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COLUMN ONE : The Rise and Fall of Gorbachev : The former farm boy who introduced dramatic reforms upon his rise to power ended up out of sync with social, political forces he had released.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mikhail S. Gorbachev launched a “revolution without shots” that freed his people from repression and fear and brought the Cold War to a dramatic end, but he also whipped up economic and ethnic turmoil on such a vast scale that they doomed not just his leadership but his country.

“I think I’ve done everything I could,” the 60-year-old Soviet president wearily told a group of journalists he called to his Kremlin office this month for what seemed like a farewell news conference. “I think anyone else in my shoes would have stepped down a long time ago.”

The moment came Wednesday. “Due to the situation which has evolved as a result of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of president of the U.S.S.R.,” he announced.

After Gorbachev took charge in the Kremlin just before the onset of spring in 1985, his sweeping agenda for change seized the attention of the world. For the next few years, the world anxiously watched the ebb and flow of the campaign for perestroika --the overhaul of Soviet society and the sputtering state-run economy.

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In external affairs, seconded by the wily and charming Georgian, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s “new thinking” led directly to the escape of the Eastern European satellites captured by dictator Josef Stalin, as well as to the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification and the demise of the Warsaw Pact.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, in part for not ordering Soviet tanks to crush the forces of change in Eastern Europe, as his predecessors Nikita S. Khrushchev and Leonid I. Brezhnev had done.

At home, however, although Gorbachev brought his people bracing new freedoms and the dawn of democratic rule, he was incapable of bettering economic performance or stemming a tidal surge of nationalism in the Soviet ethnic homelands.

His final grand plan became a new, looser Soviet Union, something he dubbed a “union of sovereign states,” with a trimmed-down central government and replacement of the imploding state economy by a market system of supply and demand--and a considerable devolution of power to what were to be “sovereign republics.”

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He staked his political future on it, and last weekend, when leaders of 11 republics opted instead for a commonwealth giving them much more freedom and authority, it made both the Soviet Union and its leader political antiques.

The August Coup

Last August, panicked over what seemed to be the imminent end of state socialism and the all-powerful central bureaucracy that had guaranteed their livelihood, a coterie of conservative Communists tried to oust Gorbachev while he was vacationing in the Crimea.

He returned to the Kremlin after a former protege whom he had fired in disgrace, Boris N. Yeltsin, marshaled crowds that led to the putsch’s collapse. But Gorbachev left his summer dacha only to become the Russian president’s political hostage and, ultimately, to be made redundant by Yeltsin’s brainchild--the post-Soviet commonwealth.

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Beginning with a fireside superpower summit in Geneva in November, 1985, Gorbachev forged a spectacularly improved relationship with the United States, moving with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush from a posture of confrontation to one of cooperation and trust.

“The winds of the Cold War are being replaced by the winds of hope,” he told a group of U.S. journalists in 1988, summing up one of the most incontestable of his achievements as Kremlin leader.

He ended his country’s military involvement in Afghanistan, a geopolitical blunder that had cost more than 13,000 Soviet lives and cast the Soviet Union as a Third World villain. It was a key move in proving to the world that, finally, the Kremlin’s word could be trusted.

“Some people claim that politics are immoral,” Gorbachev said as the end of his tenure atop the Kremlin power structure drew near. “They may be immoral at a certain level, but, myself, I believe that I am a person of certain moral standards.”

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But as Gorbachev’s stock soared overseas, as early as 1988--his third year in power--it was slipping at home, due to ethnic unrest, worsening economic troubles and the chronic inability of his leadership team to react in time to critically important events.

“I was simply naive to believe you, to believe in you, to believe that you were an excellent manager, a skilled economist and a politician who had a statesman’s view,” an ex-Communist complained to Gorbachev in a letter printed in Pravda last year.

The man who at first had cut a reformist figure much like that of Peter the Great increasingly seemed out of sync with the social and political forces he had released.

In the days after the August putsch, he could not bring himself to break with the Communist Party that had made him but that ultimately betrayed him. When he finally quit as its general secretary, he relinquished an indispensable lever of his power and authority.

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A Powerful Presidency

Sweeping political changes gave Gorbachev a powerful executive presidency--an innovation in Soviet politics--so he could bypass the conservative party apparatus to enact his reforms. But even as he was solidifying his Kremlin power base, forces were tearing apart his country and local leaders were clamoring for genuine power, developments that made Moscow’s edicts increasingly irrelevant.

