Gorbachev was born in Stavropol Krai in 1931 into a peasant Ukrainian–Russian family, and in his teens, operated combine harvesters on collective farms. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1955 with a degree in law. While he was at the university, he joined the Communist Party, and soon became very active within it. In 1970, he was appointed the First Party Secretary of the Stavropol Regional Committee, First Secretary to the Supreme Soviet in 1974, and appointed a candidate member of the Politburo in 1979. Within three years of the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, following the brief "interregna" of Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev was elected general secretary by the Politburo in 1985. Before he reached the post, he had occasionally been mentioned in Western newspapers as a likely next leader and a man of the younger generation at the top level.
Gorbachev's policies of glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring") and his reorientation of Soviet strategic aims contributed to the end of the Cold War. Under this program, the role of the Communist Party in governing the state was removed from the constitution, which inadvertently led to crisis-level political instability with a surge of regional nationalist and anti-communist activism culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev later expressed regret for his failure to save the Soviet state, though he has insisted that his policies were not failures but rather were vitally necessary reforms which were sabotaged and exploited by opportunists. He was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in 1989, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, and the Harvey Prize in 1992, as well as honorary doctorates from various universities.
Gorbachev was born on 2 March 1931 in Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union, into a mixed Russian-Ukrainian family of migrants from Voronezh and Chernigov Governorates. As a child, Gorbachev experienced the Soviet famine of 1932–1933. He recalled in a memoir that "In that terrible year nearly half the population of my native village, Privolnoye, starved to death, including two sisters and one brother of my father." Both of his grandfathers were arrested on false charges in the 1930s; his paternal grandfather Andrey Moiseyevich Gorbachev (Андрей Моисеевич Горбачёв) was sent to exile in Siberia.
His father was a combine harvester operator and Red Army veteran, named Sergey Andreyevich Gorbachev. According to Gorbachev, during World War II his father "defended Kursk, forded the Dnieper knee-deep in blood and was wounded in Czechoslovakia."
His mother, Maria Panteleyevna Gorbacheva (née Gopkalo), was a kolkhoz worker. He was brought up mainly by his Ukrainian maternal grandparents. In his teens, he became a leader in the Komsomol, a Communist youth organization. He operated combine harvesters on collective farms and won the Red Labor Banner in 1949 for helping his father break harvesting records.