Mikhail Gorbachev, the son of an agricultural mechanic on a collective farm, was born in Privolnoye in the Soviet Union on 2nd March, 1931.
Gorbachev's grandfather, Pantelei Yefimovich Gopkalo, was a staunch member of the Communist Party (CPSU) and was chairman of the village kolkhoz. In 1937 he was arrested by the NKVD Secret Police and charged with being a leader of an underground organization supporting Leon Trotsky. After enduring nearly two years of torture and imprisonment, his grandfather was released in December 1938.
In his memoirs Gorbachev argues this incident had a dramatic impact on his political development. His grandfather remained a committed communist and introduced his grandson to the works of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and Lenin (although not Leon Trotsky).
During the Second World War Gorbachev's village was occupied by the German Army. He later wrote: "I was fourteen when the war ended. Our generation is the generation of wartime children. It has burned us, leaving its mark both on our characters and in our view of the world."
Gorbachev worked as a combine harvest operator before studying law at Moscow University. While a student Gorbachev joined Communist Party (CPSU) and married Raisa Titorenko.
After leaving university Gorbachev became a full-time official with Komsomol (Communist Youth Organization). In 1955 Gorbachev he was appointed first secretary of the Komsomol Territorial Committee. Gorbachev made rapid progress and by 1960 he was the top Komsomol official in Stavropol. The following year he was a delegate from Stavropol to the 22nd Communist Party Congress in Moscow.
Gorbachev studied for a second degree at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute (1964-67) and in 1970 was appointed First Secretary for Stavropol Territory. His work in this post impressed Yuri Andropov, who was at that time the head of the Committee for State Security (KGB). Andropov now used his considerable influence to promote Gorbachev's career.
In 1971 Gorbachev became a member of Communist Party Central Committee. He later moved to Moscow where he became the Secretary of Agriculture. In 1980 Gorbachev became the youngest member of the Politburo and within four years had become deputy to Konstantin Chernenko.
On the death of Chernenko in 1985 Gorbachev was elected by the Central Committee as General Secretary of the Communist Party. As party leader he immediately began forcing more conservative members of the Central Committee to resign. He replaced them with younger men who shared his vision of reform.
In 1985 Gorbachev introduced a major campaign against corruption and alcoholism. He also spoke about the need for Perestroika (Restructuring) and this heralded a series of liberalizing economic, political and cultural reforms which had the aim of making the Soviet economy more efficient.
Gorbachev introduced policies with the intention of establishing a market economy by encouraging the private ownership of Soviet industry and agriculture. However, the Soviet authoritarian structures ensured these reforms were ineffective and there were shortages of goods available in shops.
Gorbachev also announced changes to Soviet foreign policy. In 1987 he met with Ronald Reagan and signed the Immediate Nuclear Forces (INF) abolition treaty. He also made it clear he would no longer interfere in the domestic policies of other countries in Eastern Europe and in 1989 announced the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. The following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Aware that Gorbachev would not send in Soviet tanks there were demonstrations against communist governments throughout Eastern Europe. Over the next few months the communists were ousted from power in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany.
Gorbachev's attempts to make the Soviet Union a more democratic country made him unpopular with conservatives still in positions of power. In August 1991 he survived a coup staged by hard-liners in the Communist Party. Gorbachev responded by dissolving the Central Committee. However, with the Soviet Union disintegrating into separate states, Gorbachev resigned from office on 25th December, 1995.