The former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev has died. He was 91.
His death was reported by Ria Novosti, a Russian state media outlet. The outlet cited the Central Clinical Hospital.
Gorbachev was a transformational world leader of the 20th century who attempted to move his nation out of Soviet-era Communism and into a modern democracy. He received a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in changing the nature of East-West relations and helping bring a peaceful end to the decades-long Cold War.
Gorbachev was also a controversial character within his own country and throughout the world. Some Russians viewed him as weak and irresponsible for placing his country in an unstable position as the Soviet Union dissolved. Other critics in the West point out that Gorbachev didn’t go far enough to root out Communism and improve the Soviet economy, as his reforms failed to address advancing private property rights or limiting the government’s monopoly on production.
Yet friends and opponents agree that the Soviet leader was known for his strong diplomacy and amiable personality. He found ways of pushing his country toward free thinking and presenting the USSR as a world power that could successfully negotiate with the West. His role in calming Soviet-American tensions temporarily helped end the decades-long Cold War.
The Young Optimist
Gorbachev was born to parents Sergei and Maria Gorbachev in the village of Privolnoye on March 2, 1931. They named him Viktor, but his grandfather christened him Mikhail after his birth in a secret baptism insisted upon by his mother and grandmother despite Stalin’s brazen opposition to religion in the Soviet Union.
The Gorbachev family was poor for much of Mikhail’s childhood. Both of his grandfathers survived the Gulag, and he and most of his family survived Joseph Stalin’s Soviet famine in 1932-1933 that killed at least 5 million people and was infamously covered up by Western journalists. Despite his family’s bleak standing in the Soviet social structure, Gorbachev looked back fondly on his childhood. “We were poor, practically beggars,” he recalled. “But in general I felt wonderful.”
Less than 10 years later, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, his father was drafted into the army and given charge of a combat engineering squad, seeing action in many battles. Mikhail and his family received a letter in 1944 stating his father had been killed in action. “The family wept for three days,” Gorbachev said. But the mourning would soon end when they received a letter from his father stating he was alive.
A Leader In The Making
After the war, Mikhail wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue his studies. But his family was so determined to get him into school that his father was willing to sell everything they had. His grandfather even gave him the coat off his back to ensure Mikhail would stay warm when he left home. “You’ve got to study, Mishka,” his grandfather told him. “That’s what it takes to become a real person. Study well!”
School wasn’t easy for him at first, but he soon excelled. He read anything he could and became passionate about acting. Through his rhetorical skills, desire to learn, and ability to earn respect, it became evident to those around him that he was a natural leader. He would go on to study law at Moscow State University, where he met his wife, Raisa.
“The Moscow University gave me fundamental knowledge and an intellectual potential that determined my career,” he recollected. “It was here that the long process of reassessing my country’s history, its present and its future began and continued over so many years.”
The Birth Of A Political Giant
The natural leadership of Gorbachev was given a chance to blossom quickly after he graduated from Moscow State. In 1956, he was elected as the First Secretary of the Stavropol City Komsomol Committee. By 1970, he was the First Secretary of the Stavropol Territorial Communist Party Committee, an important role focused on developing agricultural facilities and farms in the region. Gorbachev was only 39 when he took this position, significantly younger than other party leaders in the region.
It was during this time that he met KGB police chief Yury Andropov, the man who would eventually lead the Soviet Union following the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982.
Gorbachev and Andropov grew close, or at least as close as two Communist leaders jockeying for positions could. The two would sometimes stay up late talking. “Like me, Andropov didn’t like the long, noisy, drunken dinners,” Gorbachev remembered.
Gorbachev spent seven years as the Stavropol leader, during which time he implemented a plan for the region’s long-term development.
His leadership didn’t go unnoticed. On November 27, 1978, Gorbachev was elected Central Committee Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He and his family moved to Moscow a week later. After proving himself a capable leader through his oversight of the entire country’s agriculture, Gorbachev became a member of the Soviet Communist’s supreme governing body, the CPSU CC Politburo.
This new position and status gave both Gorbachev and his wife Raisa opportunities to travel and socialize with some of the world’s most powerful people. He dined with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the father of Justin Trudeau, and spent time with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at her Chequers country retreat.
Gorbachev and Thatcher struck up a unique friendship. According to interpreters in the room during one of their meals, Gorbachev and Thatcher “talked throughout the whole lunch. Neither of them ate very much because they were so busy.” Neither leader appeared to be “a particularly good listener, but they certainly loved talking.” Gorbachev and Thatcher reportedly went back and forth arguing for the superiority of their economic and political systems. Thatcher later said their debate “has continued ever since and is taken up whenever we meet. I never tire of it.” After the visit, Thatcher couldn’t sound more positive about a new relationship with the Soviet leader. “I like Mr. Gorbachev,” she famously said. “We can do business together.”
Little did the world know how important Gorbachev’s “business” with the West would become.
Progressive Visionary And World Leader
On March 10, 1985, Gorbachev received word that General Secretary Konstantine Chernenko had died, and that the USSR needed a new leader. CPSU higher-ups met immediately to arrange a funeral for Chernenko and to discuss who should take control of the party and, in effect, the country. The meeting yielded no results until the next morning when Gorbachev received calls from other CPSU leaders, pledging their support for him to take over. There was no resistance to his appointment. He later said, “I would have withdrawn my candidacy” had there been any resistance.