“I’ve been working for 18 months to make sure that we’re not disintegrated, we’re not divided into different republics,” Gorbachev said this month. But when he left office, the superpower and multi-ethnic empire whose stewardship he inherited 6 1/2 years earlier--the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics--was no more.

For his ineffectiveness, Gorbachev was dubbed by some a baltun --"blabbermouth.” To the end, he envisaged no alternative to his policies--a repudiation of the totalitarianism imposed by Stalin, and in some cases by Soviet founder V. I. Lenin himself, but also loyalty to the Leninist vision.

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“To me personally, perestroika is my choice, it is my life, my destiny, my predicament as a person and as a politician,” he once told the British Broadcasting Corp. “I am not going to deviate from this road, whatever pressure is put on me.”

Titanic Relief Effort

As Gorbachev, the reformer who originally sought to modernize the machinery of Soviet socialism, vacated the political scene, the world was gearing up for a titanic relief effort to help feed the republics, because their economies had been wrecked to the point where mass hunger was considered a strong possibility.

In the political realm, Gorbachev’s accomplishments were breathtaking. Under his prodding, the Communist Party last year renounced its constitutional monopoly on power, allowing the first multi-party elections since the Russian Revolution.

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For the first time in seven decades, the Soviet people were granted a genuine voice in determining their future. Even the fact that Gorbachev leaves office as a result of the decision of Yeltsin and other duly elected leaders of the republics is eloquent proof of the great strides taken toward demokratizatsiya --democratization--during his tenure.

The Kremlin-initiated drive for glasnost, or openness, went into high gear in 1986 and brought the freeing of thousands of political prisoners or exiles, including human rights champion and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei D. Sakharov.

Long-banned masterworks, including Boris L. Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” and Alexander A. Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” were finally printed here. Their authors, sometimes posthumously, were restored to places of honor.

Beginning with a landmark speech in 1987 on the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev gave his people back their history; and with an end to official censorship, millions learned for the first time of the “enormous and unforgivable” crimes of Stalin.

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The press, freed from ideological strictures and the Kremlin’s relentless oversight, rapidly became a freewheeling social force--a turn of events that sometimes angered Gorbachev.

For in the end, glasnost allowed people to contest not only the abuses of Soviet socialism, as Gorbachev had wanted, but the wisdom of the system itself.

Breaking boldly with official dogma, Gorbachev abandoned the Marxist-Leninist tenet that foreign policy was class warfare under another name and annulled the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, which asserted the Kremlin’s right to intervene anywhere “socialism” was at risk, such as in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

“It is clear to us that the principle of freedom of choice is mandatory,” Gorbachev told the U.N. General Assembly in another landmark speech in 1988. “Denying that right to the peoples, under whatever pretext or rhetorical guide, means jeopardizing even the fragile balance that has been attained.”

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Postwar Disasters

Engaging and affable, yet sometimes baring “teeth of iron,” Gorbachev had to face two of the greatest Soviet disasters of the postwar age: the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, which killed 32 people outright and led to the deaths of thousands more from radiation exposure, and the 1988 Armenian earthquake, which killed at least 25,000 people.

Although some Soviets, sensing an ever keener hunger for power, likened their president and general secretary to Napoleon Bonaparte or the autocratic Romanovs from Russia’s past, he rejected such comparisons, claiming that with his advent, his countrymen finally were responsible for their own fates.

“People keep coming to me and saying, ‘Mikhail Sergeyevich, do something,’ ” he once said. “But it is time to abandon czars and dictators.”

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Formative Years

The stocky, round-faced man former President Richard M. Nixon appraised as “the most remarkable statesman of our time” was born in the village of Privolnoye, 750 miles south of Moscow, on March 2, 1931.

Gorbachev’s father, Sergei, was a combine driver and a member of the rural elite created in Stalin’s brutal drive to herd the peasantry onto collective farms.

His paternal grandfather, Andrei, an early member of the Soviet Communist Party, helped organize the Khleborob collective farm the year Mikhail was born.

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They were terrible, convulsed years in the Soviet countryside, and they marked Gorbachev for life. His maternal grandfather was banished to Siberia to cut trees for failing to sow enough seed in 1933, leaving his family starving and destitute.

