Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has passed away. News reports around the world described him as one of the most influential political figures of all time. Today, let’s discuss how Gorbachev rose to such a powerful position, his influence as a leader, and his legacy today!
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Breakup (n) – the division of something into smaller parts
The breakup of the oil tanker caused severe damage to the environment
Legacy (n) – something that is a part of your history or that remains from an earlier time
The war has left a legacy of hatred
To eclipse (v) – to make another person or thing seem much less important, good, or famous
The economy has eclipsed all other issues during this election
Innovation (n) – a new idea or method
What is the next innovation in computer technology?
Repression (n) – the use of force or violence to control a group of people
The political repression in this country is enforced by terror
To crush (v) – to defeat someone completely
The president used the army to crush the rebellion
Catastrophe (n) – a sudden event that causes very great trouble or destruction
The war has been a catastrophe
To restructure (v) – to organize a company, business, or system in a new way to make it operate more effectively
The department is currently undergoing a restructure
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Mikhail Gorbachev died at the age of 91 last week, after a long illness. Gorbachev was one of the most influential, important, and significant political leaders of the 20th century. And as the final president of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was in charge of the breakup of the country that had dominated Asia and Eastern Europe.
His death was met by condolences from around the world. US President Joe Biden described him as “a man of remarkable vision.” French President Emmanuel Macron called Gorbachev “a man of peace whose choices opened a path to freedom for Russians,” while Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, stated he had “opened the way for a free Europe.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin also sent his condolences and said Gorbachev “has a huge impact on the course of world history.” In reality, however, Gorbachev is far more popular outside of his homeland than within. He clashed ideologically with Putin, and his legacy in Russia is both complicated and controversial.
Today, I want to talk about why Gorbachev is considered one of the most influential politicians of all time. Let’s talk about his background, the politics of the Soviet Union, and how Gorbachev’s actions led to the end of the Cold War! And at the same time, let’s practice some useful vocabulary!
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Born in 1931 in the Stavropol region of Southern Russia, no one could have expected Mikhail Sergeyebich Gorbachev would become such an influential international figure. His parents worked on collective farms, and the young Gorbachev spent his teenage years driving combine harvesters (a type of farm machinery).
In 1946, he joined Komsomol (Young Communist League) and became a full member of the Communist Party after enrolling in the law school of Moscow State University. After graduating, Gorbachev had a variety of different roles in Communist Party organsiations in his home region – and eventually became the first secretary of the regional party committee in 1970.
The following year, Gorbachev became part of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Central Committee was originally one of the most important organisations within the government of the Soviet Union. Immediately after the revolution of 1917, and under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, the Central Committee was actually the highest authority in the country. It was the executive branch, and according to Soviet laws was responsible for all communist party and government activities.
In reality, after the death of Lenin and during the rule of Stalin, the Central Committee was eclipsed by the Politburo – a small elite group of senior Communists. By the time Gorbachev became a Central Committee member in the 1970s, the role of the organisation was quite limited! However, Gorbachev was part of a new generation of younger communists who were unhappy with the policies of older officials. He gained a reputation for introducing new innovations in his region and became a highly influential leader.
In 1978 Gorbachev was made the party secretary of agriculture, and in 1980 became a full member of the Politburo – the most important decision-making organisation in the country. During the 1980s, the Soviet Union struggled without a long term or stable leader. Yury Andropov lasted 14 months as General Secretary of the Communist Party between 1982 and 1984 – and during this time Gorbachev became known as a highly active and visible member of the organisation.
He began travelling around the world meeting other world leaders on behalf of the Soviet Union. One famous meeting occurred in London in 1984, where he met with British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher. Thatcher famously said “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.”
Andropov was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko in February 1984, and Gorbachev was seen as next in line. When Chernenko passed away in 1985, Gorbachev was elected as General Secretary – or the leader of the Soviet Union. He was the youngest member of the Politburo and the first leader born after the 1917 revolution – the first leader born while the Soviet Union existed.
What were Glasnost and Perestroika?
Gorbachev is known as the leader who presided over the breakup of the Soviet Union – but this was never his intention or wish. Gorbachev was a committed communist after all. Instead, Gorbachev wanted to revive and strengthen his country.
The Soviet economy was struggling – in fact it was on the verge of collapse. The Party was corrupt, secretive, and slow. Gorbachev, as a younger and more innovative communist, understood the major reforms were needed. His solution to the economic problems was “perestroika” and “glasnost” – which are now two of the most famous Russian words around the world.