As a leader, Gorbachev quickly got to work on his main priority of business: Glasnost and Perestroika.
As a result of Communism’s failings, the Soviet economy in the early 1980s was an utter disaster as productivity growth fell below zero, and Gorbachev knew something had to be radically changed. His idea to repair the USSR’s dire situation was focused on “overcoming people’s alienation from government and property, giving power to the people (and taking it away from the bureaucratic upper echelons), implanting democracy, and establishing true social justice,” he wrote in his autobiography. According to Gorbachev, the Soviet system was foundationally failing the Russian people, and to fix that failure, perestroika would aim to “penetrate the system to its very foundations and change it, not merely refine or perfect it.”
Glasnost targeted reforming individual rights within the country while perestroika referred to large-scale economic changes, such as free-market ideas and private property. “[I]t was precisely glasnost that awakened people from their social slumber, helped them overcome indifference and passivity and become aware of the stake they had in change and of its important implications for their lives,” Gorbachev explained. “In short, without glasnost there would have been no perestroika.”
Perestroika appeared to work at first as more freedom allowed people to invest and do business, but the economic collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s crushed Gorbachev’s hopes for a changed economic system.
An Unlikely Friend
Gorbachev’s progressive vision with glasnost and perestroika would eventually help mend the USSR’s relation with the rest of the world, especially America. Gorbachev became General Secretary months after President Ronald Reagan began his second term in office. At this point, the Cold War had been on a roller coaster ride for thirty-plus years. But now, the United States, led by their own visionary leader, had reason to believe it could end soon.
Reagan ran and governed on strong diplomacy being backed up by the presence of a strong military. “Peace through strength” was his famous motto. He often criticized the Soviet Union and its Communist system, calling it “the evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the present world.” This foreign policy strategy and rhetoric set up the U.S. for a collision course with the USSR unless both Reagan and Gorbachev could find a way to diplomatic solutions.
Much like Thatcher, Reagan found Gorbachev a friendly person and reasonable diplomat. The two leaders first met on November 19, 1985, in Geneva, Switzerland, to address the Cold War arms race and discuss reducing each country’s nuclear weapons.
These talks would span the next few years, before Reagan’s history-making speech in Berlin, Germany, on June 12, 1987. What was a moving speech to America and the Western world, didn’t affect Gorbachev the same way. He told people years later that he was “not impressed” with Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech. “We knew that Mr. Reagan’s original profession was an actor,” he said.
Impressed or not, Gorbachev respected the American president, even as he competed against him on the world stage. Two nations that had been bitter enemies since the end of World War II were now speaking fondly of each other. “I’m sure you must have sensed by now during your stay here in this country that we and people in Soviet society hold you in tremendous esteem,” he told Reagan during a meeting in Moscow in 1990.
The respect was mutual as Reagan often talked about his “bond” with the Russian leader. “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,” the president told reporters in that same meeting.
Following Reagan’s death in 2004, Gorbachev reflected on their unique relationship. “I take the death of Ronald Reagan very hard,” Gorbachev reflected. “He was a man whom fate set by me in perhaps the most difficult years at the end of the 20th century.”
“In terms of human qualities, he and I had, you would say, communicativeness, and this helped us carry on normally,” Gorbachev said. “But when you talk about friendly relations in politics, it’s not the friendship of schoolmates.”
A Disappointing Idealist
In 1991, after seven years as CPSU General Secretary, Gorbachev’s political opponents and those still loyal to the original ideas of the Soviet Union became nervous. Gorbachev was inching them closer to Westernized democracy and a free-market, ideas directly opposed to Vladimir Lenin’s Communist revolution and Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. At the same time, he never fully embraced capitalism. Instead, he offered a different solution to fix the USSR’s stagnant economy and called for socialism “with a human face,” a solution that did not remove all the Communist restrictions on business and property. Ultimately, his desire to “overcom[e] people’s alienation from government and property” never came to fruition, and glasnost and perestroika were left unfinished.
Gorbachev never accomplished an economic turnaround and was unable to fend off his political opponents. On August 18, Soviet loyalists attempted a coup against him. His power and progressive leadership were in jeopardy. Months later, on Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev officially stepped down as the nation’s final general secretary. Soon, the USSR would become the Russian Federation and recognize Boris Yeltsin as president.
The progressive vision and idealist optimism of Gorbachev was killed by the reality of Russia’s Communism. The ideology had promised hope with Lenin and Stalin but eventually destroyed the nation’s economy and military prowess, leading to the USSR’s collapse in 1991. Even Gorbachev’s progressive leadership was unable to stop it.
Forever An Advocate
Although it was a quick end to a long-developed political career, Gorbachev would remain active in politics and culture.
In 1993, he established Green Cross International, an organization dedicated to educating the world on environmental problems, such as those caused by the decades-long Cold War. In 1999, he helped form the Nobel Laureates Summits, an annual gathering of world leaders to discuss solutions to problems such as wars and poverty. He has received dozens of awards, one of which includes the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Gorbachev in 1990 for his work in bringing a peaceful end to the Cold War.
He remains hopeful of the work he accomplished as the Soviet leader. “History will ultimately make the right judgement,” he said in a 2017 interview. “I firmly believe that my work and my efforts were not in vain. I will continue to further the cause to which I have committed myself until the very end.”
Mikhail Gorbachev was preceded in death by his wife of 46 years Raisa Gorbachev. He is survived by his daughter Irina Mikhailovna Virganskaya along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.