Military history

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Five weeks after Reagan was reelected, Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, were driven from London through rolling English farmland to Chequers, the elegant official country residence of the British prime minister. Margaret Thatcher and her husband, Denis, greeted the Gorbachevs just before lunch on Sunday, December 16, 1984. It was a highly unusual gesture for a Soviet official to take his wife abroad. Gorbachev had asked Chernenko’s approval before doing so. On their arrival, Thatcher noticed Raisa had chosen a well-tailored, Western-style suit, gray with a white stripe, “just the sort I could have worn myself.” After posing at the entrance for the press photographers, with Gorbachev standing at the far left of the group next to Raisa, Thatcher very conspicuously repositioned the group so she would be standing next to Gorbachev. Then she extended a welcoming handshake.1

For more than a year, Thatcher had been searching for clues to the next generation of Soviet leaders. Thatcher was intrigued about whether the dour older generation would give way to a new, younger field. She had enormous faith in the power of the individual, and believed that in a dictatorship that repressed individual initiative, some could still make a difference, as had dissidents Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and others. Thatcher wondered if one person at the very top could change the Soviet system from within. In her memoir, she recalled that she was determined to “seek out the most likely person in the rising generation of Soviet leaders and then cultivate and sustain him.” Her foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, said Thatcher carried out a “deliberate campaign to get inside the system.”2 Thatcher remembered what Professor Archie Brown had told her at the Chequers seminar: Gorbachev was the most open and promising man in the leadership. She invited Brown to come back to No. 10 Downing Street on December 14, just before Gorbachev’s visit, to brief her again.3

“I spotted him,” Thatcher said of Gorbachev, “because I was searching for someone like him.”

In the KGB residency in London, Oleg Gordievsky worked hard for weeks in advance of Gorbachev’s arrival. So many demands poured in from headquarters in Moscow! Gordievsky realized the KGB chiefs saw Gorbachev as a rising star and wanted to demonstrate they were behind him. “The KGB was backing him because he was a new man, a man for the future, an honest man who would fight corruption and all the other negative features of Soviet society,” Gordievsky recalled. Moscow bombarded the London residency with requests for material that could be useful for the visit: about arms control, NATO, the economy, Britain’s relations with the United States, China and Eastern Europe. Although he had never met Gorbachev, Gordievsky sensed a voracious appetite for new information. “He wanted to be brilliant, know all about Britain, and make an impression, and then come to Moscow and show everybody that after Chernenko he was the best candidate,” Gordievsky said.4

Gordievsky was not only writing reports for Moscow, but also feeding information to his British handlers. They, too, were intensely interested in Gorbachev, the rising star. Gordievsky gave the British valuable early warning about what Gorbachev would ask and what he would say. At the same time, Gordievsky passed back to Moscow the materials he was given by the British. Gordievsky was a channel for both sides at a critical moment in history. He was almost perfect for Thatcher’s mission. The British knew what their agent was doing, but the Soviets did not.

The days of Gorbachev’s visit were frantic for Gordievsky. “Every evening we were under pressure to produce a forecast of the line the next day’s meetings would take, and this of course was impossible to discover from normal channels. I therefore went to the British and asked urgently for help: could they give me an idea of the subjects Mrs. Thatcher would raise? They produced a few possibilities, from which I managed to concoct a useful-looking memorandum; but the next day’s meeting was much more fruitful. When I asked for a steer on Geoffrey Howe, they let me see the brief which the foreign secretary would be using in his talks with Mr. Gorbachev. My English was still poor, and my ignorance was compounded by nervousness and lack of time, so that I had to concentrate hard to remember all the points.”

“Back at the station, full of excitement at my little coup, I sat down at a typewriter … and hacked out a rough draft, allegedly based on my general sources and what I had gleaned from newspapers,” Gordievsky said. He was momentarily deflated when it was rewritten by another KGB man into something much less precise. He appealed to the acting chief, Leonid Nikitenko, who saw Gordievsky’s version and sent it direct to Gorbachev, “verbatim.”

After stepping into the mansion at Chequers, Gorbachev spoke to Thatcher over drinks in the Great Hall. He had risen to become Soviet agriculture chief, and inquired about farms he’d seen on the drive from London. The lunch table was set with Dover sole, roast beef and oranges, but they hardly touched the food. Gorbachev and Thatcher immediately fell into a vigorous debate. Gorbachev claimed the Soviet Union was reforming its economy. Thatcher, skeptical, lectured him about free enterprise and incentives. Gorbachev shot back that the Soviet system was superior to capitalism, and, according to Thatcher’s account, he declared that the Soviet people lived “joyfully.” Thatcher pointedly asked: then why are so many denied permission to leave? Gorbachev replied these people were working on national security matters. Thatcher didn’t believe it.

When they got up and left the dining room, Raisa went with Denis to look at the Chequers library, where she took down a copy of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Malcolm Rifkind, who accompanied her to the library, recalled she discussed her favorite contemporary British novelists, including Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham and C. P. Snow.5

In the main sitting room, Thatcher and Gorbachev got down to business. Thatcher recalled that the content of Gorbachev’s remarks was unsurprising. What grabbed her attention was the refreshingly open style. “His personality could not have been more different from the wooden ventriloquism of the average Soviet apparatchik,” she said. “He smiled, laughed, used his hands for emphasis, modulated his voice, followed an argument through and was a sharp debater.” They talked for hours. Gorbachev did not consult prepared papers—he referred only to a small notebook of jottings, handwritten in green ink. “As the day wore on,” she added, “I came to understand that it was the style far more than the Marxist rhetoric which expressed the substance of the personality beneath. I found myself liking him.”

