Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet President who tore down the Iron Curtain, dies

“Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev died tonight after a long and serious illness,” the central hospital said on Tuesday, according to RIA Novosti.

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

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

Putin will send a message to Gorbachev’s family and friends on Wednesday, 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 has worked with President Reagan to reduce our two countries’ nuclear arsenals to the relief of people praying around the world for an end to the nuclear arms race,” Biden said, adding that Gorbachev’s reforms lead to “a safer… world and more 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 “paved the way for a free Europe. We will not forget this legacy.”

With his outgoing, charismatic manner, Gorbachev went beyond the scope of Soviet leaders, who until then had mostly been distant, icy figures. Almost from the beginning of his tenure, he sought significant reforms so that the system would function more efficiently and democratically. Hence the two keywords of the Gorbachev era: “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring).

“I started these reforms and my guiding stars were freedom and democracy without bloodshed. So the people would cease to be a flock led by a shepherd. It would become a citizen,” he later said.

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

From farmhand to rising star of the party

Gorbachev had humble beginnings: he was born into a farming family near Stavropol on March 2, 1931, and as a boy he worked alongside his studies as a farmhand for his father, who was a combine operator. In later life, Gorbachev said he was “particularly proud of my ability to spot a fault in the combine immediately, just by the sound of it”.

He became a member of the Communist Party in 1952 and graduated in law from Moscow University in 1955. Here he met and married his fellow student Raisa Titarenko.

In the early 1960s, Gorbachev became head of the Department of Agriculture for the Stavropol Territory. 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 main political decision-making body of the communist part of the Soviet Union, who elected him to the Central Committee in 1971 and arranged trips abroad for their rising star.

In 1978 Gorbachev was back in Moscow, and the next year he was elected as a candidate for the Politburo. His management of Soviet agriculture was not a success. As he recognized, the collective system was fundamentally flawed in more ways than one.

Gorbachev, a full member of the Politburo since 1980, gained influence in 1982 when his mentor Andropov replaced Leonid Brezhnev as the party’s general secretary. He built a reputation as an enemy of corruption and inefficiency, eventually rising to the top of the party in March 1985.

“A man to do business with”

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

However, during his six-year tenure, Gorbachev always acted too fast for the party establishment, which saw his privileges threatened, and too slow for more radical reformers who wanted to abolish the one-party state and the command economy.

In his desperate attempt to stay in control of the reform process, he appeared to have underestimated the magnitude of the economic crisis. He also seemed to have had a blind spot for the power of the nationality question: at the end of the 1980s, glasnost provoked ever louder calls for independence from the Baltic States and other Soviet republics.

He was successful in foreign policy, but mainly from an international perspective, which other world leaders took notice of. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called him “a man to do business with”.

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

In 1990 he received the Nobel Peace Prize “for his leading role in the peace process, which today shapes important parts of the international community”.

The resulting pact, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, stood as a pillar of arms control for three decades until the United States officially withdrew in 2019 and the Russian government said it had been thrown in the dustbin.

Gorbachev speaks during a visit to Ottawa, Canada, in 1990.

Hardliners revolt

While Gorbachev’s arms control deals with the US could also be seen as being in the Soviet interest, the disengagement of some Eastern European countries followed, followed by German unification and NATO membership for the newly unified Germany (West Germany was previously in NATO), angered the Communists old school.

By August 1991, the hardliners had had enough. While Gorbachev was on vacation in Crimea, they staged a revolt. Boris Yeltsin, the president of the largest Soviet republic – Russia – and a fierce critic of what he saw as halfway reforms by Gorbachev, nonetheless came to his rescue by opposing and defeating the coup plotters.

But across the Soviet Union, republics — one after another — declared their independence, and on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as Soviet President. As he read his resignation speech, Gorbachev defined what his likely legacy will be: “The country received freedom, was liberated politically and spiritually, and that was the most important achievement.”

The red flag waving over the Kremlin, the symbol of the USSR, was lowered. The Soviet Union – was dead and Yeltsin was in control. “We live in a new world,” said Gorbachev.

In April 2012, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour asked Gorbachev on whether he caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev said that there was nothing in his speeches “up to the end” that helped his disintegration: “The dissolution of the union was the result of the betrayal of the Soviet nomenklatura, the bureaucracy and also the betrayal of Yeltsin. He talked about cooperation with me, worked with me on a new union contract, he signed the draft union contract, initialed this contract. But at the same time he was working behind my back.”

In 1996, Gorbachev ran against Yeltsin for the Russian presidency, but received less than 1% of the vote.

Post-presidency speech

Three years later, Gorbachev lost the love of his life – his 46-year-old wife Raisa – to cancer. The couple had a daughter, Irina. “I was always very calm and balanced in the worst moments. But now that she’s gone – I don’t want to live anymore. The focal point in our lives is gone,” he said.

But Gorbachev continued, speaking about nuclear disarmament, the environment, poverty – and in memory of his wife and family founded the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation to fight childhood cancer.

He had previously founded the Green Cross – to deal with ecological issues – and the international foundation for socio-economic and political studies, the Gorbachev Foundation. In 2011, Gorbachev also created the annual “Gorbachev Awards” to “honor those who changed the world for the better.”

Gorbachev’s involvement in Russian politics also continued. He was the leader of the Russian Social Democratic Party from 2001 until his resignation in 2004 over conflicts with the party leadership and leadership.

In 2007 he became the leader of a new Russian political movement – the Union of Social Democrats, which in turn founded the opposition Independent Democratic Party of Russia.

He told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2012 that he agreed that Russian democracy was “alive,” but added, “That it’s ‘good’… not like that. I’m alive, but I can’t say I’m fine.” He explained that the “institutions of democracy in Russia don’t work efficiently because ultimately they aren’t free”.

mixed heritage

In a 2019 interview with CNN, Gorbachev said the US and Russia must strive to avoid the development of a “new Cold War” despite rising tensions. “This could escalate into a hot war that could mean the destruction of our entire civilization. That shouldn’t be allowed,” he said.

And when asked about the end of the 1987 treaty he signed with Reagan, Gorbachev expressed hope that such arms control agreements could be revived.

“Any agreements that are in place will be preserved and not destroyed,” he said. “But these are the first steps towards destroying [that which] must not be destroyed under any circumstances.” The primary goal of arms control must be to completely abolish nuclear weapons.

Gorbachev’s life after the USSR also held some surprises as he worked to raise money for his cause by appearing in ads for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton. In 2004, Gorbachev won a Grammy Award for Best Children’s Spoken Word Album for Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf / Beintus: Wolf Tracks, which he recorded with former US President Bill Clinton and actress Sophia Loren.

Other awards included the 2008 US National Constitution Center Medal of Freedom and Russia’s highest award, the Order of St. Andrew, presented to him by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2011 on his 80th birthday.

But until the very end, Gorbachev was a leader more respected in other countries than at home. In Russia, he was reviled by some for destroying the Soviet empire and by others for being too slow to free his nation from the grip of communism. In the West, however, he remains the Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped end the Cold War.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Gorbachev died at the age of 91.

CNN’s Tim Lister contributed coverage.

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