Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Reformer who Helped End the Cold War, Dies at 91

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Gorbachev and the author at the Kremlin in June 1988 at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader whose attempts to reform a brutal Communist empire garnered admiration around the world but failed to inspire his own people, died Wednesday at age 91 after spending the past two decades in ill health and obscurity.

In the six years he served as Kremlin leader, he freed political prisoners and Jewish “refuseniks,” lifted the Iron Curtain that divided East and West, liberated the arts and pulled Red Army troops out of foreign conflicts, most notably the Soviet Union’s 10-year debacle in Afghanistan. 

He forged disarmament treaties with Cold War enemies that escalated a global arms race impoverishing his country and setting the world on a precipice of nuclear war. His reform campaigns for glasnost and perestroika – openness and rebuilding – became worldwide catchphrases for his vision of communism without the repression and dysfunctional economy. 

Gorbachev’s idea of humane communism never became a reality. After seven decades of central planning for the vast federation spread across 11 time zones, the reforms proved too timid to change the way Soviets lived and counterproductive in emboldening the country’s non-Russian ethnic republics to use their newly free elections to vote for independence from the Soviet Union. 

Communist hardliners in the Kremlin feared losing their power and staged a failed coup d’etat in August 1991. People protests in Moscow led by then-Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin forced the putschists to surrender after three days but the damage was done. Baltic republic secessions and independence movements throughout the federation dispelled the myths of one “Soviet” people and commitment to a “Union.” The red flag with its gold hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time at one minute after midnight on Dec. 25, 1991, dissolving the Soviet Union into its 15 constituent republics.

Gorbachev was blamed for the economic catastrophes that greeted most of the newly independent states in the wake of broken supply chains and disrupted federal management of agriculture and industry. Empty store shelves had prevailed throughout the Soviet Union’s history, but shortages intensified when prices were suddenly set according to the cost of production instead of artificially low by central planners. Rents soared in a country where homes were owned by the government. Inflation wiped out the value of ruble salaries. It took years before the modernization of Russian cities and factories created new opportunities for workers to earn a living wage.

The consequences of Gorbachev’s failure to reform his homeland are now playing out on the battlefields of Ukraine. Russian nationalists resented what they perceived as loss of their empire and vilified Gorbachev for having loosened the strictures that kept it in place since. 

Vladimir Putin, a mid-ranking KGB officer at the time of the Soviet breakup, worked his way into the political leadership of his native St. Petersburg, where he was recruited by the oligarchs holding sway over Yeltsin to succeed the ailing president in 2000. Putin has spent his 22 years in power nursing the grievances of disgruntled nationalists into a fever of resentment toward former Soviet republics that have chosen to ally with prosperous democracies rather than the corrupt leaders of today’s Kremlin.

Putin issued a cautious message of condolence to Gorbachev’s family that was published by the Kremlin on Thursday. It observed that the late Soviet leader “led our country during a period of complex, dramatic changes” and that he “deeply understood that reforms were necessary and strove to offer his own solutions to urgent problems.” Putin has called the breakup of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century” and blames independent Russia’s diminished world standing on “encroachment” by the U.S.-led NATO security alliance and the European Union.

The note expressing “sincere words of sympathy and support” gave Putin the opportunity to be seen outside of Russia as a statesman of equal stature among the world leaders who poured out tributes after word of his Gorbachev’s death. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying funeral arrangements were yet to be determined and would depend on the wishes of his family. Putin in 2007 declared a day of national mourning when Yeltsin died. Given the current state of relations between Russia and the West, it is unlikely that world leaders will be invited to a state burial at the Kremlin wall as has been tradition.

One of the most influential politicians of the 20th century, Gorbachev’s short-lived reforms removed the shackles from a society deeply scarred by dictatorships that for decades had restricted thought, word and deed.

Named Time magazine’s Man of the Decade for the 1980s and the revered object of “Gorbymania” throughout Europe, the fallen leader’s rejection by his own people was brutally reiterated in 1996, when he ran for president and won barely 1% of the national vote in a contest won by Yeltsin.

He spent the first decade after his departure from the Kremlin traveling and speaking on international affairs and the hazards of pollution and the global arms industry. He wrote columns for foreign publications, founded a Moscow think tank bearing his name and raised money with speaking tours to finance the institute and the Green Cross environmental initiative he launched in Geneva.

