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  • Schuyler Beltrami

Mikhail Gorbachev, Last Leader of Soviet Union, Dies at 91

The final leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, died on Tuesday at the age of 91. According to Russian media sources, the former President of the Soviet Union died after a “serious and protracted disease”. The exact disease that caused his death was not released to the public. Multiple world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and United States President Joe Biden, expressed their condolences for Gorbachev’s death.

Gorbachev meeting with US President Ronald Reagan in Iceland in 1986 (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Man who Ended the Cold War

Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, died on Tuesday at a Moscow hospital at the age of 91. Gorbachev died after a “serious and protracted” disease, according to staff at Russia’s Central Clinical Hospital. An icon of global politics in the latter part of the 20th century, Gorbachev has been called the man who ended the Cold War. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, Gorbachev ushered in a new era of leadership into the Soviet Union when he was elected as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. At the relatively young age of 54, Gorbachev sought to modernize the Soviet Union and to keep its economy on par with the rapidly growing West. Gorbachev took over the Soviet Union at a time when it was facing crises on many fronts. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was taking a turn for the worse, the Soviet economy was shrinking, and the attitude of the populations in the Eastern European satellite states of the Soviet Union were becoming increasingly more anti-Soviet. The man who had made an improbably quick rise through the Soviet political ranks knew that change was needed to the Soviet system, which had been hampered by corruption and lack of reforms. Seeking entente with the United States, Gorbachev’s relationship with the American President Ronald Reagan oscillated between tense Realpolitik and close cooperation, especially on issues such as arms reduction. A follower of the Reagan-era policy of “trust, but verify” the two superpowers sought an end to the threat of military annihilation, a process which was expediated by the unexpectedly passive attitude of Gorbachev about movements in Eastern Europe which sought to distance those countries from Moscow. While his predecessors had sent Russian tanks to quell protests in Prague and Budapest, Gorbachev allowed the Solidarity movement to grow in Poland, a popular uprising to take place in Romania, a human chain calling for independence to form from Tallinn to Vilnius and, most notably, allowed the Berlin Wall to fall without sending in the Soviet Red Army. As the symbol of the divide between East and West, the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled to many the unofficial end of the Cold War and Gorbachev, who now styled himself as the President of the Soviet Union, was content in allowing this massive geopolitical shift to take place. His restraint earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, but also the scourge of many within the Soviet Union, especially Communist hardliners within the party. Staging a coup in August 1991, these hardliners were able to temporarily depose Gorbachev, who tried in vain to salvage the Soviet Union, which had become nothing more than a name on a map. Surviving the coup attempt from his colleagues, Gorbachev reemerged, but was unable to save the Soviet Union. With the announcement of the end of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Russian Federation, the Cold War was officially over, but Gorbachev’s legacy was not.

Glasnost, Perestroika, and a Complicated Legacy

Upon his rise to power, Gorbachev enacted a series of reforms, collectively known as glasnost and perestroika, which significantly expanded the transparency within the Soviet government and allowed for previously unthinkable amounts of criticism against the government. His system of reforms which aimed to modernize the Soviet Union quickly spun out of control, with national independence movements gaining large amounts of momentum within the entirety of the Soviet sphere of influence. Although the declaration of independence by Lithuania was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, the warning signs had been there long before, most notably with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Speaking about Gorbachev’s role in the demise of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Shevchenko, head of Gorbachev’s protocol office during his term, said in an interview with Reuters that “the era of Gorbachev is the era of perestroika, the era of hope, the era of our entry into a missile-free world… but there was one miscalculation: we did not know our country well.” Presented with a small amount of individual and collective freedoms, the people of the Soviet Union constantly demanded more and more until the collective adhesion of all the states of the USSR was untenable. In Russia, Gorbachev’s legacy has become contentious after his fall from the top of Soviet politics. Current Russian President Vladimir Putin summarized the feelings of many Russians when he said in an interview in the 2010s that the fall of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. President Putin, who will not attend Gorbachev’s funeral, has long made it his mission to reinstate the borders of the former Soviet Union and many Russians consider the fall of the USSR to have been an unforgivable act. A poll in 2017 found that only 15% of Russians had a positive opinion of Gorbachev. For the West, however, Gorbachev became a symbol of liberalization and was a celebrated political figure. Willing to work with Western leaders towards peace, Gorbachev’s death was commented on by many current Western leaders. United States President Joe Biden said that Gorbachev had believed in “glasnost and perestroika, openness and restructuring, not as mere slogans, but as the path forward for the people of the Soviet Union after so many years of isolation and deprivation”, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Gorbachev an “example for us all”. The timing of the death of Gorbachev in the middle of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not lost on many political commentators. Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that “Gorbachev died in a symbolic war when his life’s work, freedom, was effectively destroyed by Putin”, in a war which has wrecked the efforts of Gorbachev to ensure peace between East and West. Alexei Venediktov, the head of a now-banned radio station in Russia who came out against the War in Ukraine, perhaps summarized it best when he said, “We are all orphans now. But not everyone realizes it”.

Gorbachev will be buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, where his wife was also buried after her death in 1999. Mikhail Gorbachev was the final living former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He is survived by one daughter, Irina.

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