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Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet leader who paved way for end of Cold War, dead at 91

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/30/2022 William Welch and Jorge Ortiz
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Mikhail Gorbachev, whose attempt to modernize communist control of the Soviet Union unleashed forces that brought down the superpower, has died, Russian news agencies reported Tuesday.

The Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow said Gorbachev died after "a long and grave illness.'' He was 91.

Leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until its dissolution in 1991, Gorbachev tried to revive the moribund communist state by introducing polices of economic and political openness, known as perestroika and glasnost.

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But the reforms quickly overtook him and resulted in the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet state, the freeing of Eastern European nations from Russian control and the end of decades of East-West nuclear confrontation, bringing the Cold War to a conclusion.

When Gorbachev turned 90 last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin -- a critic of Gorbachev's policies -- hailed him in a letter published by the Kremlin as “one of the most outstanding statesmen of modern times who made a considerable impact on the history of our nation and the world.” 

Mikhail Gorbachev flashes a decree relinquishing control of nuclear weapons to Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 25, 1991. Gorbachev was one of the major political leaders of the second half of the 20th century. © LIU HEUNG SHING, AP Mikhail Gorbachev flashes a decree relinquishing control of nuclear weapons to Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 25, 1991. Gorbachev was one of the major political leaders of the second half of the 20th century.

Even though Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War, he was despised by many at home as Russians blamed him for the collapse of the once-fearsome Soviet Union. When he ran for president in 1996, Gorbachev received less than 1% of the vote.

In a 1992 interview with The Associated Press, Gorbachev said he would do it all over again.

“I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world,” he said.

Gorbachev presented a more modern, friendlier face to the rest of the world than that of his predecessors atop the Soviet regime, even if he didn't intend to dismantle it.

Ultimately, he was pushed by democratic activists led by Moscow's mayor, Boris Yeltsin, to abolish the Communist Party, eliminating a totalitarian regime that had taken over Eastern Europe and spread communism worldwide.

"Mikhail Gorbachev was arguably the most important world leader since World War II,'' said Paul D'Anieri, a professor of political science at the University of California at Riverside and the author of the 2019 book “Ukraine and Russia."

"The clarity with which he saw the flaws in Soviet communism and the bravery with which he tackled them are not diminished by the fact that his reforms ultimately failed in Russia. Gorbachev almost single-handedly ended the Cold War and in the process brought freedom to over a dozen countries and hundreds of millions of people."

Gorbachev served as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in effect its leader, and in 1990 he became the Soviet Union's first and only president.

Under his rule, the Soviets began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 1988, ending a disastrous 10-year military campaign that saw 15,000 Soviet soldiers and about 1 million Afghan civilians killed.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his efforts at arms control in which he and President Ronald Reagan agreed to the first reductions in nuclear stockpiles between the two nations.

A year later, Gorbachev was out of power as the Soviet Union was disbanded and its Eastern European bloc freed, followed by the first free elections in more than 70 years won by his arch-enemy, Yeltsin. Gorbachev's resignation signaled the end of the Cold War period that followed World War II, which was marked by rising tensions between the United States and its allies against the Soviets and their puppet states.

Gorbachev hoped to revive Soviet fortunes, devastated by central planning of the economy and hampered by attempts to keep pace with a military buildup under Reagan, whose pursuit of a space-based anti-nuclear missile system agitated the Soviets. The two leaders agreed to stop making nuclear weapons and eliminate some.

Gorbachev's changes were criticized at home as either too much too fast or not enough, as common goods grew scarce on store shelves, civic unrest grew, particularly among the Baltic and Caucasus states, and national economic problems deepened.

As Moscow weakened, Eastern bloc countries abandoned communism, and some republics long dominated by the Soviets demanded independence. In August 1991, hard-liners in the government launched an abortive coup d'etat. They ordered the Soviet Army to put down demonstrations in Moscow, but the soldiers refused at the urging of Yeltsin.

After the failed takeover, Gorbachev attempted to change the party further, but his power had been overwhelmed by the democratic forces. He resigned from the presidency on Dec. 25, 1991, a day before the Soviet Union dissolved.

Gorbachev's rise to power, after Leonid Brezhnev's death in 1982 and the two leaders who briefly followed Brezhnev, roughly coincided with that of Reagan, who was first elected in 1980 with a political appeal based in part on hardline anti-communism. The two met in five summits, the first in Geneva in 1985, where they sat around a fire with only interpreters present in an effort to find common ground and build a relationship, both between themselves and between their countries.

In 1987, they signed a treaty eliminating all nuclear-armed ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 310 to 3,100 miles – the first agreement to reduce nuclear weapons.

Reagan famously invoked Gorbachev's name in his speech in 1987 at the Berlin Wall, when he demanded that the Soviet leader tear down the wall that divided the city between east and west and became emblematic of the Cold War.

"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!'' Reagan said.

Two years later, in 1989, the wall was opened to permit travel between the two Berlins, and it was gone a year later.

Gorbachev was born Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev on March 2, 1931, to a Russian-Ukrainian peasant family in the village of Privolnoye, Krasnogvardeisky district, Stavropol territory, an agricultural region in the south of the Russian republic.

After leaving power, Gorbachev focused on his Gorbachev Foundation, focusing on change in Russia. In 1999, his wife, Raisa, whom he married in 1953, died after battling leukemia.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet leader who paved way for end of Cold War, dead at 91

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