As for Andrei Gorbachev, he was imprisoned and interrogated for 14 months about “sins he had not committed,” Gorbachev recalled.

“Thank goodness, he survived,” Gorbachev said. “But relatives feared to enter his house, the home of an ‘enemy of the people,’ otherwise they would have been sent to prison too. So our family suffered a great deal. We knew the dark side of life.”

In 1941, when Mikhail Gorbachev was 10, the Nazis unleashed their blitzkrieg assault on the Soviet Union, racing across the steppes and seizing Stavropol, the closest city to Privolnoye, in an abortive attempt to overrun Stalingrad (now Volgograd) to the north.

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Sergei Gorbachev, conscripted into the Red Army, went off to fight in what the Soviets call the “Great Patriotic War.” He left behind a family so poor that, for lack of money, Mikhail missed three months of school, his mother, Maria, recalled.

“In 1944, Misha (the diminutive form of Mikhail) was in fifth grade. He couldn’t go to school because he didn’t have shoes,” Maria said in a Soviet-made documentary about the young Gorbachev.

By letter, Sergei instructed her to “sell whatever you can, but buy shoes for Misha. He must study.”

Gorbachev’s mother sold some belongings at the market and purchased a pair of combat boots for 1,500 rubles, about $25 at the time. Misha clumped off to the schoolhouse, promising his mother that he would make up for the lost time.

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Stout and with a gold-capped front tooth, Maria Gorbachev, now 80, still lives in Privolnoye, where she reportedly attends Russian Orthodox Church services and bakes her own bread. She complains that she never sees her son, and one Soviet newspaper said he last visited Privolnoye years ago.

As the Red Army repulsed the Germans, Sergei Gorbachev, an army engineer, was wounded and hospitalized in the Polish city of Krakow. He survived the war and lived until 1977, dying in his native village as he fed the livestock.

Young Achiever

Starting at age 14, Mikhail Gorbachev spent his summers toiling in the golden wheat fields around his village as an assistant combine driver, working as much as 14 hours a day. His efforts in bringing in a good harvest won him the coveted Order of the Red Banner of Labor in 1949, a rare distinction for someone only 18.

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Young Gorbachev also excelled in school. He was awarded a silver medal at the local high school for being the second-best student.

Such evident merit--plus his rural proletarian background, a great asset in the class-conscious Stalin era--won him a freshman’s spot at the nation’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, Moscow State University.

As Gorbachev remembered it, his interests were so broad at the time--he was 19--that he had trouble deciding what to focus on.

“I cannot even say which disciplines in school attracted my special interest, which sciences I liked more and which I liked less,” he said. “I joined the department of law, but at first wanted to enroll at the department of physics. I liked mathematics very much, but I also liked history and literature.”

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“One might agree that people who have concentrated on some specific field achieve much in life, but still people with a broad outlook are more to my liking,” he said.

On to Moscow

In 1950, he took his one good suit and set out by train to begin his studies in Moscow. On his trip north, he witnessed firsthand the scope of the destruction wreaked on the Soviet Union by the war.

“Everything lay in ruins--hundreds and thousands of cities, towns and villages, factories and mills,” he remembered.

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In his first three years of student life in Moscow, the would-be jurist--thick black hair still covering the red birthmark on his forehead--resided in a shabby, 18th-Century barracks that had been converted to house 10,000 young people. By all accounts, he was somewhat of a rube, with a pronounced southern accent that he kept as an adult, when he often would pronounce the letter “ g " as “ h. " But he was keen to learn.

One day, friends recall, Gorbachev went to heckle a student eight years his senior, Vladimir Lieberman, who was enrolled in a dance class. It was there Gorbachev met a striking, russet-haired, Siberian-born woman one year his junior whom he would fall in love with and wed: Raisa Maximovna Titorenko.

In 1952, at age 21, he joined the Communist Party and worked at the university as an organizer for the Young Communist League, or Komsomol. These were the waning days of the Stalin era, when the dictator was being lauded as a genius and his terrible political purges were largely veiled in silence.

Hints of the Future

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What the young Gorbachev believed at that time is still a matter of debate. Zdenek Mlynar, a Czechoslovak who was his roommate, remembers his young Russian friend as keenly intelligent and honest, with a natural aura of authority.

“He regards politics as a means to an end, but his eyes are fixed on the end--human needs--not the means,” Mlynar said.

