Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
To many, Mikhail Gorbachev seemed to come out of nowhere in 1985 to become the leader of the USSR. In some ways, his example supports the “great person” view of history, which is deeply ironic since he came out of the Marxist-Leninist milieu with its emphasis on the impersonal forces of history.
Gorbachev, of course, did not come from nowhere. He had worked his way up through the Soviet system in a career stretching back to the 1970s, when he began to appear in reporting from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, albeit minimally. One of the more substantive examples, and perhaps marking the true beginning of his rise, is a November 1978 telegram from the embassy entitled “Soviet Leadership: November 27 Changes mark major plus for Brezhnev.” This lengthy telegram described the recently-announced changes in leadership positions made by the Central Committee Plenum. This is what it said about Gorbachev:
6. GORBACHEV’S MOVE TO MOSCOW. SINCE STAVROPOL PARTY FIRST SECRETARY GORBACHEV’S BACKGROUND IS PRIMARILY IN THE AGRICULTURAL FIELD, AND HIS CURRENT CLAIM TO FAME SEEMS TO BE FOR THE STELLAR AGRICULTURAL PERFORMANCE OF HIS REGION, IT SEEMS LIKELY HE WILL FILL KULAKOV’S POSITION IN THE SECRETARIAT AS OVERSEER OF THE AGRICULTURAL SECTOR. OF PARTICULAR INTEREST IN CONNECTION WITH HIS APPOINTMENT AS CENTRAL COMMITTEE SECRETARY:
— AT THE TENDER AGE OF 47, HE BECOMES THE YOUNGEST MEMBER OF THE CENTRAL LEADERSHIP;
— IF HE DOES TAKE OVER THE AGRICULTURAL PORTFOLIO IN THE SECRETARIAT, HIS MOVE TO MOSCOW ADDS SOME CREDENCE TO THE THEORY THAT KULAKOV WAS IN POLITICAL DISFAVOR JUST PRIOR HIS DEATH LAST JULY; THAT KULAKOV’S LONG-TIME COLLEAGUE AND SUCCESSOR AS HEAD OF THE CC AGRICULTURAL DEPARTMENT KARLOV WAS NOT MOVED UP TO THE SECRETARIAT COULD MEAN THAT KARLOV WAS VIEWED AS UNACCEPTABLE FOR THAT JOB BECAUSE OF HIS LONG ASSOCIATION WITH KULAKOV.
Download the full text of the telegram:
Surely, the embassy’s reporting from 1980 and later will exhibit increasing mention of Gorbachev as he continued his rise and ultimately came to power. Those records are not yet in the National Archives.
This 1979 telegram on Soviet May Day slogans, which mentions Gobachev incidentally, now reads somewhat amusingly:
Sources: U.S. Embassy Moscow to Department of State, Telegram 29172, November 28, 1978, 1978MOSCOW29172, and U.S. Embassy Moscow to Department of State, Telegram 09463, April 17, 1979, 1979MOSCOW09463, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-1979/Electronic Telegrams (NAID 654098), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. Accessible through the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) site.