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Gorbachev, Soviet Leader Who Helped End Cold War, Dead at 91

'I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world... '

(Headline USA) 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 Tuesday. The last Soviet leader was 91.

The Central Clinical Hospital said in a statement that Gorbachev died after a long illness. No other details were given.

While often spited in his own country, Gorbachev was able to form bonds with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and, to an even more important extent, U.S. Republican President Ronald Reagan.

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That connection helped lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the communist Soviet state. According to one of his biographers, Gorbachev recognized the Soviet economy in the early 1980s was doomed and radical change was needed.

To that end, Gorbachev promoted Glasnost and Perestroika, policies that addressed giving more power to the people and acknowledging private property rights and free-market ideas.

The vision was cut short by economic collapse in the late 1980s.

“I think, frankly, [that] President Gorbachev and I discovered a sort of a bond, a friendship between us, that we thought could become such a bond between all the people,” Reagan told reporters at a 1990 Moscow meeting.

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Though in power less than seven years, Gorbachev unleashed a breathtaking series of changes. But they quickly overtook him and resulted in the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet state, the freeing of Eastern European nations from Russian domination and the end of decades of East-West nuclear confrontation.

Many of the changes, including the Soviet breakup, bore no resemblance to the transformation that Gorbachev had envisioned when he became Soviet leader in March 1985.

By the end of his rule he was powerless to halt the whirlwind he had sown. Yet Gorbachev may have had a greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than any other political figure.

“I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world,” Gorbachev told The AP in a 1992 interview shortly after he left office.

“I am often asked, would I have started it all again if I had to repeat it? Yes, indeed. And with more persistence and determination,” he said.

Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War and spent his later years collecting accolades and awards from all corners of the world. Yet he was widely despised at home.

There was little in Gorbachev’s childhood to hint at the pivotal role he would play on the world stage. On many levels, he had a typical Soviet upbringing in a typical Russian village. But it was a childhood blessed with unusual strokes of good fortune.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born March 2, 1931, in the village of Privolnoye in southern Russia. Both of his grandfathers were peasants, collective farm chairmen and members of the Communist Party, as was his father.

Despite stellar party credentials, Gorbachev’s family did not emerge unscathed from the terror unleashed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin: Both grandfathers were arrested and imprisoned for allegedly anti-Soviet activities.

But, rare in that period, both were eventually freed. In 1941, when Gorbachev was 10, his father went off to war, along with most of the other men from Privolnoye.

Meanwhile, the Nazis pushed across the western steppes in their blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union; they occupied Privolnoye for five months.

When the war was over, young Gorbachev was one of the few village boys whose father returned. By age 15, Gorbachev was helping his father drive a combine harvester after school and during the region’s blistering, dusty summers.

His performance earned him the order of the Red Banner of Labor, an unusual distinction for a 17-year-old. That prize and the party background of his parents helped him land admission in 1950 to the country’s top university, Moscow State.

There, he met his wife, Raisa Maximovna Titorenko, and joined the Communist Party. The award and his family’s credentials also helped him overcome the disgrace of his grandfathers’ arrests, which were overlooked in light of his exemplary Communist conduct.

In his memoirs, Gorbachev described himself as something of a maverick as he advanced through the party ranks, sometimes bursting out with criticism of the Soviet system and its leaders.

His early career coincided with the “thaw” begun by Nikita Khrushchev. As a young Communist propaganda official, he was tasked with explaining the 20th Party Congress that revealed Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s repression of millions to local party activists. He said he was met first by “deathly silence,” then disbelief.

“They said: ‘We don’t believe it. It can’t be. You want to blame everything on Stalin now that he’s dead,’” he told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview.

He was a true if unorthodox believer in socialism. He was elected to the powerful party Central Committee in 1971, took over Soviet agricultural policy in 1978, and became a full Politburo member in 1980.

Along the way he was able to travel to the West, to Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and Canada. Those 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 recalled in his memoirs. “It seemed that our aged leaders were not especially worried about our undeniably lower living standards, our unsatisfactory way of life, and our falling behind in the field of advanced technologies.”

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 wasn’t until 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 rocky periods, including a poorly conceived anti-alcohol campaign, the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

While he said Putin did much to restore stability and prestige to Russia after the tumultuous decade following the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev protested growing limitations on media freedom, and in 2006 bought one of Russia’s last investigative newspapers, Novaya Gazeta.

Gorbachev also spoke out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. A day after the Feb. 24 attack, he issued a statement calling for “an early cessation of hostilities and immediate start of peace negotiations.”

“There is nothing more precious in the world than human lives. Negotiations and dialogue on the basis of mutual respect and recognition of interests are the only possible way to resolve the most acute contradictions and problems,” he said.

Gorbachev ventured into other new areas in his 70s, winning awards and kudos around the world. He won a Grammy in 2004 along with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Italian actress Sophia Loren for their recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and the United Nations named him a Champion of the Earth in 2006 for his environmental advocacy.

Gorbachev is survived by a daughter, Irina, and two granddaughters.

The official news agency Tass reported that Gorbachev will be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife.

Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press

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