Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, died Tuesday at the age of 91.
His death followed “a severe and prolonged illness,” Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital told state-owned Russian news agency RIA Novosti, per CNN. The Associated Press cited other Russian news agencies TASS and Interfax as similarly reporting that Gorbachev had died.
Gorbachev, who served as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, was a controversial figure in his lifetime.
Celebrated in the West for dismantling the Iron Curtain, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for brokering international peace and helping to end the Cold War. In his native Russia, however, Gorbachev was reviled by many for presiding over the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“I feel like a man who has lived several lives, full of great moments and heavy losses,” Gorbachev once said.
Though he expressed regret for some political choices, Gorbachev stood by many of the Cold War decisions that have earned him a place in history.
Perestroika, the program of political and economic reform that he introduced in the USSR in the mid-1980s, was one of his greatest achievements, he told The Guardian in a 2011 interview.
“What we were able to achieve within the country and in the international arena was of enormous importance,” he said. “It predetermined the course of events in ending the Cold War, moving toward a new world order and, in spite of everything, producing gradual movement away from a totalitarian state to a democracy.”
Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in the southern Russian province of Stavropol to a peasant Ukrainian-Russian family.
His childhood was marked by suffering and terror. In the 1932-33 Soviet famine, nearly half his village starved to death, including members of his own family. Many more in the village were later killed during Joseph Stalin’s purges. In 1937, one of Gorbachev’s grandfathers was captured and tortured. “They tried to break his arms,” Gorbachev remembered. “They tried to blind him.”
Still, for all the hardship, Gorbachev was remembered by his classmates and teachers as a bright and popular child who enjoyed singing and dancing. As a teen, he helped his father operate combine harvesters on collective farms.
He was one of “best looking guys in the village,” his childhood friend, Alexander Yakovenko, remembered in “A Man Who Changed The World,” a documentary about Gorbachev’s life.
In 1950, Gorbachev left Stavropol to study law in the capital. “He was the only one of us who went to Moscow,” his classmate Raisa Kopeikina recalled in the documentary. “And that was at a time when people here hardly knew what the trains even looked like. He went to Moscow State University — a simple chap from a faraway village.”
While at university, Gorbachev became active in the Communist Party, sparking what would become a decades-long career in politics.
“I liked the communist ideals — freedom, equality, justice, a good life,” he said later. “Everything that was in the party program, everything that was proclaimed by [party] leaders, we took it at face value.”
It was also in college that he met the love of his life, Raisa Titarenko. The couple married in September 1953 and had a daughter, Irina, a few years later.
Upon graduation, Gorbachev returned to Stavropol and began work as a provincial Communist Party official. In the decades that followed, he steadily rose through the ranks of the party. He was an ambitious careerist who made friends in the right places.
Thanks in part to his connections and also his own hard work, Gorbachev was called to Moscow in the late 1970s and later promoted to the Soviet Union’s executive committee, the Politburo. Then in 1985, after the deaths of three leaders in four years, including his mentor Yuri Andropov, Gorbachev was appointed the head of the USSR.
Gorbachev, then 54, inherited a Soviet Union in desperate need of reform. The nation had suffered from years of economic and political stagnation. It needed a change-maker — a role Gorbachev was prepared to fill.
Soon after taking power, Gorbachev, affectionately referred to as “Gorby,” unveiled his bold plans to revitalize the Soviet Union. Perestroika (a program of restructuring) and glasnost (loosely translated as “openness”) were cornerstones of his vision. He relaxed bureaucracy and censorship in the hopes of promoting modernity and democracy. He started a dialogue with then-President Ronald Reagan’s administration, the beginnings of a thaw after decades of Cold War.
Gorbachev was determined to foster détente with the U.S., and after a series of meetings with Reagan, agreed to pull the plug on the long-running nuclear arms race. In 1987, the two world leaders signed a historic treaty agreeing to shrink their ground-based nuclear arsenals.
Reagan described the accord as the realization of “an impossible vision.” The U.S. president would later give Gorbachev “most of the credit” for ending the arms race.
In 1990, Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in promoting international peace. “[We] want to honor Mikhail Gorbachev for his many and decisive contributions,” the Nobel Committee said at the time. “The greater openness he has brought about in Soviet society has also helped promote international trust.”
But though Gorbachev’s foreign policy reforms were applauded in the West, things at home weren’t going quite so smoothly.
“I am often asked whether my fellow leaders of perestroika and I knew the full scope of what we had to do,” Gorbachev wrote in 2013. He went on:
The answer is yes and no ― not fully and not immediately. What we had to abandon was quite clear: the rigid ideological, political and economic system; the confrontation with much of the rest of the world; and the unbridled arms race.