Gorbachev was well prepared. He quoted Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum that Britain had no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests. “This was remarkable most of all for the precisely effective way it was deployed—and by this ‘non-expert’ in foreign policy,” said Howe, who attended. He quoted Gorbachev as adding, “It is up to us to identify the interests we have in common.”6 Thatcher steered Gorbachev toward the topic of the arms race. After a year of impasse, the negotiations were to reopen in Geneva in three weeks, the first since the Soviets had walked out during the 1983 war scare.

At this moment, Gorbachev reached into his suit pocket. He unfolded a diagram he had brought with him, the size of a newspaper page. The page was filled with 165 boxes containing five thousand small dots, except for the center box, which had only one. The single dot in the center represented the explosive power of 3 million tons of bombs dropped by the Allies during the six years of World War II. The other dots represented the 15 billion tons of explosive power in the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals.

Gorbachev’s diagram, which had been published in the New York Times as an advertisement by antinuclear businessmen the previous February, might have been dismissed as a piece of agitprop, a gimmick.7What was significant was not so much the dots and squares on the page, but the obvious enthusiasm of the man who was using it to make his point. Gorbachev was knowledgeable, unhesitating and demonstrative.

In Moscow, Gorbachev at this point had participated in the high-level internal discussions of military and foreign policy issues, such as the war in Afghanistan, the deployment of the Pioneer missiles, the shooting down of KAL 007 and the strategic arms negotiations. But little was known outside the Soviet Union of his views. He had never spoken out so openly on disarmament and foreign affairs as he began to do in Britain. Throughout the visit, he called attention to the dangers of nuclear war and emphasized Soviet fears of an arms race in space. He promised “radical reductions” in nuclear weapons and signaled that the Soviets were serious about returning to the Geneva talks. He confidently parried criticism about human rights and Afghanistan. In substance, Gorbachev did not change Soviet policy, and in the meeting with Thatcher, he went out of his way to cite Chernenko as the source of his authority.8 But his style spoke volumes. He seemed to promise a more flexible approach, a sharp contrast with the rigidity of the past.

Gorbachev felt the conversation with Thatcher was a personal turning point.9 He recalled vividly the diagram he presented at Chequers. He said he told Thatcher that all the weapons in one box on that page would “suffice to blow up the foundation of life on Earth. And it turns out that it can be done another 999 times—and what’s after that? What, blow it up one million times? That is absurd. We were possessed by the absurd.”

“It had been accumulated already, stored already—including inside of me—that something needed to be done,” he said of the threat of nuclear war. “To describe it in one word, or one sentence: that something needs to be done.” But Gorbachev acknowledged it was difficult for him, back then, to imagine what that would be. Even as he unfolded the paper with all the squares and dots in front of Thatcher, he had no idea how to reduce the nuclear arsenals. He wondered, “How could all of it be stopped?”

Thatcher wasn’t impressed with the Gorbachev diagram, but remembered he carried off the presentation with “a touch of theatre.” Gorbachev also warned of the dangers of a “nuclear winter” that would follow a war with atomic bombs.10 But Thatcher said, “I was not much moved by all this.” She responded with a heartfelt lecture on the virtues of nuclear deterrence: the weapons, she said, had kept the peace. This was one of her core beliefs. Thatcher was “eloquent and emotional,” Gorbachev remembered.

Thatcher also knew Gorbachev might give her a message for Reagan. She listened closely when he spoke about Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Privately, Thatcher had little confidence in Reagan’s dream of making nuclear weapons obsolete, but kept her counsel. What caught her ear at Chequers was the urgency in Gorbachev’s voice. The Soviets, she concluded, “wanted it stopped at almost any price.” She told Gorbachev there was no way Britain would be split from the United States. Gorbachev was supposed to leave at 4:30 P.M., but remained until 5:50 P.M. As his car pulled away, Thatcher recalled, “I hoped that I had been talking to the next Soviet leader.”

Officially, Gorbachev came to London as head of a Supreme Soviet delegation, but his reception and performance were anything but low-key. He charmed his hosts and captured the imagination of Britain. Television had never looked kindly on any Soviet leader, but Gorbachev thrived on the attention. “Red Star is born,” the Daily Mail said of Raisa. The Gorbachevs stopped in the cavernous reading room of the British Museum to see the place where Karl Marx had written Das Kapital, and they toured Westminster Abbey, seeing the graves of medieval kings, memorials to national poets, taking interest in the stained glass windows and the architecture.

On Monday, Thatcher gave an interview to the BBC. In her first answer to a question, she declared:

“I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.”11

Gorbachev’s visit was interrupted by news of the sudden death in Moscow of Dmitri Ustinov, the defense minister. Gorbachev flew home. Without Ustinov, there would be a new leadership vacuum. Chernenko was so ill he could not attend Ustinov’s funeral, and Gorbachev faced still more uncertainty in the Kremlin. “The leadership of the country was in a deplorable state,” he said.

