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Mikhail S. Gorbachev, reformist Soviet Leader, is dead at 91

In little more than six tumultuous years, Gorbachev lifted the Iron Curtain, decisively altering the political climate of the world
 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, wave as they board a plane to depart New York on Dec. 8, 1988. Gorbachev, whose rise to power in the Soviet Union set in motion a series of revolutionary changes that transformed the map of Europe and ended the Cold War that had threatened the world with nuclear annihilation, has died in Moscow. He was 91.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, wave as they board a plane to depart New York on Dec. 8, 1988. Gorbachev, whose rise to power in the Soviet Union set in motion a series of revolutionary changes that transformed the map of Europe and ended the Cold War that had threatened the world with nuclear annihilation, has died in Moscow. He was 91.

Marilyn Berger   |   Published 31.08.22, 08:01 AM

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose rise to power in the Soviet Union set in motion a series of revolutionary changes that transformed the map of Europe and ended the Cold War that had threatened the world with nuclear annihilation, has died in Moscow. He was 91.

His death was announced on Tuesday by Russia’s state news agencies, citing the city’s central clinical hospital. The reports said he had died after an unspecified “long and grave illness.”


Few leaders in the 20th century, indeed in any century, have had such a profound effect on their time. In little more than six tumultuous years, Gorbachev lifted the Iron Curtain, decisively altering the political climate of the world.

At home he promised and delivered greater openness as he set out to restructure his country’s society and faltering economy. It was not his intention to liquidate the Soviet empire, but within five years of coming to power he had presided over the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

He ended the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan and, in an extraordinary five months in 1989, stood by as the Communist system imploded from the Baltics to the Balkans in countries already weakened by widespread corruption and moribund economies.

For this he was hounded from office by hard-line Communist plotters and disappointed liberals alike, the first group fearing that he would destroy the old system and the other worried that he would not. It was abroad that he was hailed as heroic. To George F. Kennan, the distinguished American diplomat and Sovietologist, Gorbachev was “a miracle,” a man who saw the world as it was, unblinkered by Soviet ideology.

But to many inside Russia, the upheaval Gorbachev had wrought was a disaster. President Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” For Putin — and his fellow KGB veterans who now form the inner circle of power in Russia — the end of the USSR was a moment of shame and defeat that the invasion of Ukraine this year was meant to help undo.

“The paralysis of power and will is the first step toward complete degradation and oblivion,” Putin said Feb. 24, when he announced the start of the invasion, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev made no public statement of his own about the war in Ukraine, although his foundation on Feb. 26 called for a “speedy cessation of hostilities.” A friend of his, radio journalist Alexei A. Venediktov, said in a July interview that Gorbachev was “upset” about the war, viewing it as having undermined “his life’s work.”

When he came to power, Gorbachev was a loyal son of the Communist Party, but one who had come to see things with new eyes. “We cannot live this way any longer,” he told Eduard Shevardnadze, who would become his trusted foreign minister, in 1984. Within five years he had overturned much that the party held inviolable.

A man of openness, vision and great vitality, he looked at the legacy of seven decades of Communist rule and saw official corruption, a labor force lacking motivation and discipline, factories that produced shoddy goods, and a distribution system that guaranteed consumers little but empty shelves — empty of just about everything but vodka.

The Soviet Union had become a major world power weighed down by a weak economy. As East-West détente permitted light into its closed society, the growing class of technological, scientific and cultural elites could no longer fail to measure their country against the West and find it wanting.

The problems were clear; the solutions less so. Gorbachev had to feel his way toward his promised restructuring of the Soviet political and economic systems. He was caught between tremendous opposing forces: On one hand, the habits ingrained by 70 years of cradle-to-grave subsistence under Communism; on the other, the imperatives of moving quickly to change the old ways and to demonstrate that whatever dislocation resulted was temporary and worth the effort.

It was a task he was forced to hand over to others when he was removed from office, a consequence of his own ambivalence and a failed coup against him by hard-liners whom he himself had elevated to his inner circle.

The openness Gorbachev sought — what came to be known as glasnost — and his policy of perestroika aimed at restructuring the very underpinnings of society, became a double-edged sword. In setting out to fill in the “blank spots” of Soviet history, as he put it, with frank discussion of the country’s errors, he freed his impatient allies to criticize him and the threatened Communist bureaucracy to attack him.

Still, Gorbachev’s first five years in power were marked by significant, even extraordinary, accomplishments:

— He presided over an arms agreement with the United States that eliminated for the first time an entire class of nuclear weapons and began the withdrawal of most Soviet tactical nuclear weapons from Eastern Europe.

— He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, a tacit admission that the invasion in 1979 and the nine-year occupation had been a failure.

