170. Who was Gorbachev? (English Vocabulary Lesson)



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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Vocabulary List

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.

Mikhail Gorbachev – Wikimedia Commons

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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Gorbachev’s Background

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.

Collective Farm – Picryl

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.

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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.

Gorbachev & Thatcher – Wikimedia Commons

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.

Gorbachev and Putin – Wikimedia Commons

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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Final Thought

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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9 responses to “170. Who was Gorbachev? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”

  1. Thanks, it was a useful, actually I Don’t think that this man was a hero, he has the possibility the make more changes than they done. But in his situation things were very complicated for this I would like to said : thanks Gorbachev even everything.
    I really like episodes that they treat historical events try to do more like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He was most disgusting traitor in Russian history no matter how you put it. In your podcast you told about that person (and Putin)only from one point of view which was not objective. Besides, do you know what kind of INFLUENCE was that for US?! Wars in Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, minor conflicts in Central Asia and Cechnya takes millions of lives in total. You said it wasn’t his decision to destroy USSR but his first decision as head of State Council (created in 1990-1991) was to give independence to 3 Baltic states countries which was made in violation of USSR constitution? Why didn’t he do it according to it which was possible?

      To conclure, imagine your prime minister gives independence to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales without following British law. How would you call it? Treason or making world a better place?

      Like

      • Thank you for your perspective! I wanted to mention how his actions had consequences around the world – and while you obviously disagree with Gorbachev’s decisions, you cannot deny he was influential. I try to be objective, but there will always be something that someone disagrees with!

        Like

  2. Everything that you, Tom, told in your issue is just a smoothed out official version of Gorbachev’s deeds, which they like to replicate in the West. Many people who, like me, grew up under Gorbachev’s rule have a different opinion and conclusions about that era and this political person. Firstly, I want to advise everyone to get rid of this naive idea as soon as possible that there are politicians of the highest rank who care about everything that they declare in order to please the common people. This is a naive view, childish. The sooner this happens, the sooner your eyes will be opened to what happened, is happening and, unfortunately, will happen in the political history of mankind.

    With regard to Gorbachev, it looks like this. By the mid-80s of the last century, it became obvious that the top party leadership and many lower-ranking officials lived in the USSR in completely different conditions than ordinary people. Many of them became illegal millionaires and very influential people who were not at all satisfied with the official communist ideology with its dogmas of universal equality. Under plausible pretexts, a series of large-scale reforms was started, which became known as Perestroika. In fact, many of these reforms were completely ridiculous in nature, which caused misunderstanding and dull irritation among the people. For example, it was Gorbachev’s initiative to introduce a semblance of dry law, when excellent wineries in the Crimea and Kuban were destroyed in the country under this decision. Surely you did not know this, like most people in the West?

    As the process of Perestroika (often referred to as “Destroyka” among educated people) developed, the economy collapsed quite rapidly, and an illegal so-called black market flourished. In ordinary stores it became impossible to buy the simplest products for daily use, but on the black market it was possible to buy almost everything, but several times more expensive. Sometimes the state showed from time to time that, with the help of the police and the KGB, it was destroying such markets and imprisoning illegal businessmen, but gradually all this came to naught, and in 1991 the laws of the uncontrolled market took their toll.

    Among the people the attitude towards Gorbachev changed from his almost complete acceptance to scornful laughter and jokes about him and his wife Raisa Gorbacheva. By the way, Mikhail Gorbachev spoke rather illiterately, had a rural accent, typical for the southern regions of Russia, and in some words he flagrantly incorrectly stressed. Some of these words have become memes. For example, the word “thinking” (put the stress in this word on the last syllable and you will get an approximate picture of how Gorbachev pronounced some words).

    Final thought
    Gorbachev, from the point of view of many Russians who happened to live during his reign, was a fairly typical party functionary who, by the will of fate, managed to break into the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR and cook up his career there. Expressing the general desire of party and other major officials to legalize their ambitions, Gorbachev and his associates started reforms that allowed the USSR to move from a planned to a market economy with all the ensuing consequences. Including the legalization of private ownership of land, means of production, transport companies, etc. Thanks to the gradual rejection of rigid communist economic and political dogmas, rapprochement with the countries of the West became possible. Naturally, Gorbachev simultaneously dressed these processes in a beautiful wrapper in the form of general disarmament, global detente in international relations, etc., and Western politicians played along with him, since they also saw undoubted benefits for themselves in these processes. Unfortunately, we are ruled by hardened cynics and they will paint any process with exactly the colors they need to serve the current agenda to suit the needs of big business and politics, as needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Trixter! Thanks for your comment – I always try to keep my episodes around 20 minutes in length so there was of course a lot of detail I missed out on. I didn’t mean to suggest that Gorbachev was a good leader (I don’t think I did) but rather that his policies destroyed the Soviet economy and allowed people more space to protest and express frustration!

      Living under that situation obviously means you have a different perspective than us outsiders – for us the end of the USSR was the end of the Cold War and the opening of Europe. For Soviet citizens it was the beginning of decades of financial, political, and social problems. I should have made this clearer!

      Like

      • Yes, I live in Russia, in Moscow.

        Is it better to live now than then? This is a difficult question to which I cannot have a definitive answer. If only because during the reign of Gorbachev I was a child and my perception of reality was different than now. And even in a retrospective look at that era, already from the point of view of an adult, I see the ambiguity of that era. Then there were advantages that no longer exist, but now there is more advanced medicine, a global information environment and other advantages that scientific and technological progress gives us.

        Liked by 1 person

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9 responses to “170. Who was Gorbachev? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”

  1. Thanks, it was a useful, actually I Don’t think that this man was a hero, he has the possibility the make more changes than they done. But in his situation things were very complicated for this I would like to said : thanks Gorbachev even everything.
    I really like episodes that they treat historical events try to do more like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He was most disgusting traitor in Russian history no matter how you put it. In your podcast you told about that person (and Putin)only from one point of view which was not objective. Besides, do you know what kind of INFLUENCE was that for US?! Wars in Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, minor conflicts in Central Asia and Cechnya takes millions of lives in total. You said it wasn’t his decision to destroy USSR but his first decision as head of State Council (created in 1990-1991) was to give independence to 3 Baltic states countries which was made in violation of USSR constitution? Why didn’t he do it according to it which was possible?

      To conclure, imagine your prime minister gives independence to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales without following British law. How would you call it? Treason or making world a better place?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your perspective! I wanted to mention how his actions had consequences around the world – and while you obviously disagree with Gorbachev’s decisions, you cannot deny he was influential. I try to be objective, but there will always be something that someone disagrees with!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Everything that you, Tom, told in your issue is just a smoothed out official version of Gorbachev’s deeds, which they like to replicate in the West. Many people who, like me, grew up under Gorbachev’s rule have a different opinion and conclusions about that era and this political person. Firstly, I want to advise everyone to get rid of this naive idea as soon as possible that there are politicians of the highest rank who care about everything that they declare in order to please the common people. This is a naive view, childish. The sooner this happens, the sooner your eyes will be opened to what happened, is happening and, unfortunately, will happen in the political history of mankind.

    With regard to Gorbachev, it looks like this. By the mid-80s of the last century, it became obvious that the top party leadership and many lower-ranking officials lived in the USSR in completely different conditions than ordinary people. Many of them became illegal millionaires and very influential people who were not at all satisfied with the official communist ideology with its dogmas of universal equality. Under plausible pretexts, a series of large-scale reforms was started, which became known as Perestroika. In fact, many of these reforms were completely ridiculous in nature, which caused misunderstanding and dull irritation among the people. For example, it was Gorbachev’s initiative to introduce a semblance of dry law, when excellent wineries in the Crimea and Kuban were destroyed in the country under this decision. Surely you did not know this, like most people in the West?

    As the process of Perestroika (often referred to as “Destroyka” among educated people) developed, the economy collapsed quite rapidly, and an illegal so-called black market flourished. In ordinary stores it became impossible to buy the simplest products for daily use, but on the black market it was possible to buy almost everything, but several times more expensive. Sometimes the state showed from time to time that, with the help of the police and the KGB, it was destroying such markets and imprisoning illegal businessmen, but gradually all this came to naught, and in 1991 the laws of the uncontrolled market took their toll.

    Among the people the attitude towards Gorbachev changed from his almost complete acceptance to scornful laughter and jokes about him and his wife Raisa Gorbacheva. By the way, Mikhail Gorbachev spoke rather illiterately, had a rural accent, typical for the southern regions of Russia, and in some words he flagrantly incorrectly stressed. Some of these words have become memes. For example, the word “thinking” (put the stress in this word on the last syllable and you will get an approximate picture of how Gorbachev pronounced some words).

    Final thought
    Gorbachev, from the point of view of many Russians who happened to live during his reign, was a fairly typical party functionary who, by the will of fate, managed to break into the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR and cook up his career there. Expressing the general desire of party and other major officials to legalize their ambitions, Gorbachev and his associates started reforms that allowed the USSR to move from a planned to a market economy with all the ensuing consequences. Including the legalization of private ownership of land, means of production, transport companies, etc. Thanks to the gradual rejection of rigid communist economic and political dogmas, rapprochement with the countries of the West became possible. Naturally, Gorbachev simultaneously dressed these processes in a beautiful wrapper in the form of general disarmament, global detente in international relations, etc., and Western politicians played along with him, since they also saw undoubted benefits for themselves in these processes. Unfortunately, we are ruled by hardened cynics and they will paint any process with exactly the colors they need to serve the current agenda to suit the needs of big business and politics, as needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Trixter! Thanks for your comment – I always try to keep my episodes around 20 minutes in length so there was of course a lot of detail I missed out on. I didn’t mean to suggest that Gorbachev was a good leader (I don’t think I did) but rather that his policies destroyed the Soviet economy and allowed people more space to protest and express frustration!

      Living under that situation obviously means you have a different perspective than us outsiders – for us the end of the USSR was the end of the Cold War and the opening of Europe. For Soviet citizens it was the beginning of decades of financial, political, and social problems. I should have made this clearer!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Trixter, one question, do you live at Russia? Is it better now than in the past ? Thanks.
      I just wanna know if you prefer today or in the past at URSS?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I live in Russia, in Moscow.

        Is it better to live now than then? This is a difficult question to which I cannot have a definitive answer. If only because during the reign of Gorbachev I was a child and my perception of reality was different than now. And even in a retrospective look at that era, already from the point of view of an adult, I see the ambiguity of that era. Then there were advantages that no longer exist, but now there is more advanced medicine, a global information environment and other advantages that scientific and technological progress gives us.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Mikhail was a excelent leader and therefore avoid a war and finish of the cold war

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Tom for useful and practical lessons. I already studying English in the university, and those episodes helps me in using the language at the daily life.

      Liked by 1 person

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