Thatcher visited Reagan at Camp David on December 22, 1984. In preparation for the visit, the president had in his pocket seven note cards of talking points. The second card said, “Understand Gorbachev was impressive.” And, “What are your impressions?”12 Thatcher delivered a detailed report on the lunch at Chequers: human rights, economics, arms control. Thatcher said Gorbachev was more charming and more open to discussion and debate than his predecessors. She recounted how Gorbachev had zeroed in on the Strategic Defense Initiative. In response, Reagan opened up with a fulsome description of his great dream as both a technological quest and a moral imperative, with an ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. It was the first time Thatcher had heard Reagan talk about it directly, and she later confessed she was “horrified.” But she listened.

She also relayed to Reagan what Gorbachev had said to her: “Tell your friend President Reagan not to go ahead with space weapons.”13

To understand the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, who, with Reagan, would change the world in the years ahead, we must first reach back a half century into the tumultuous events that confronted his people and his country, from Stalin’s terror and the unimaginable losses of World War II, through the hardships, thaws, triumphs and stagnation of the postwar years. All of these directly touched Gorbachev. In his early life, there are few clues he would later become a catalyst of immense change. He was a child of the Soviet system, hardly a radical. But one thread is visible through it all. Gorbachev, over a long period of time, saw a reality that was strikingly different from the artificial world portrayed by the party and the leadership. As he rose through the ranks, he accumulated insights and revelations about the huge chasm between how people actually lived and the stuffy slogans of those who ruled. Raisa, too, grasped the depth of this chasm, and reinforced Gorbachev’s determination to change it.

Gorbachev’s doubts were sown incrementally, over a generation, and for many years kept to himself. His first reaction to a disappointment or failure was always to strive to improve the system. He was never in a frame of mind to tear it down. By the time he became Soviet leader, he had fully absorbed the abysmal reality, but had limited understanding of how to fix it. His greatest skill was in political maneuvering to achieve his goals. He tried to rescue the system by unleashing forces of openness and political pluralism, hoping that these would heal the other maladies. They could not.

Gorbachev’s achievements in ending the Cold War—braking what he called the speeding locomotive of the nuclear arms race, allowing a revolution in Europe to unfold peacefully, ending the confrontation in the Third World—were not his first objectives. They grew out of his desire for radical change at home, rooted in his experience as a peasant son, a young witness to war, a university student during the thaw, a party official in the stagnation years and, most importantly, 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.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born March 2, 1931, in the small village of Privolnoye, in the black earth region of Stavropol in southern Russia. His parents, Sergei and Maria, worked the land; life in his village was little changed over centuries. From childhood, Gorbachev remembered “adobe huts with an earthen floor, and no beds at all”—people slept near the oven for warmth.14 Gorbachev spent much of his childhood as the favorite of his mother’s parents; he often lived with them. They kept books of Marx, Engels and Lenin on a shelf, but also a Russian Orthodox religious icon. His maternal grandfather, Pantelei, was remembered by Gorbachev as a tolerant man, and immensely respected in the village. In those years, Gorbachev was the only son; a brother was born after the war, when he was seventeen years old. He seems to have had a happy childhood. “I enjoyed absolute freedom,” he recalled. “My grandparents made me feel like the most important member of the family.”

The country was soon plunged into suffering and tragedy. Famine struck the Stavropol region in 1933, when Gorbachev was just two years old. Stalin had launched the mass collectivization of agriculture, a brutal process of forcing the peasants into collective farms and punishing those known as kulaks, who were somewhat better off. A third to half of the population of Privolnoye died of hunger. “Entire families were dying, and the half-ruined ownerless huts would remain deserted for years,” Gorbachev remembered. Stalin’s purges took millions of lives among the peasantry in the 1930s.

Gorbachev’s family was touched by the purges, too. His grandfather on his father’s side, Andrei, rejected collectivization and tried to make it on his own. In the spring of 1934, Andrei was arrested and accused of failing to fulfill the sowing plan set by the government for individual peasants. “But no seeds were available to fulfill the plan,” Gorbachev recalled of the absurdity of the charge. Andrei was declared a “saboteur” and sent to a prison camp for two years, but released early, in 1935. On his return, he became a leader of the collective farm.

Two years later, grandfather Pantelei was also arrested. The charges were similarly absurd, that he had been a member of a counterrevolutionary organization and sabotaged the collective farm’s work. The arrest was “my first real trauma,” Gorbachev recalled. “They took him away in the middle of the night.” His grandfather was treated badly. Pantelei was finally released one winter evening in 1938, and returned to Privolnoye. Sitting at a hand-planed rustic table, he told the family how he had been beaten and tortured. Pantelei said he was convinced that Stalin did not know of the misdeeds of the secret police, and he did not blame the Soviet regime for his misfortunes. Pantelei never discussed it again. Gorbachev was only seven years old at the time, but later said the events left a deep, lasting impression on him. He held the secret of Pantelei’s ordeal privately, and only discussed it in the open a half century later.

By the late 1930s, both grandfathers were back at home, and village life seemed to be on an upswing. The families spent Sunday picnics in the woods. Then, on one of these Sundays, June 22, 1941, came terrifying news. A radio announced: the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev’s father was soon off to the front. He bought his ten-year-old son an ice cream, and a balalaika for a keepsake. Women, children and old men sobbed as the soldiers left. A massive snowfall that first winter put Privolnoye into deep isolation. There were no radios and newspapers seldom arrived. Gorbachev remembered that he “skipped from childhood directly into adulthood.” In the summer of 1942, the village fell under German occupation for four and a half months. The war devastated the countryside; they had no seed, no machines, no cattle. Famine spread in the winter and spring of 1944. The family was saved when Gorbachev’s mother, then thirty-three years old, sold his father’s last belongings, two pairs of boots and a suit, in a neighboring town for a 109-pound sack of corn.

In the summer of 1944, the family received a letter from the front. It contained family photographs and an announcement that Sergei Gorbachev had been killed in battle in the Carpathians. “The family cried for three days,” Gorbachev recalled. Then another letter came from his father saying he was alive. Both letters were dated August 27, 1944. Four days later, yet another letter—Sergei was indeed alive! How did it happen? His father later told Gorbachev that after an ambush, his unit had found his bag alone. He was missing and assumed dead. They sent the first letter to the family. Only days later did they discover him alive, but seriously wounded. Sergei told his son this confusion was typical of the chaos of war. “I have remembered this all my life,” Gorbachev later wrote.

In the early spring of 1943, Gorbachev was with other children, roaming the countryside, when they came to a remote stretch of forest between Privolnoye and a neighboring village. “There we stumbled upon the remains of Red Army soldiers, who had fought their last battle there in summer 1942. It was an unspeakable horror: decaying corpses, partly devoured by animals, skulls in rusted helmets, bleached bones, rifles protruding from the sleeves of rotting jackets. There was a light machine gun, some hand grenades, heaps of empty cartridges. There they lay, in the thick mud of the trenches and craters, unburied, staring at us out of black, gaping eye-sockets. We came home in a state of shock.”

Gorbachev was fourteen years old when the war ended. “Our generation is the generation of wartime children,” he said. “It has burned us, leaving its mark both on our characters and on our view of the world.”

After the war, Gorbachev worked in the fields each summer, “back-breaking labor twenty hours a day.” In high school, he was a good student and threw himself into the drama club and sports. School records showed Gorbachev had received top grades in Russian literature, trigonometry, history of the Soviet Union, the Soviet constitution, astronomy. He graduated in 1950 with a silver medal.15 For those long summers in the fields, he had also won an award, the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. This was a rare award for a schoolboy and most certainly helped Gorbachev win a place at Moscow State University, the most prestigious in the country, in the law department.16

Arriving in the capital in September 1950, at nineteen years old, the peasant boy was disoriented for the first few months in the bustling metropolis. Freshmen students lived twenty-two to a dorm room; for a few kopeks they could buy tea in the cafeteria, with unlimited free bread on the tables.

Gorbachev joined the Communist Party in 1952. To be a Communist then was to be a Stalinist. The first two years of his university life coincided with Stalin’s anti-cosmopolitan campaign, aimed at Jewish scholars and writers. This was an eye-opener for Gorbachev. He recalled that one morning, a friend, a Jew, had been confronted by a shouting, taunting mob and then crudely shoved off a tram. “I was shocked.”

By his own account, Gorbachev was taken with Soviet ideology, like many of his generation. “Communist ideology was very attractive for young people then,” he recalled. “The front-line soldiers came back from the war, most of them young people, filled with the pride of victory.” The younger generation hoped that war, famine and the Great Terror were things of the past, and believed they were building a new society of social justice and people power.17

Stalin was part of this fabric of belief. Stalin’s “Short Course” of the history of the party was held up to students as “a model of scientific thought,” Gorbachev recalled.18 The students “took many of the professed theses for granted, sincerely convinced of their truth.” Gorbachev was a leader of the Communist Youth League, known as the Komsomol. In high school he had written a final exam paper in which the title was borrowed from a song, “Stalin—our combat glory.”

But Gorbachev also was restive, and twice caused a stir by mildly speaking out against authority at the university. Once he wrote an anonymous note to a lecturer who mechanically droned on by reading Stalin’s work verbatim to the class. This was disrespectful to the students, Gorbachev said, since they had already read the book. Gorbachev admitted to writing the note, which touched off an investigation, but no action was taken.

When Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Gorbachev joined the huge mourning crowds in Moscow’s streets. He was “deeply and sincerely moved by Stalin’s death.” But in the years that followed, Gorbachev came to see Stalin differently. On February 25, 1956, Khrushchev delivered his famous “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress denouncing Stalin’s personality cult and use of violence and persecution. Only after the speech, Gorbachev recalled, “did I begin to understand the inner connection between what had happened in our country and what had happened to my family.” His grandfather Pantelei had said that Stalin didn’t know of his torture. But maybe Stalin was the one responsible for the family’s pain.

“The document containing Khrushchev’s denunciations circulated briefly within the party, and then it was withdrawn. But I managed to get my hands on it. I was shocked, bewildered and lost. It wasn’t an analysis, just facts, deadly facts. Many of us simply could not believe that such things could be true. For me it was easier. My family had itself been one of the victims of the repression of the 1930s.”19 Gorbachev later frequently called Khrushchev’s speech “courageous.” It was not a total break with the past, but it was a break nonetheless. He felt once again as if illusions about the system were falling away. Gorbachev saw this as a reason to be hopeful, but he was also aware that many people, especially those in an older generation, were skeptical and downright confused. Not everything was clear for Gorbachev, either. How could everything they had believed in be wrong?

