Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the demise of the Soviet Union and helped end decades of Cold War fear, earning a Nobel Peace Prize and the lasting enmity of millions of Russians bitter about the chaos unleashed by the collapse of the world’s largest country, has died at age 91.
The Central Clinical Hospital on the outskirts of Moscow told the state news agency Tass that Gorbachev died Tuesday night “after a serious and prolonged illness.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement late Tuesday that Gorbachev “was a man of remarkable vision.”
“As leader of the USSR, he worked with President Reagan to reduce our two countries’ nuclear arsenals, to the relief of people worldwide praying for an end to the nuclear arms race,” Biden said. “After decades of brutal political repression, he embraced democratic reforms. He believed in glasnost and perestroika – openness and restructuring – not as mere slogans, but as the path forward for the people of the Soviet Union after so many years of isolation and deprivation.”
Born in a rural corner of Russia less than 15 years after the Bolshevik Revolution to parents whose families had been peasants, Gorbachev became one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, gathering global accolades for his role in reducing the threat of a nuclear apocalypse and in freeing millions of people from Soviet oppression in his country and beyond.
Just as notably, he was a target of the scorn of millions of Soviets who blamed him for the life-changing economic and social upheaval that accompanied the country’s collapse and for the loss of a mighty empire that spanned 11 time zones.
This was Gorbachev’s paradox: loved and loathed for a process that he set in motion and whose ultimate result was foreseen by few. It was a result that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rose to power less than a decade after Gorbachev resigned and remains in the Kremlin today, once called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
Gorbachev made clear he never meant to bring down the country, repeating almost as a mantra that “the union could have been preserved.”
But despite occasional reversals, he ultimately sided with the forces of change that he helped unleash. And in retrospect, a dozen years after the Soviet Union was done, Gorbachev insisted that those momentous changes were the result of a conscious and very personal decision.
“Other people could have [come into office] and they might have done nothing to put the country on the road to humane, free and democratic development,” he said in an interview with RFE/RL in 2003.
In any case, Gorbachev will rank alongside such towering 20th-century figures as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong — leaders who changed the fate of nations and had a profound impact on the lives of millions of people.
Born on March 2, 1931, into a poor family in Privolnoye, a village in southern Russia’s Stavropol region, Gorbachev grew up amid the immense upheavals that roiled the Soviet Union in the first two decades of his life: collectivization, Stalin’s “Great Terror,” and the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is best known within Russia.
At about age 21, he joined the Communist Party while studying law at Moscow State University in 1952.
After marrying classmate Raisa Titorenko, Gorbachev returned to southern Russia, where he began to climb the ladder of the regional Communist bureaucracy, specializing in agriculture.
By 1970, he had risen to the top of the party hierarchy in Stavropol.
‘The state is there to serve the people’
In 1980, Gorbachev was appointed a full member of the Communist Party’s Politburo in Moscow.
To the surprise of many Kremlin watchers and Soviet citizens, he almost immediately began calling for reform, espousing twin doctrines that would become bywords for his time: “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring).
“The state is there to serve the people,” he said. “The people are not there to serve the state.”
That, according to Gorbachev, would be the new guiding principle.
Gorbachev and Raisa brought new style to the Kremlin, traveling around the USSR and abroad, plunging into crowds and leading impromptu discussions on the street.
A relaxation of economic regulations brought the rebirth of small businesses, cafes and restaurants for the first time since Lenin’s New Economic Policy in the 1920s. A partial lifting of censorship led to a renaissance in cultural life. Literary journals published previously banned authors, and theaters staged ever-more daring productions.
The disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986 forced a reluctant leadership to allow even greater freedom of expression and information. The government began to release political prisoners, most famously Andrei Sakharov, the physicist who designed nuclear weapons and later campaigned against them, resulting in his internal exile from 1980 to 1986.
Gorbachev called for an end to the arms race, and he improved relations with Washington, helping remove thousands of warheads that threatened Europe with destruction by signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1987. In 1989, he ended the Soviet war in Afghanistan, begun 10 years earlier under Leonid Brezhnev.
End of an empire
But all was not well in the empire. By 1989, what had begun as an effort to reform the Soviet Union’s economy and foreign policy had precipitated a crisis in industry and encouraged cries for self-determination that would soon engulf the entire region.
Gorbachev vastly underestimated the degree of economic decay. Shortages of basic household goods and foodstuffs were growing, and conservatives within the Communist Party grew ever-more strident in their criticism of his leadership.
He had also not counted on the fact that greater freedom would fan the forces of nationalism.
In October 1989, during a visit to East Berlin to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the German Democratic Republic, Gorbachev signaled that Moscow would not try to turn back the clock.
A month later, the Berlin Wall fell.
“We have given up pretending to have a monopoly on truth,” Gorbachev said a few weeks after that, in a speech in Rome a day before a historic meeting with Pope John Paul II. “We no longer think that those who don’t agree with us are enemies.”
‘Freedom of choice’
In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to reducing East-West tensions, but he had precious little time to reflect on his achievement. While feted across Europe and the rest of the world, he continued to confront growing unrest at home.
On August 4, 1991, Gorbachev left with his family for his annual vacation in Crimea on the Black Sea, intending to complete a new version of a union treaty aimed to keep the USSR together as centrifugal force was pulling it apart.
On August 18, his chief of staff, accompanied by a group of senior government officials, arrived at the presidential dacha at Foros. They demanded that Gorbachev sign a decree declaring a state of emergency or resign. Gorbachev refused to do either. The officials confiscated the codes needed to launch the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. Gorbachev and his family were, in effect, under house arrest.
State television announced the imposition of a state of emergency “starting at 1600 Moscow time, on August 19, 1991,” claiming it was in response “to demands by broad sections of the population for the most decisive measures to prevent society from sliding toward a national catastrophe.”
Three days later, the coup collapsed, thanks to the incompetence of the plotters and the resistance demonstrated by Russia’s nascent political leader, Boris Yeltsin, and crowds of citizens who came out into the streets to oppose the attempted takeover.
‘A different direction’
In the months that followed, more republics declared independence from Moscow. On December 8, Yeltsin, along with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine, signed accords proclaiming the Soviet Union’s end and announcing the creation of a new entity called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Gorbachev stayed on in the Kremlin for a few more weeks, but power had slipped from his hands. On December 25, he resigned — stepping down as the leader of a country that had effectively ceased to exist.
In 1991, he founded The Gorbachev Foundation in an effort to maintain a voice in Russian affairs. In 1996, he ran for president but came in a distant seventh in a field of 10, with 0.5% of the vote. Later, he became a sometime critic of Putin, to whom Yeltsin handed the presidency on the last day of 1999.
Gorbachev was an approving voice for some of Putin’s most controversial actions on the international stage, including Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Suggesting he viewed the annexation in terms of Russia’s national interests, he told the media he would have acted “the same way” had he had the choice.
However, he continued to criticize many of Putin’s repressive domestic policies and opposed Putin’s decision to return to the presidency in 2012, when Dmitry Medvedev turned out to have been a placeholder after four years of hinting at reform. In 2013, Gorbachev commented that “politics is increasingly turning into imitation democracy.”
Gorbachev was also harshly critical of the United States, largely blaming Washington for poor ties by charging that it failed to develop good relations with Russia after the Soviet collapse.
In positions echoed by or echoing Putin’s, he accused the United States of relishing its status as the world’s sole superpower and lambasted the eastward expansion of NATO. He opposed NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He criticized U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which he had negotiated and signed with Reagan in 1987, as “not the work of a great mind.”
The ailing Gorbachev, who turned 91 a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, had made few public comments, about the war in Ukraine or anything else.