MOSCOW—As the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev sought to reform the Communist state and infuse greater transparency. But his efforts unleashed a wave of unstoppable forces that led to the nation’s demise, reshaping the geopolitical landscape and leaving the U.S. as the world’s sole superpower.
Russia’s state news agencies cited Moscow’s central clinical hospital as saying he had died aged 91. A representative for Mr. Gorbachev confirmed his death.
The son of peasants, the world would come to know him as the architect of “perestroika” and “glasnost”—restructuring and openness—domestic policies he hoped would breathe new life into the country’s sluggish 1980s economy, remake the political system and loosen some civil restrictions at a time of warming relations with the West.
What happened next was the unraveling of decades-old entrenched Communist regimes across the Eastern bloc, the reunification of Germany’s East and West, and greatly improved ties with the U.S.
“I do not relieve myself of responsibility for the initiated reforms, because I am still deeply convinced that they were vital and ultimately will serve the well-being of my Motherland and will be beneficial for the world,” Mr. Gorbachev wrote in a two-volume book called “Life and Reforms,” published in 1995.
Mr. Gorbachev’s rejection of force to crush the push for freedom in the Soviet bloc, the easing of censorship in the media and cultural life, and his support of a landmark nuclear arms control agreement with the U.S. won him much praise abroad, and he was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nobel committee cited “his leading role in the peace process,” which it said “characterized important parts of the international community” at that time.
But such warm sentiments weren’t felt at home, where many blamed the Soviet leader for the poverty and economic hardship that came with his loosening of centralized control of some businesses and in agriculture and manufacturing, for allowing the rise of nationalism in former Soviet republics, and for the loss of the U.S.S.R.’s status as a superpower.
“The real problem is, he was trying to introduce freedom of society for a population that did not know how to use freedom,” said Moscow-based political scientist Mark Urnov, who worked at Mr. Gorbachev’s foundation. “For many generations, we were under a very tough totalitarian regime. We were deprived of any elementary personal freedom. To overcome such kind of a legacy, three or four generations are needed.”
President Ronald Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square in Moscow, in May 1988. Months earlier, the leaders signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that helped to thaw the Cold War.
The old conservative hierarchy that was benefiting from the system of privilege and cronyism tried to reverse Mr. Gorbachev’s policies. Some key cabinet ministers and close associates launched a coup against Mr. Gorbachev in August 1991 while he was on vacation with his wife and daughter in a government villa on the Black Sea. The attempt to topple him failed but significantly weakened his position.
“The coup affected him very much, psychologically, psychosomatically,” Mr. Urnov said. “There was deep trauma.”
Mr. Gorbachev ultimately resigned as the leader of communist Russia on Dec. 25, 1991. The next day, the U.S.S.R. was formally dissolved.
In a television address to the nation, he lamented that although the U.S.S.R. had been blessed with resources such as oil and gas, the country was “increasingly lagging behind” developed nations, he told citizens.
He explained the necessity for his radical reforms.
“The reason was already visible—society was suffocating in the grip of a command-bureaucratic system,” he said. “All attempts at partial reform—and there were many—failed one after another. The country was losing perspective. It was impossible to live on like that.”
‘Discipline in the family was strict and clear,’ Mikhail Gorbachev recalled in his memoir.
Mr. Gorbachev’s life following the end of his presidency was characterized by rounds on the lecture circuit in the West, penning papers and books, and hobnobbing with international dignitaries, who respected and admired him, including former British Prime Minister
At home, he was relegated to the sidelines of politics, watching as many of the democratic reforms which he had spearheaded, such as competitive elections and a free press, were diluted.
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, to a peasant family of mixed Russian and Ukrainian heritage in the village of Privolnoye, in Russia’s southern Stavropol region. A photo included in his latest book “I remain an optimist,” published in 2017, shows him at age 6, standing barefoot between his Ukrainian maternal grandparents, wearing a scruffy type of overalls.
“Discipline in the family was strict and clear,” he recalled in the memoir. He said his paternal great grandfather’s word was law.
Mikhail Gorbachev, with members of the Politburo, after taking the oath as president of the U.S.S.R., in March 1990.
During Soviet dictator
“Great Purge” of the 1930s, in which perceived “enemies of the state” were detained and sometimes killed, both of Mr. Gorbachev’s grandfathers were arrested and spent time in Gulag labor camps before being freed. He would acknowledge in later years that their experience had a profound impact on him.
Mr. Gorbachev graduated from high school in 1950 with a silver medal, indicating a level of academic achievement, according to Russian state media. He entered the law faculty of the prestigious Moscow State University and in 1952 joined the Communist Party. He married fellow student Raisa Titarenko, a Ukrainian, in 1953, before graduating with honors in 1955 from the university’s law faculty.
