According to Russian media, Mikhail Gorbachev has passed away. He was the only and first President of the Soviet Union. His age was 91.
In the West, his legacy will be that of a pragmatic leader who helped transition the Soviet Union out of its Evil Empire days and towards a more modernized economy, which was globalized.
He is widely seen at home as the man responsible for the collapse of Soviet-era power and prestige, preaching reform, while protecting his influence. A 2017 survey of Russians found that 30% felt anger at him and 15% hate him. He was seen as the symbol of Russian ruin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led to punishing economic sanctions and the highest tensions with the U.S. and Europe since the Cold War, has been seen as an attempt to reclaim at least some of the power and glory lost as a result of Gorbachev’s legacy.
Gorbachev himself refrained from commenting publicly on the war, but argued in 2016 that tensions were the fault of Kyiv’s lean toward NATO. “This conflict was not of Russia’s making. It has its roots within Ukraine itself,” Gorbachev argued.
There was no plan for his next steps when he resigned in 1991.
Three of the three leaders in the Soviet system’s recent history had already died while they were still in office. Nikita Khrushchev had been dead for 20 years before he left office. There were few examples of what an ex-absolute leader of the Soviet Union could do after retirement.
The leader of the new Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, had made clear his disdain for Gorbachev, standing him up for a meeting, commandeering his offices to down whiskey before 9 a.m. and rushing Gorbachev from his Kremlin apartment in a manner that, according Gorbachev’s 1995 memoirs, “were most uncivilized, in the worst inherited Soviet traditions.” Yeltsin wouldn’t even meet him to hand-off the nuclear codes. (“I should have sent him off somewhere,” Gorbachev would tell an interviewer during a 2019 documentary.)
At 60 years old, the leader of an imploding Super Power was left out to the Russian cold. Russians dismissed him as an idiot who was a failure of communism, and worse yet, a pursuit for reform. It quickly began to forget its history and elected to change the name of Leningrad to Saint Petersburg. This was one of the most significant historical revisions. In order to promote a sense national identity, it would revive the pageantry of its czarist period, including its national song.
Gorbachev was seen in the West over the next few years as an international figure, who at that time had been seen as leading a peaceful resolution to the Cold War. To publish documents related the time period, he created what became known as the Gorbachev Foundation. perestroikaHe was responsible for the organization and his approach to policy. In addition to charging high fees for speeches, he became a household name. The New Yorker published a monthly column he wrote on global affairs. Times She also appeared on commercials for Pizza Hut, in a reference to the fact that the entire world watched as an empire collapse across 11 time zones.
“Change is rarely painless,” Gorbachev wrote in his 2016 memoirs. “It affects people’s lives and interests, and that is why we need to do everything possible to mitigate painful consequences. There should be no attempt to go for a ‘big bang’ at the outset.”
Mikhail Gorbatchev is a 4-year-old boy, seen in Privolnoe (Ukraine), circa. 1935.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was the son of a peasant family from Privolnoye in the 800-mile south of Moscow. He was born on March 2, 1931. Josef Stalin was the leader of the country in very dark times. The country suffered from poor harvests, brutal authoritarianism and a lack of resources. Stalin orchestrated a famine in order to punish the peasants. His aunt and two uncles perished, while his grandfathers were taken to Gulag labor camps. In 1939, World War II started and Privolnoye was occupied by German troops in 1942. “Here were my roots; this was my homeland. I was bound to its earth, its lifeblood ran in my veins,” Gorbachev would later write.
Gorbachev, a teenage boy, joined the Communist Party’s youth wing, the only political party in the Soviet Union. The best Soviet propaganda seemed to have inspired his biography. He excelled in school and his essay “Stalin Is Our Wartime Glory, Stalin Gives Flight to Our Youth” was held up as a model of Communist patriotism. Gorbachev won the Order of the Red Banner of Labor for the 20 hour work he did in the fields while he was away from studies. This honor won him admission to Moscow State University without having to take an entrance test. There, he met Raisa Titarenko, a young Ukrainian woman who would become his wife and unrivaled adviser, as well as Czech student Zdenek Mlynar, who would be the ideological champion behind the liberalization-minded Prague Spring in 1968.
