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Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, dies at 91

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/30/2022 David Hoffman
Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984, the year before he became the leader of the Soviet Union. © Nils Jorgensen/REX/AP Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984, the year before he became the leader of the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who embarked on a path of radical reform that brought about the end of the Cold War, reversed the direction of the nuclear arms race and relaxed Communist Party controls in hopes of rescuing the faltering Soviet state but instead propelled it toward collapse, died Aug. 30 in Moscow. He was 91.

His death was announced by Russian news agencies, citing the government hospital where he was being treated, but no further details were immediately available.

For the sheer improbability of his actions and their impact on the late 20th century, Mr. Gorbachev ranks as a towering figure. In 1985, he was chosen to lead a country mired in socialism and stultifying ideology. In six years of cajoling, improvised tactics and increasingly bold risks, Mr. Gorbachev unleashed immense changes that eventually demolished the pillars of the state.

The Soviet collapse was not Mr. Gorbachev’s goal, but it may be his greatest legacy. It brought to an end a seven-decade experiment born of Utopian idealism that led to some of the bloodiest human suffering of the century. A costly global confrontation between East and West abruptly ceased to exist. The division of Europe fell away. The tense superpower hair-trigger nuclear standoff was eased, short of Armageddon.

None of it could have happened but for Mr. Gorbachev. Along the way, he let loose a revolution from above within the Soviet Union, prodding and pushing a stagnant country in hopes of reviving it. In nearly six years of high drama and breathtaking transformation, Mr. Gorbachev pursued ever-larger ambitions for liberalization, battling inertia and a stubborn old guard.

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Archie Brown, an emeritus professor of politics at the University of Oxford’s St. Antony’s College and an authority on Mr. Gorbachev, has written that openness and pluralism were among his singular achievements in a country that for hundreds of years had been shackled by authoritarian rule under the czars and Soviet leaders. Mr. Gorbachev introduced the first genuinely competitive elections for a legislature, allowed civil society to take root and encouraged open discussion of dark passages in Soviet history.

At the same time, Brown said, Mr. Gorbachev suffered failures, including his effort to break the grip of central planning on the economy in reforms known as perestroika, which got a start but never went far enough, and his inability to satisfy ambitions for sovereignty among restive Soviet nationalities, which contributed to the centrifugal forces that broke up the country.

Many of Mr. Gorbachev’s most remarkable accomplishments came to haunt him. Liberalization of the system “brought every conceivable long-suppressed problem and grievance to the surface of Soviet political life,” Brown recalled. “Mr. Gorbachev’s political in-tray became monumentally overloaded.”

After a failed coup attempt by hard-liners in 1991, a weakened Mr. Gorbachev finally relinquished power to even more radical reformers led by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet flag came down from the Kremlin on Dec. 25, 1991.

Mr. Gorbachev did not set out to lower that flag. He was very much a product of the system and the tumultuous events that spanned his lifetime, from Stalin’s terror and the unimaginable losses of World War II, through the hardships, thaws, triumphs, dashed expectations and stagnation of the postwar years.

President Reagan shakes hands with Mr. Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. © Ron Edmonds/AP President Reagan shakes hands with Mr. Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986.

Over many years, Mr. Gorbachev came to see a huge chasm that existed between the reality of Soviet day-to-day life, often shabby and poor, and the artificial slogans of the party and leadership about a bright future under communism.

Many others also saw this gap and shrugged, but what made Mr. Gorbachev different is that he was shocked by it. By the time he became Soviet leader, he had fully absorbed the abysmal reality but had little understanding of how to fix it. He hoped that unleashing forces of openness and political pluralism would heal the other maladies.

They could not.

Mr. Gorbachev speaks to Lithuanians at the Lenin monument in Vilnius in 1990. © Victor Yurchenko/AP Mr. Gorbachev speaks to Lithuanians at the Lenin monument in Vilnius in 1990.

In the shadow of Stalin and war

Mikhail Sergeievich Gorbachev was born March 2, 1931, in the small village of Privolnoye, in the black-earth region of Stavropol in southern Russia. His parents, Sergei and Maria, worked the land in a village that was little changed over centuries.

