Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet Leader Who Ended Cold War, Dies Aged 91

Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union in free speech and reform movements known as glasnost and perestroika, has died aged 91. Photograph: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
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Russian news agencies report death of last leader of Soviet Union at Central clinical hospital in Moscow

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader whose reforms led to the unlooked for break-up of his own country, and to the demise of communism across central and eastern Europe, has died in Moscow aged 91.

Celebrated abroad as the saviour who delivered freedom to millions of Soviet citizens, he was often blamed at home for the chaotic years that followed, and survived long enough to watch Russia return to autocracy under the rule of Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1990, had died after a “difficult and protracted illness”, Russian news agencies cited hospital officials as saying on Tuesday. Recent reports suggested he was suffering from a kidney ailment.

Gorbachev was the the first and last president of the Soviet Union. He became the general secretary of the communist party in 1985, aged just 53, a post he held until the party was itself dissolved in 1991, with the Soviet Union vanishing soon afterwards. His decision not to use force to prevent the toppling of the Berlin Wall, he later claimed, may have averted a Third World War.

US president Joe Biden said he was a man of “remarkable vision”, and that he was held in high esteem for leading his country on the path to reform.

“These were the acts of a rare leader – one with the imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it,” Biden said in a statement. “The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.”

António Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, described Gorbachev as a “towering leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace”.

A spokesman to Putin, with whom Gorbachev said he had a strained relationship, said that the Kremlin leader expressed his “deep condolences” on his death and would send a telegram to his family in the morning. Gorbachev will be buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery next to his wife, Raisa, reports said.

Gorbachev will be associated with his attempts to modernise and to improve the Soviet Union, a process that he ultimately lost control of, leading to the country’s collapse. He told the Guardian in 2011 that one of his proudest achievements was his policy of perestroika – restructuring – which was designed to resuscitate a moribund economy and to bring about change. With it was glasnost or openness, a concept encompassing liberalism and pluralism after decades of censorship and official lies.

As well as domestic reform, Gorbachev ushered in a new era of detente with the west, one that has come to a decisive end with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s return to international isolation. Gorbachev had barely commented on the war publicly, beyond his foundation making an early call for “an early cessation of hostilities and immediate start of peace negotiations.”

In the past, he had spoken in support of Putin’s decision to annex Crimea in 2014, saying he would have done the same if he had been in the Russian leader’s place. He was banned from Ukraine for five years for his remarks.

But Alexei Venediktov, a friend and the former head of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, recently said that in private Gorbachev was “upset” by the war and suggested that, under Putin, his “life’s work” had been “destroyed”.

It was Gorbachev’s reluctance to use force solutions that would later earn him the Nobel peace prize. He dumped the Brezhnev doctrine, by which Moscow reserved the right to crush dissent within the client states of the Warsaw Pact.

He also forged relationships with world leaders, befriending Margaret Thatcher, who famously said of Moscow’s young, new premier: “We can do business together.”

Gorbachev also warmed to Ronald Reagan, with whom he agreed in 1986 to reduce medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe and who later urged Gorbachev to “tear down!” the Berlin Wall.

Ronald Reagan, left, and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev enjoying a moment at Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo in California.
Ronald Reagan, left, and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev enjoying a moment at Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo in California. Photograph: Bob Galbraith/AP

In 1988, Gorbachev withdrew troops from the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan. And in summer 1989, he said that Communist countries were free to determine their own internal affairs.

They did, in a series of mostly peaceful revolutions that swept across Poland, Hungary, east Germany, Czechoslovakia and – more violently – Romania. At home, Gorbachev struggled to control secessionist claims by the constituent republics of his empire: the Baltic States, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia. This was a bloodier affair.

By 1990-91, the communist party’s grip was slipping. Gorbachev’s own position was becoming wobblier too, as hardliners sought to arrest the Soviet Union’s nascent implosion. In August 1991, a group of ultra-conservatives seized power in a coup while Gorbachev was on holiday in the Crimea. Their reign lasted three days.

The man who brought it to an end was Boris Yeltsin, the newly elected president of the Russian Federation. Gorbachev remained in office until late 1991, presiding over the Soviet Union’s rapid collapse, as successive republics including Ukraine voted for independence. He exited the political stage on 27 December.

It remains a rarity for a Kremlin leader to step down voluntarily. In an interview with the Guardian in 2011, he still appeared bitter over the rise of his arch-rival: “I was probably too liberal and democratic as regards Yeltsin. I should have sent him as ambassador to Great Britain or maybe a former British colony,” he said.

Yet his decision to step down remains a singular and respected act among many Russian liberals today.

After visiting Gorbachev in hospital on 30 June, the 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.”

Alexei Kudrin, a liberal Russian politician who has remained in government, said that Gorbachev’s ideas had “given the country and the whole world a new breath.”

Out of office, Gorbachev founded a charity, Green Cross International, which focused on the toxic nuclear and environmental legacy of the cold war. He made various tries to re-enter politics including an attempted comeback in the 1996 presidential election. All were unsuccessful.

The Soviet hardliners may have been defeated, but by 2000 it was their protege – the unsmiling ex-KGB spy Putin – who was in the Kremlin. Gorbachev’s relationship with Putin was mixed. He approved Putin’s revisionist policy in foreign affairs, including Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia, and the 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

Mikhail Gorbachev: a divisive figure loved abroad but loathed at home

But Gorbachev took a dim view of Putin’s slow, systematic squashing of civil society. In several notable speeches he accused him of turning the United Russia party into a bad copy of the Communist Party, and of blatant authoritarianism. “He thinks that democracy stands in his way,” Gorbachev said of Putin in 2010.

For its part, Russia’s state media’s has cast Gorbachev in the role of enemy. It has variously portrayed him as a CIA stooge and the man responsible for the Soviet Union’s collapse – “the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century”, as Putin put it. Mostly, it has ignored him.

In his last years, when he was an active campaigner for charity, following the death of his wife Raisa to cancer, Gorbachev was a paradoxical figure. Abroad, he was viewed as the hero of the cold war, whose actions – or lack of them – ushered in a freer world. In Russia he was largely reviled and unloved, an unperson at best, a traitor at worst.

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