Capping his rapid rise through the Communist Party hierarchy, Mikhail Gorbachev is selected as the new general secretary of the Soviet Union, following the death of Konstantin Chernenko the day before. Gorbachev oversaw a radical transformation of Soviet society and foreign policy during the next six years.
Gorbachev was born in 1931, the son of peasant farmers near Stavropol. As a young man he joined the usual Communist Party youth groups. In 1952, he traveled to Moscow to earn his degree in law. Upon his return to his native town of Stavropol, Gorbachev became extremely active in party politics and began a rapid rise through the Communist Party bureaucracy. Part of his success was due to his intelligence, drive, and ability to see and exploit opportunities. He was also aided by his ability to attach himself to important mentors, such as Yuri Andropov, the head of the dreaded KGB—Russia’s secret police. With Andropov’s support, Gorbachev was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1971.
During the next decade and a half, Gorbachev worked hard to promote his own career and to support Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. When Brezhnev died in 1982, Andropov took power. Gorbachev’s role in the new government expanded, and then Andropov died in 1984. It was widely assumed that Gorbachev would be his successor, but his youth, combined with suspicions from some old-line Communist Party officials that the young man was too reform-minded, led to the selection of Konstantin Chernenko. Gorbachev did not have to wait long for a second chance, however. Chernenko died after less than a year in office. With the rapid-fire deaths of Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev had outlived his only serious competition, and he was selected to become the new leader of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985.
During the next six years, Gorbachev led the Soviet Union through a dizzying pace of domestic reforms and foreign policy changes. He relaxed political oppression and led the push for reform of the nation’s crumbling economic system. On the foreign policy scene, he worked hard to secure better relations with the United States, and in 1987, he and President Ronald Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which reduced the number of medium-range missiles each nation kept in Europe.
The pace of change, however, might have been too rapid. By the late-1980s, the Soviet Union was cracking to pieces. Eastern European satellites were breaking free, various Russian republics were pushing for independence, and the economy was on a downward spiral. In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president and the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist.
READ MORE: Was the Soviet Union's Collapse Inevitable?