- The last Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev has
died, aged 91.
- According to reports, he died at a hospital in
Moscow after a “long illness”.
- Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, but
his reforms were also scorned by many of his countrymen.
Moscow – Mikhail Gorbachev, who changed the course
of history by triggering the demise of the Soviet Union, and who was one of the
great figures of the 20th century, has died in Moscow, aged 91.
His death was announced on Tuesday by Russian news
agencies, which said Gorbachev had died at a central hospital in Moscow
“after a serious and long illness”.
Gorbachev, in power between 1985 and 1991, helped
bring US-Soviet relations out of a deep freeze and was the last surviving Cold
His life was one of the most influential of his
times, and his reforms as Soviet leader transformed his country and allowed
Eastern Europe to free itself from Soviet rule.
The changes he set in motion saw him lionised in
the West – he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 – but also earned him the scorn
of many Russians who lamented the end of their country’s role as a global
He spent much of the past two decades on the
political periphery, intermittently calling for the Kremlin and the White House
to mend ties as tensions soared to Cold War levels after Russia annexed Crimea
in 2014, and launched an offensive in Ukraine earlier this year.
‘One-of-a kind statesman’
His relationship with President Vladimir Putin was
difficult at times, but the Russian leader nonetheless expressed his “deep
sympathies” after Gorbachev’s death.
“In the morning, (Putin) will send a telegram
of condolences to his family and friends,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry
Peskov told Russian news agencies.
Gorbachev spent the twilight years of his life in
and out of hospital with increasingly fragile health and observed
self-quarantine during the pandemic as a precaution against the coronavirus.
Gorbachev was regarded fondly in the West, where he
was affectionately referred to as Gorby and best known for defusing US-Soviet
nuclear tensions in the 1980s, as well as bringing Eastern Europe out from
behind the Iron Curtain.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a
historic nuclear arms pact with US leader Ronald Reagan, and his decision to
withhold the Soviet army when the Berlin Wall fell a year earlier was seen as
key to preserving Cold War peace.
He was also championed in the West for spearheading
reforms to achieve transparency and greater public discussion that hastened the
breakup of the Soviet empire.
In a statement, US President Joe Biden credited
Gorbachev with having “the imagination to see that a different future was
possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it”.
“The result was a safer world and greater
freedom for millions of people,” he added.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev attends celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate on 9 November 2014 in Berlin, Germany.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile,
said he “always admired the courage and integrity” Gorbachev showed
in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion.
“In a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine,
his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us
all,” he said in a Twitter post.
UN chief Antonio Guterres praised Gorbachev as
“a one-of-a-kind statesman who changed the course of history” and
“did more than any other individual to bring about the peaceful end of the
‘Man of peace’
French President Emmanuel Macron praised him as a
“man of peace whose choices opened up a path of liberty for Russians. His
commitment to peace in Europe changed our shared history.”
The first Russian leader to live past the age of
90, he was congratulated by world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and
former German chancellor Angela Merkel on his 90th birthday.
At home, Gorbachev remained a controversial figure
and had a difficult relationship with Putin.
For Putin and many Russians, the breakup of the
Soviet Union was a tragedy, bringing with it a decade of mass poverty and a
weakening of Russia’s stature on the global stage.
Many Russians still look back fondly on the Soviet
period, and Putin leans on its achievements to buttress Russia’s claim to
greatness and his own prestige.
As the USSR collapsed, Gorbachev was superseded by
the younger Boris Yeltsin, who became post-Soviet Russia’s first president.
From then on, Gorbachev was relegated to the
sidelines, devoting himself to educational and humanitarian projects.
He made a disastrous attempt to return to politics
and ran for president in 1996, but received just 0.5% of the vote.
Over the years, he saw many of his major
achievements rolled back by Putin.
Supporter of free press
An early supporter of Russia’s leading independent
newspaper Novaya Gazeta, founded in 1993, he donated part of his Nobel winnings
to help it buy its first computers.
But the newspaper, like Russian independent media
across the board, came under increasing pressure during Putin’s two-decade
Novaya Gazeta, whose chief editor Dmitry Muratov
last year won the Nobel Peace Prize, suspended publication in late March after
Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine.
Gorbachev himself made no public statements about
Russia’s military action in Ukraine, though his foundation called for “an
early cessation (to) hostilities and immediate start of peace
Uniquely among Soviet leaders, Gorbachev made no
secret of his warm and supportive relationship with his wife Raisa, an elegant
woman who often appeared in public with him and whose premature death from
cancer was a devastating blow.
A source close to the Gorbachev family told news
agency TASS that he would be buried next to Raisa at Moscow’s Novodevichy
cemetery, the resting place of many other famous Russian figures, including