On Mikhail Gorbachev’s 80th birthday, he is deservedly being praised for glasnost, perestroika and the end of the Cold War. All have earned their place in the history books. But here’s a question: why did it happen that Gorbachev, and not someone else, was selected on a night in March, 1985 to be the new Soviet leader?
This was a key moment, yet one that is still not widely understood.
It had a lot to do with Gorbachev, the man, and the sorry state of the Soviet leadership and the country at the time.
Gorbachev was hardly a radical in his earlier years. He witnessed the horrors of World War II as a child, and later saw the shortcomings of the Soviet state, from the persecution of his grandfathers during Stalin’s day to the economic stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev. Gorbachev realized, too, that the outsized military-industrial complex sucked much of the oxygen out of the system, leaving average people to live in misery. Still, Gorbachev kept many of these observations to himself as he climbed the ladder to power.
Gorbachev got a boost from Yuri Andropov, the former KGB head who followed Brezhnev as Soviet leader in 1982. Andropov’s own attempts to change the ossified system were too feeble, and doomed. But one thing he did was to identify Gorbachev as a comer. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gorbachev dabbled with limited innovation in agriculture and the economy, such as giving groups of farmers more autonomy, and he attracted other, like-minded academic thinkers who wanted change. When Andropov died in early 1984, Gorbachev thought he had a chance to succeed him—a hope that was dashed at the last minute by the old guard, who chose the ailing Konstantin Chernenko instead.
Chernenko did not last long in office, and died on Sunday, March 10, 1985.
This time, Gorbachev was ready.
A Politburo meeting was called that evening at the Kremlin. As I recount in The Dead Hand, about 20 minutes before the meeting started, Gorbachev met Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister, lion of the old guard, in the Walnut Room, where full voting members of the Politburo often gathered before formal sessions. Gromyko was key in deciding who would be the next general secretary. Earlier, Gromyko had sent a private emissary to Gorbachev with the message that he would back him in the succession struggle, in exchange for being allowed to retire as foreign minister and take up a sinecure position as chairman of the Supreme Soviet.
“Andrei Andreyevich, we have to consolidate our effort, the moment is crucial,” Gorbachev recalled saying to Gromyko.
“I believe everything is clear,” Gromyko replied.
When they had all assembled, Gorbachev informed the Politburo of Chernenko’s death. Usually, the person chosen to head up the funeral commission was the one who would be the next general secretary. The question of the funeral commission arose. Gorbachev became head of the commission, and the next day would become the new Soviet leader.
Gorbachev was not chosen because of the United States, or Ronald Reagan, or Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, as some have suggested. The Cold War was a major factor in all that ailed the Soviet Union, but not the main reason Gorbachev was selected.
Rather, Gorbachev was chosen because he was a shining light in a dusky hall. Five of the ten voting members of the Politburo that day were over seventy, three in their sixties and only two in their fifties. Not only was Gorbachev, at 54, the youngest member of the Politburo by a full five years, he was thirteen years younger than the average age of the voting membership.
At the next day’s session, Gromyko offered a strong testament to Gorbachev, speaking in a way that was not customary on such occasions, without notes and without hesitation. “I shall be straight,” Gromyko said. Gorbachev is the “absolutely right choice.” Gorbachev had “indomitable creative energy, striving to do more and do it better.”
Georgi Shakhnazarov, who had served Andropov and would later advise Gorbachev, recalled that Gorbachev’s rise was not a certainty. Gorbachev did not have a sterling biography that made him the natural choice, and the Politburo might have chosen another old-timer to muddle through. But Shakhnazarov felt there was one factor that, while not official, could not be ignored. “People were desperately tired of participating in a disgraceful farce… They were tired of seeing leaders with shaking heads and faded eyes, knowing the fate of the country and half the world was entrusted to the care of these miserable semiparalytics.”
After the agonizing years of stagnation, death and disappointment, Gorbachev was chosen first and foremost as the best hope to get the country moving. We tend to forget, but Gorbachev’s achievements in ending the Cold War were not his first objectives. They grew out of his desire for radical change at home, out of his own deep impressions about what had gone wrong. Gorbachev did not set out to change the world, but rather to save his country. In the end, he did not save the country but may have saved the world.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.