Mr. Gorbachev spent much of his childhood as the favorite of his mother’s parents: He often lived with them. His maternal grandfather, Pantelei, was remembered by Mr. Gorbachev as a tolerant man and immensely respected in the village. In those years, Mr. Gorbachev was the only son; a brother was born after the war, when Mikhail was 17 years old.

Famine struck the region in 1933, when Mr. Gorbachev was 2. Joseph Stalin had launched the mass collectivization of agriculture, a brutal process of forcing the peasants into collective farms and punishing those known as kulaks who were somewhat better off. The collectivization destroyed traditional patterns of farming. A third to a half of the population of Privolnoye died of hunger.

“Entire families were dying, and the half-ruined ownerless huts would remain deserted for years,” he remembered. Stalin’s purges took millions of lives among the peasantry in the 1930s.

The Great Terror affected Mr. Gorbachev, too. His grandfather on his father’s side, Andrei, rejected collectivization and tried to make it on his own. In the spring of 1934, Andrei was arrested and accused of failing to fulfill the sowing plan set by the government for individual peasants.

“But no seeds were available to fulfill the plan,” Mr. Gorbachev recalled of the absurdity of the charge. Andrei was declared a “saboteur” and sent to a prison camp for two years, but released early, in 1935. On his return, he became a leader of the collective farm.

Two years later, grandfather Pantelei was also arrested. The charges were similarly absurd, that he had been a member of a counterrevolutionary organization and sabotaged the collective farm’s work. The arrest was “my first real trauma,” Mr. Gorbachev recalled. “They took him away in the middle of the night.”

Pantelei was released one winter evening in 1938 and returned to Privolnoye. Sitting at a hand-planed rustic table, he told the family all that happened to him. Mr. Gorbachev, then 7, recalled listening intently.

Pantelei said he was convinced that Stalin did not know of the misdeeds of the secret police, who tortured him. He never discussed it again. “All of this was a great shock to me and has been engraved in my memory ever since,” Mr. Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs. He held the secret of Pantelei’s ordeal so deeply that he only discussed it in the open a half-century later.

When World War II broke out, Mr. Gorbachev’s father was soon off to the front. In the summer of 1942, the village fell under German occupation, which lasted 4½ months, until Soviet troops pushed the Germans out. The war devastated the countryside.

During the war, his father’s unit was ambushed, and Mr. Gorbachev’s family received a letter saying that Sergei had been killed. But it turned out to be a mistake, and two more letters arrived, saying he was alive. When he came home, Sergei told his son this confusion was typical of the chaos of war.

“I have remembered this all my life,” Mr. Gorbachev later wrote. He was 14 when the war ended. “Our generation is the generation of wartime children,” he said. “It has burned us, leaving its mark both on our characters and on our view of the world.”

Mr. Gorbachev entered Moscow State University, the country’s most prestigious, in September 1950, a peasant boy in the bustling metropolis. He arrived with only a village school education, and friends who had acquired more learning in their earlier years often teased him. Mr. Gorbachev joined the Communist Party in 1952.

The first two years of his university life coincided with Stalin’s anti-cosmopolitan campaign, aimed at Jewish scholars and writers. This was an eye-opener for Mr. Gorbachev. He recalled that one morning, a friend, a Jew, had been confronted by a shouting, taunting mob and then crudely shoved off a tram. “I was shocked.”

By his own account, Mr. Gorbachev was taken with Soviet ideology, like many of his generation, who hoped that war, famine and the Great Terror were things of the past, and believed they were building a new society, with social justice and people power. When Stalin died in 1953, Mr. Gorbachev joined the crowds lining up to pay their respects in Red Square.

But in the years that followed, Mr. Gorbachev came to see Stalin differently. At the 20th Party Congress, on Feb. 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s personality cult and use of violence and persecution.

Only after the speech, Mr. Gorbachev recalled, “did I begin to understand the inner connection between what had happened in our country and what had happened to my family.” His grandfather Pantelei had said that Stalin didn’t know of his torture. But, Gorbachev thought, maybe Stalin was the one responsible for the family’s pain.