Gorbachev believed the Soviet Union needed openness and reform, or in Russian glasnost and perestroika. He did not exactly want democratisation, as he was a committed socialist and believed in communism. However, Gorbachev realised that years of repression and secrecy by the Communist Party had caused corruption and inefficiency throughout the country. To save socialism, Gorbachev believed change was needed.
He opened the economy slightly, allowing elements of a market economy. There were elections to the Congress – free and democratic elections. He believed the economy needed to be restructured and Soviet society needed to be more open.
The Eastern bloc is the name given to Eastern European communist countries – ranging from East Germany and Czechoslovakia to Romania and Bulgaria. From the end of WW2 onwards, the Soviet Union had acted quickly to stop any form of protest or uprising among its eastern allies – most famously crushing protests in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Gorbachev, however, was known to dislike violence. He had aimed to end the cold war by signing treaties with the US to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in Europe. He also ended the Soviet’s unsuccessful war in Afghanistan. And he allowed the Eastern bloc countries to choose their own path and have independence. In 1989, citizens of East Germany, perhaps the most committed Soviet ally, crossed freely into West Berlin for the first time in decades.
We often think of the Soviet Union as being synonymous with Russia… but that is not quite accurate. Of course, Russia was the largest and most influential part of country, but the Soviet Union was actually made up of many individual “republics” – and some of these republics wanted independence just like the Eastern bloc countries.
Although Gorbachev did not want the Soviet Union to break up, eventually he had to make a choice – allow the different Soviet republics to choose their own future or stop their independence with violence. At first, Soviet soldiers attempted to crush protests in Georgia and Lithuania… but eventually Gorbachev made the decision to let the republics leave. Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – the Soviet Union became these countries.
Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 “for the leading role he played in the radical changes in East-West relations.” A year later, a group of senior communists in Moscow arrested Gorbachev while he was on vacation, and Boris Yeltsin took the opportunity to become leader of Russia.
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Gorbachev’s Influence and Legacy
In the years after his leadership, Gorbachev remained an influential poltical figure. But he was significantly more popular internationally than in Russia. In the 1990s, he was constantly meeting with world leaders and winning numerous international awards but received less than 5% of votes when he ran for Russian presidency in 1996.
Unlike most Russian presidents, Gorbachev never became involved in corruption – he never tried to become a mega-rich oligarch. If you remember an episode, I recorded a few months ago titled “what is an oligarchy?”, you’d notice that Gorbachev’s name was never mentioned… while Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin have enriched themselves Gorbachev was more interested in reforming the country.
In recent years, virtually all of Gorbachev’s reforms have been cancelled or repealed by Putin. The idea openness is clearly gone – there is no respect for free speech or laws in Putin’s Russia.
Vladimir Putin once described the end of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” This may be true… for Russia. But for the Eastern European former communist countries and a few other former Soviet republics, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the best possible thing.
Germany, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Bulgaria, and other countries are far more free and economically strong now than during the Soviet era. Even if they are not perfect countries… their citizens would definitely not choose to be controlled by Russia again. And Russia could also have been successful – but Yeltsin sold off Russia’s resources and Putin became the chief kleptocrat.
Unfortunately, Gorbachev’s legacy has acted as a warning for dictators around the world. Gorbachev tried to give the people a little freedom and reform, but the people wanted more. China, in particular, decided to restructure their economy but not allow any of the openness Gorbachev believed in. While Gorbachev was allowing Eastern Europe their independence in 1989, China was brutally crushing protesters in Tiananmen Square.
People don’t like being led by corrupt and untouchable elites – and if given the choice people will usually choose a different government. Dictators around the world have learned not to give people a choice, as it was freedom and choices that caused the end of the USSR.
Gorbachev intended to push the Soviet Union towards a more peaceful and successful future – without violence, tension with America, corruption, and secrecy. In the end, his reforms were impossible without destroying the country he loved!
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With the recent death of Mikhail Gorbachev, I thought it would be nice to look a little his history, influence, and legacy. Gorbachev is certainly one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century – but it was never his intention to break up the Soviet Union.
His journey from a poor farmer to leader of the Soviet Union was motivated by his desire for reforms – he knew the Soviet Union was broken and he believed he could fix the issues with openness and restructuring.
Today, he is respected around the world, but in Russia his legacy is complicated. The end of the Soviet Union is an embarrassment for many Russians – many of whom blame Gorbachev directly for the collapse.
What do you think? What is your opinion of Mikhail Gorbachev? Who is your country’s most influential politician?
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