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Privol'noe, Stavropol region, Soviet Union (now Russia)
Mikhail Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Communist Party who initiated changes known as 'perestroika' and 'glasnost' which melted the rigid Soviet system and liberated 15 republics of the Soviet Union to become independent states, thus ending the existence of the USSR in December 1991.He was born Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev into a peasant family on March 2, 1931, in the village of Privolnoe, Stavropol province, Southern Russia. His father, named Sergei Gorbachev, was a tractor driver. His mother, named Maria Panteleyeva, was a peasant. His grandparents were deported and sentenced for nine years under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, for their success in becoming richer independent farmers known as kulaks. Young Gorbachev witnessed the destruction of traditional farming and degradation of villages, that caused massive exodus of people from their land and to gloomy industrial Soviet cities, where they were doomed to become brainwashed by propaganda and live in small flats under restricting political and economic conditions for the rest of their lives. During the Second World War Gorbachev survived the Nazi occupation of his land in Stavropol province in 1942-1943. After the war, Gorbachev chose to remain on his land, although it was now taken by the Communist Government, the ranks of which he would penetrate later. Gorbachev privately described his life and work on a Soviet collective farm as serfdom.In 1947 Gorbachev shot to fame at the age of 16, after helping his father, a combine harvester operator, to harvest a record crop on a collective farm. For this achievement he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour and was promoted to the Communist Party at the age of 21. From 1950 - 1955 he studied law on a State scholarship at Moscow State University. There he met his future wife, Raisa Maksimovna Gorbacheva (nee Titarenko), they married in September 1953, and their daughter, Irina, was born in January 1957. After a brief stint as a Government Lawyer in Stavropol, Gorbachev made a career as a ranking leader of Komsomol (Union of Young Communists), then as a Communist Party leader of Stavropol province, climbing to the ranks as Member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At that time Gorbachev made his first travels outside of the Soviet Union. While the Soviet leaders were manipulating their own people into submission through fear and control, the West Europeans enjoyed freedom and prosperity that attracted East Germans and other Soviet satellites. Gorbachev learned his first lesson on his tour in East Germany, witnessing their rapid recovery after the Second World War. At the same time, in 1956, Yuri Andropov and Georgi Zhukov led the attack on Hungarian Revolution, and killed thousands of Hungarians who opposed the Soviet-imposed regime. Then Soviet leadership made more aggressive international actions by spreading military support to pro-communist regimes across the world and also by building the Berlin Wall and enforcing Soviet military and political domination in Eastern Europe. These Soviet actions alienated Europeans.Open political discussions in the Soviet Union were not allowed under threat of prosecution, freedom of speech was never guaranteed, all media was owned and controlled by the Soviet government and independent activity was suppressed, and only some fragmented information was made available to ranking provincial communists, such as Gorbachev. In 1961 he attended the important 22nd Congress of the Communist Party in Moscow, where Nikita Khrushchev announced his Utopian plan to surpass the USA per capita income in 20 years. At the same 22nd Congress, upon Khrushchev's instruction, Gorbachev, among other top communists received a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's anti-Stalin publication "One day of Ivan Denisovich" which criticized the brutality of Gulag prison-camps and the Soviet regime in general. That gave Gorbachev and some other young communists a hope that Khrushchev may change the brutal Soviet regime. However, in 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was arrested and dismissed by pro-Stalin group led by Leonid Brezhnev who eventually established a remake of Stalinism for the next 18 years, albeit in a more grotesque and senile version of Soviet regime. Then Brezhnev's regime crushed the Prague Spring of 1968, fought the Chinese Army over a border dispute in 1969, sent Soviet Tanks and Air Force to Egypt and Syria against Israel in the 1970s, as well as in North Vietnam against the French and Americans. At that time Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa Maksimovna, were allowed to travel to the Western Europe and see the difference between reality in European countries and its distorted depiction by the Soviet propaganda. In 1972 he headed the Soviet official delegation to Belgium, then, in 1974 was made Member of the Supreme Soviet in charge of the Commission on Youth Affairs. During the 1970s Gorbachev enjoyed a highly privileged life of a ranking communist, having many perks such as a villa in a suburb of Moscow, a special limo with a chauffeur and guards, and regular luxurious vacations in Italy and in the South of France, all at the expense of the Communist Party. However, this allowed him to see the striking difference between the quality of life in the Western Europe and gloomy survival of masses in the Soviet Union.Gorbachev witnessed that people were living hopeless lives having no choice. Workers of collective farms lived without identification documents up until the 1970s. Undocumented citizens at collective farms were disposable. Migrants were used as industrial slaves, for symbolic pay. Wages were set by the state and did not depend on productivity or quality. The economy was governed by the state 5-year plan. This mostly ignored the world and domestic market signals; and lacked the incentives for innovation and efficiency. Teachers were forced to indoctrinate children of all ages from kindergartens through schools and universities. Total control and manipulation was demonstrated twice a year at annual May Day parades and Great Revolution parades on November 7. Military parades were accompanied by marching masses of industrial workers and managers, doctors and scientists, as well as teachers and students from all schools and universities. Exemplary obedient people were rewarded with better food and perks. Taming millions to obedience by fear and hunger led to a massive degradation of human rights, poor spirituality, lack of initiative and creativity, and the decay of public health and vitality. The country of almost three hundred million people was stuck in stagnation, inefficiency, and apathy. Brighter students were taken into the military-industrial system, brainwashed and locked there for life with little choices. Opponents were locked in the "Gulag" prison-camps, mostly in Siberia. There, millions were working various hard labor jobs in grand-scale economic projects; like the Baikal-Amur railroad (BAM). Since the Communist Revolution of 1917, people had been continually stripped of their land and property. Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev the destruction of independent farming was finalized. By the 1960s and 1970s massive poverty and anxiety pushed millions to migrate to cities. Mass-construction of cheap panel buildings was lagging behind. Millions of families shared poor housing, hostels, and dorms in cities. Villages were deserted. Collective farms decayed. Agricultural output fell below the levels of the Tsar's age. Tens of thousands of churches and monasteries were destroyed across the Soviet Union, and many churches were replaced by offices and halls of the Communist party. Spiritual life was dominated by ugly propaganda. People were blinded by fear and pushed to wrong values. Meaningful human virtues were replaced with fake ideals of ruthless Soviet communism. Propaganda idolized members of the Soviet Politburo, their portraits were decorating every school and factory along with countless portraits and statues of the first Soviet leader V.I. Lenin.In November 1979 Gorbachev was promoted Candidate Member of the Politburo, then less than a year later, he was made Full Member of Politbureau, the highest rank in the Communist Party which gave him unlimited direct access to Brezhnev and Andropov. The latter also promoted Gorbachev to sub for him at several Politburo meetings, and gave him a huge power in decision-making. Gorbachev developed a personal friendship with another Politburo member, Eduard Shevardnadze, and the two were vacationing together at the prestigious Black sea resort of Pitsunda. At that time the invasion of Afghanistan, ordered by senile Brezhnev in 1979, seriously undermined international credibility of the Soviet Union. Andrei Sakharov wrote an open letter to Brezhnev calling for a stop to the war. 50 nations boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Crackdown on intellectual freedom and human rights included the use of psychiatric terror, arrests, and the exile of dissidents. The head of the KGB Yuri Andropov declared Andrei Sakharov the "enemy No.1." Sakharov was forcefully exiled from Moscow to the militarized 'closed' city of Gorky. He was placed under tight surveillance and restricted from any contacts. His wife was also under tight surveillance. By his 70th birthday Brezhnev's health declined dramatically; but he made himself a Generalissimus Marshal of the Soviet Union, similar to that of Joseph Stalin. Brezhnev accepted over 200 decorations and awards, including awards from all pro-Soviet governments, except China. Brezhnev accepted countless expensive gifts and amassed a collection of vintage cars and other bribes. His personal vanity and behavior was replicated at all levels of the Communist Party and led to massive corruption. The old Brezhnev lost his acting abilities and couldn't even read the script. Massive disillusionment was reflected in cynical jokes about the Soviet life. The ugly reality in the Soviet Union was reflected in its senile leader. Gorbachev saw that outdated economic and political system in the Soviet Union was doomed, but propaganda was still brainwashing the minds of millions, because it was controlled by the privileged few top communists who lived in denial of the big reality.The youngest Politburo Member, Mikhail Gorbachev, was contemplating reforms. Leonid Brezhnev died on November 10, 1982, and was succeeded by Yuri Andropov who died just 16 months later. He was replaced by, Konstantin Chernenko who died in just 13 months. In 1983 Politbureau member Rashidov committed suicide, then, in 1984 the powerful Defence Minister Ustinov died. While the Soviet Union was in a dying mode, the real world was rapidly growing into computer age that reshaped global community. The rigid Soviet System was incompatible with the constantly innovating world. USSR failed to respond to rapidly changing reality and alienated forward-thinking people even in the pro-Soviet countries. During the early 1980s Soviet Politbureau was torn between two viciously fighting groups of Communists, one was made of the old hard-liners led by Andrei Gromyko, the apprentice of Joseph Stalin. The other, pro-democracy group, was made of the forward-thinking members of the Politbureau who chose Gorbachev as their leader along with Aleksandr Yakovlev who was the brain behind Gorbachev's moves. With Gorbachev's support Yakovlev managed to change all hard-liners in the Soviet media and propaganda system. In March 1985 Gorbachev was made the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, becoming the first Soviet leader to have been born after the disastrous Russian Revolution of 1917. He announced reforms called 'perestroika' (aka.. restructuring) and 'glasnost' (aka.. opening up), and lifted the walls of propaganda and denial. However, Gorbachev's first reform on regulations related to manufacturing and trade of alcohol became an economic disaster, causing a serious economic damage to the Soviet Union's State budget with annual losses exceeding tens of billions of dollars. Although his reforms were supported by public, many communist hard-liners openly opposed Gorbachev. Eventually, by the late 1980s Gorbachev's push for economic liberalization resulted in emergence of co-operatives and other forms of independent businesses, making the movement to freedom irreversible.Mikhail Gorbachev is still regarded in the Western world for his input in ending the Cold War and helping the reunification of Germany. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1990) and received numerous international awards, decorations and privileges, such as the Honorary German Citizenship. He currently resides in Moscow, Russia.