Mikhail Gorbachev

Born to Russian peasants in 1931, Mikhail Gorbachev grew up under Stalin’s regime. At the age of 15, he joined the Komsomol, or “Youth Communist League,” and drove a combine harvester at a state-run farm in his hometown. Local party officials recognized his promise and sent him to law school at Moscow State University, where he became an active Communist Party member.

Journeys abroad gradually made Gorbachev critical of the inefficient Soviet system, further strained when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and he quickly ascended the ladder of power. He became the youngest full member of the Politburo, then the highest executive committee in the Soviet Union. In 1985, after two general secretaries of the Politburo died within a year of each other, the Party was looking for fresh, new leadership.

On March 11, 1985, the Politburo elected Mikhail Gorbachev general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and he set about installing bold reforms. Domestically, he pushed the Soviet bureaucracy to be more efficient, to increase worker production, and to rapidly modernize. When his efforts yielded few results, Gorbachev instituted even broader reforms, including “glasnost” (“openness”), to promote free expression and information, and “perestroika” (“change”), which encouraged democratic processes and free-market ideas to take hold in Soviet economic and political life.

Gorbachev also worked for warmer relations and new trade partners abroad. In 1987, he and U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed an agreement calling for both sides to destroy all their intermediate-range nuclear-tipped missiles. In 1989, Gorbachev openly supported reformist groups in Eastern European Soviet-bloc countries and informed their communist leaders that in the event of a revolution, he would not intervene. He thus started a chain reaction that led to the fall of communism in Europe.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Cold War between East and West—45 years of geopolitical tension—was brought to a halt. President Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his leading role in the peace process, and by that summer, he agreed to a reunification of East and West Germany. As power quickly shifted to new political parties, Gorbachev dismantled large swaths of the political structure throughout the Soviet Union. On December 25, 1991, the day he resigned, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Mikhail Gorbachev helped bring an end to the Cold War and reduced the threat of nuclear conflict, but opinions on him remain deeply divided. In a 2017 survey, nearly half of Russian citizens had a negative opinion toward him, often citing his inability to reverse the decline in the Soviet economy during his leadership. And yet, many, particularly in Western countries, see him as the greatest statesman of the second half of the 20th century—a reformer and a visionary.