“The document containing Khrushchev’s denunciations circulated briefly within the party, and then it was withdrawn,” Mr. Gorbachev recalled. “But I managed to get my hands on it. I was shocked, bewildered and lost. It wasn’t an analysis, just facts, deadly facts. Many of us simply could not believe that such things could be true. For me it was easier. My family had itself been one of the victims of the repression of the 1930s.”

Mr. Gorbachev later frequently called Khrushchev’s speech “courageous.” It was not a total break with the past, but it was a break nonetheless.

While at the university, Mr. Gorbachev met and married Raisa Titorenko, a bright philosophy student. She initially shunned the village boy, but he eventually charmed her.

In the two years after Stalin’s death, Moscow began to open up to new ideas. Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel, “The Thaw,” was published in 1954. Mr. Gorbachev met a young Czech student at the university, Zdeněk Mlynár, who became a lifelong friend, and they enjoyed stormy debates. The university experience began to open Mr. Gorbachev’s eyes even further, but at the same time, “for me and others of my generation the question of changing the system in which we lived did not arise.”

After the university, Mr. Gorbachev decided on a career with the Komsomol, the party’s youth division, as deputy head of the “agitation and propaganda department.” This was a conformist career path.

Mr. Gorbachev threw himself into the work, honing his speaking skills, often making trips around the Stavropol region to exhort young people to be good socialists and believe in the party. In an early assignment, he was sent out to a local district to extol Khrushchev’s speech on Stalin.

But the job brought him face to face with the bleakness of daily life, especially in the backwater rural corners of the country. Mr. Gorbachev’s impressions were shaped and deeply reinforced by Raisa, who researched and wrote a thesis on peasant life in these years. She trudged in boots and rode by motorcycle and cart through the Russian countryside to carry out her research.

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Mr. Gorbachev moved up rapidly through the party ranks in Stavropol to become the highest-ranking official, the first secretary, from 1970 to 1978. In farming and industry, the heavy hand of the state stifled individual initiative. Theft, toadying, incompetence and malaise were everywhere. Central planning was both intrusive and woefully inefficient.

Mr. Gorbachev was a party leader but was confronted almost daily with the absurdity of the system he served. He recognized the disconnect between the bureaucrats of central planning in Moscow, who issued orders to do this and that, and the reality on the ground in farms and cities, where the orders often made no sense. The demands were ignored, statistics faked, budgets spent with no result, and anyone who didn’t conform was punished.

“The slightest deviation from the established course was nipped in the bud,” he said. “Should you come up with your own ideas — be prepared for trouble. You could even land in jail.”

Sweeping change was not possible in these years. But Brown later wrote that Mr. Gorbachev was “as pragmatic an innovator as the conservative temper of the times allowed.” He supported a farming plan to give autonomy to groups or teams of workers, including families.

In 1978 Mr. Gorbachev wrote a lengthy memo on the problems of agriculture that called for giving “more independence to enterprises and associations” in deciding key production and money issues. But there is no evidence that these ideas ever took root very widely, and Mr. Gorbachev was definitely not a radical.

Mr. Gorbachev has said he finally realized, as regional party boss, that something much more serious was wrong with the Soviet system than just inefficiency, theft and poor planning. The deeper flaw was that no one could break out with new ideas.

His friend Mlynár had become a leader in the Prague Spring, a liberalizing movement crushed by Soviet tanks and Warsaw Pact troops on the night of Aug. 20-21, 1968. A year later, Mr. Gorbachev visited Prague and realized that, on the street, people sincerely believed in the liberalization and hated the Soviet leadership.

“This was a shock to me,” Mr. Gorbachev said. “This visit overturned all my conceptions.”

Mr. Gorbachev visited Italy, France, Belgium and West Germany. What he saw in these relatively prosperous democracies was far different from what he had been shown in Soviet propaganda books, film and radio broadcasts. Mr. Gorbachev realized multiple voices were allowed to challenge the power structure. And, he said, “people there lived in better conditions and were better off than in our country. The question haunted me: Why was the standard of living in our country lower than in other developed countries?”

