Mikhail Gorbachev: Great man or pathetic destroyer of the Soviet Union?
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (Михаи́л Серге́евич Горбачёв, March 2, 1931 - August 30, 2022) was a Soviet Russian statesman, and the last leader of the Soviet Union. Born to peasants of the village of Privolnoye in 1931, he was the only Soviet leader born after Red October, which profoundly affected how he governed his country. Several of his relatives were victims of The Holodomor.
He joined the CPSU in the days of Nikita Khrushchev, where he was deeply impressed by the efforts to de-Stalinize the USSR. He rose through the ranks rather quickly, using his connections to the party ideologue Mikhail Suslov and a power base in the Komsomol (Communist Youth League). By 1971, he was a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, the highest organ of power in the Soviet Union; at age 40, he was the youngest member of the body.
By The '80s, the damage that Leonid Brezhnev's policies had done to the USSR had become painfully clear. The country was stagnating, technology and production were falling behind the United States, and the always-creaking Soviet bureaucracy had become downright sclerotic. None of this was helped by the succession of ancients who succeeded Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko; neither lasted long or left Moscow very often (leading to a famous joke about Brezhnev running on batteries and Andropov needing an outlet).note On top of that, the few policy decisions that Andropov made tended to exacerbate the problems he had inherited from Brezhnev rather than doing anything to help them, while Chernenko was in such poor health that he barely even did anything at all during his year in office, with most of the important decisions delegated to a troika consisting of Gorbachev, foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and until his death in late 1984, defense minister Dmitry Ustinov.
After Chernenko's death in March 1985, the CPSU was clearly sick of the stagnation, and the Central Committee put Gorbachev in charge. Gromyko apparently had hopes that he might be able to use the much younger Gorbachev as the same kind of Puppet King he was often accused of making Chernenko into; Gorbachev quickly proved that he was very much his own man by having Gromyko Kicked Upstairs to a ceremonial role, leaving the new leader free to very quickly implement a number of policies known forever by one-word Russian names:
- Perestroika ([economic] restructuring): Improving quality and efficiency in state-run industries, and experimenting with a limited mixed economy.
- Glasnost (openness): Relaxing controls on the press, allowing (constructive) criticism of the state and encouraging lower-level officials to make their complaints heard.
- Uskoreniye (acceleration): The less-intense predecessor to perestroika.
- Demokratizatsiya (democratization): Increasing democratic controls within the Communist Party (rather than the state as a whole). This one got rather out of hand later on.
For the most part, Gorbachev's first year in power was relatively uneventful, other than his shuffling out many top-ranking officials who had been in office since the Brezhnev era and replacing them with younger counterparts who were more politically in tune with his ideals. That all changed when the Chernobyl disaster occurred, and Gorbachev found himself being fed misleading reports by those in charge of dealing with the disaster. Naturally he was livid about this, and it caused him to accelerate the pace of his reforms, starting with his making a televised broadcast that could be described as his own version of Khrushchev's "Secret Speech", in which Gorbachev vocally denounced the secrecy, stagnation, and incompetence that had overtaken the nation. In the meantime, the cost of cleaning up Chernobyl would rapidly prove crippling to an already-struggling economy.
On the international front, Gorbachev started meeting with Ronald Reagan in an effort to finally bring the Cold War to an end; they eventually went Karting. He refused to help the other Eastern Bloc governments hold on to power, establishing the so-called "Sinatra Doctrine" (after "My Way"): each socialist country was now free to choose its future. The Soviet Union would not interfere. As a result, the autumn of 1989 saw the Hole in Flag revolutions. Most were peaceful; Romania's wasn't.
Within the Soviet Union, all this change resulted in protests and a general desire for more change. The Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) all seceded from the USSR in 1990. At the same time, Gorbachev restructured the government of the Soviet Union, creating the office of President of the Soviet Union to make him Head of State rather than just head of the CPSU; the Congress of People's Deputies was re-established and elected entirely democratically. For a hot second, it looked like the USSR would survive as (gasp!) a democracy with a mixed economy. Weird, eh?
At the same time, however, the Soviet republics all started feeling a bit antsy. Remembering that the Soviet Union was supposed to be a loose federation, the republics decided one by one to declare independence. Communist hardliners attempted to oust Gorbachev in a coup, which convinced everyone that the country was beyond saving. Finally, The New Russia, having elected Boris Yeltsin as President, declared independence from the USSR, leaving Gorbachev president of exactly squat. He himself finally resigned (or as he put it, "discontinued his activities as president") on Christmas Day, 1991, marking the official end of the USSR and the Cold War.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev, who mostly sat The '90s out (except for shilling for Pizza Hut), tried his hand at politics again; ever since Vladimir Putin came to office, he became one of the more vocal critics of his administration (particularly Putin's rehabilitation of Josef Stalin, whose rule Gorbachev remembered as the bad old days). He tried starting three new political parties since 2001; none really stuck, as opposition parties haven't exactly prospered under Putin.
How you feel about Gorbachev seems to depend on where you live. The West tends to be very positive, seeing him as a good man who helped end the Cold War peacefully. The better-off former Communist countries (especially the Baltic states) have a more complex opinion, hating him for being the leader of the hated Soviet Union and for ordering some bloody protest repressions there towards the end (not to mention his support to the de facto annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, which made him persona non grata in Ukraine), but also recognizing that it was his policies that allowed them to get to where they are now. In Russia he is generally viewed very negatively, where the days of the USSR are often viewed through a Nostalgia Filter, while the economic turmoil of the 1990s are not. Even Russians who aren't bummed that communism fell tend to view him negatively.
Gorbachev was also famous for the rather large port wine stain birthmark on top of his bald head. These are easily removed, but Gorbachev declined to do so — he considered that once he became well-known, it would have seemed vain to have done so. (Some joked that he would have gotten nowhere as a politician in America without surgery, though.) Official state portraits of him had his birthmark edited out◊, however.
