Mikhail Gorbachev, who set out to revitalize the Soviet Union but ended up unleashing forces that led to the collapse of communism, the breakup of the state and the end of the Cold War, died last Tuesday . The last Soviet leader was 91 years old.
Orbachev died after a long illness, according to a statement from Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital. No other details were given.
Although in power for less than seven years, Gorbachev has unleashed a breathtaking series of changes. But they quickly overtook it and brought about the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet state, the liberation of Eastern European nations from Russian rule, and the end of decades of East-West nuclear confrontation.
His decline was humiliating. His power hopelessly sapped by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, he spent his last months in power watching republic after republic declare independence until he resigned on December 25, 1991. The Union Soviet was written into oblivion a day later.
A quarter of a century after the collapse, Gorbachev told The Associated Press that he had not considered using widespread force to try to hold the USSR together because he feared chaos in the nuclear country. .
“The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And that would have immediately plunged the country into a civil war,” he said.
At the end of his reign, he was powerless to stop the whirlwind he had sown. Yet Gorbachev perhaps had a greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than any other political figure.
“I see myself as a man who initiated the necessary reforms for the country, for Europe and the world,” Gorbachev said in a 1992 interview shortly after leaving office. “I am often asked, would I have started all over again if I had to do it all over again? Yes indeed. And with more perseverance and determination,” he said.
Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War and spent his final years garnering accolades and awards around the world. Yet he was widely despised at home.
The Russians blamed him for the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 – a once formidable superpower whose territory fractured into 15 separate nations. His former allies abandoned him and made him a scapegoat for the country’s troubles.
His run for president in 1996 was a national joke and he garnered less than one percent of the vote. In 1997, he resorted to directing a TV commercial for Pizza Hut to raise money for his charitable foundation.
Gorbachev, however, never set out to dismantle the Soviet system. He wanted to improve it. Shortly after taking power, Gorbachev launched a campaign to end his country’s economic and political stagnation, using ‘glasnost’, or openness, to help him achieve his goal of ‘perestroika’. or restructuring.
In his memoir, he said he had long been frustrated that in a country with immense natural resources, tens of millions of people live in poverty.
Once he started, one move led to another: he freed political prisoners, allowed open debates and multi-candidate elections, gave his compatriots the freedom to travel, stopped religious oppression, reduced nuclear arsenals, established closer ties with the West and did not resist the fall of communist regimes in the satellite states of Eastern Europe.
I see myself as a man who launched the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world
But the forces he unleashed quickly eluded him.
Long-suppressed ethnic tensions have erupted, sparking wars and unrest in hotspots such as the southern Caucasus region. Strikes and social unrest followed price hikes and shortages of consumer goods.
Competitive elections also produced a new generation of populist politicians who challenged Gorbachev’s policies and authority. Chief among them was his former protege and eventual nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, who became Russia’s first president.
“The process of renovating this country and bringing about fundamental changes in the international community has proven to be much more complex than originally expected,” Gorbachev told the nation as he resigned. “However, let’s recognize what has been achieved so far. Society has acquired freedom; she was liberated politically and spiritually. And this is the most important achievement.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931 in the village of Privolnoye in southern Russia. At age 15, he helped his father drive a combine harvester after school and during the hot, dusty summers of the region. His performance earned him the Order of Labor’s Red Banner, an unusual honor for a 17-year-old. This prize and the partisan experience of his parents helped him gain admission in 1950 to the best university, Moscow State, to study law.
There he met his wife, Raisa Maximovna Titorenko, the daughter of a railroad worker whom he had met at a ballroom dancing class, and he joined the Communist Party. In 1957, Raisa gave birth to their only child, Irina.
His early career coincided with the “thaw” initiated by Nikita Khrushchev. As a young communist propaganda official, he was tasked with explaining the 20th Party Congress that exposed Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s repression of millions to local party activists.
He was elected to the party’s powerful Central Committee in 1971, took over Soviet agricultural policy in 1978, and became a full member of the Politburo in 1980. Along the way, he was able to travel to the West, Belgium, Germany , France, Italy and Canada. . These trips had a profound effect on his thinking, shaking his belief in the superiority of Soviet-style socialism.
“The question haunted me: why was the standard of living in our country lower than in other developed countries? he recalls in his memoirs.
But Gorbachev had to wait his turn. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982 and was succeeded by two other geriatric leaders: Yuri Andropov, Gorbachev’s mentor, and Konstantin Chernenko.
It was only in March 1985, when Chernenko died, that the party finally chose a younger man to lead the country: Gorbachev. He was 54 years old.
His tenure was filled with difficult times, including the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
But beginning in November 1985, Gorbachev began a series of gripping summits with world leaders, particularly US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, which led to deep and unprecedented reductions in US and Soviet nuclear arsenals.
After years of watching a parade of insignificant leaders in the Kremlin, Western leaders almost fainted before the charming and vigorous Gorbachev and his elegant and intelligent wife.
But perceptions were very different back home, where the shaky Soviet economy collapsed, causing enormous economic hardship for the country’s 290 million people.
More recently, Gorbachev has wavered between criticism and moderate praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has come under attack for rolling back the democratic achievements of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras.
While he said Putin had done a lot to restore Russia’s stability and prestige after the tumultuous decade following the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev protested growing limitations on media freedom.
Gorbachev also spoke out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In the aftermath of the February 24 attack, he issued a statement calling for “a rapid cessation of hostilities and the immediate start of peace negotiations”.
“There is nothing more precious in the world than human lives. Negotiations and dialogue based on mutual respect and recognition of interests are the only possible way to resolve the most acute contradictions and problems” , did he declare.
Gorbachev was devastated when his wife Raisa died of leukemia in 1999 and admitted that for a time he flirted with suicidal thoughts. In 2006, he created the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation to help cancer patients and fund research.
In 2009, he released an album titled Songs for Raisa to raise funds for the foundation, featuring Russian ballads sung by Gorbachev himself accompanied by Russian musician Andrei Makarevich.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s daughter survives him.