Mikhail Gorbachev should never have become the Soviet premier. When he was six years old, his grandfather was taken in the middle of the night, a victim of one of Stalin's purges. And he grew up in Stavropol region of the Soviet East, which was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, when Gorbachev was eleven. Both facts should have stunted his climb through the Soviet ladder, but he clawed his way into the ruling Politburo nonetheless.
“Russians speak of ‘two Gorbachevs,’” wrote Robert Kaiser, the former Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post, in his 1991 biography: “the apparatchik and the reformer.” The duality seems to remain. He maintains his penchant for long, winding speeches, honed in the Soviet days. The first time I heard him speak, he concluded by noting that his beloved daughter, Irena, who almost always travels with him, had put her hands together, a signal that he should conclude his remarks. I was certain it was a joke; I was assured it was not. His high-school girlfriend, Yulia Karagodina, recalled the bipolarity in Gorbachev even as a teen. “Once at a Komsomol meeting, in front of everyone at the local movie house,” she told the Post's David Remnick, speaking about the local branch of the communist youth that Gorbachev led, “he reprimanded me in front of everyone, saying that I'd failed, that I was late. He was shouting a bit, disciplining me. Then afterward, it was as if nothing happened. He said, ‘Let's go to the movies.’”
Gorbachev was born in a two-room house with a dirt floor in 1931, and, as a boy, spent summers working on a collective farm. In the 1930s, 5 million Soviets died of starvation while Joseph Stalin sold grain abroad to finance his rapid industrialization. Gorbachev recalled in a memoir that, in a single year, 1933, “nearly half the population of my native town, Privolnoye, starved, including two sisters and one brother of my father.”