 1985, Reagan was surprised to find that “there was warmth in [Gorbachev’s] face and style.” Reagan recognized “a moral dimension in Gorbachev.” Thatcher said of the Soviet leader, "I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together." Over the next three years, Reagan and Gorbachev met at four additional summits, during which their relationship further warmed as they collaborated on bringing the Cold War to a close. Besides Reagan and Thatcher, during this period Gorbachev also cultivated strong ties with West German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Unfortunately, U.S.-Soviet relations took a major hit when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986. The Soviet Union failed to release a full report until more than two weeks after the event. In light of Gorbachev’s policy of “openness,” some considered his reaction hypocritical.

During the 1985 summit in Geneva and the October 1986 Reykjavik summit, the strain between Gorbachev and Reagan was apparent.The two disagreed over the development of a Strategic Defense Initiative, which Reagan wanted and Gorbachev didn't. Both summits ended in stalemates. At the end of 1987, Gorbachev gave in to Reagan’s argument. At this point, the Soviet Union’s economy was in crisis. Gorbachev’s economic reforms weren’t working. In 1987, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the first-ever mutual agreement on nuclear weapons reduction. The Soviet Union welcomed some desperately needed relief from the expenses of the space race.

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