Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet president who took down the Iron Curtain, dies

Mikhail Gorbachev — the last leader of the former Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991 — has died at the age of 91.

Gorbachev died after a long illness, Russian state news agencies reported.

“Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev died this evening after a severe and prolonged illness,” the Central Clinical Hospital said, according to RIA Novosti Tuesday.

The man credited with introducing key political and economic reforms to the USSR and helping to end the Cold War had been in failing health for some time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told RIA Novosti.

Putin will send a message on Wednesday to Gorbachev’s family and friends, RIA Novosti added.

Other world leaders also paid tribute to Gorbachev on Tuesday, with US President Joe Biden calling him “a man of remarkable vision” in a statement.

“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, adding that Gorbachev’s reforms led to “a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.”

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter that Gorbachev’s role in ending the Cold War “opened the way for a free Europe. This legacy is one we will not forget.”

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.

He will be buried next to his wife at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, RIA Novosti reported citing the Gorbachev Foundation.

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.

In 1978, Gorbachev was back in Moscow, and the next year he was chosen as a candidate member of the Politburo. His stewardship of Soviet agriculture was not a success. As he came to realize, the collective system was fundamentally flawed in more than one way.

A full Politburo member since 1980, Gorbachev became more influential in 1982 when his mentor, Andropov, succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as general secretary of the party. He built a reputation as an enemy of corruption and inefficiency, finally rising to the top party spot in March 1985.

‘A man one can do business with’

Hoping to shift resources to the civilian sector of the Soviet economy, Gorbachev began to argue in favor of an end to the arms race with the West.

However, throughout his six years in office, Gorbachev always seemed to be moving too fast for the party establishment — which saw its privileges threatened — and too slow for more radical reformers, who hoped to do away with the one-party state and the command economy.

Desperately trying to stay in control of the reform process, he seemed to have underestimated the depth of the economic crisis. He also seemed to have had a blind spot for the power of the nationality issue: Glasnost created ever-louder calls for independence from the Baltics and other Soviet republics in the late 1980s.

He was successful in foreign policy, but primarily from an international perspective, with other world leaders taking note. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called him “a man one can do business with.”

In 1986, face to face with American President Ronald Reagan at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Gorbachev made a stunning proposal: eliminate all long-range missiles held by the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 “for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community.”

The pact that resulted, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, endured as a pillar of arms control for three decades until, in 2019, the United States formally withdrew and the Russian government said it had been consigned to the trash can.


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