Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a pivotal figure in Russia’s transition from communism to democracy, has died aged 91.
Russian media reported his death on August 30, citing a hospital statement that his death followed a long illness.
As leader of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Gorbachev introduced a policy of greater transparency of government institutions and freedom of information, known as “glasnost” and “perestroika”. The changes were credited with ending Communism in the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War.
Born March 2, 1931 in the Stavropol region of southwestern Russia, Gorbachev has always credited the “little homeland” with helping shape his character, according to his biography on the Gorbachev Foundation website.
He earned a law degree from Moscow State University in 1955, where he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Although he considered a career in law or academia, he realized that politics was his lot in life after being elected to a series of party posts in Stavropol.
In 1979 he was appointed to the Politburo, or executive committee of the Communist Party, and became general secretary in 1985 – the country’s highest post – where he remained until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
As General Secretary, he introduced the series of reforms later known as perestroika with the aim of accelerating economic and social progress. But as the main driving force behind these changes, he increasingly found himself the target of criticism from conservatives, who wanted to stymie reforms, and liberals, who believed the changes were not moving fast enough. .
Despite setbacks, he continued to press for reforms, such as calling for multi-candidate elections for local legislative bodies, and oversaw changes in government structures, including the formation of the Congress of Deputies of the people.
The election to the Congress of People’s Deputies marked the first time that Soviet voters could choose the members of a national legislative body, and it paved the way for deputies to publicly criticize Gorbachev, the military, and the KGB. The weakening of a central party structure also allowed the constituent republics to begin to withdraw from the union and ultimately lead to its downfall.
Gorbachev was internationally recognized for his reform efforts and meetings with US President Ronald Reagan, which helped end the Cold War, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
But opposition within his country was simmering. And on August 19, 1991, a group of Communist hardliners took control of the country by sending tanks into Moscow, where they were met by angry protesters. Gorbachev was then under house arrest in his vacation villa on the Black Sea.
Several tank crews switched sides, forming a shield around the parliament building, which later became the headquarters of opponents of the coup.
Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Russian Republic, led the counter-coup and stood atop one of the friendly tanks in defiance.
Coup plotters, who included the vice president, defense minister and KGB chief, said they were trying to prevent Gorbachev from signing a treaty the next day that would give the republics more autonomy Soviets.
But within days, the 70-year rule of the Communist Party was suspended, and over the next few months the USSR dissolved and 15 Soviet republics became 15 independent countries. Many of these former Soviet republics founded the Commonwealth of Independent States.
After his retirement, Gorbachev continued to be active in politics, forming various political parties: the Social Democratic Party of Russia in 2001, the Union of Social Democrats in 2007, and the Independent Democratic Party of Russia in 2008.
In 1992, he founded the Gorbachev Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit think tank that studies issues of Russian politics and history.
Later, Gorbachev criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite his support for Putin’s first term. He told the BBC his relationship with Putin had “deteriorated”, saying: “I think he should change his style and make adjustments to the diet. He also criticized the United States and its role in both NATO expansion and the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. In a December 2021 interview with the state news agency RIA Novosti, Gorbachev called the United States “arrogant and self-assured” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, stressing the “desire of the countries to build a new empire” as the reason why talks around these issues had become so difficult.
“In such a position, how can you expect equal relations with the United States, with the West? said Gorbachev. “Second, and no less important, is the triumphant mood in the West, especially in the United States. Arrogance and self-confidence have gone to their heads.”
His wife Raisa, whose public appearances with Gorbachev as first lady helped personalize the country’s image, died of leukemia in 1999. They are both survived by their daughter Irina.