— While he equivocated at first, he eventually exposed the nuclear power-plant disaster at Chernobyl to public scrutiny, a display of candor unheard-of in the Soviet Union.

— He sanctioned multiparty elections in Soviet cities, a democratic reform that in many places drove stunned Communist leaders out of office.

— He oversaw an attack on corruption in the upper reaches of the Communist Party, a purge that removed hundreds of bureaucrats from their posts.

— He permitted the release of the confined dissident Andrei D. Sakharov, the physicist who had been instrumental in developing the Soviet hydrogen bomb.

— He lifted restrictions on the media, allowing previously censored books to be published and previously banned movies to be shown.

— In a stark departure from the Soviet history of official atheism, he established formal diplomatic contacts with the Vatican and helped promulgate a law on freedom of conscience guaranteeing the right of the people to “satisfy their spiritual needs.”

But if Gorbachev was lionized abroad as having helped change the world — he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 — he was vilified at home as having failed to live up to the promise of economic change. It became widely said that in a free vote, Gorbachev could be elected president anywhere but the Soviet Union.

After five years of Gorbachev, store shelves remained empty while the union disintegrated. Shevardnadze, who had been his right hand in bringing a peaceful end to Soviet control in Eastern Europe, resigned in late 1990, warning that dictatorship was coming and that reactionaries in the Communist Party were about to cripple reform.

Peter Reddaway, an author and scholar of Russian history, said at the time: “We see the best side of Gorbachev. The Soviets see the other side, and hold him to blame.”

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in Privolnoye, a farming village in the Stavropol region of the Caucasus. His parents were genuine peasants, earning their bread by the sweat of their brows. During his infancy, the forced collectivization of the land turned a once-fertile region into “a famine disaster area,” the exiled writer and biologist Zhores A. Medvedev wrote in a biography of Gorbachev.

“The death from starvation was very high,” he added. “In some villages, all the children between the ages of 1 and 2 died.”

Misha, as Mikhail was known, was a bright-eyed youngster whose early photographs show him in a Cossack’s fur hat. He grew up in a house of straw held together with mud and manure and with no indoor plumbing. But his family was well respected among the Communist faithful. Gorbachev wrote in his book “Memoirs” that both his grandfathers had been arrested for crimes against the Czarist state. Still, the family’s embrace of Soviet ideology was not all-encompassing; Gorbachev’s mother and grandmother had him baptized.

After graduating from the village primary school, Gorbachev attended secondary school in Krasnogvardeisk and joined the Komsomol, the Communist Party youth organization. While his father was at the front during World War II, young Gorbachev worked as a combine operator’s assistant. After the war he was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

In 1950, at 19, he left home to attend Moscow State University, a journey of more than 850 miles that took him through an impoverished countryside, devastated first by collectivization and then by the German invasion in World War II. At the end of the trip was the Stromynka, a vast, austere and crowded dormitory — eight to 15 students to a room — that had been a military barracks in the time of Peter the Great.

Once he became a law student, Gorbachev was permitted to read books, forbidden to other students, on the history of political ideas. He became familiar with Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel and Rousseau. (Years later, during the meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies that installed him as an American-style president, delegates were seen carrying around copies of the Constitution of the United States and asking American observers about “checks and balances.”)

Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader since Lenin to have studied law, and as a student of courtroom rhetoric he became an effective public speaker. Fellow students recalled him as self-confident, forthright and open-minded, but also quite capable of unscrupulous scheming. In one instance, according to Time magazine, he got himself named Komsomol organizer for his class by getting his predecessor drunk and then denouncing him at the next day’s meeting.

Most accounts say that after joining the Communist Party, Gorbachev was a loyal functionary, although in his book “On My Country and the World,” he wrote that he had had reservations about Stalin, which he expressed only privately.

One evening his friends dragged him away from his books to a ballroom dancing class, where he found himself waltzing with a lively and attractive philosophy student named Raisa Maximovna Titarenko. They began dating. More sophisticated than he was, Raisa took the earnest and still provincial Gorbachev to concerts and museums, filling in the gaps in his cultural education. They were married in 1953.

Gorbachev’s rise to the Politburo was more rapid than that of anyone since Stalin. Before his 50th birthday he was a Central Committee secretary, a position that placed him in the innermost circle of power. Healthy and strong, he stood out among the gerontocracy, a full quarter of a century younger than the 20 people ranked ahead of him. He became a full member of the Politburo in 1980.

When the Soviet supreme leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev, died on Nov. 10, 1982, and his successor, Yuri V. Andropov, proceeded to wage a yearlong campaign against corruption, forcing workers who were absent without leave to return to work, purging the bureaucracy of deadwood and appointing younger men to top offices.

