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World Remembers Gorbachev, the Late Soviet Leader Who Ended the Cold War

Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: August 31, 2022
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A man looks on monuments to Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and other Soviet and Russian leaders while visiting the Alley of the Rulers of Russia sculptural composition by architect Zurab Tsereteli, on March 28, 2021, in Moscow, Russia. (Image: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died on Tuesday, Aug. 30 in Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital following a prolonged illness. Governments and leaders expressed condolences.

Aged 91 at the time of his passing, Gorbachev was noted for initiating political reforms across the Eastern European communist bloc, and ending the Cold War confrontation between east and west. However, his actions also led to the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 independent countries.

“Mikhail Gorbachev was a one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history. The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote on Twitter. “I’m deeply saddened by his passing.”

Coming to power in 1985, Gorbachev forged arms reduction deals with the United States and partnerships with Western powers to remove the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since World War Two and bring about the reunification of Germany.

His policies of glasnost and perestroika had major effects on the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 call for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was answered two years later, with East German authorities allowing the opening of the border to the democratic West and tearing down the wall that divided Berliners for nearly 20 years.

The Ronald Reagan Foundation and Institute wrote that it “mourns the loss of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who once was a political adversary of Ronald Reagan’s who ended up becoming a friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gorbachev family and the people of Russia.”

Gorbachev was described as a trusted and respected leader by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who called his legacy “one that we will not forget.”

French President Emmanuel Macron offered condolences for Gorbachev, whom he said was “a man of peace whose decisions paved the way for freedom for the Russians. His commitment to peace in Europe changed our shared history.”

Mixed legacy

Gorbachev was the seventh man to lead the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which was established in the wake of the Vladimir Lenin’s communist revolution in 1917 and the devastating Russian civil war that followed. It came to comprise 15 “Soviet Socialist Republics” of which Russia was by far the largest and contained about half of the USSR population.

The Soviet communist regime was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people and ran a repressive dictatorship under which basic rights such as freedom of speech and private property were heavily restricted in the name of socialism.

Gorbachev’s pivotal reforms came after many years of institutional and economic stagnation. Perestroika, which means “restructuring,” opened up the Soviet planned economy, while “glasnost” — commonly translated as “openness” — allowed Soviet citizens to express themselves freely.

In 1991, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, hardliner officials in the Soviet Communist Party orchestrated a coup against Gorbachev.

Though the coup failed after massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow, the political chaos weakened Gorbachev’s position and caused much of the public to lose confidence in the Union. Many regional leaders, including Boris Yeltsin, who ran the Russian republic, as well as his counterparts in Belarus and Ukraine, declared independence. The Soviet authorities announced the dissolution of the country on Dec. 26, 1991.

In Russia, Gorbachev is often blamed for the failings in the final years of the Soviet Union, a superpower that was popularly understood as synonymous with Russia itself. Russians interviewed about their thoughts on his legacy criticized him for allowing the country to be weakened and divided.

Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, described Gorbachev as an extraordinary statesman who had helped end the Cold War but whose role in history was controversial.

“He sincerely wanted to believe that the Cold War would end, and that it would usher in a period of eternal romance between a new Soviet Union and the world, the West,” Peskov said.

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, noted that Gorbachev played an important role in normalizing the poor relations between Moscow and Beijing. The two regimes, though both communist, had spent most of the Cold War competing with each other for influence and nearly fought a nuclear war at one point.

Gorbachev will be buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery next to his wife Raisa, who died in 1999, said TASS news agency, citing the foundation that the former Soviet leader set up once he left office.

Reuters contributed to this report.