BERLIN (AP) — The death of Mikhail Gorbachevthe last leader of the Soviet Union and for many the man who restored democracy to the then communist-ruled European nations was mourned Wednesday as the loss of a rare leader who changed the world and for a time gave hope for peace among the superpowers .
But the man who died on Tuesday at the age of 91 was also reviled by many compatriots who blamed him for the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its decline as a superpower. The Russian nation emerging from its Soviet past shrank in size as 15 new nations were created.
The loss of pride and power also eventually led to the rise of Vladimir Putin, who has spent the past quarter of a century trying to restore Russia to its former glory and beyond.
“After decades of brutal political repression, he embraced democratic reforms. He believed in glasnost and perestroika – openness and restructuring – not as mere slogans, but as the way forward for the people of the Soviet Union after so many years of isolation and hardship,” said President Joe Biden.
He added that “these were the deeds of a rare leader – one with the imagination to see that another future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it. The result was a safer world and more freedom for millions of people.”
Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War, but while he was widely acclaimed abroad, he was an outcast at home.
Putin acknowledged that Gorbachev had “a profound influence on the course of world history.”
“He led the country through difficult and dramatic changes amid massive foreign policy and economic and social challenges,” Putin said in a short telegram expressing his condolences to Gorbachev’s family.
Gorbachev “understood that reforms were necessary and tried to offer his solutions to the acute problems,” Putin said.
Reactions from Russian officials and lawmakers were generally mixed. They applauded Gorbachev for his part in ending the Cold War, but chided him for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Oleg Morozov, a member of the Kremlin’s main party, United Russia, said Gorbachev should have “repented” for mistakes that went against Russia’s interests.
“He was a willing or unwilling co-author of the unfair world order that our soldiers are now fighting on the battlefield,” Morozov said, referring to the current war in Ukraine.
World leaders paid tribute to a man described by some as a great and brave leader.
Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “at a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example for all of us.”
French President Emmanuel Macron described Gorbachev as “a man of peace whose choices opened a path of freedom for Russians. His commitment to peace in Europe has changed our shared history.”
German leaders praised Gorbachev for paving the way for the reunification of their country.
“We will not forget that perestroika made it possible to try to establish democracy in Russia and that democracy and freedom became possible in Europe, that Germany could be united and that the Iron Curtain disappeared,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters.
However, Scholz also pointed out that Gorbachev died at a time when many of his achievements have been destroyed.
“We know that he died at a time when not only has democracy failed in Russia – there is no other way to describe the current situation there – but Russia and Russian President Putin are also digging new trenches in Europe and are fighting a terrible war. started against a neighboring country, Ukraine,” he said.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who was part of the Spanish government when the Iron Curtain fell, recalled Gorbachev as a man who “blowed a wind of freedom through Russian society. He tried to change the communist system from within, which became impossible.”
Others in Europe disputed positive memories of Gorbachev.
Gabrielius Landsbergis, the son of Vytautas Landsbergis who led Lithuania’s independence movement in the early 1990s, tweeted that “Lithuanians will not glorify Gorbachev.”
Memories are still fresh in the Baltic country of January 13, 1991, when hundreds of Lithuanians went to the TV tower in Vilnius to oppose Soviet forces deployed to thwart the country’s attempt to restore its independence. In the fighting that followed, 14 civilians were killed and more than 140 were injured. Moscow recognized Lithuania’s independence in August of that year.
“We will never forget the simple fact that his army murdered civilians to prolong the occupation of our country by his regime. His soldiers shot at our unarmed protesters and crushed them under his tanks. That’s how we will remember him,” Landsbergis wrote.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called Gorbachev “a unique statesman who has changed the course of history” and “did more than any other individual to bring about the peaceful end of the Cold War”.
“The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist and tireless advocate for peace,” the UN chief said in a statement.
Gorbachev’s contemporaries pointed to the end of the Cold War as one of his achievements.
“Michail Gorbachev played a crucial role in the peaceful end of the Cold War. At home, he was a figure of historical importance, but not in the way he intended,” said Robert M. Gates, who ran the CIA from 1991 to 1993 and later became US Secretary of Defense.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog called Gorbachev “one of the most extraordinary figures of the 20th century. He was a brave and visionary leader, who shaped our world in ways previously unimaginable.”
In Asia, he was remembered as a leader with the courage to change.
The Chinese government recognized Gorbachev’s role in restoring relations between Moscow and Beijing. Gorbachev had been an inspiration to reformist thinkers in China in the late 1980s, and his visit to Beijing in 1989 marked a turning point in relations between the parties.
“Mr. Gorbachev made a positive contribution to the normalization of relations between China and the Soviet Union. We mourn his passing and extend our condolences to his family,” said Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
However, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party also view Gorbachev’s liberal approach as a fatal sign of weakness and his steps towards coexistence with the West as a form of surrender.
Quinn reported from Bangkok. AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.
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