It is much more difficult to answer the follow-up question: What were our goals, what did we want to achieve? We came a long way in a short time — moving from trying to repair the existing system to recognizing the need to replace it. Yet I always adhered to my choice of evolutionary change — moving deliberately so that we would not break the backs of the people and the country and would avoid bloodshed.
Gorbachev tried to broker peace with the U.S. while attempting to challenge an entrenched social and political system at home, where unrest began to bubble over.
Radicals felt change was coming too slowly, and Gorbachev’s communist compatriots believed he was compromising too much too quickly. Economically, the country continued to flounder and emboldened, by Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and unwillingness to use military power, several Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Lithuania, began to wrest their independence from communist rule.
In 1991, hardline members in the Communist Party imprisoned Gorbachev in his holiday home in Crimea, and attempted to overthrow him and roll back his reforms.
The coup was unsuccessful, undermined in part by the efforts of Boris Yeltsin, one of Gorbachev’s fiercest political opponents.
Yeltsin had won the hearts of the people, and soon went about dismantling what was left of the communist government.
Recognizing Yeltsin’s increasing popularity and the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev resigned as president on Dec. 25, 1991, marking the end of the USSR.
“We’re now living in a new world,” Gorbachev said in a somber but brief address to the nation.
In later interviews, Gorbachev said he deeply regretted waiting “too long in trying to reform the Communist Party.” He should have resigned earlier, he said, and formed a new democratic reform party.
“I now think I … should have insisted on resigning from the Communist Party. It had become a brake on reforms even though it had launched them. But they all thought the reforms only needed to be cosmetic. They thought that painting the facade was enough, when actually there was still the same old mess inside the building,” he said in The Guardian interview in 2011. He added that he also regretted not giving more power to the Soviet republics when he had an opportunity to do so.
In the years after the USSR’s collapse, Gorbachev was ridiculed by Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, and became one of Russia’s most hated figures.
But Gorbachev said he had prepared himself for the disgrace.
“After I left the Kremlin, I had no illusions: It was going to be difficult, hard,” he said in 2016. “As the economy’s problems worsened, it was wholly predictable that the politicians would be looking for a scapegoat. I was the perfect candidate. A deluge of lies and slander rained down on me.”
The support of his wife, family and friends buoyed his spirits during those dark days, he said, as well did his continued belief in the mechanisms of change he’d implemented.
“Above all, what kept me going was the certainty that perestroika had been essential and that, having taken on a far from easy burden, we were bearing it with dignity,” he said. “For all the mistakes and failures, we had led our country out of a historical impasse, given it a first experience of freedom, emancipated our people and given them back the right to think for themselves. We had ended the Cold War and nuclear arms race.”
Gorbachev, described by his friends as an optimist and moralist, would attempt to return to politics many times in his later years, but was ultimately unsuccessful in making a mark.
He founded the Gorbachev Foundation, a think tank focused on Russian history and politics, and the environmental organization Green Cross International.
In 1999, Gorbachev suffered what he described as the “greatest loss” of his life: the death of his wife, Raisa, from leukemia.
“The overwhelming grief of the former Soviet president was visible to everyone present, and the formality of the occasion was softened by a sense of shared sadness,” the Guardian reported from her funereal.
Just before her coffin was lowered into a grave, Gorbachev “abandoned his attempt to retain his composure, and wept. Whispering something to his wife, he stroked her face and hair.:
“I am very lucky with Mikhail,” Raisa was quoted as saying in 1985. “We are really friends.”
Until his dying day, Gorbachev remained a divisive figure in Russia. He’s been called “the greatest figure in 20th century history,” and also a traitor to his country.
“Some love him for bringing freedom, and others loathe him for bringing freedom,” Dmitri Muratov, a Russian newspaper editor, told The New York Times in 2016.
In 2014, several members of Russia’s parliament called for Gorbachev to be prosecuted over the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Pekhtin, a close ally of current Russian President Vladimir Putin, once called Gorbachev a “demagogue and traitor.” Yeltsin’s Vice President Alexander Rutskoi dubbed him “the man who betrayed his country and his people.”
But Gorbachev was never one to remain silent, despite potential censure. In his later years, he was a vocal opponent of some of Putin’s policies. He said in 2016 that Putin had become an “obstacle to progress” in Russia.
“It is crucial that people should trust the president and be able to believe him. Yes, Russia needs a strong leader, but not a Führer, not a Stalin,” he wrote at the time.
Gorbachev is survived by his daughter, Irina, and his two granddaughters, Ksenya and Anastasya.