Gorbachev eventually passed away at age 91 in the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow on August 30, 2022 after a period of prolonged illness. Like previous Soviet leaders, his funeral happened at the House of Trade Unions. Putin declined giving him national funerals (which didn't prevent thousands from showing up) but sent his own guards as symbolic presidential presence. Outside of Hungary's Viktor Orbán, no foreign chief of state attended it, due to Russia's diplomatic isolation resulting from the ongoing unprovoked aggression war in Ukraine. This also inadvertently showcased the extent of how Putin has erased Gorbachev's legacy.
- In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon is a cross between Mikhail Gorbachev and Abraham Lincoln. In a case of life imitating art, the movie's plot mirrors the August Coup, which happened after it was written and filmed, though before its release. Unlike Gorbachev, Gorkon is successfully assassinated. Thirty-one years later, Gorkon's actor, David Warner, and the real Gorbachev died just a month apart from each other.
- A similar plotline featuring Gorbachev formed the basis of the 1989 conspiracy thriller The Package.
- In UHF, he is depicted as an upcoming contestant on the fictional show Celebrity Mud Wrestling.
- In the action prologue of The Naked Gun, he's attending a meeting of America's arch-enemies. Portrayed as a Villain with Good Publicity, Frank Drebin puts Mikhail Gorbachev in a headlock, rubs off his famous "wine stain" birthmark and says "I Knew It!".
- The Hunt for Red October suggests that Captain Marko Ramius defecting to the United States with Red October was partly the cause of Gorbachev's rise to power, as a result of the incident discrediting the more militaristic party officials who were backing Chernenko's leadership.
- Appears as a recurring character portrayed by David Dencik in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, based on the nuclear plant disaster of the same name which took place during the early years of his time in office. He's portrayed as a Reasonable Authority Figure who takes the nuclear experts' concerns seriously despite the misinformation being fed to him by those in charge of the plant and the upper echelons of the government, who want to keep things under wraps. When informed of how bad the situation actually is, and the ways it could potentially get worse, he insists that the scientists have whatever they need to combat the problem.
- In Zangief's ending in Street Fighter II, he arrives by helicopter to congratulate the wrestler on scoring a victory for Glorious Mother Russia, then they perform That Russian Squat Dance together.
- Appears in some old Cold War-related video games, such as Balance Of Power (1985) and Crisis in the Kremlin (1991).
- He also appeared in two unrelated puzzle games, Gorby's Pipeline and Ganbare Gorby. Sure, in the first one he only appears on the title screen, but still.
- The 4X game VGA Planets features a playable faction that is an Expy of the Galactic Empire of Star Wars, mashed up with the Soviet Union as depicted in a Ronald Reagan speech identifying the USSR as an Evil Empire. The in-game image for the faction originally depicted a rather cartoony Gorbechev as its leader/spokesman, but in the currently-active "Nu" version of the game, this has been replaced with a more Emperor Palpatine-esque figure. However, the faction's Death Star expy is still known as a Gorbie.
- In the last level of Mother Russia Bleeds, the protagonists encounters in the siege of governement the (unnamed) Soviet Premier, who looks like a bald white-haired man. He's the penultimate boss, you must kick him while he's trying to flee his office while avoiding the mooks; he's later killed offscreen during the ultimate boss fight, in which the protagonists are hallucinating a battle against the representation of a Psycho Serum which plays an important role in the plot. Though the game is explicitely set in 1986, it's actually unclear whereas the unnamed character is actually supposed to be Gorbachev, thank to its Alternate History setting.
- In The New Order Last Days Of Europe, an Alternate-History Nazi Victory mod for Hearts of Iron IV, Mikhail Gorbachev is a prominent Russian collaborationist leader in Reichskommissariat Moskowien, acting as a reformist representative of the native Slavic population in the Ostvolk Council, long before he became prominent in politics in our timeline, a thankless position since the Germans don't respect him and many of his fellow Russians despise him as a collaborator anyway. After the Reichkommissariat collapses into civil war with much of the rest of the German sphere following Hitler's death, he leads a faction attempting to establish a Russian-led democratic government, albeit one willing to pragmatically align with the German sphere for the purposes of survival.
- A picture of him and Ronald Reagan appears as an Easter Egg in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
- Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War: He makes a cameo appearance in Lubyanka infiltration mission as the Secretary of Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party.
- Appears in the Epic Rap Battles of History, where he takes on Grigori Rasputin, Josef Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Vladimir Putin.
- In The Death of Russia, Gorbachev chooses to stay in Russia following the 1993 coup that kills Yeltsin, even though many members of Yeltsin's government have either fled to the safety of Kaliningrad or are being gunned down in the streets by black shirts. After the National Salvation Front take power in Russia, Gorbachev is arrested by the regime though survives his time in captivity long enough to be bartered by the Fascists for supplies sometime after the civil war begins.
- In an episode of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, the live-action segments involved Gorbachev visiting the Mario brothers in order to learn how to make pizza.
- In The Simpsons
- Krusty the clown claims the spot on his head is caused by herpes while doing a standup routine in "$pringfield, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling".
- In "Two Bad Neighbors", Gorbachev (voiced by Hank Azaria) pays a visit to George H. W. Bush in Springfield and finds him fighting with Homer. Mikhail is amused by this unheard strife and Bush loses face in front of the Russians.
- In Williams Electronics' Taxi pinball, he appears as "Gorby", one of the five passengers to be picked up.
- For a brief period, the advertising materials for digital audio workstation FruityLoops (hence renamed FLStudio) featured "M.Gorby", a floating head of Gorbachev with his birthmark modified to the shape of the program's fruit logo◊.