In a move that took him upward in the Soviet power structure, Mr. Gorbachev was elected a secretary of the Central Committee, and he was put in charge of agriculture in Leonid Brezhnev’s final years in power. The general secretary was ill, and some Politburo meetings lasted no longer than 15 or 20 minutes. The country was in serious trouble economically.

The war in Afghanistan, launched by a coterie around Brezhnev, turned into a quagmire. The hopes of detente in the 1970s evaporated, and superpower tension escalated. Bread lines grew longer. During the first four years that Mr. Gorbachev was secretary for agriculture in Moscow, there were four successive poor harvests and massive Soviet grain purchases abroad.

From the time Mr. Gorbachev arrived in Moscow in November 1978, through the early 1980s, an intense Kremlin power struggle played out between an old guard, bastions of the party and the military, and a handful of reformers, most of whom were academics with fresh ideas but no power base. When Brezhnev died in 1982, hopes were raised that his successor, the former KGB boss Yuri Andropov, would end the long stagnation. Andropov promoted a group of younger officials, including Mr. Gorbachev, whom he had mentored. Mr. Gorbachev brought some of the academic reformers to his side.

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But Andropov died in 1984, after only 15 months in office. Mr. Gorbachev was briefly in contention to succeed Andropov, but was cast aside in a maneuver at the last minute for Konstantin Chernenko, a long-serving Brezhnev acolyte.

Five weeks after Ronald Reagan was reelected to a second term, in December 1984, Mr. Gorbachev made a landmark trip to London, where he left a strong impression. He called attention to the dangers of nuclear war and emphasized Soviet fears of an arms race in space. He promised “radical reductions” in nuclear weapons.

In substance, Mr. Gorbachev did not change Soviet policy, but his youthful and vigorous style spoke volumes. He seemed to promise a more flexible approach, a sharp contrast with the rigidity of the past.

Just after the visit, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave an interview to the BBC. In her first answer to a question, she declared: “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.”

On the evening of Sunday, March 10, 1985, Mr. Gorbachev took a call from the Kremlin doctor, Yevgeny Chazov. Chernenko had died of a heart ailment and complications from emphysema. The next day, Mr. Gorbachev was selected to be the new general secretary.

Mr. Gorbachev has recalled that he had a long talk with Raisa early in the morning of March 11, strolling the garden paths of their dacha outside of Moscow just before dawn, talking about the events and the implications.

Mr. Gorbachev told her he had been frustrated all the years in Moscow, having not accomplished as much as he wanted, always hitting a wall. To really get things done, he would have to accept the job.

“We can’t go on living like this,” he said.

Shock waves and a nation’s demise

In his early days in office, Mr. Gorbachev sent a shock wave of excitement through a moribund society. At a time when people were accustomed to flowery but empty official pronouncements, when portraits of leaders were dutifully hung from every wall, when conformity suffocated public discussion, Mr. Gorbachev’s style was refreshingly direct.

Often he talked too much, wavered on important decisions, and was slow to break out of the old Soviet mind-set. Yet the absolute core of his early drive was to halt the decay in Soviet living standards and rejuvenate society. He believed that open discussion was essential to the survival of socialism. He didn’t fear what people had to say. He believed in Vladimir Lenin’s ideals but concluded that leaders after Lenin had gone off track, and he wanted to set it right.

Mr. Gorbachev in 1985. © BORIS YURCHENKO/AP Mr. Gorbachev in 1985.

It would have been so much easier to fall back into the old habits, to take the well-worn old pathways, but Mr. Gorbachev did not. In a combative speech to Leningrad Communists at the Smolny Institute, Mr. Gorbachev spoke largely without notes, insisting that the economy be re-energized, demanding that people who could not accept change must stand aside. “Get out of the way. Don’t be a hindrance,” he declared.

