Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union

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Mikhail Gorbachev. The name, the beaming, birthmarked visage and the outstretched, crowd-caressing hand have become so familiar in the past 33 months that it is difficult to remember the man's predecessors.Vague images come to mind of stone-faced figures frozen in mid-frown atop the Lenin Mausoleum. Gargoyles in fur hats. Perhaps Gorbachev's most obvious accomplishment is that he has reinvented the idea of a Soviet leader. Virtually everything about his country and its place in world affairs seems less ponderous, less opaque than it did before he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.

But one should not get carried away. The Soviet Union is still a one-party dictatorship, the economy is ramshackle, the bureaucracy is a menace, and what about human rights, Mr. General Secretary? Nonetheless, Soviet writers, artists and journalists have begun issuing the sort of critiques that used to earn a one-way ticket to Siberia. So has the boss. Take, for instance, this blast at Gosplon, the state planning committee: "They do what they want, and the situation they like best is . . . when everybody has to beg."

At home, expectations are rising. Some small-scale private enterprise is now legal, and state industries will soon have wide new freedoms. Even Gorbachev concedes that his regime's true test will be whether it can produce better food, clothing and shelter for its citizens. No leader has said that with such vigor and conviction since Nikita Khrushchev a quarter-century ago.

In the world at large, Gorbachev has helped nudge his country and Ronald Reagan's off the path to nuclear destruction. True, the treaty scrapping intermediate-range missiles that was signed at the Washington summit is only a small diminution of the arms race. But it is a beginning, made possible in part by Gorbachev's acceptance of verification procedures that no previous Soviet leader would countenance. The treaty just might lead to a more significant reduction in long-range nuclear weapons this year.

Or perhaps the reverie will end, as did the false dawn of the Khrushchev years. Glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) may turn out to be less "irreversible" than Gorbachev proclaims them to be. Even so, his reforms can no longer be dismissed as a mere matter of style, of a telegenic new face in the Kremlin. Gorbachev is that, to be sure. Also a dedicated Communist. Also a ruthless political opportunist. In 1987 he became something more, a symbol of hope for a new kind of Soviet Union: more open, more concerned with the welfare of its citizens and less with the spread of its ideology and system abroad. For fanning that hope, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is TIME's Man of the Year for 1987.

But who is he? Where did he come from? How did he acquire his personality, his ideas, his power? In an unprecedented journalistic inquiry, TIME correspondents in the Soviet Union and beyond interviewed dozens of Gorbachev's colleagues, onetime schoolmates, the handful of foreigners he has known, and others who have encountered the former Stavropol farm boy on his ( rise to prominence. The magazine has also assembled the largest collection of official and family photographs of Gorbachev ever published. The result is a rare glimpse into the life and character of the year's most remarkable figure.