The young Gorbachev was immediately assigned to the Stavropol Regional Prosecutor’s Office. Between 1955 and 1962, he held several roles within Stavropol’s Komsomol, known as the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, a political youth organization. With the help of patrons from Moscow, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a member of the party’s central committee.
Mikhail Gorbachev: His Life in Photos
Mr. Gorbachev, whose efforts to modernize the Communist empire unleashed the forces that led to its collapse and transformed the world, has died
Misha Gorbachev, shown around 1935 during a Stalin-era famine. He was born March 2, 1931 in the southern region of Stavropol to a peasant family.
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In October 1980, Mr. Gorbachev was promoted to the Politburo, the principal policy-making committee of the Communist Party. In 1985, following the successive deaths of three senior predecessors, he was named general secretary of the Communist Party, the formal head of the Soviet state. He was 54 years old. Five years later, he was elected president of the U.S.S.R.—the first and, ultimately, the last in the country’s history.
Mr. Gorbachev’s leadership was characterized by his down-to-earth and open style. He engaged with citizens on the street, encouraged frank discussions at Politburo sessions, and promoted well-educated younger generation cabinet members and aides.
The period that defined his political legacy began in 1985 with perestroika, envisioned as a way to revitalize the socialist economic and political system, by boosting the country’s low productivity and substandard quality of its goods, and prompting a better work ethic.
“I believe that perestroika started at a time when it was necessary, and when the country was ripe for perestroika,” Mr. Gorbachev said in a 2002 speech at Harvard University. “Not only objective conditions were in place, but also the subjective conditions were in place for perestroika. Perestroika couldn’t have started because of the initiative from below. It couldn’t have started outside the party system.”
President George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, during a joint press conference in Moscow for a 1991 summit on nuclear disarmament.
His policy of glasnost offered citizens greater liberties, including allowing them to say what they wanted without fear of retribution. He encouraged differing views and greater candor in government affairs, released political prisoners, and allowed the publication of once classified information about the crimes of the Stalin era.
“The main achievement of Gorbachev was the liberation of Soviet people from the press of the system created by the Bolsheviks and controlled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “He gave people freedom.”
On the global stage, Mr. Gorbachev was viewed as a maverick compared with his predecessors. He ended the U.S.S.R.’s almost decadelong involvement in Afghanistan’s civil war, in which some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died. He cemented the thawing of the Cold War with the signing of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with President
The pact banned the two nations’ conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 300 miles to 3,400 miles.
“Mr. Gorbachev deserves most of the credit,” Mr. Reagan later said.
Mr. Urnov, the political scientist, said Mr. Gorbachev had little choice but to warm relations with the U.S.
“If you want to change the inner situation in the society, you have to have a peaceful environment,” he said. “And if you want a peaceful environment, you have to be peaceful and friendly with the most important state.”
Mr. Gorbachev reviled conflict, close associates said. He didn’t intervene to quell popular uprisings that eventually led to the toppling of Communist regimes in the Eastern bloc, including in Germany and Yugoslavia, and allowed those Soviet satellite nations to eventually gain their full sovereignty.
“Gorbachev laid the foundations of the country’s modern foreign policy,” Mr. Trenin said. “This is a rejection of ideology in favor of national interests; understanding of the world as a single and interconnected community; recognition of universal values and interests, starting with survival in the conditions of the existence of a nuclear weapon.”
Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, exited an Aeroflot aircraft in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1985. She died in 1999 of leukemia.
Following his resignation in 1991, Mr. Gorbachev watched as Russia stumbled through market reforms, crippling poverty and the rise of the nouveau riche that embraced the most extravagant aspects of capitalism. To raise money for his foundation, called the International Fund for Socio-Economic and Political Studies that opened in 1992, he rode the international speaking circuit, wrote books and even once appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial.
He tried to re-enter politics in 1996, challenging then-President
in the presidential elections but garnered less than 1% of the vote. A more crushing blow came in 1999 with the death of his wife of 46 years, Raisa, from leukemia.
He watched as many of the democratic reforms that he had ushered in were eroded under the reign of President
that started in 2000, including the demise of competitive elections and the clampdown on press freedoms. The warming relations Mr. Gorbachev forged with the West fell into a deep freeze under Mr. Putin, with the dismantling of the Gorbachev-Reagan INF arms-control treaty in 2019.
“I am convinced that Russia can succeed only through democracy,” Mr. Gorbachev wrote in Time magazine’s annual 100 most influential people edition in 2017. “Russia is ready for political competition, a real multiparty system, fair elections and regular rotation of government. This should define the role and responsibility of the president.”
Write to Ann M. Simmons at email@example.com
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