“Michail Sergeevich Gorbachev died tonight after a serious and prolonged illness,” the Central Clinical Hospital said on Tuesday, according to RIA Novosti.
The man who carried out major political and economic reforms in the USSR and helped end the Cold War had been in ill health for some time.
With his outgoing, charismatic nature, Gorbachev broke the mold for Soviet leaders who had hitherto been mostly remote, icy figures. Almost from the beginning of his leadership, he strove for sweeping reforms so that the system would operate more efficiently and democratically. Hence the two key phrases of the Gorbachev era: “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring).
“I started these reforms and my guiding stars were freedom and democracy, without bloodshed. So the people would stop being a flock led by a shepherd. They would become citizens,” he later said.
From farm labor to the rising star of the party
Gorbachev had humble beginnings: he was born in a peasant family on March 2, 1931 near Stavropol, and as a boy, in addition to his studies, he did agricultural work together with his father, who was a combine harvester. In later life, Gorbachev said he was “particularly proud of my ability to immediately detect a malfunction in the combine, just by the sound of it.”
He joined the Communist Party in 1952 and completed a law degree from Moscow University in 1955. Here he met – and married – fellow student Raisa Titarenko.
In the early 1960s, Gorbachev became head of the agricultural department of the Stavropol region. By the end of the decade, he had risen to the top of the party hierarchy in the region. He came to the attention of Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov, members of the Politburo, the main policy-making body of the communist part of the Soviet Union, who elected him to the Central Committee in 1971 and arranged foreign travel for their rising star. .
In 1978 Gorbachev was back in Moscow and the following year he was elected as a candidate for Politburo. His stewardship of Soviet agriculture was not a success. As he realized, the collective system was fundamentally flawed in more ways than one.
Gorbachev, a full member of the Politburo since 1980, gained influence in 1982 when his mentor, Andropov, succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as the party’s general secretary. He built up a reputation as an enemy of corruption and inefficiency, eventually reaching the party’s top position in March 1985.
‘A man to do business with’
Hoping to shift resources to the civilian sector of the Soviet economy, Gorbachev began to advocate for an end to the arms race with the West.
During his six years in office, however, Gorbachev always seemed to move too fast for the party establishment – which saw its privileges threatened – and too slow for more radical reformers, who hoped to abolish the one-party state and the command economy.
In a desperate attempt to control the reform process, he seemed to have underestimated the depth of the economic crisis. He also seemed to have a blind spot for the power of the nationality question: Glasnost increasingly called for independence from the Baltic states and other Soviet republics in the late 1980s.
He was successful in foreign policy, but especially from an international perspective, with other world leaders taking note. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called him ‘a man to do business with’.
In 1986, face to face with US President Ronald Reagan at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Gorbachev made an astonishing proposal: get rid of all long-range missiles in possession of the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 “for his leadership role in the peace process that characterizes important parts of the international community today.”
The resulting pact, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, lasted for three decades as a pillar of arms control until the United States formally withdrew in 2019 and the Russian government said it had been trashed.
While Gorbachev’s arms control agreements with the US were also in the Soviet Union’s interest, the secession of a number of countries in Eastern Europe, followed by German reunification and NATO membership of the newly unified Germany (West Germany was previously a member of NATO), angry old-fashioned communists.
By August 1991, the hardliners had had enough. With Gorbachev on vacation in Crimea, they revolted. Boris Yeltsin, the president of the largest Soviet republic – Russia – and a fierce critic of what he considered to be Gorbachev’s semi-reforms, nevertheless came to his aid by defeating the coup plotters.
But in the Soviet Union, one after the other, the republics declared independence, and on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president. As he read his resignation speech, Gorbachev defined what is likely to be his legacy: “The country was given freedom, was liberated politically and spiritually, and that was the most important achievement.”
The red flag that hung over the Kremlin, symbol of the USSR, was lowered. The Soviet Union was over and Yeltsin was in control. “We live in a new world,” Gorbachev said.
In 1996, Gorbachev ran against Yeltsin for the Russian presidency, but received less than 1% of the vote.
Speaking after the presidency
Three years later, Gorbachev lost the love of his life — his 46-year-old wife, Raisa — to cancer. The couple had one daughter, Irina. “At the worst moments I was always very calm and balanced. But now that she’s gone, I don’t want to live anymore. The central point in our lives is gone,” he said.
But Gorbachev went ahead and spoke out about nuclear disarmament, the environment, poverty — and in memory of his wife, he and his family founded the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation to fight childhood cancer.
He had previously founded the Green Cross – to tackle ecological issues – and the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, or Gorbachev Foundation. In 2011, Gorbachev also launched the annual “Gorbachev Awards” to celebrate “those who have changed the world for the better”.
Gorbachev’s involvement in Russian politics also continued. He was head of the Social Democratic Party of Russia from 2001 until his resignation in 2004 due to conflicts with party leadership and leadership.
In 2007, he became head of a new Russian political movement – the Union of Social Democrats, which in turn founded the opposition Independent Democratic Party of Russia.
In a 2019 interview with CNN, Gorbachev said the US and Russia should strive to prevent a “new Cold War” despite rising tensions. “This could become a hot war that could destroy our entire civilization. This should not be allowed,” he said.
“All the agreements that exist are preserved and not destroyed,” he said. “But these are the first steps towards destroying… [that which] must not be destroyed under any circumstances.” The ultimate goal of arms control, he added, must be to get rid of nuclear weapons completely.
Gorbachev’s life after the USSR also brought some surprises as he worked to raise money for his causes with appearances in ads for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton. In 2004, Gorbachev won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children for “Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf / Beintus: Wolf Tracks,” which he recorded with former US President Bill Clinton and actress Sophia Loren.
Other awards included the 2008 Liberty Medal from the US National Constitution Center and Russia’s highest award, the Order of St Andrew, presented to him on his 80th birthday in 2011 by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
But to the end, Gorbachev was a leader more respected in other countries than at home. In Russia, he was reviled by some for destroying the Soviet Empire and by others for acting too slowly to free his nation from the clutches of communism. In the West, however, he remains the Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped end the Cold War.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Gorbachev died at the age of 91.
CNN’s Tim Lister contributed to reporting.