He slowed his hectic pace after the death of his beloved wife, Raisa, of leukemia in 1999. His forays into the political limelight also dwindled to funerals and symbolic reunions, including the Washington rites for former President Ronald Reagan in 2004 and the Nov. 9, 2009, gathering in the German capital to mark 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall’s fall. He was a frequent critic of President Donald Trump, whose initiatives he dismissed as “not the work of a great mind,” and urged President Biden to help normalize relations with Russia.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born to a peasant family on March 2, 1931, amid one of dictator Josef Stalin’s most savage endeavors, the forced collectivization of agriculture that left millions of rural Russians to starve. Gorbachev’s earliest memories during his childhood in the village of Privolnoye in the Stavropol region of southern Russia’s Farm Belt were of hunger and confusion.

When Privolnoye’s men were called to the World War II front to defend their country against the Nazi invasion, Gorbachev inherited responsibility for farm and household at age 10. His strong organizational skills earned him notice in the postwar community and won him a coveted scholarship from the local Communist Party to attend Moscow State University. He packed his one presentable suit for the train journey north and began studying law in 1950.

Gorbachev’s work at the university brought him into the acquaintance of Raisa Maximovna Titorenko, a philosophy student. They married in 1953. After graduation in 1955, Gorbachev returned home to the Stavropol region, where he took a job at the regional office of Komsomol, the Communist youth organization. The Gorbachevs’ only child, Irina, was born there in 1957.

Gorbachev rose quickly through the Komsomol ranks, then drew appointments from the Moscow party hierarchy to regional leadership posts and the 1,500-member Supreme Soviet legislative body. His star rose further thanks to an early acquaintance with Politburo member Yuri V. Andropov, the KGB director and future Soviet leader who spent his vacations in the Stavropol region. In the steam baths of local sanatoriums, Andropov and Gorbachev shared their fear that if reforms were not executed in the Soviet Union the economy was destined for disaster.

Having completed a second degree in “scientific agricultural economics” in 1967, Gorbachev was named agriculture secretary in 1978. But it was one task at which he was seen as having failed, because farm output continued to tumble during his tenure. Still, Gorbachev remained a confidant of Andropov and rose in influence when Andropov became Soviet leader after the death of Leonid I. Brezhnev in 1982.

When Andropov died in 1984, the Kremlin old guard prevailed in getting Konstantin U. Chernenko named as the new leader. The aging and frail Chernenko had little impact during the remaining 13 months of his life. Gorbachev used Chernenko’s brief tenure to gather power inside the Kremlin. He also introduced himself to the West, visiting then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in London in 1984. Thatcher’s comment, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together,” marked the beginning of the West’s recognition of Gorbachev as a categorically different brand of Kremlin leader. 

When he was elected general secretary after Chernenko’s death March 10, 1985, international observers as well as fellow Soviets sensed that dramatic change was about to begin.

After years of aged, decrepit leaders, Gorbachev made a deep impression on his own people and the international community as he talked about glasnost, the openness he believed vital to spotlighting and correcting problems, and perestroika, his vision of a thorough restructuring of politics, economics and society as a whole.

Television was one of Gorbachev’s most cleverly-wielded tools. Camera crews followed him as he waded into cheering crowds to hear what was on the minds of the people and to beam his long-winded formulas for correction to the masses. In tackling the mammoth job of reviving the moribund Soviet economy, Gorbachev enlisted other young, reform-minded officials. One was Yeltsin, who was brought in to run the city of Moscow and then head the Construction Ministry. Another was Alexander Yakovlev, the former Soviet ambassador to Canada who was the ideological godfather of perestroika.

One early miscalculation Gorbachev made was trying to separate his subjects from their vodka bottles, even if his goal was as noble as improving his countrymen’s health. His 1985 sukhoi zakon dry laws cut alcohol production and sales hours and imposed stiff fines on those found drunk in public. But the population was outraged, and desperate attempts by hard-core drinkers to sate their addiction led to tens of thousands of poisonings from drinking cologne and cleaning solutions.

Another early setback for the youngest and last man to lead the Soviet Union was the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant catastrophe in Ukraine, which killed dozens in the immediate aftermath and severely contaminated northern Ukraine and southern Belarus. But Chernobyl also marked the true advent of truth and openness in the Soviet media, a concept that during the first year of Gorbachev’s rule was little more than a slogan. Media exposes on the complacency of Chernobyl plant workers accompanied harrowing tales of the plight of the unsuspecting firefighters sent in to contain the radioactive hemorrhage.

