Mikhail Gorbachev was born in Privolnoye in the North Caucasus, the son of an agricultural mechanic. He went to Moscow University to study law in 1950, where he met and married a philosophy student, Raisa Titorenko, who was to play an important part in his later career.
Having joined the Communist Party (CPSU) in 1952, he worked actively for it in Stavropol, introducing reforms and becoming local party leader in 1970. Having impressed his influential fellow countryman, Yuri Andropov, he was admitted to the CPSU secretariat as Agriculture Secretary in 1978. He was promoted to full membership of the politburo in 1980, and in 1983, following Andropov's election as party general-secretary, took broader charge of the Soviet economy.
During the Chernenko administration (1984-85) he established himself as the second-ranking figure in what was a 'dual key' administration and was swiftly appointed party general-secretary after Chernenko's death. He soon made his presence felt as party leader, forcing the retirement of obstructive colleagues and bringing into the politburo and secretariat a new group of younger technocrats, who were more supportive of his vision of reform. He also introduced a major campaign against alcoholism and corruption during 1985-86 and, after strongly criticizing the Brezhnev era, unveiled, under the slogans glasnost ('openness') and perestroika ('restructuring'), a series of liberalizing economic, political and cultural reforms which had the aim of making the Soviet economy and society more efficient and open.
A major setback occurred in April 1986 with the disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, where an explosion in a nuclear reactor led to the immediate death of over 30 people, the hospitalization of at least 500, and radioactive fallout from the atmosphere caused contamination in many parts of eastern and northern Europe. However, the effectiveness of Gorbachev's reforms was evidenced by the apparent availability of information about the disaster.
In foreign policy, Gorbachev launched a new 'detente offensive', meeting US President Ronald Reagan in several summits (1985-88) and signing an Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) abolition treaty in 1987. He sanctioned the USSR's military withdrawal from Afghanistan (1989), and its progressive disengagement from eastern Europe. He was elected head of state in 1988, and became an executive President with increased powers in 1990. Through seeking to transform the USSR into a new 'socialist pluralist' democracy, he encountered internal opposition on all sides from party conservatives, radicals, and nationalists, particularly in the Baltic republics, which sought and eventually achieved their independence. In particular, he faced a continuing challenge in Boris Yeltsin, who urged more radical reform and supported the breakaway republics. It was an embarrassment to Gorbachev when Yeltsin was elected to the Russian presidency in 1990, although he endeavoured to establish a working relationship with him.
In 1990 Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in acknowledgement of his contribution to the improvement in relations between the USSR and the West. The following year in August, he survived a coup staged by conservative elements, and Yeltsin again emerged as the principal focus of opposition to him. Later in the year Gorbachev had no choice but to resign, when the Communist Party was abolished and the Soviet Union disintegrated.
His works include Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World (1987), The August Coup: The Truth and the Lessons (1992) and Memoirs (1996).
Commenting on her first meeting with Gorbachev in 1984, Margaret Thatcher said: 'I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together'. And in his speech proposing Gobrachev to the Supreme Soviet as party leader in 1985, Andrei Gromyko said: 'This man, Comrades, has a nice smile, but he has iron teeth'.