Anatoly Chernyaev, who would become one of Mr. Gorbachev’s closest advisers, wrote in his diary at the time, “At last we have a leader who knows what he is doing and enjoys it, who can relate to the people, speak in his own words, who doesn’t avoid contact and doesn’t worry about appearing magisterial. He really wants to get our wheels out of the rut, wake the people up, get them to be themselves, to use their common sense, to think and act.”

But Mr. Gorbachev also stumbled. One of his first setbacks was a campaign against alcohol abuse. The campaign was widely ridiculed and eventually dropped, although Mr. Gorbachev realized, correctly, that alcoholism had become a national scourge.

Mr. Gorbachev’s early economic policy was a misguided effort known as “acceleration,” based on a hope that the existing system could be made to work better. It could not, and was a waste of time. Meanwhile, in his first year, economic pressures on the Soviet Union gravely worsened. Saudi Arabia increased oil production, a glut of crude hit world markets, prices collapsed and so did Soviet hard-currency earnings.

Later, Mr. Gorbachev set his sights on more ambitious economic reform. Among his most significant innovations were the “cooperatives,” the first private businesses in the Soviet Union. At the outset they were small enterprises in such areas as baking, shoe repair and laundry services, but they seized public attention as private firms opening up in a sea of socialist stagnation. Later, they were followed by discos and restaurants. A law on the cooperatives enshrined a principle of freedom that came to symbolize the Gorbachev years. It said any activity not specifically prohibited would be permitted — a complete reversal of decades of heavy-handed dictates of the state.

Mr. Gorbachev’s economic reforms eventually did not go far enough. The system, built up over decades of rigid central planning and lack of individual initiative, was too creaky, misguided and rippled with distortions, and it stalled.

President Reagan, right, and Mr. Gorbachev reach across the negotiating table in Moscow on June 1, 1988. © DOUG MILLS/AP President Reagan, right, and Mr. Gorbachev reach across the negotiating table in Moscow on June 1, 1988.

In 1990, Mr. Gorbachev toyed with a plan to turn the country into a market economy in 500 days, but he discarded it. His economic policy zigzagged back and forth. His efforts to reform state-owned industries were ineffectual. He refused to take another key step, freeing prices from state control. Mr. Gorbachev also blamed the heavy burdens of the arms race for his economic failures.

“Defense spending was bleeding the other branches of the economy dry,” he wrote in his memoir.

In politics, Mr. Gorbachev’s revolution from above grew ever more radical as time went by. It reached a climax March 26, 1989, with the first relatively free election since the Bolshevik Revolution for a new Soviet legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies.

In the balloting, the Communist Party leadership in Leningrad was turned out, pro-independence parties won in the Baltics, and Yeltsin, the radical reformer, triumphed in Moscow. The Communist Party establishment took a shellacking.

When the new legislature met for the first time from May 25 through June 9, Mr. Gorbachev ordered the proceedings broadcast on television. Transfixed, millions of people stayed home from work to watch the broadcasts; the debates broke new ground in freedom of speech.

But as with so many of Mr. Gorbachev’s daring moves, this one had a double edge. Mr. Gorbachev, the party, the KGB and the military were lambasted with open and often trenchant criticism. Soon, Mr. Gorbachev’s room for maneuver began to shrink. The forces of freedom and openness he had unleashed began to overtake him, creating obstacles and open resistance.

In later years, many analysts said Mr. Gorbachev missed an important opportunity in 1990, when he might have split the Communist Party into two: a more progressive wing that aspired to Western European social democracy, and another branch harboring the old guard.

Had Mr. Gorbachev taken this leap, and become leader of the progressives, he might have overcome the divisions that were swelling up around him. But Mr. Gorbachev did not do it, and later that year a backlash took root; Mr. Gorbachev himself seemed to side with the reactionary forces.

Foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, alarmed by the drift toward the hard-liners, resigned as foreign minister, warning that “dictatorship is coming.” Actually, Mr. Gorbachev’s power was waning, and he had passed the zenith of his influence as a reformer.

