Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has died aged 91 – with President Biden paying tribute and calling him “a man of remarkable vision” who helped avert the prospect of nuclear war.

One of the most important figures of the 20th century, Mr Gorbachev was known for ending the Cold War without bloodshed, but failed to prevent the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mr Gorbachev’s office said earlier that he was undergoing treatment at Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital.

He died after a long illness, the hospital was quoted by news agencies as saying.

Tributes to the man who believed in ‘a better world’ – live updates

Russian President Vladimir Poutine expressed his deepest condolences and said he would send an official telegram to his family, a Kremlin spokesman said.

US President Joe Biden has hailed Mr Gorbachev’s achievements in believing “in a better world” and dramatically reducing the potential for a Third World War.

“As leader of the USSR, he worked with President Reagan to reduce the nuclear arsenals of our two countries, much to the relief of the peoples of the world who pray for an end to the nuclear arms race,” said Mr. Biden in a statement.

“These are the acts of a rare leader,” added the American president.

“One with the imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk one’s entire career to achieve it. The result has been a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.”

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Mikhail Gorbachev with former US President Ronald Reagan during a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. Photo: AP

Mr Gorbachev has forged arms reduction agreements with the United States and partnerships with Western powers to remove the Iron Curtain that has divided Europe since World War II.

It led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. His efforts won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

When Mr. Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, he set out to revitalize the communist system and shape a new union based on a more equal partnership between the 15 republics of the USSR.

But within six years, communism and the Union collapsed.

He attempted political and economic reforms simultaneously and on an overambitious scale, unleashing forces he could not control.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses the audience after the documentary film's Russian premiere "Meet Gorbachev" in Moscow, Russia November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva/File Photo
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Mikhail Gorbachev at the premiere of the documentary ‘Meeting Gorbachev’ in November 2018

As pro-democracy protests swept through Communist Eastern Europe in 1989, he refrained from using force – unlike his predecessors who deployed tanks to crush uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

However, the protests fueled aspirations for republican autonomy, and the last Soviet leader did not anticipate the strength of nationalist sentiment.

“Glasnost” emboldened nationalists

Mr. Gorbachev’s policy of ‘glasnost’ – freedom of speech – enabled previously unthinkable criticism of the party and state, but also emboldened nationalists who began pushing for independence in the countries Baltics and later elsewhere.

His series of extraordinary reforms quickly overtook him and led to the collapse of the authoritarian state.

Read more:
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Mikhail Gorbachev meets Margaret Thatcher in 1987

His power was undermined by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, and he spent his final months in power watching republic after republic declare independence until resigning on Christmas Day from the same year.

The next day, the Soviet Union is officially dissolved.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “saddened to learn of Gorbachev’s death”.

He tweeted that he “has always admired the courage and integrity he showed in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion.”

“At a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example for all of us.”

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev bows his head to the Congress of People's Deputies shortly after Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze announced his intention to resign in Moscow, December 20, 1990. Gorbachev, in his address to the session, condemned Shevardnadze for abandoning perestroika at a critical time.  (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko) PIC: AP
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Photo: AP

But many Russians never forgave Mr. Gorbachev for the turmoil his reforms unleashed, as they felt the subsequent fall in their living standards was too high a price for democracy to pay.

He later said he had not considered using widespread force to try to keep the USSR together because he feared chaos in a nuclear nation.

“The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And that would have immediately plunged the country into a civil war,” he said.

Jonathan Eyal, of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said: “He didn’t believe the Soviet Union was actually an empire unto itself of nations that didn’t want to be chained together.

“Like all Soviet leaders, and dare I say like Russian leaders today, he saw the Soviet Union as synonymous with Russia and he just couldn’t understand why nations wanted to be independent.”

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