While at the university, Gorbachev met and married Raisa Titorenko, a bright philosophy student. In the two years after Stalin’s death, Moscow began to open up to new ideas, often expressed in literature. Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel The Thaw, a title that came to define the era, was published in 1954. Gorbachev met a young Czech student at the university, Zdeněk Mlynáář, who became Gorbachev’s best friend in those years, and they enjoyed stormy debates late into the night in their dormitory room. The university experience began to open Gorbachev’s eyes, but at the same time, “for me and others of my generation the question of changing the system in which we lived did not arise.”

Upon graduation in the summer of 1955, Gorbachev returned to Stavropol, where he found new evidence of the gap between rhetoric and reality. Many saw this but did nothing; what was different about Gorbachev was his capacity to be shocked by it. During his university days he held a summer job in a local procuracy in Stavropol, but was appalled by the arrogant behavior of the apparatchiks.20 In a letter to Raisa written then, he described them as “disgusting.” He added, “Especially the manner of life of the local bosses. The acceptance of convention, subordination, with everything predetermined, the open impudence of officials and the arrogance. When you look at one of the local leaders you see nothing outstanding apart from his belly.”

Lev Grinberg (left) and Faina Abramova, the pathologists who autopsied victims of the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak. [David E. Hoffman]

The Chkalovsky district, where the outbreak occurred. [David E. Hoffman]

Sergei Popov, the bright young researcher who worked on genetic engineering of pathogens, and his wife, Taissia, at Koltsovo in 1982. [Sergei Popov]

Lev Sandakhchiev, the director of Vector, who pushed to create artificial viruses for weapons. [Andy Weber]

Igor Domaradsky, the “troublemaker” at Obolensk who attempted to alter the genetic makeup of pathogens. [David E. Hoffman]

Vitaly Katayev (in eyeglasses at left), an aviation and rocket designer by profession, began in 1974 to work for the Central Committee in Moscow. In the years leading up to the Soviet collapse, he kept detailed notebooks, filled with technical information about weapons systems and key decisions. Here, he attends a May Day celebration, date unknown. [Ksenia Kostrova]

Katayev in the 1990s. [Ksenia Kostrova]

A Katayev drawing on modular missiles. [Hoover Institution Archives]

President Ronald Reagan and the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed the concept of missile defense on February 11, 1983. The president wrote in his diary that night, “What if we tell the world, we want to protect our people, not avenge them…?” [Ronald Reagan Library]

Reagan unveiled his vision for the Strategic Defense Initiative in a televised speech on March 23, 1983. [Ray Lustig/Washington Post]

The nuclear accident at Chernobyl in April 1986 was a turning point for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. [Reuters]

Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of the Soviet General Staff, played a key role in Gorbachev’s drive to slow the arms race. [RIA Novosti]

A poster outlining Gorbachev’s proposal in 1986 to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Akhromeyev is identified on the reverse as the main author. [Hoover Institution Archives]

At the Reykjavik summit, October 11–12, 1986, Gorbachev and Reagan came closer than any other leaders of the Cold War Period to agreements that would slash nuclear arsenals. [Ronald Reagan Library]

They parted without a deal after Reagan insisted that his cherished dream of missile defense could not be limited to research in the laboratory. [Ronald Reagan Library]

Yevgeny Velikhov (right), an open-minded physicist, helped break through the walls of Soviet military secrecy. With Thomas B. Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council, near the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, July 1986. [RIA Novosti]

Velikhov and Cochran arranged an unprecedented joint experiment to verify the presence of a nuclear warhead on a missile aboard the Slava, a Soviet cruiser off the coast of Yalta, July 1989. [Thomas B. Cochran]

Anatoly Chernyaev, who harbored hopes for liberal reform in the Soviet Union, became Gorbachev’s top foreign policy adviser in 1986 and remained at his side until 1991. [Photograph courtesy of Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya, National Security Archive, Washington, D.C.]

Valery Yarynich, who spent thirty years in the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and General Staff, helped bring to fruition the semiautomatic missile launch system known as Perimeter, a modified “Dead Hand.” [Valery Yarynich]

Gorbachev decided on a career with the Komsomol, the party’s youth division, as deputy head of the “agitation and propaganda department.” This was a conformist career path. Gorbachev threw himself into the work, honing his speaking skills, often making trips around the region to exhort young people to believe in the party.21 The job brought him face-to-face with the bleakness of daily life, especially in the backwater rural corners of the Soviet Union. On one trip, he went to the most remote cattle farm in the region. After hiking through thick mud, Gorbachev arrived at a village of low, smoke-belching huts and blackened fences along the River Gorkaya Balka, and was shocked at what lay before him: poverty and desolation. “On the hillside, I wondered: ‘How is it possible, how can anyone live like that?’” Gorbachev’s impressions were shaped and deeply reinforced by his strong-willed wife, Raisa, who researched and wrote a thesis on peasant life in these years. She may have seen more of these desolate villages than he did. She trudged in boots and rode by motorcycle and cart through the bleak Russian countryside to carry out her research.22

Gorbachev moved up in Stavropol, first through the city organization and then to become the highest-ranking party official in the region. In these years, in the 1960s and 1970s, he again felt the disparity between the way people lived and the empty party slogans and rhetoric. In farming and industry, the heavy hand of the state stifled individual initiative. Theft, toadying, incompetence and malaise were everywhere. Central planning was both intrusive and woefully inefficient. Once, he toured a collective farm in Stavropol. There were “magnificent crops of both grain and fodder.” Gorbachev was pleased, but asked the chairman of the collective farm, “Where did you get the pipe to do the irrigation?” The man just smiled. He had diverted the pipe from somewhere, on his own, and Gorbachev knew that his success had nothing to do with socialism.23