Other classmates, however, recall young Gorbachev as an ambitious opportunist.

Lev Yudovich, who graduated two years before Gorbachev, claims that as a Komsomol secretary in the law school, Gorbachev supported Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies. That accusation is dismissed by Lieberman, who said Gorbachev came to his defense when he was singled out for criticism as the only Jew at a law school Communist Party meeting.

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Fridrikh Neznansky, another member of the Moscow student coterie, asserts that at a bar one night in 1951, Gorbachev got a friend named Nikitin humiliatingly drunk. The next day, Neznansky said, Gorbachev denounced Nikitin at a party cell meeting--and took his place as Komsomol leader.

In April, 1953, while Gorbachev was still a student, Stalin died, ending a 29-year reign that had created a world superpower but left the country deeply scarred by political terror.

Khrushchev, who finally emerged as Stalin’s successor, opened the Gulag network of labor camps and rehabilitated thousands who had been branded “enemies of the people.”

De-Stalinization, and the cultural “thaw” of the 1950s, were seminal experiences for Gorbachev, as they were for millions of his countrymen. Khrushchev sought to impose norms of legality on the bureaucracy, lift some constraints on self-expression and increase the well-being of the citizenry.

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In many often contradictory ways, those policies were forerunners of what Gorbachev himself would try.

In 1954, Gorbachev and Raisa Titorenko were married. According to one report, the newlyweds celebrated with a modest party in the dormitory dining hall, and Gorbachev’s roommates cleared out so the couple could spend their wedding night alone.

The next day, Raisa had to return to her room.

According to friends of the Gorbachevs from that era, Raisa, who earned a doctorate from Moscow’s Lenin Pedagogical Institute, played a role in broadening Gorbachev’s interests, giving him the beginnings of the urbane luster that would make him stand out so starkly from other Soviet officials of his generation.

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“Raisa had a much stronger grounding in literature, and Misha was very eager to become familiar with that world,” Nadezhda Mikhaleva, who went on from Moscow State University to teach law, recalled several years ago. “Raisa would take him to plays and concerts, and we all thought she complemented him perfectly.”

Powerful Mentors

After graduating from the law faculty with distinction in 1955, Gorbachev returned with his young wife to the plains of his native Stavropol region, wearing the same suit he took to Moscow. A local boy made good, Gorbachev soon began work as a full-time Komsomol executive.

His first job was deputy head of the area’s propaganda department. He was quickly promoted and became Komsomol first secretary in the city of Stavropol itself, a provincial capital and rail center founded at the time of the American Revolution as an imperial Russian outpost against marauding Cossack bands.

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In 1960, the Gorbachevs’ only child, a dark-eyed girl named Irina, was born. A physician like her husband, Anatoly, Irina has borne the Gorbachevs two granddaughters, Ksenia and Anastasia.

In March, 1962, Gorbachev switched from the Komsomol to the apparatus of the Communist Party itself, beginning what would be a peerless career as a full-time salaried party official. By that December, Gorbachev had received the key job of choosing party members for promotion throughout his region.

Even then, according to an official biographical note published after he became the leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s qualities were evident: hostility to dogma, flexibility, charisma.

“Gorbachev was able to captivate people with his brilliance and to interest them,” the biographical note said. “He was not embarrassed to learn from friends, to adopt better ideas and to support new ones. His originality of thought and his charm attracted people.”

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Just as important, Gorbachev attracted powerful mentors and allies. His rise through the ranks in Stavropol was fostered by Fyodor D. Kulakov, the regional party chief, who was called to Moscow in 1964 and became Central Committee secretary for agriculture.

That appointment may have shown Gorbachev how his fertile grain-growing region between the Black and Caspian seas could be a springboard to greater things. He enrolled in an extension course at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute--where Raisa Gorbachev was teaching the rigors of Marxist-Leninist philosophy--and qualified in 1967 as a “scientific agricultural economist.”

His first big chance came in April, 1970. At the age of only 39, a mere stripling by the standards of the age, he was appointed Communist Party first secretary for the Stavropol krai , or territory, becoming Moscow’s viceroy in a region as big as South Carolina.

An Exceptional Move

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Under Brezhnev, party leader since Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964, the granting of such a lofty post to a man still in his 30s was exceptional. It made Gorbachev a player in national politics for the first time. In keeping with his new importance, he was elected a full member of the Communist Party’s policy-making Central Committee in 1971.

