He Seems Firmly in Control : Self-Assured Gorbachev a Combative Workaholic

Times Staff Writer

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is the kind of man who drums his fingers on the table and interrupts others while they are talking.

He is impatient, energetic, combative and a workaholic. Although he has spent little time in the West, he has a sense of public relations that would serve him well on Madison Avenue.

A stocky, balding man with a large birthmark on his forehead, Gorbachev has expressive dark eyes and a firm, well-modulated voice. In a group, there is no doubt that he is in charge.

He works long hours, seven days a week, with time out on Sunday mornings to play with his granddaughter.


His self-assurance at times borders on the self-righteous. Speaking of the Soviet leadership, he once said, “It is impossible for us to be irresponsible; we would not allow ourselves to be.”

Gorbachev, who will meet here today and Wednesday with President Reagan, is willing to take risks that his predecessors refused to consider. Squarely confronting the enormous problem of alcoholism in his country, he pushed through new laws to reduce the output and consumption of vodka despite deeply embedded Russian drinking traditions.

And, in unprecedented fashion, he has exposed himself to questioning by Western reporters on topics that are unmentionable in the Soviet press, such as the fate of exiled dissident Andrei D. Sakharov, a Nobel Prize winner.

Only eight months after Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party, his power seems to be firmly established. With extraordinary speed, he has removed a potential rival from the Politburo and put three of his disciples into top Politburo posts.


More than a dozen government ministers, including 80-year-old Premier Nikolai A. Tikhonov, have left office since Gorbachev began wielding his new broom.

At the age of 54, Gorbachev represents a new Kremlin generation after years of weaker leadership by men who were old and sick. Barring unexpected events, he could remain in power into the next century.

Even the prominence of his fashion-conscious wife, Raisa Maximova, their attractive daughter, Irina, and their grandchild, Oksana, is a departure from custom. But, despite all the emphasis on change, Gorbachev also represents more of the same, a continuation of basic Soviet policy at home and abroad.

“He doesn’t want to change the system; he wants to make it work better,” a Western analyst said of Gorbachev’s approach to the sluggish Soviet economy.


On international policy, he combines tough talk about the menace of imperialism with calls for peaceful coexistence of states with differing social systems.

‘Combative’ on Human Rights

When Soviet restrictions on emigration and dissent are challenged, he counterattacks by citing the alleged denial of human rights in the United States and other Western countries.

“He’s definitely more combative on this issue” than his predecessors were, a Western diplomat said after several sessions with the new Soviet leader.


In the foreign relations field, Gorbachev has been busy trying to woo the West and cultivating Third World friendships while taking a firmer line toward Warsaw Pact allies.

Despite obvious misgivings in the Kremlin, Gorbachev agreed to his summit with Reagan, then unveiled an arms control proposal during a trip to Paris in early October that was given maximum publicity in the West.

Departing from Soviet tradition, he agreed to take part in a press conference in Paris with French President Francois Mitterrand that exposed him to sharp questioning on human rights and related issues. Gorbachev literally squirmed in his chair during the unprecedented cross-examination, but he answered or brushed aside the questions as if he had been doing it all his life.

“The open press conference of Gorbachev was a real breakthrough,” a senior Western diplomat said, “and he handled himself pretty well.”


Appears Reasonable

Gorbachev is able to appear reasonable without yielding his position and has been described by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl as “a man who can argue and who can listen.”

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said she liked Gorbachev and could do business with him, though that comment was made last December, months before the Soviet Union expelled 31 British diplomats, journalists and businessmen in retaliation for London’s ouster of 31 Soviets as spies.

Moscow’s reprisal against Britain was swift and reciprocal, in sharp contrast to its muted reaction in 1971, when London threw out 105 Soviet citizens as spies.


The retaliation reinforced the image of Gorbachev painted by Soviet President Andrei A. Gromyko, who once said of him: “Comrades, this man has a nice smile, but he has iron teeth.”

Unlike his ailing predecessors, Gorbachev has traveled widely around the Soviet Union since he took over the top post. He has been to Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, the oil fields of Siberia, the virgin lands in Kazakhstan and other areas.

Greater Production Urged

At each stop he has spread his gospel of greater production, harder work and more efficiency. At the industrial city of Dnepropetrovsk, his impatience showed through when he said: “The question may arise: Aren’t we making a sharp turn? No. . . . A different approach--a calmer one, perhaps--doesn’t suit us. The times dictate that we do what we are doing.”


And in a major speech last June, Gorbachev put his program into simple terms, saying: “We will have to work a lot. None of the problems we must solve today can be put off until tomorrow.”

In contrast to the relaxed, to-get-along-go-along attitude of the late Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev, Gorbachev has made it plain that incompetent officials have to go. At Tyumen, he warned, “We cannot, and will not, support those executives who are geared to old approaches and outmoded norms, who link higher growth rates of production to obtaining additional material resources.”

‘Can’t Change the Weather’

In dismissing excuses from grain farmers in Kazakhstan that bad weather had reduced the harvests, Gorbachev said: “I want to emphasize once again: We can’t change the weather. . . . We must achieve a situation in which, even with unfavorable weather, the country will obtain no less than 200 million tons of grain.”


He showed the same pragmatic approach in urging increased meat production, saying, “If the delivery weight of each head of cattle is raised by only 50 kilograms, we will obtain an increase of 1.5 million tons of meat from the same number of livestock.” Trying to get the same increase from more livestock, he said, would require another 5 million head of cattle at much greater cost.

Gorbachev’s definite views on agricultural policy reflect his own background and his first Moscow assignment as minister of agriculture.

Born in a farming area on March 2, 1931, in the village of Privolnoye in Stavropol province in the northern Caucasus, Gorbachev apparently lived under German occupation during his boyhood in the early years of World War II.

Attended Law School


As a teen-ager, he drove a grain harvester and became a top official of the Komsomol, the Young Communist League, before he left to attend law school at Moscow University, where he became Komsomol organizer for his class. In his second year at the university, he joined the Communist Party.

After graduation, he was hired as a paid organizer and entered the ranks of the Nomenklatura, the party elite. At the age of 25, he returned to Stavropol and, before he was 30, became the top party official in the province.

It was at this time that he came to know Yuri V. Andropov, then head of the KGB, who used to spend summer vacations in Stavropol. The two men became friends, and it was Andropov’s influence that apparently led to Gorbachev’s rise to minister of agriculture in 1978.

After that, his career literally took off. Within a year, he was named a candidate (non-voting) member of the Politburo, and in 1980 he was promoted to full membership. And, despite a series of poor harvests, his position was strengthened when Andropov succeeded Brezhnev as the top Soviet leader in 1982.


As a result, he was in a strong position to succeed Konstantin U. Chernenko last March. His elevation to general secretary of the party, the position of highest Soviet leadership, was announced less than four hours after Chernenko’s death was disclosed.