One of the most important moments of Mr. Gorbachev’s rule came with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. In the early days after the accident, the Soviet Union attempted to cover up the extent of the catastrophe. Then a radioactive cloud drifted toward Europe, and the truth could no longer be hidden. The experience later reinforced Mr. Gorbachev’s belief in the value of glasnost, or openness. Shevardnadze said that Chernobyl “tore the blindfold from our eyes and persuaded us that politics and morals could not diverge.”

With the sting of Chernobyl still fresh, Mr. Gorbachev that summer prepared to coax Reagan toward an agreement on deeper cuts in strategic nuclear weapons, while also attempting to bottle up Reagan’s plan for a global missile defense, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Soviet physicists had told Mr. Gorbachev that they didn’t think Reagan’s missile defense plan would work; Mr. Gorbachev had already decided not to build an equivalent Soviet system. He did not want, nor could the Soviet Union afford, a new arms race in space. Even so, Soviet officials were puzzled and worried about why the United States was pouring money into the missile defense project, and they knew American innovation and technology could be a potent force.

Mr. Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Oct. 11-12, 1986, for what was supposed to be a quick discussion but soon blossomed into much more. They improvised, argued and bargained their way toward the deepest cuts in strategic nuclear weapons ever contemplated in the nuclear age.

Cuban President Fidel Castro and Mr. Gorbachev during a state visit to Cuba by the Soviet leader on April 3, 1989. © CARLOS OSORIO/ASSOCIATED PRESS Cuban President Fidel Castro and Mr. Gorbachev during a state visit to Cuba by the Soviet leader on April 3, 1989.

However, at the very end, on Oct. 12, a Sunday afternoon and early evening, Mr. Gorbachev demanded that Reagan confine his missile defense research to the laboratory. Mr. Gorbachev had planned this challenge to Reagan all along. The president refused. They abruptly broke up, and the summit ended without a deal.

The breakdown seemed to be a diplomatic disaster at that moment, but later it led to new progress in nuclear arms control. Over the next year, Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev agreed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear-armed missiles, the intermediate-range rockets in Europe, signing a treaty to scrap them at the Washington summit in 1987, where Mr. Gorbachev spontaneously stopped his limousine on Connecticut Avenue and began shaking hands with thrilled passersby.

In 1988, Mr. Gorbachev announced a massive pullback of conventional troops in Europe in a speech at the United Nations. However, it was later revealed that while Mr. Gorbachev and Reagan were negotiating nuclear weapons reductions, the Soviet Union continued to operate a sprawling, hidden biological weapons program in violation of its treaty obligations.

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Mr. Gorbachev’s “new thinking” in foreign policy was aimed at ending the idea of inexorable confrontation between two blocs. He scrapped the “Brezhnev doctrine” of Soviet support for socialist countries.

He told leaders in Eastern Europe that from now on they were on their own. Moscow would no longer dictate to them what to do, and would never again resort to military force, a lesson Mr. Gorbachev had taken from the Prague Spring.

This loosening of the reins contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, after which Mr. Gorbachev consented to the unification of Germany within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That year he completed the pullout of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

In all these moves, Mr. Gorbachev met fierce internal resistance from the military and the military-industrial complex. They were reluctant to give up anything, whether territory or the intermediate-range missiles.

On May 28, 1987, a dreamy 19-year-old from Hamburg, Matthias Rust, flew a small single-engine plane from Helsinki to Moscow and landed in Red Square, defying Soviet air defenses. Mr. Gorbachev fired the head of air defenses, accepted the defense minister’s resignation and sacked about 150 top military officials.

Mr. Gorbachev fumbled in his handling of the restive nationalities inside the Soviet Union. He wanted to devolve more power to the internal republics while holding them together in a voluntary federation, but some of them, led by the Baltics, yearned for full independence.

As the Oxford scholar Brown has noted, within the party-state machine, including the military and the security agencies, there was already pent-up anger at Mr. Gorbachev, and very little willingness to lose any part of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Gorbachev was still polishing a proposed treaty to hold the union together when he went on a break to the Soviet leader’s retreat at Foros in Crimea. Behind his back, hard-liners planned a coup attempt, and they sprung it on him on Sunday, Aug. 18, 1991. The attempt collapsed in a matter of days, in part undercut by Yeltsin, who vowed to resist the putschists in a statement read while standing on a tank in the center of Moscow.