It is important to recall that the most daring changes in the centrally controlled Soviet economic system at the time were extremely modest, such as demonstrations of self-financing, or khozraschyot, the idea that a factory or farm could retain its own profits. Sweeping challenges to the system were just not possible; even minor experiments in individual initiative were snuffed out. This is the world Gorbachev knew. The bureaucrats at central planning in Moscow arrogantly issued orders to do this and that, and on the ground in farms and cities, the orders often made no sense. The demands were ignored, statistics faked, budgets swallowed up with no result, and anyone who deviated was punished. From 1970 to 1978, Gorbachev was first secretary of the Communist Party in Stavropol, the highest-ranking official in the region, an expanse between the Black and Caspian Seas with the most fertile lands in all of Russia. Gorbachev was essentially the governor, but wielded much more power than an American governor. Regional party bosses were a key power bloc in the Soviet system and could affect how Moscow decisions were implemented. As first secretary, Gorbachev joined an elite group at the pinnacle of Soviet society. He was eligible for special privileges—good housing, food, transport—and was a full member of the Central Committee in Moscow. In the Brezhnev years, a party first secretary was “a prince in his own domain,” as Robert G. Kaiser of the Washington Post described it.24But Gorbachev was something of a populist. By one account, he often walked to his office and informally listened to people on the streets. He was a regular at theater performances and encouraged the local press to be less driven by party ideology.25 Gorbachev was “as pragmatic an innovator as the conservative temper of the times allowed.”26 For example, he supported a farming plan to give autonomy to groups or teams of workers, including families, even though it was viewed with suspicion by the Moscow bureaucrats. In 1978 Gorbachev wrote a lengthy memo on the problems of agriculture that called for giving “more independence to enterprises and associations” in deciding key production and money issues. But there is no evidence that these ideas ever took root very widely, and Gorbachev was definitely not a radical. He joined other party bosses in lavishing obsequious praise on the 1978 volume of Brezhnev’s ghostwritten memoirs of war, Malaya Zemlya, a blatant effort at self-glorification. Words of the state and party lost their meaning, but it was mandatory for Gorbachev and others to keep repeating them.

Gorbachev realized as regional party boss that something much more serious was wrong with the Soviet system than just inefficiency, theft and poor planning. The deeper flaw was that no one could break out with new ideas. Gorbachev bridled at being “bound hand and foot by orders from the center.”27 He concluded that a “hierarchy of vassals and chiefs of principalities was in fact the way the country was run.” In a reflection many years later, he said bluntly, “It was a caste system based on mutual protection.”

The outside world, too, offered Gorbachev fresh evidence of the contrast between reality and the party line. When his university friend MlynááY visited Stavropol in 1967, he surprised Gorbachev with a warning that Czechoslovakia was “on the verge of a major upheaval.” In the year that followed, MlynááY became a figure in the liberalizing movement in Czechoslovakia, headed by Alexander Dubček, which led to the Prague Spring and the drive to create “socialism with a human face.” This fling with democracy was crushed by Soviet tanks and Warsaw Pact troops on the night of August 20–21, 1968. Gorbachev has acknowledged that in 1968 he supported the invasion as a party official in Stavropol. But Gorbachev saw a different reality a year later when he visited Prague. On this trip, he did not see MlynááY, but he realized people sincerely believed in the liberalization and hated the Soviet leadership in Moscow. While the KGB line was that external factors were at work, Gorbachev saw that the impetus was internal. On a factory tour in Brno, workers refused to even talk to Gorbachev. “This was a shock to me,” Gorbachev said. “This visit overturned all my conceptions.” In Bratislava, he saw walls densely covered with anti-Soviet slogans. “From that time on, I began to think more and more about what was going on in our country, and I came to an unconsoling conclusion: there was something wrong …” But he kept these thoughts to himself, and Raisa.28 Throughout the 1970s, Gorbachev traveled several times to the West, including Italy, France, Belgium and West Germany. What he saw in these relatively prosperous democracies was far different from what he had been shown in Soviet propaganda books, films and radio broadcasts. “People there lived in better conditions, and were better off than in our country. The question haunted me: why was the standard of living in our country lower than in other developed countries?”

The Stavropol town of Kislovodsk was favored by the Soviet elite for its soothing spas and mineral springs. The Soviet KGB chief, Yuri Andropov, who suffered kidney ailments, often retreated to a KGB lodge there. He and Gorbachev shared a holiday at the mineral springs in August 1978. Andropov had taken notice of Gorbachev as a potential future leader. They climbed in the nearby mountains, and spent many hours sitting around an open bonfire, cooking shashlik under the star-studded skies. Andropov, who had wide-ranging interests, often talked to Gorbachev about affairs of state, and they listened to tape recordings of Vladimir Vysotsky and Yuri Vizbor, who strummed a seven-string guitar and sang of people’s everyday problems. This must have been an amazing scene: two party bosses enjoying the music of bards whose works were largely distributed on bootleg tapes. Andropov, head of the secret police since 1967, became one of Gorbachev’s mentors and tutors.

