Last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dead

The last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, has died, aged 91.

– He will go down in history as one of those who took the lead for one of the biggest upheavals in modern history, says Kristian Gerner, professor emeritus of history.

“Mikhail Gorbachev died this evening after a severe and long illness,” announced the hospital in Moscow where the former leader of the Soviet Union was treated, late on Tuesday evening.

Thus, one of the most important world leaders of the 20th century has passed away.

Gorbachev was born in the village of Privolnoye in the Stavropol District of southern Russia in 1931.

After studying law, he entered politics and in 1980 was appointed a member of the powerful Politburo. When leader Yuri Andropov died in 1984, he was seen as a possible successor, but had to wait a year, until 1985 when Konstantin Chernenko was elected and then died.

Mikhail Gorbachev thus became General Secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the Soviet Union – a role he held until 1991 when the Union was dissolved.

Glasnost and perestroika

With his policy at the time, he had opened up for a rapprochement with the United States and an increased market economy, and among other things pulled the Soviet Union out of the war in Afghanistan.

The policy also enabled the thawing of the Eastern Bloc and not least the upheavals in East Germany, which led to the unification of Germany in 1990. But he also set the ball rolling for his own country to dissolve, which was not his intention.

– When he started with his reforms, he triggered movements within the country that he could not control. He had good intentions, but he lacked the ability to analyze consequences and see what he had set in motion, says Kristian Gerner, who likens Gorbachev to a tragic figure in a Shakespearean drama.

With Gorbachev, the whole world had learned the Russian expressions glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction, transformation) and he was praised not least by US President Ronald Reagan, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The latter said, among other things, in a famous statement that:

– I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.

A Swede who felt the winds of change when Gorbachev came to power was Gunnar Johansson, long-time Russia correspondent for Expressen.

– Those were fantastic years. We had previously been doing what is called “Kremlology”, where you had to guess what happened, but now that boredom was gone. Gorbachev wanted to reform and modernize.

Gunnar Johansson interviewed Gorbachev and stood face to face with him several times.

– He had a radiance and presence in the room that made an impression on leaders in the West.

The strongest memory he has of his time with Gorbachev is when the Soviet leader returned home to Moscow after the failed coup attempt against him in August 1991.

– Then he faced the press and sat in front of us and it was emotionally strong. He was shaken and tired, but he said he would rather take his own life than agree to any coercive arrangements. But at the same time, he did not understand that the development had run away from him and that Boris Yeltsin (later Russia’s first president) was the strongest.

When Mikhail Gorbachev turned 90 last year, he was praised by a long line of Western leaders, with US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the forefront.

“Destroyed the Soviet Union”

But in his home country he has not always been met with the same enthusiasm. That the Soviet Union dissolved and Russia lost its status during his time as leader has not been seen with kind eyes by, among others, today’s President Vladimir Putin – who, like many Russians, sees the events of more than 30 years ago as a tragedy.

– The entire narrative that has been propagated by Putin’s regime is that Gorbachev destroyed the Soviet Union and the country’s great power position. He has blamed all the mishaps on Gorbachev’s reform policy, so he has been extremely unpopular in Russia, says Kristian Gerner, formerly active at Lund University.

– In the West, you have a more nuanced picture. That he tried to change a system but himself did not understand how it would work, says Gerner.

Gunnar Johansson sees a similar aftermath for Gorbachev.

– What he will be remembered for are his reforms, which influenced and changed the Soviet Union. That was not his intention, but without them the union would not have been dissolved, he says.

In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “the leading role he played in the radical changes in East-West relations”.

He himself saw the reforms in the Soviet Union as necessary – for the country, Europe and the world. He said so himself in an interview with the news agency AP in 1992, when he also commented on his time in power:

– I am often asked if I would have done it all again if I could. Yes I would. And with more persistence and determination.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev with then US President Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik in 1986. Photo: Scott Stewart/AP/TT
Mikhail Gorbachev kisses East Germany's former leader Erich Honecker in 1987
Mikhail Gorbachev kisses East Germany’s former leader Erich Honecker in 1987. Image: AP/TT

Facts about Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born into a peasant family on March 2, 1931 in Privolnoye, near Stavropol in southern Russia.

At 21, he joined the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and at 49 he became the youngest member of the Politburo, the party’s inner circle. At 54, he became the leader of the Communist Party and thus of one of the world’s two superpowers at the time.

Thanks to his soft rhetoric, Gorbachev was appreciated by then Western leaders Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher.

He concluded several important nuclear disarmament agreements with US President Reagan.

Gorbachev hesitated to strike with force against Eastern Bloc countries that broke away from Moscow’s sphere of power, which helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In 1990 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

His “glasnost” and “perestroika” (openness and rebuilding/transformation) led to his downfall: in 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved. Rival Boris Yeltsin, whom he himself had promoted, then outmaneuvered him.

In the 1996 presidential election, won by Yeltsin, Gorbachev received only 0.5 percent of the vote.

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