When Mr. Gorbachev returned to the capital Aug. 22, the tension had taken a terrible toll on his family. On the last day in Crimea, Raisa had suffered a small stroke. “I have come back from Foros to another country, and I myself am a different man now,” Mr. Gorbachev declared.

But he did not realize how deeply the country had been transformed.

Mr. Gorbachev with Boris Yeltsin (far left) in 1991. © Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Mr. Gorbachev with Boris Yeltsin (far left) in 1991.

The old system — the party and state that shaped his life and that he had led to glasnost and perestroika — was now dead. Perhaps shellshocked or preoccupied with his family’s trauma, Mr. Gorbachev fumbled. He did not address the huge crowds on the streets. He was unaware of how people had changed, wanting a complete break with the old system.

Mr. Gorbachev told a news conference that the Communist Party remained a “progressive force,” despite the betrayal of its bosses, the coup-plotters. Two days later, under pressure from Yeltsin, he retreated, resigning as general secretary of the party and calling for dissolution of the Central Committee. Yeltsin suspended actions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The country was rapidly disintegrating as the republics asserted independence, some before and some after the coup attempt.

Then, on Dec. 8, at Belovezhskaya Pushcha, a hunting resort outside the city of Brest in Belarus, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus declared the Soviet Union dissolved and formed a new Commonwealth of Independent States without telling Mr. Gorbachev, accelerating the collapse.

On Dec. 25, Mr. Gorbachev resigned and turned the nuclear weapons controls over to Yeltsin, as president of the Russian Federation. Mr. Gorbachev gave a short speech from the Kremlin.

When he took office in 1985, Mr. Gorbachev said, he felt it was a shame that a nation so richly endowed, so brimming with natural resources and human talent endowed by God, was living so poorly compared with the developed countries of the world.

He blamed the Soviet command system and ideology, and he blamed the “terrible burden of the arms race.” The Soviet people had “reached the limits of endurance,” he said. “All attempts at partial reform — and there were many — failed, one after another. The country was losing its future. We could not go on living like this. Everything had to be drastically changed.”

A warning on democracy

In the years after the Soviet collapse, Mr. Gorbachev worked out of a foundation he established in Moscow. He was celebrated as a hero by many foreign audiences and frequently appeared abroad as a champion of environmental causes, but at home he was regarded as a has-been during the 1990s, the raucous years of change under Yeltsin.

Mr. Gorbachev in 1996 talks with reporters on the bank of the Volga River while campaigning for president. © Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post Mr. Gorbachev in 1996 talks with reporters on the bank of the Volga River while campaigning for president.

Mr. Gorbachev remained bitter about Yeltsin’s role in the Soviet collapse, but there was little he could do. When Mr. Gorbachev ran for president in 1996, he got only 0.51 percent of the vote.

Raisa died in 1999, and at her funeral, looking drawn and stricken, Mr. Gorbachev leaned over her open casket and placed a kiss on her forehead. Survivors include their daughter, Irina Mikhailovna Virganskaya.

Mr. Gorbachev, who was among those who started up the fiercely independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, remained on the sidelines in the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule. But in later years, he spoke out with increasingly sharp words about the democratic reversals under Putin, who re-created a political system largely dominated by one party, suppressed press freedoms, choked civil society groups. At the time of his 80th birthday celebration in 2011, he said Putin had built a sham democracy. “We have everything — a parliament, courts, a president, prime minister and so on,” he said. “But it’s more of an imitation.”

Mr. Gorbachev also witnessed the collapse of the signature arms-control agreement he signed with Reagan, the INF Treaty. In 2018 he wrote that both nations must persevere to control nuclear weapons and avert a new arms race, which he acknowledged was already underway. “Faced with this dire threat to peace, we are not helpless,” he declared. “We must not resign, we must not surrender.”

Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.

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