Under Gorbachev’s leadership, work proceeded on the Stavropol canal, one of the region’s largest public works projects. He also began tinkering with agricultural organization to hike productivity, another portent of the reforms to come.

By the mid-1970s, nearly 1,500 mechanized farm brigades--mobile squads equipped with combines--were being paid in Gorbachev’s region according to actual harvest results, rather than quotas, and the official press reported yields were up as much as 50%.

In Stavropol, Gorbachev honed the informal, press-the-flesh style that would become his worldwide trademark. He often walked from his single-story, green-painted house to party headquarters on Lenin Square, and residents soon knew where to wait so they could ambush him for a talk.

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Fateful Incident

His status as No. 1 party official in Stavropol also required Gorbachev to play host to Kremlin potentates taking the waters in the nearby spas of Kislovodsk and Mineralnye Vody. That seemingly insignificant protocol aspect of his job may have played a huge part in fixing the course of Soviet history.

For one of the frequent spa sojourners, KGB Chairman Yuri V. Andropov, would have a great role in Gorbachev’s future. Another who may have boosted his rise was Kremlin ideologist Mikhail Suslov, a former Stavropol party chief whose ascetic ways would have been in harmony with Gorbachev’s dislike of ostentation.

Gorbachev’s destiny may have been determined by one unlikely incident, on Sept. 19, 1978, at the small railroad station of Mineralnye Vody. Brezhnev’s train stopped there briefly and, in one remarkable moment, four men who would lead the country met: Brezhnev; Andropov, who was vacationing nearby; Brezhnev aide Konstantin U. Chernenko, and Gorbachev, their host.

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When Agriculture Secretary Kulakov died, reportedly by suicide, Gorbachev was called to Moscow to succeed him as the top party official for the perennially troubled farm sector. It was less than a month after the conclave at Mineralnye Vody: Gorbachev obviously had passed Brezhnev’s muster.

At 47, a relative unknown from the provinces, he joined the aging Soviet elite in the Kremlin.

With bad weather and a sweeping, Brezhnev-inspired reorganization of agriculture partly to blame, farm performance fell dramatically in Gorbachev’s tenure, from a grain harvest of 230 million tons the year he took over to perhaps only 155 million tons in 1981. The exact harvest statistics became a state secret--a signal of how dismal the performance was.

Gorbachev’s star, nonetheless, kept rising. In 1979, he became a candidate, or non-voting, member of the party’s ruling Politburo, and the following year, at 49, he was named its youngest full member. The second-youngest man, Leningrad party chief Grigory V. Romanov, was eight years older.

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It was during the Brezhnev era--years of relative ease and comfort for the Soviet people but also of corruption, the Afghanistan adventure and ruthless suppression of dissent--that the concept of perestroika began to germinate.

On a vacation stroll with Shevardnadze, then Communist Party leader in Georgia, Gorbachev remembered Shevardnadze’s lamenting that “everything had gone rotten.” He wholeheartedly agreed. Later, under Gorbachev, the Brezhnev years would be re-christened the “Era of Stagnation.”

When Brezhnev died in 1982 and Andropov, the erstwhile KGB chairman, succeeded him as Soviet leader, Gorbachev was picked to help lead a nationwide anti-corruption drive to eradicate the cronyism and bribery that had become so widespread.

Social discipline became the watchword, with raids on factories and public steam baths to identify workers who were relaxing or shopping instead of manning their lathes or desks.

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The scope of Gorbachev’s responsibilities expanded rapidly as Andropov, who was stricken with a kidney ailment that would prove fatal, faded from the public eye.

When the Soviet military shot down a South Korean airliner on Sept. 1, 1983, provoking a worldwide outcry, Gorbachev headed the crisis management team that justified the act by asserting that the plane had been on a spy flight.

When Andropov died in 1984, Gorbachev was a top candidate to succeed his former mentor. But the party’s Old Guard, making what would be its last stand, demanded that one of its own be chosen.

Gorbachev backed down and even agreed to deliver the nominating speech for Chernenko, 72, Brezhnev’s faithful if uninspiring aide.

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The wheezing, hobbling Chernenko was visibly too infirm to cope with the day-to-day demands of running the country. Gorbachev continued to expand his behind-the-scenes leadership role.

In the words of the Pravda editor in chief of that time, he became “the second general secretary.”

