On this day in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Soviet Union (USSR). A former tractor driver, Gorbachev joined the Communist Party in his youth and attained a law degree during the Khrushchev Thaw of the 1950s and 60s. Unlike many of his counterparts, Gorbachev was highly educated and well-travelled (intellectuals were generally disparaged as elitist or bourgeois in Soviet society); additionally, he publicly admired foreign leaders like Canada’s Pierre Trudeau and spoke openly about the failings of the Soviet system. Despite these “flaws”, he managed to become the 8th – and final – leader of the USSR in 1985.
Almost immediately, Gorbachev began changing things up. Nuclear disarmament treaties with the Americans were followed by the normalization of diplomatic relations with China and Western Europe; later on, the Red Army was evacuated from Afghanistan. Perhaps his most famous reforms were those of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring): an effort to demystify the famously secretive (and undemocratic) Communist government, and reform the entire Soviet system based on the findings of several wide-reaching studies. These reforms helped reveal an incredibly inefficient economy and society that was essentially rotting from within, bankrupted by the Cold War arms race with NATO. Free elections in 1989 – a novelty in the USSR – critically weakened the Communist Party and made Gorbachev’s task of keeping the Union together next to impossible.
For obvious reasons, Gorbachev was and is a polarizing figure in Russian history. His character and actions seemed at odds with the state that, forged in bloodshed, murdered millions of its own citizens and morphed into one of the most oppressive security states the world has ever seen. Although Gorbachev had hoped to reform the USSR to the point of recovery, by the 1980s, it was simply too late. The USSR’s hulking, over-stretched economic and political infrastructure was out of money and fundamentally broken, and no amount of glasnost or perestroika would fix it. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Soviet System collapsed – followed by Communist Russia itself. Gorbachev’s well-intentioned reforms did not kill the USSR, nor did they “fix” it; instead, his efforts likely helped bring a smooth and bloodless end to the dying Soviet Union.