He gave Gorbachev greater responsibility for the economy and named him a member of the Politburo and committee secretary in charge of ideology, considered the No. 2 job in the party and therefore the country.

But when Andropov died on Feb. 9, 1984, at 69, after a year of debilitating illness, the Politburo named not Gorbachev but Konstantin U. Chernenko, 72, as general secretary. Gorbachev was designated to give the nominating speech before the Supreme Soviet, the nation’s highest legislative body, a role that made him the equivalent of the crown prince. The old generation was going to be allowed to bow out gracefully.

And it bowed out quickly, as it turned out. Chernenko was so weak from emphysema that he could not lift his arms to help carry the coffin bearing his predecessor into Red Square. Little more than a year later, his own remains were carried to the same final destination.

Gorbachev experienced a sense of the country’s economic stagnation and corruption during the Brezhnev years, but it was not until he moved into powerful posts under Andropov and Chernenko that he saw how crippling the problems were. As a Central Committee secretary, he arranged for a crash course on the economic crisis and organized seminars specifically on rescuing the agricultural sector.

Already he was demonstrating a flexibility rare for Soviet leaders. Quoting Lenin in a speech, he said the country’s main task was “to mobilize a maximum of initiative and to display a maximum of independence.” The word perestroika (restructuring) was taking shape in his mind.

With the death of Chernenko on March 10, 1985, Gorbachev, who had been substituting for the ailing leader, moved to disarm the opposition and take power. At a hastily called Politburo meeting, Andrei A. Gromyko, the longtime foreign minister, argued the case for Gorbachev. “Comrades,” he said in a speech, “this man has a nice smile, but he has iron teeth.”

The Central Committee approved the nomination on March 10, 1985. Relieved, one committee member was said to have remarked, “After one leader who was half dead, and another who was half alive, and another who could hardly speak, the youthful, energetic Gorbachev was very welcome.”

Soviet leaders had long kept their grip on power through the cult of personality, using propaganda and the state-run media to exalt them. Gorbachev put an end to that. There would be no enormous portraits of him along the main thoroughfares. He urged newspapers to stop quoting the party leader in every article; Lenin would suffice. He outflanked party rivals, in one instance arranging the resignation of Leningrad’s party boss, whose rich tastes and corrupt use of power were as well known as his drunken displays.

Perestroika and glasnost (openness) became the watchwords of the Gorbachev era. He would let people see him in person when he visited hospitals, factories and schools, and would ask where they thought things had gone wrong.

To carry out any reforms and reverse his country’s economic slide, Gorbachev needed a peaceful world. Arms control agreements with the United States would enable him to cut his military budget and free up money for domestic programs.

In pursuit of that goal, he began meeting with President Ronald Reagan, first in Geneva in 1985, then in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, and again in Washington in 1987, to sign a landmark agreement that for the first time eliminated an entire class of weapons — medium- and shorter-range weapons in Europe — while calling for on-site inspections to verify the cutbacks.

In May 1988, Reagan became the first American president to visit Moscow in 14 years. Afterward, he declared: “Quite possibly we are beginning to take down the barriers of the postwar era. Quite possibly we are entering a new era in history — a time of lasting change in the Soviet Union.”

Reagan, who in 1987 had challenged Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall, was for all intents and purposes declaring an end to the Cold War.

Reagan’s successor, George Bush, met with Gorbachev in December 1989 for a gale-swept summit meeting held on Soviet and American naval ships off Malta. The meeting was meant to bury the Cold War once and for all and solidify a new relationship between the superpowers.

In recent years Gorbachev, who lost power in December 1991, would weigh in on the issues of the day, but his voice had lost resonance. He warned against the eastward expansion of the European Union, worried publicly about the possibility of a new Cold War, and welcomed the Russian parliamentary vote to annex Crimea.

He ran hot and cold on Putin, a virtual antithesis to almost everything Gorbachev had tried to accomplish. At first he praised Putin for restoring stability, even at the price of authoritarianism, but he came to oppose Putin’s crackdown on news media freedom and his changes in electoral laws in Russia’s regions.

Putin, he said, saw himself “second only to God” and never sought his advice.

Information about Gorbachev’s survivors was not immediately available. The Russian state media said he would be buried at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, near his wife, who died in 1999 at 67. They did not specify a date.

Despite the difficulties he faced, Gorbachev succeeded in permanently upending the political, economic and social character of what was once the Soviet Union, as well as the entire map of Eastern Europe. But he, more than anyone, knew how far he had fallen short.

In an interview during his final days in office, he told The New York Times, “For all the mistakes, miscalculations — or, on the contrary, for all the great leaps — we accomplished the main preparatory political and human work.”

“In this sense,” he added, “it will never be possible to turn society back.”

New York Times News Service

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