With his outgoing, charismatic nature, Gorbachev broke the mold for Soviet leaders who until then had mostly been remote, icy figures. Almost from the start of his leadership, he strove for significant reforms, so the system would work more efficiently and more democratically. Hence the two key phrases of the Gorbachev era: "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (restructuring).

"I began these reforms and my guiding stars were freedom and democracy, without bloodshed. So the people would cease to be a herd led by a shepherd. They would become citizens," he later said. 

From farm labor to party's rising star Gorbachev had humble beginnings: He was born into a peasant family on March 2, 1931 near Stavropol, and as a boy, he did farm labor along with his studies, working with his father who was a combine harvester operator. In later life, Gorbachev said he was "particularly proud of my ability to detect a fault in the combine instantly, just by the sound of it."

He became a member of the Communist Party in 1952 and completed a law degree at Moscow University in 1955. It was here that he met -- and married -- fellow student Raisa Titarenko. During the early 1960s, Gorbachev became head of the agriculture department for the Stavropol region. By the end of the decade he had risen to the top of the party hierarchy in the region. He came to the attention of Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov, members of the Politburo, the principal policy-setting body of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union, who got him elected to the Central Committee in 1971 and arranged foreign trips for their rising star.