And as the nation came to grips with the numbing truth of how shabby technology had brought on the disaster, the media slowly turned to other bitter legacies of the past. The crimes of Stalin were exposed in the most trusted magazines and newspapers, prompting the introspection that Gorbachev had all along deemed necessary to spur reform.

Still, perestroika evolved slowly as Gorbachev’s new team pondered how to reinvent the lost notions of competition, initiative, personal responsibility and innovation. As Gorbachev’s ideas drifted further from the tenets of communism, he surprised and frightened many in the government, foremost among them his deputy, Yegor K. Ligachev. Ligachev controlled the vast Communist Party apparatus, and it took Gorbachev several years of cunning maneuvering to wrest control from conservative party figures who opposed reform.

Though progress in meeting consumer demands was slow, Gorbachev achieved more rapid success in opening cultural life. Long-banished literary works such as Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” and George Orwell’s totalitarian allegory, “Animal Farm,” were published for the first time in the Soviet Union.

The government also ceased jamming foreign radio broadcasts and lifted the ideological restraints that had corrupted art throughout the Soviet era. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Germans were allowed to emigrate, and political prisoners such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei D. Sakharov were released from prison and exile.

In 1988, the Kremlin acknowledged defeat and ignominy in its decade-long battle to control Afghanistan and began a yearlong withdrawal. More than 13,000 Soviet troops died in the conflict. Ironically, the moves to liberate Soviet citizens from the tyrannies of the past made Gorbachev more popular in the West than in his own country. Many Soviets began taking advantage of the freer atmosphere to grouse that Gorbachev was nothing more than a baltun — a blowhard.

Gorbachev’s contributions to the collapse of communism were better appreciated abroad. He signaled to the subjugated states of Eastern Europe that they, too, had the right to decide their own affairs. From Poland to Romania, the imposed fraternity of socialist states crumbled and independent leaders rose to power in free and fair elections.

The charismatic Soviet leader also changed his country’s relations with the capitalist world, penning watershed disarmament deals with the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and seeking stronger trade ties with Western Europe.

Gorbachev’s relations with President Reagan took longer to warm, although the two proclaimed their first summit, in Geneva in 1985, a success in breaking the ice between the adversarial nations. Their 1986 summit in Iceland ended without the arms control breakthrough that many negotiators had expected, but it produced a change in atmosphere that allowed the leaders to agree on major weapons cutbacks during subsequent meetings.

The Soviet leader’s first serious strike at the omnipotence of the Communist Party came in the summer of 1988, when he closed the 19th Communist Party Conference, a massive gathering of the faithful, with a proposal to elect a new parliament of deputies chosen in competitive elections. As the rigid political system that had held the Soviet Union together started to relax, so did it weaken. Soviet republics that had been added to the Communist empire by force began agitating for independence.

The first to bolt was Lithuania, which declared independence in 1990. Gorbachev at first sent in troops and tanks, but soon changed tactics, trying to bring the republics into a new agreement giving them some sovereignty while maintaining the illusion of a unified federation. His restraint in that first faceoff with a defecting republic was believed to have been decisive in his receiving the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.

But Yeltsin’s election as leader of the powerful and increasingly rebellious Russian republic didn’t make matters any easier. Yeltsin pushed Gorbachev to cede more power to the republics, leading to a revised power-sharing agreement, the Union Treaty, which redefined the relationship between the center and regions. It was set for signing on Aug. 20, 1991.

On the morning before the signing ceremony, tanks rolled into Moscow on the orders of a dozen hard-line Communist putschists who had Gorbachev seized and placed under house arrest. But the coup plotters made two fatal miscalculations. Their first was to believe that the people were opposed to reform. The second was failing to arrest Yeltsin, who seized the moment to assure the stunned masses that they would never again fall victim to “red bandits.” After three tense days, the coup leaders surrendered. Gorbachev returned to Moscow looking haggard and defeated. Raisa Gorbachev had suffered a mild stroke during the ordeal that for years affected her speech.

The coup helped Gorbachev and others recognize that power had shifted to the republics and that the Soviet Union had no further reason to exist. When the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin at the end of 1991 and the Russian flag went up, the man who had freed a continent from totalitarianism quietly accepted his fate as a politician who had served his purpose.

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Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.

1 COMMENT

  1. One of the better pieces on Gorbachev that I’ve seen. I first went to the Soviet Union in 1984 when Chernenko was still in charge. It was clear that major changes were needed, but unclear who would make them. Gorby stepped up. Sadly, Putin has dragged Russia back into its evil empire days. Truly tragic.

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