In Moscow, Gorbachev was elected a secretary of the Central Committee and put in charge of agriculture.29 Full of enthusiasm, he went to see Brezhnev about farm policy. But Gorbachev, forty-eight years old, found the Soviet leader, then seventy-one, almost lifeless in his Kremlin office. “Not only did he not take up the conversation, but he showed no response at all, neither to my words nor to myself,” Gorbachev recalled.

As a junior member of the Soviet ruling elite, Gorbachev soon discovered that the final years of Brezhnev’s rule were filled with such scenes. Some Politburo meetings lasted no longer than fifteen or twenty minutes, so as not to tire the chairman. “It was a sad sight,” recalled Gorbachev. The country was in serious trouble economically as the oil boost of the late 1970s began to give out. The war in Afghanistan, launched by a coterie around Brezhnev, turned into a quagmire. The hopes of détente in the 1970s evaporated, and the superpower tension escalated. Food shortages grew at home. During the first four years that Gorbachev was secretary for agriculture in Moscow, there were four successive bad harvests and massive Soviet grain purchases abroad.30

From the time Gorbachev arrived in Moscow in November 1978, through the early 1980s, a simmering power struggle unfolded between an old guard, bastions of the party and military, and a handful of reformers, most of whom were academics with fresh ideas but no power base. When Brezhnev died, Andropov promoted a group of younger officials, including Gorbachev and Nikolai Ryzhkov, an experienced factory manager from Sverdlovsk. Andropov put Gorbachev in charge of economic policy for the whole country. Gorbachev solicited ideas from the academic reformers. Now, at least the reformers had an umbrella—Gorbachev would listen to them.31

True to his background in the KGB, Andropov tried to rejuvenate the country with police-state methods, such as arresting people seen as loafers on the street during working hours. Gorbachev told him this was a dubious practice, that people were making jokes about it, but Andropov wouldn’t listen. He brushed Gorbachev off, saying, “When you get to my age, you’ll understand.”

What brought these two men together was a shared understanding of the plight of the system. Gorbachev recalled that Andropov was determined to root out the ills of the Brezhnev era, including “protectionism, in-fighting and intrigues, corruption, moral turpitude, bureaucracy, disorganization and laxity.” But as historian Robert English pointed out, it was extraordinarily hard to make change “in an ossified, militarized Party-state system,” especially given the latent power of the hard-liners.32In the end, Andropov ran out of time. Gorbachev wrote later that Andropov could not have really carried out drastic change; the years with the KGB left him unable to break out. “He was too deeply entrenched in his own past experience; it held him firmly in its grasp,” Gorbachev said.

It fell to Gorbachev to become the agent of change, and his time was coming.

A turning point came in May 1983, when Gorbachev went to Canada for a seven-day visit as head of a parliamentary delegation. Alexander Yakovlev, the Soviet ambassador there, saw an opportunity to show Gorbachev how the West worked, and to offer his own deep concerns about the direction of the Soviet Union. In Alberta, Gorbachev was fascinated by a discussion with a wealthy farmer who had a 4,942-acre spread. Gorbachev quickly got to talking and discovered the farmer’s herd produced a milk yield of 4,700 kilograms each cow per year. The yield of Soviet cows was 2,258 kilograms.33 The farmer had two homes, cars and aluminum grain towers, and told Gorbachev he worked a long, hard year without vacations. Canada offered Gorbachev a prosperous counterpoint to Soviet agricultural failure.

The key moment of the visit was out of public view, on the evening of May 19, at the Ontario farm of Eugene Whelan, the Canadian agriculture minister. Whelan had invited Gorbachev for dinner, but was delayed in arriving. His wife, Elizabeth, greeted the Soviet guests after they drove in on a long, bumpy dirt road. Waiting around, Gorbachev and Yakovlev decided to take a private stroll, alone, in a nearby orchard. Yakovlev had been the Central Committee propaganda chief in the early 1970s, but had written an article with radical ideas for a newspaper—and was sent to diplomatic exile in Canada. He was a reformist whose enthusiasm for change only deepened as he witnessed the collapse of détente and the stagnation of the late Brezhnev years. Yakovlev, then fifty-nine years old, was angered by the over-militarization of Soviet society, and he believed markets could offer improvements to socialism. Most of all, he later recalled, he had made freedom his “religion.” In the walk in the orchard, it all spilled out.

“We had a lot of time together,” Yakovlev recalled. “So we took a long walk on that minister’s farm and, as it often happens, both of us were just kind of flooded, and let go. I somehow, for some reason, threw caution to the wind and started telling him about what I considered to be utter stupidities in the area of foreign affairs, especially about those SS-20 missiles that were being stationed in Europe and a lot of other things. And he did the same thing. We were completely frank. He frankly talked about the problems in the internal situation in Russia. He was saying that under these conditions, the conditions of dictatorship and absence of freedom, the country would simply perish. So it was at that time, during our three-hour conversation, almost as if our heads were knocked together, that we poured it all out.”34

Two weeks later, Yakovlev was asked to return to Moscow to head up a prestigious think tank, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, where he would become a pioneer of the new thinking.