“Members of Gorbachev’s generation emerged from the dreadful war with optimism and a fierce determination to improve their lives,” historian William Taubman wrote of that era. They were operating within the Stalinist system which prohibited open criticism or dissent. This was recognized by Gorbachev, who continued to infratiate himself with Communist Party at the age of 21. He also became a full member, setting off a political career that required careful risk assessment.
Stalin’s death in 1953 and the resulting de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union provided an opening for Gorbachev. He aggressively embraced Khruschev’s reformist agenda — although, to be clear, it was a reform program for the Communist Party as the lone source of power in a sprawling empire — and Gorbachev began the slow and steady climb to the party’s upper ranks, always in the mix but never responsible for anything that could haunt him later. In 1985, he reached the top of the Soviet system, and began what he considered a desperate attempt to save the Soviet system from its own destruction.
“I could not imagine how immense were our problems and difficulties,” he said in 1991, accepting a Nobel Peace Prize. “I believe no one at that time could foresee or predict them.”
Gorbachev didn’t pretend that his country wasn’t in need of change. Gorbachev pulled at the Soviet scarf’s fraying thread and the knot unravelled rapidly. Stalinist communism, which was imposed on central European cultures, proved incompatible after being given autonomy. Centrally planned economies were defeated by capitalism. So, also, corruption and cronyism triumphed. It was much more attractive to engage than isolationism. In March 1990, Lithuania broke off from the Soviet Union. Estonia and Latvia followed shortly. Ten Soviet republics declared their independence by the end 1991. Gorbachev, former spokesman Andrei Grachev would write in 2008, saw the system “as an annoying impediment to the great reform.”
The West was a place where observers could see potential. George H.W. loved him very much. Bush was an ex-Vice President and President of the United States. TIME named Gorbachev the “Man of the Decade” at the end of the 1980s, shortly after the first parts of the Berlin Wall fell. Gorbachev denied that he was the recipient of such an honor. “It’s not about me,” he said, according to a Politburo transcript, “the scale of our design is global.”
In December 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev (4th from the right), General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR, meets with the United States Congress.
At home, his people — at all levels — held hope and skepticism in equal measure. The party’s Politburo was frustrated with Gorbachev’s uneven pace and perhaps outsized expectations. Russians in the rank and file were unhappy with the lack of reforms promised. They grumbled about the fact that they had been hungry under previous regimes. Now? The Russians were furious at the unfulfilled hope. “It was inevitable that the country’s workers would eventually take advantage of the new freedoms Gorbachev had offered,” longtime Washington PostRobert G. Kaiser, journalist, wrote this article in 1991.
Gorbachev failed to establish a sustainable system for his country. As he was pursuing reforms and fighting to hold onto power, Gorbachev’s inner-circle conspired against him, leading a three-day coup in 1991 that left Gorbachev effectively under house arrest at his dacha in Crimea. He was attempting to maintain power, and keep the Soviet Union working and reforming. The West tried this but it didn’t work. As Gorbachev would tell Yeltsin in 1991, “if we want democracy and reforms we must act according to democratic rules.” For Gorbachev, that meant watching the Soviet hammer-and-sickle-and-star flag be lowered over the Kremlin and be replaced with the tricolor Russian flag.
Gorbachev tried to recount his version of events at the Soviet Union’s end over the years. Gorbachev was not a quick reformer and provided an excellent scapegoat for what happened between the promises and reality. Yeltsin originally supported a Gorbachev-led, post-presidency think tank but that support was later withdrawn. In 1992 Gorbachev addressed the U.S. Congress, warning of the uncertain post-Cold War climate. Writing in his 1995 memoirs, Gorbachev said he was under surveillance and denied any inclusion in the new country’s foreign policy.
Gorbachev tried to balance reform efforts and his right-leaning foundation in the Vladimir Putin-era Russia. Writing in 2016, Gorbachev deftly noted that “there is again a great sense in Russia of a need for change” amid a slide back to authoritarianism. Yet, he supported Moscow in the face of rising tensions with Ukraine.
Although the Soviet Union has been dissolved, Gorbachev was not able to break away from the Soviet mentality. Even out of power almost three decades, there was still a temptation to defend Russia’s imperial history, perpetrated through the twentieth century by a system mastered by Gorbachev. It took a child from a Stalin-persecuted family to bring down the system’s political power.
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