Mikhail Gorbachev – the last leader of the USSR and the man despised by Vladimir Putin and Russian nationalists for ending the Cold War while failing to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union – has died at the age of 91, Russian news agencies cited hospital officials as saying.
The Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow said that the former Soviet leader died ‘after a serious and long illness’ but gave no other details, according to the Interfax, TASS and RIA Novosti news agencies.
Gorbachev had been suffering from long term kidney problems and was on dialysis – and was confined to a clinic during the pandemic.
Though in power less than seven years, the USSR’s last general secretary unleashed a series of reforms that resulted in breathtaking changes, including the reunification of Germany, the collapse of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the liberation of Eastern European nations including Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic republics from decades of Russian domination, and the end of the nuclear confrontation with the West.
On becoming general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, aged just 54, Gorbachev inherited an empire in decline – and set out to revitalise the system by introducing limited political and economic freedoms. His policy of ‘glasnost’ – free speech – allowed previously unthinkable criticism of the party and the state, but it also emboldened nationalists who began to press for independence in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and elsewhere.
Gorbachev largely refrained from using force to handle the pro-democracy protests which swept across the Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe in 1989 – unlike previous Kremlin leaders who had sent tanks to crush uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in stark contrast to the Tiananmen Square massacre by China in the same year.
However, he was unable to keep a lid on the aspirations for autonomy in the 15 republics of the USSR, and after his authority was sapped by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, he spent his last months in office watching republic after republic declare independence until he resigned on December 25, 1991. The Soviet Union wrote itself into oblivion a day later.
Though the West celebrated the demise of the Soviet Union, Russians never forgave Gorbachev for the turbulence that his reforms unleashed, considering the subsequent plunge in their living standards too high a price to pay for democracy – among his critics Russia’s tyrant Putin.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses a group of 150 business executives in San Francisco, June 5, 1990
Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev at the historic 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland
Gorbachev meeting Margaret Thatcher at the Chequers country estate
Reagan and Gorbachev signing the arms control agreement banning the use of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Reduction Treaty, in Washington DC, December 8, 1987
George Bush and Gorbachev during a press conference in Moscow concluding the two-day US-Soviet Summit dedicated to the disarmament, July 31, 1991
Gorbachev arriving at the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2018
A quarter-century after the collapse, Gorbachev said he had not considered using widespread force to try to keep the USSR together because he feared chaos in a nuclear country.
‘The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And it would have immediately pushed the country into a civil war,’ he told The Associated Press.
Many of the changes, including the Soviet breakup, bore no resemblance to the transformation that Gorbachev had envisioned when he became the Soviet leader in March 1985. By the end of his rule he was powerless to halt the whirlwind he had sown. Yet Gorbachev may have had a greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than any other political figure.
‘I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world,’ Gorbachev told The AP in a 1992 interview shortly after he left office.
‘I am often asked, would I have started it all again if I had to repeat it? Yes, indeed. And with more persistence and determination,’ he said.
Gorbachev congratulating East German Leader Erich Honecker with a fraternal hug and kiss after Honecker’s re-election as General Secretary of the Communist Party Congress in East Berlin, April 21, 1986
Gorbachev pictured sitting next to Margaret Thatcher at RAF Brize Norton in 1987
Gorbachev speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a news conference in Germany, December 2004
Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War and spent his later years collecting accolades and awards from all corners of the world. Yet he was widely despised at home.
After visiting Gorbachev in hospital on June 30, liberal economist Ruslan Grinberg told the armed forces news outlet Zvezda: ‘He gave us all freedom – but we don’t know what to do with it.’
Though Gorbachev helped bring about the end of the Cold War, he remained critical of the US policy of NATO expansion in the years after 1991.
Accusing Washington of growing ‘arrogant and self-confident’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he said in December 2021, on the eve of the anniversary of his resignation as the leader of the USSR: ‘How can one count on equal relations with the United States and the West in such a position?’
He noted the ‘triumphant mood in the West, especially in the United States’, after the Soviet Union’s disintegration – and insisted that Moscow and Washington had together pulled the world out of confrontation and the ever present danger of the nuclear arms race.
Russian media reported that Gorbachev will be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife Raisa, who died in 1999.