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Mikhail Gorbachev—his friends call him "Misha"—grew up in a poor farming family with a strong attachment to the Communist Party. His childhood was super-duper rough: famine killed two sisters and an uncle when he was a small child, both of his grandfathers were imprisoned on false charges, and his father was a wounded war veteran who'd been drafted to fight by the Nazis.
But instead of being all "Woe is me," Gorbachev went on to make quite the name for himself.
Gorby excelled at school and was pushed to go to high school after finishing grade school. This was a pretty big deal—only one other person from his grade school went on to high school, and no one in his family had more than a few years' worth of basic education.
It was an even bigger deal when he headed to Moscow U and got a law degree. While at college he also got himself a wifey, a woman named Raisa. They had a daughter, Irina, in 1988.
But while he was being all Family Man and Successful Scholar and whatnot, he was also riding the wave of a fast-moving political career. Yup: Mikhail had come a long way from running the combine harvester back on the farm.
Just like lots of other Russians, Misha'd been hanging out with the Communist Party since he was a kid. Once he hit high school, he got even more active with the group, and after college, he became an official Communist Party member and began to move up through the party food chain at a pretty rapid pace.
The Communist Party had a fairly complicated structure, but the top tier was called the Politburo. This was the head-honcho, smoky-back-room, secret-handshake clique of the party. The movers and shakers. The men behind the curtain. And in 1979, at age forty-eight, our little Misha joined their group.
In 1985, he became the General Secretary of the party, the youngest person to ever do so, and instantly became the leader of the U.S.S.R.
It's true, folks. See, in the Soviet Union, only one political party was allowed to exist, and that was the Communist Party. With only one party, there was really no need for anything like the elections we have here in the U.S. What would be the point?
Imagine what the ballot would look like. It would only have one candidate on it, and the voter's only option would be to vote for that candidate. No write-in area, no option to not vote. (Remember, disagreeing with the Communist Party was considered treason.) Why even waste the paper? It was much more expedient to just put the guy in office once he'd been chosen by the party elites.
And that is how The Marked One came to preside over the Soviet Union.
We're guessing they might have chosen a different dude if they'd had any inkling of what he was going to do to their country.
But it's not like he intended to destroy the Soviet Union; it just kind of happened. And in his defense, he sort of inherited a mess. But while his predecessors had tried to hide or ignore the mess by clamping down on individual freedom and terrorizing people, Gorby went the opposite way. He opened the country up, making the government more transparent and responsive, the economy more market-like, and the rights of individuals more…exist-y.
This ruined the U.S.S.R. Destroyed it, actually. Literally destroyed it.
But it also earned Mikhail a Nobel Peace Prize…so maybe it all worked out in the end.
When we hear the phrase "cause and effect," we tend to picture one thing directly causing another thing. We flip the switch, the light turns off.
But there was no single switch-flipping that caused the Soviet Union to dissolve. It was more like a bunch of little tiny switches all over the place being flipped one after another until finally, the huge communist lightbulb that was the Soviet Union didn't have enough juice to stay lit, so it went dark. And then it shattered into a million itty-bitty pieces.
Gorbachev's reformist measures definitely accounted for several of those switches. Soviet leaders didn't typically advocate for more transparency, more accountability, and more personal freedom. He even said other political parties could form and that people could vote for them, which was huge.
Half the party thought he was out of his mind.
The other half thought he wasn't changing stuff fast enough.
Gorbachev himself thought that the heavy Soviet bureaucracy was to blame for the country's economic and political woes. He thought that easing up on the reins a little would help the U.S.S.R. flourish. He thought people would be stoked to be communists again once they saw the U.S.S.R. in its flashy new glasnost and perestroika outfits. Those other political parties wouldn't stand a chance against freshly tummy-tucked and Botoxed Soviet communism.
But then Hungary happened.
In May of 1989, Hungary decided to open its borders with Austria, its non-communist neighbor. East Germans did a little jig and flocked to Hungary in droves, using the newly-opened border to escape Soviet control.
Switch = flipped.
In September of 1989, Poland used its newfound political freedom to elect a non-Communist government. The entire world gasped and waited for the Soviets to roll in with their tanks and get their violence on…but Gorbachev did nothing.
A month later, Hungary also put a non-Communist government into power, and again, Gorbachev let it go.
Then in November, the border between East and West Germany was opened and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall began. Was this the kiss of death for the Soviets? The knock-out punch? The final switch?
Maybe. But there was a lot of switch-flipping going on, and it's tough to be sure which one really put the nail in the communist coffin.
The only thing we can be sure of is that Mikhail Gorbachev allowed those switches to flip, and even flipped a few himself. The Soviets may have been pretty peeved with him about that, but the West thought he was one all right dude. He even got his face on the cover of Time magazine. And we already mentioned that whole Nobel Peace Prize thing.
So what's Misha up to these days?
After his wife Raisa died from leukemia in 1999, he established the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation and he spends time traveling around raising money and awareness for that. He also speaks at forums all over the world, and he's heavily involved with the Independent Democratic Party of Russia. He even started his own think tank.
And some people just watch TV and golf a lot when they retire.