Moscow: Mikhail Gorbachev, who as the last leader of the Soviet Union waged a losing battle to salvage a crumbling empire but produced extraordinary reforms that led to the end of the Cold War, died Tuesday. He was 91. The Central Clinical Hospital said in a statement that Gorbachev died after a long illness. No other details were given.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that Russian President Vladimir Putin offered deep condolences over Gorbachev’s death and would send an official telegram to Gorbachev’s family in the morning.
Though in power less than seven years, Gorbachev unleashed a breathtaking series of changes. But they quickly overtook him and resulted in the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet state, the freeing of Eastern European nations from Russian domination and the end of decades of East-West nuclear confrontation.
His decline was humiliating. His power hopelessly sapped by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, he spent his last months in office watching republic after republic declare independence until he resigned on Dec. 25, 1991.
The Soviet Union wrote itself into oblivion a day later. Many of the changes, including the Soviet breakup, bore no resemblance to the transformation that Gorbachev had envisioned when he became Soviet leader in March 1985.
By the end of his rule he was powerless to halt the whirlwind he had sown. Yet Gorbachev may have had a greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than any other political figure.
“I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world,” Gorbachev told The AP in a 1992 interview shortly after he left office.
“I am often asked, would I have started it all again if I had to repeat it? Yes, indeed. And with more persistence and determination,” he said.
Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War and spent his later years collecting accolades and awards from all corners of the world. Yet he was widely despised at home.
Russians blamed him for the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union. His run for president in 1996 was a national joke, and he polled less than 1% of the vote. In 1997, he resorted to making a TV ad for Pizza Hut to earn money for his charitable foundation.
“In the ad, he should take a pizza, divide it into 15 slices like he divided up our country, and then show how to put it back together again,” quipped Anatoly Lukyanov, a one-time Gorbachev supporter.
Gorbachev never set out to dismantle the Soviet system. What he wanted to do was improve it. Soon after taking power, Gorbachev began a campaign to end his country’s economic and political stagnation, using “glasnost” or openness, to help achieve his goal of “perestroika” or restructuring.
In his memoirs, he said he had long been frustrated that in a country with immense natural resources, tens of millions were living in poverty. Once he began, one move led to another: He freed political prisoners, allowed open debate and multi-candidate elections, gave his countrymen freedom to travel, halted religious oppression, reduced nuclear arsenals, established closer ties with the West and did not resist the fall of Communist regimes in Eastern European satellite states. But the forces he unleashed quickly escaped his control.
“The process of renovating this country and bringing about fundamental changes in the international community proved to be much more complex than originally anticipated,” Gorbachev told the nation as he stepped down.
There was little in Gorbachev’s childhood to hint at the pivotal role he would play on the world stage. On many levels, he had a typical Soviet upbringing in a typical Russian village. But it was a childhood blessed with unusual strokes of good fortune. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born March 2, 1931, in the village of Privolnoye in southern Russia.
Despite stellar party credentials, Gorbachev’s family did not emerge unscathed from the terror unleashed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin: Both grandfathers were arrested and imprisoned for allegedly anti-Soviet activities. But, rare in that period, both were eventually freed.
In 1941, when Gorbachev was 10, his father went off to war, along with most of the other men from Privolnoye. Meanwhile, the Nazis pushed across the western steppes in their blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union; they occupied Privolnoye for five months.
His performance earned him the order of the Red Banner of Labor, an unusual distinction for a 17-year-old. That prize and the party background of his parents helped him land admission in 1950 to the country’s top university, Moscow State.
There, he met his wife, Raisa Maximovna Titorenko, and joined the Communist Party. The award and his family’s credentials also helped him overcome the disgrace of his grandfathers’ arrests, which were overlooked in light of his exemplary Communist conduct.
In his memoirs, Gorbachev described himself as something of a maverick as he advanced through the party ranks, sometimes bursting out with criticism of the Soviet system and its leaders.
Gorbachev is survived by a daughter, Irina, and two granddaughters. The official news agency Tass reported that Gorbachev will be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife.