by William H. Benson
September 21, 2017
Mikhail Gorbachev was born in the village of Privolnoye, near the city of Stavropol, 700 miles south of Moscow, on March 2, 1931, a most horrible time for all Soviet Union citizens. The harvests were poor that year due to a drought. Plus, Stalin, the Soviet dictator, decided to collectivize the farms. He seized the nation’s farmland, and transferred ownership to either a collective or to the state.
When the more well-to-do peasants, the kulaks, resisted Stalin’s land-grab, he crushed them. He executed or deported to Siberia hundreds of thousands of the kulaks, a misguided policy that resulted in a famine that starved to death an estimated seven million people across the Soviet Union.
Mikhail said, “The famine was terrible. A third, if not half, the population of Privolnoye died of hunger. Entire families were dying. The half-ruined ownerless huts would remain deserted for years.” Two of his uncles, an aunt, and some cousins starved to death.
In 1937, Stalin instituted a Great Purge, and officials arrested both of Mikhail’s grandfathers. One was deported to Irkutsk, the other was tortured, but both men returned to tell of their brutal experiences.
Then, in 1941, Mikhail heard on the radio that the German Nazis’ war machine had marched deep into the Soviet Union. Mikhail’s father was sent to the front to fight the Nazi’s, but in 1945, after the war ended, he too returned home, and went to work on a collective farm driving a combine.
For five summers in his teens, “from the end of June until the end of August,” Mikhail helped his father drive combines, up to “twenty hours a day.” Mikhail said, “I was proud of my ability to detect a fault in the combine, just by the sound of it.”
In 1950, Mikhail received an acceptance letter to Moscow State University, and there he studied law for five years. He met and married Raisa, and after graduation, the couple moved back to Stavropol, where he worked as a Communist Party official. Soon, he oversaw the province’s industrial and agricultural production.
On September 19, 1978, Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party in Moscow, and his associate, Konstantin Chernenko, stopped at Stavropol for an hour or two, when on a train ride to Baku. The two men met two other men: Yuri Andropov, a party official from Stavropol, and also Mikhail Gorbachev. The four men talked as they “strolled up and down the empty train station.”
Mikhail later wrote in his memoirs, “It was indeed a rare sight: four men who in the near future were to succeed each other as General Secretaries of the Party!” Andropov would replace Brezhnev in 1982, Chernenko would replace Andropov in 1984, and Gorbachev would replace Chernenko in 1985.
That night though, Brezhnev looked at Gorbachev and asked him, “how are things going in your sheep empire?” Gorbachev wrote, “Stavropol accounted for 27 percent of all the fine wool produced in the Russian federation. In early summer, after lambing, thousands of flocks grazed in the steppes: a total of ten million sheep. An impressive sight, I can tell you: truly a ‘sheep empire.’”
In November 1978, Gorbachev and Raisa moved to Moscow, after Brezhnev appointed him Secretary of the Central Committee. Then, in March of 1985, party officials appointed Gorbachev the Soviet Union’s next General Secretary, following the deaths of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko.
Over the next seven years, Gorbachev introduced reform policies designed to ignite the country’s depressed economy and its entrenched political system. His reforms included “perestroika,” or restructuring, and “glasnost,” or openness, as well as “democratic reforms.” Few people suspected that this party official, who believed in socialism’s highest principles, would permit these drastic reforms.
The changes proved too much and led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was forced to resign on December 25, 1991. That day he reflected upon the nation seven years before.
“Our society was stifled in the grip of a bureaucratic command system. Doomed to serve ideology and bear the heavy burden of the arms race, it was strained to the utmost. We had to change everything. The totalitarian system, which prevented this country from becoming wealthy and prosperous a long time ago, has been dismantled. A breakthrough has been made on the road to democratic reforms.”
One wonders why? “Why did a man at the head of a superpower undermine his own authority? Did he fail to understand the consequences of his actions.” He proved an anomaly among the powerful.
Gorbachev is now eighty-six. Raisa passed away in 1999. Today, the western powers revere Gorbachev for his boldness, but in Russia, he is reviled and blamed for the loss of the Soviet Union empire. Russia’s current ruler, Vladimir Putin, has reverted the country back to “its traditional, authoritarian, anti-Western norm,” and dreams of re-establishing the empire. This proves “how exceptional Gorbachev was as a Russian ruler and world statesman.”