In December, 1984, Gorbachev, now practically wearing the mantle of succession, visited Britain as head of a delegation from the Soviet legislature. He had been abroad before, including a visit a year earlier to Canada, but for millions in the West, the London trip was their first look at the heir to the Kremlin mantle.

He caused a sensation, with one British tabloid dubbing him a “Red Star.” Press and officialdom gushed about his well-honed wit, his engaging smile, the smart cut of his wife’s clothes.

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“I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together,” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher concluded--a prophetic remark.

As a gray Moscow winter began to break on March 10, 1985, Chernenko succumbed to lung, heart and kidney problems after less than 13 months as Soviet president and Communist Party leader.

The party leadership met inside the Kremlin to choose a successor. Andrei A. Gromyko, the dour foreign minister known as “Mr. Nyet,” pressed for Gorbachev’s election.

“Comrades, this man has a nice smile,” Gromyko said. “But he has teeth of iron.”

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Taking the Reins

This time, it was Gorbachev’s turn, thanks in part to Politburo allies who speeded the election before notorious conservatives could make it to Moscow for the vote. Only 54, Gorbachev became the youngest general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union since Stalin.

After a string of aging, infirm leaders--Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko--a hale, energetic man was in command at the Kremlin.

He later recalled telling the party leadership that “we could no longer live the way we lived before.” It was a harbinger of things to come.

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Gorbachev moved quickly to sweep Brezhnev era holdovers out of office and replace them with technocrats who had proven their worth in industry or regional party posts. In the first months, he also ousted Leningrad party boss Romanov, who in March had nominated corrupt Moscow party leader Viktor Grishin for general secretary in an abortive stop-Gorbachev ploy.

Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s kindred spirit from Georgia, became foreign minister, with Gromyko being shunted to the Soviet presidency, still largely a ceremonial office.

Two men who would also come to symbolize the radical and orthodox Leninist alternatives to Gorbachev also became part of the inner circle: Boris N. Yeltsin, named Moscow party boss, and Yegor K. Ligachev, chief party ideologist, the traditional No. 2 position.

Gorbachev was seeking, he told a crowd in the northern port of Murmansk, a “revolution without shots.” But for all his boldness in the diplomatic arena and in refashioning the monolithic edifice of political power, in the long run he proved to be a vacillator in two key domestic areas: economics and inter-ethnic relations.

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“Here is a man who intiated reforms and tries to hinder their implementation; a harbinger of glasnost who angrily pummels tabletops at those who dare use it; the author of the slogans of democratization and a new dictator out to stifle the democratic movment and preserve the foundations of the totalitarian system,” a liberal critic, Yuri Burtin, wrote. “Here is a statesman who is justly credited with radically diminishing tension in the world and with heightening it radically in his own country, with the liberation of mankind from the fear of nuclear annihilation and with the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Azerbaijan and Armenia, and with blood-curdling acts of genocide in Sumgait, Baku, Dushanbe, Fergana and other places.”

Gorbachev’s domestic record was so checkered that last year workers jeered him and the other Kremlin leaders as they stood atop Lenin’s Mausoleum to review the May Day parade. For one 13-month period, he dared take no domestic trips.

When he broke his Kremlin isolation, it was for a three-day jaunt to Byelorussia (now Belarus), one of the most docile of Soviet republics.

“In the beginning, we imprudently generated great expectations, without taking into account the fact that it takes time for people to realize that all have to live and work differently, to stop expecting that new life would be given from above,” Gorbachev said in his Nobel Peace Prize address.

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“When society was given freedom, it could not recognize itself, for it had lived too long, as it were, beyond the looking glass,” he said.

In the fall of 1990, Gorbachev tried to slam on the brakes, to reverse some of the economic and social forces he had freed from the bottle where terror and repression had kept them.

Since the failure of the August putsch, Gorbachev had been trying to fashion a new modus vivendi with Yeltsin and the leaders of the other republics by enlisting them for a new collective executive, the State Council, that would have replaced the national government as the supreme power in the land.

By then, however, the Kremlin and Gorbachev himself were too discredited, and secessionist tendencies too pronounced in many republics, for the scheme to work. As the end of his leadership drew near, Gorbachev at one point declared, “I am the center.”

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When Yeltsin and his colleagues in the other republics agreed last weekend to put an end to that central government, it meant the end of the Gorbachev Era.


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