Mikhail Gorbachev helped steer the course of the 20th century and wrote history as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. The importance of his role is undisputed, particularly so in Germany, where the Nobel Peace Prize winner is praised for helping reunify East and West.
Gorbachev enjoyed a standing outside Russia that he never did in his own country. Born in 1931 in the North Caucasus, he rose to be head of the Communist Party in March 1985.
Glasnost and perestroika: Two Russian words known around the world
The dynamic, then-54-year-old leader sought to end Soviet stagnation, especially its economic disadvantage in relation to the United States. In an effort to transform the bureaucratic and corrupt Soviet system, he enacted reforms under the now well-known Russian headings, glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), coupling these policies with better relations with the US and its Western allies. His softer positioning was known as “New Thinking,” and its effect on world history was incalculable.
The Soviet Union’s further reaches were already falling away when Gorbachev became the country’s first elected president in 1990. The Eastern European satellite states broke free in the fall of 1989, a memorable moment in time. The Warsaw Pact, the USSR’s military answer to NATO, was in tatters, and the citizens of East Germany, used by the USSR as a buffer state since the end of World War II, were calling not only for freedom and democracy, but for a reunified Germany.
Approving German reunification
Gorbachev saw to it that this would take place peacefully, despite the unwillingness of many Soviet conservatives. He broke with party politics to beat back resistance within his own ranks. “Mikhail Gorbachev’s personal decisions in a difficult historical moment should not be underestimated,” said then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, an important Gorbachev supporter.
“Within 24 hours of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Stasi and KGB were trying to convince him that Soviet troops were in danger in [East Germany] and the Soviet military was needed to intervene. Gorbachev rejected them,” Kohl said.
The Gorbachev-Kohl friendship was an important factor in Soviet support for reunification, later made possible by the Two Plus Four Treaty involving West and East Germany, along with France, Britain, the US and the USSR.
Collapse of the Soviet Union
Gorbachev’s rise on the international stage was cause for his loss of power at home. His reforms paved the way to the demise of the Soviet Union, and it was collapsing at the same time as Europeans, and Germans most of all, were hailing him as a hero for peaceful and democratic revolution.
The non-Russian Soviet republics, with the Baltic states in the lead, had broken away, but trouble was stirring in Russia’s heartland as well. Soviet citizens, who never elected Gorbachev in a free and fair election, blamed him for their worsening poverty. Boris Yeltsin appeared on the scene to take over. Historians will continue to debate whether it was Gorbachev’s policies or a Soviet system beyond repair that led to the superpower’s demise.
Hard-liners led a coup against Gorbachev when he refused to rein in the breakaway republics, and he was put under house arrest in Crimea. The revolt failed, however, when those in Moscow loyal to Yeltsin, the newly elected president, put down the coup.
A new world
Gorbachev returned to Moscow to find a new world. Soviet institutions, including his own presidency, were essentially gone. He formally resigned on December 25, 1991, and the Soviet Union officially collapsed just hours later.
It would be his final performance of any significance on Russia’s political stage. He carried 0.5% of the vote in the 1996 presidential election. In the West, Gorbachev remained popular. He may one day be better remembered in Russia, but he will always hold an important place in Germany’s history books.