In 1952, at age 21, he joined the Communist Party and worked at the university as an organizer for the Young Communist League, or Komsomol. These were the waning days of the Stalin era, when the dictator was being lauded as a genius and his terrible political purges were largely veiled in silence.
Hints of the Future
What the young Gorbachev believed at that time is still a matter of debate. Zdenek Mlynar, a Czechoslovak who was his roommate, remembers his young Russian friend as keenly intelligent and honest, with a natural aura of authority.
"He regards politics as a means to an end, but his eyes are fixed on the end--human needs--not the means," Mlynar said.
Other classmates, however, recall young Gorbachev as an ambitious opportunist.
Lev Yudovich, who graduated two years before Gorbachev, claims that as a Komsomol secretary in the law school, Gorbachev supported Stalin's anti-Semitic policies. That accusation is dismissed by Lieberman, who said Gorbachev came to his defense when he was singled out for criticism as the only Jew at a law school Communist Party meeting.
Fridrikh Neznansky, another member of the Moscow student coterie, asserts that at a bar one night in 1951, Gorbachev got a friend named Nikitin humiliatingly drunk. The next day, Neznansky said, Gorbachev denounced Nikitin at a party cell meeting--and took his place as Komsomol leader.
In April, 1953, while Gorbachev was still a student, Stalin died, ending a 29-year reign that had created a world superpower but left the country deeply scarred by political terror.
Khrushchev, who finally emerged as Stalin's successor, opened the Gulag network of labor camps and rehabilitated thousands who had been branded "enemies of the people."
De-Stalinization, and the cultural "thaw" of the 1950s, were seminal experiences for Gorbachev, as they were for millions of his countrymen. Khrushchev sought to impose norms of legality on the bureaucracy, lift some constraints on self-expression and increase the well-being of the citizenry.
In many often contradictory ways, those policies were forerunners of what Gorbachev himself would try.
In 1954, Gorbachev and Raisa Titorenko were married. According to one report, the newlyweds celebrated with a modest party in the dormitory dining hall, and Gorbachev's roommates cleared out so the couple could spend their wedding night alone.
The next day, Raisa had to return to her room.
According to friends of the Gorbachevs from that era, Raisa, who earned a doctorate from Moscow's Lenin Pedagogical Institute, played a role in broadening Gorbachev's interests, giving him the beginnings of the urbane luster that would make him stand out so starkly from other Soviet officials of his generation.
"Raisa had a much stronger grounding in literature, and Misha was very eager to become familiar with that world," Nadezhda Mikhaleva, who went on from Moscow State University to teach law, recalled several years ago. "Raisa would take him to plays and concerts, and we all thought she complemented him perfectly."
After graduating from the law faculty with distinction in 1955, Gorbachev returned with his young wife to the plains of his native Stavropol region, wearing the same suit he took to Moscow. A local boy made good, Gorbachev soon began work as a full-time Komsomol executive.
His first job was deputy head of the area's propaganda department. He was quickly promoted and became Komsomol first secretary in the city of Stavropol itself, a provincial capital and rail center founded at the time of the American Revolution as an imperial Russian outpost against marauding Cossack bands.
In 1960, the Gorbachevs' only child, a dark-eyed girl named Irina, was born. A physician like her husband, Anatoly, Irina has borne the Gorbachevs two granddaughters, Ksenia and Anastasia.
In March, 1962, Gorbachev switched from the Komsomol to the apparatus of the Communist Party itself, beginning what would be a peerless career as a full-time salaried party official. By that December, Gorbachev had received the key job of choosing party members for promotion throughout his region.
Even then, according to an official biographical note published after he became the leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's qualities were evident: hostility to dogma, flexibility, charisma.
"Gorbachev was able to captivate people with his brilliance and to interest them," the biographical note said. "He was not embarrassed to learn from friends, to adopt better ideas and to support new ones. His originality of thought and his charm attracted people."
Just as important, Gorbachev attracted powerful mentors and allies. His rise through the ranks in Stavropol was fostered by Fyodor D. Kulakov, the regional party chief, who was called to Moscow in 1964 and became Central Committee secretary for agriculture.