Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev 1931 –
He was the last of the Soviet Union’s leaders and served as Head of State from 1985 to 1991. He was younger than his predecessors and had traveled abroad and was therefore more open-minded. First he removed the Communist Party’s role in governing the State. In his attempts at being a reformer he introduced the concepts of “glasnost” (openness) which could also be translated as transparency and “perestroika,” a restructuring of the country’s political system. His aim was not to abolish the Soviet Union but to modernize it and stop its stagnation.
He was also eager to improve relations with the West. But events cascaded too rapidly past him. Caught in the increasing momentum, he was unable to apply the brakes and the unintended result was the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
His decision of not intervening in the affairs of the satellite Eastern Bloc countries (the Warsaw Pact Nations) resulted in widespread popular upheaval. These countries saw their chance to regain sovereignty. Ultimately, East Germany also rebelled and the Berlin Wall fell. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was underway.
A coup by hard-line Communists was attempted against Gorbachev in 1991. At this point a relative unknown named Boris Yeltsin stepped into battle. Atop a tank he harangued the crowd, condemned the coup, and attempted to save the situation. But Gorbachev, realizing he had lost control of events, ultimately resigned, and Yeltsin became the new national hero.
Boris Yeltsin 1931-
In June of 1991, Boris Yeltsin was elected by popular vote to the newly created position of President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Yeltsin was the first (and only) freely elected leader of Russia in its thousand years of existence. Hand-picked by Gorbachev to shake up the corrupt party system, he was an eager reformer. But he had the impossible task of moving the country from a centralized bureaucracy to a market economy. The change was too brutal. It was called “shock without therapy.”
There was massive inflation. The people lost their security and sense of stability. Chaos ensued. Yeltsin was also instrumental in letting the soviet republics leave the union and establish their separate autonomous nationhood. A civil war almost erupted.
Yeltsin was also a flawed, erratic and unpredictable agent of change. When a solid rock was needed, he was a vacillating and unstable vessel. The financial crisis and his bad health (attributed to alcoholism) forced him to resign. He was thus also the first leader to relinquish power voluntarily.
He left the country to an obscure bureaucrat named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.