The Kremlin paralysis under Chernenko was grave. Politburo meetings were difficult to convene. Fifteen or twenty minutes before the start time, 11 A.M., a phone call came and Gorbachev was told that Chernenko was so sick he could not attend. Would Gorbachev take the chair? This left Gorbachev little time to prepare, and it was awkward in front of the other, more senior members. By the end of 1984, “Chernenko had dropped out altogether,” Gorbachev recalled. With no one in charge, the suspicions and infighting worsened. According to Yakovlev, hard-liners launched an offensive against some of the liberal think tanks, threatening a purge that would have silenced them.35

Gorbachev’s sense of gloom was reinforced at a December soul-searching talk with Eduard Shevardnadze, who was the first secretary of the party in the republic of Georgia, just to the south of the Stavropol region. Like Gorbachev, Shevardnadze was a high-ranking official and a man with clear vision about the country’s problems. They met at a barren park on the deserted shore near the Black Sea’s Cape Pitsunda. Strolling down a path beneath the trees, they talked openly, holding nothing back. “Everything’s rotten,” Shevardnadze said. “It has to be changed.”36

That winter was terrible. Yegor Ligachev recalled that because of massive snows and bitter cold, industry in the country began to break down. Fifty-four of the largest electric plants were on the verge of shutdown because 22,000 freight cars carrying coal were stopped dead on the tracks, their cargo frozen solid.37

In early December 1984, Gorbachev prepared to give a critical speech at a party conference on ideology. The Soviet elite was dejected and Gorbachev wanted to offer badly needed new ideas. Months of work had gone into refining his speech, with help from Yakovlev. The participants had already arrived in Moscow. Then Gorbachev got a call from the ailing, cautious Chernenko at 4 P.M. Alarmed at the new ideas Gorbachev planned to offer in the speech, Chernenko insisted the conference should be postponed for some vague reason about not being fully prepared. Gorbachev was indignant. The participants had already arrived! What was Chernenko thinking? “OK,” the Soviet leader backed down. “Have it, but don’t make too much noise.” In fact, Gorbachev’s December 10 address offered hints of dramatic change to come. He talked about restructuring—perestroika.

On February 24, 1985, Chernenko was shown voting on television in an election. Chernenko was seen accepting his ballot, voting, accepting flowers from a well-wisher and shaking hands. He raised his hand up to his brow and said “Good.” End of broadcast. Anatoly Chernyaev, the deputy of the International Department at the Central Committee, watched with disgust. “A man half-dead. A mummy,” Chernyaev wrote in his diary. Two days later, Chernenko was shown on television again. This time he appeared wan and held on to a chair for support as an election official handed him a document. He was wheezing. “It was a terrible show,” Chernyaev wrote.38 The only other official in the room in both broadcasts was Viktor Grishin, seventy, the Moscow party chief, a member of the Politburo’s old guard who seemed to be making a bid for power, positioning himself standing next to Chernenko. But Grishin’s move swiftly backfired. The sight of the ill Chernenko was a reminder, if one was needed, that it was time for change.

On the evening of Sunday, March 10, Gorbachev returned home from work and took a call from the Kremlin doctor, Yevgeny Chazov. Chernenko had died of heart failure and complications from emphysema at 7:20 P.M. Gorbachev, who had been passed over in the transition after Andropov, wasted little time. A Politburo meeting was called at the Kremlin for 11 P.M. Three voting members, including two old Brezhnevites, were out of the country and would not make it back.

About twenty minutes before the meeting started, Gorbachev met 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 the key figure 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. The back channel was through Gromyko’s son, Anatoly, and Gorbachev’s reformist adviser, Yakovlev.39

When Gorbachev and Gromyko met in the Walnut Room, they reconfirmed the understanding reached earlier.

“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. There was momentary hesitation in the room: Would Grishin make a play for it?

In fact, before the meeting, Gorbachev had already made a gesture to Grishin, who declined to head the commission.

“Why the hesitation about the chairman?” Grishin said now, in front of the Politburo members. “Everything is clear. Let’s appoint Mikhail Sergeyevich.”

The old guard had died. Gorbachev became head of the commission and the next day would become the new general secretary. Precisely why Grishin did not fight is not known, but he may well have realized, or sensed, that he had no chance, that Gromyko would support Gorbachev.

Gorbachev 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 fifty-four, the youngest member of the Politburo by a full five years, he was thirteen years younger than the average age of the voting membership.40 Plans were hurriedly made through the night for the transition, which would include a Politburo meeting and then a Central Committee plenum March 11 to ratify the choice.

Gorbachev went home at 4 A.M. He was then living at a large dacha outside of Moscow. Raisa was waiting up. Suspicious of KGB listening bugs, they went out in the garden, as they did almost every day. They strolled the paths for a long time just before dawn. Spring had not yet come, there was snow on the ground. Raisa recalled the air felt very heavy. They talked about the events and the implications. Gorbachev told her he had been frustrated all the years in Moscow, having not accomplished as much as he wanted, always hitting a wall. To really get things done, he would have to accept the job.

“We can’t go on living like this,” he said.

At the next day’s session, Gromyko delivered 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 began. Gorbachev is the “absolutely right choice.” Gorbachev had “indomitable creative energy, striving to do more and do it better.” Gorbachev respected “the interests of the party, the interests of the society, the interests of the people” above his own, he said. Gorbachev would bring experience of work in the regions and the center, and ran the Politburo while Chernenko was ill. This required knowledge and stamina. “We won’t make a mistake if we choose him,” Gromyko said.

After the agonizing years of stagnation, death and disappointment, Gorbachev was chosen first and foremost as the best hope to get the country moving.41 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, such as Grishin, 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.”42

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