Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet Leader who ended the Cold War, dies

Mikhail Gorbachev.
Bryn Colton—Getty Images

Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union whose attempts to shake up his country’s political and economic system led to the collapse of the Communist superpower and the end of the Cold War, has died. He was 91.

The Interfax and state-run Tass news services cited the Moscow hospital where Gorbachev died. The Central Clinical Hospital said his death followed “a severe and prolonged illness,” according to Tass.

Gorbachev pushed for radical changes to the Soviet economy after he became Communist Party leader in 1985, at age 54. His overhaul, known as perestroika, and policy of openness, or glasnost, unleashed a political avalanche that brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989 and ended Soviet rule two years later.

Gorbachev’s career disintegrated in the process, leaving him a bystander to Russia’s political and economic evolution. In a farewell address delivered on national television on Dec. 25, 1991, the day the Soviet Union and his presidency were officially dissolved, Gorbachev said he had no regrets.

“I understood that initiating reforms on such a large scale in a society like ours was a most difficult and risky undertaking,” he said. “But even now, I am convinced that the democratic reforms started in the spring of 1985 were historically justified.”

Until Gorbachev, most Kremlinologists predicted the Soviet system, a one-party state that ran all aspects of public life, would only be dismantled through civil war. Gorbachev, recognizable for a red birthmark on his bald head, paved the way for the dissolution of the Soviet state. This led to relatively little violence in Russia, with unrest largely confined to conflicts in regions including Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Moldova. 

Unintended consequence

“The greatest unintended outcome of all was the disintegration of the Soviet Union,” Archie Brown, emeritus professor of politics at Oxford University and the author of “Seven Years that Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective,” wrote in 2010. “Gorbachev, by 1988, had consciously set about dismantling the Soviet system. At no point did he wish to see the disappearance of the Soviet state.”

Gorbachev’s popularity declined even before the Soviet collapse, in part because the population suffered from the weakness of the country’s centrally-planned economy made worse by low oil prices. The following years were especially hard. Russia’s economy shrank almost 40% between 1990 and 1997, on par with the U.S. Depression of the 1930s.

“Gorbachev was the man who brought both change and trouble,” said Andrei Grachev, a former Gorbachev adviser and author of “Gorbachev,” a biography published in Russian in 2001.

Stalin’s legacy

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born March 2, 1931 into a peasant family in the southern Russian region of Stavropol. His two grandfathers were detained in repressions carried out under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

In 1950, he earned a place at Moscow University, the country’s most prestigious educational institution, where he completed a law degree and met his future wife Raisa Titorenko.

Gorbachev progressed through the Communist Party. By 1970, he was the top party official for Stavropol, the Soviet Union’s youngest regional boss. In 1978, he had arrived in Moscow as national party secretary in charge of agriculture.

Two years later, Gorbachev became the youngest full member of the Politburo, the Soviet Union’s power center, where he was a protege of former KGB secret police chief Yuri Andropov, who succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as Soviet leader in 1982.

While Gorbachev was passed over for the top job after Andropov’s death in 1984, he was given foreign exposure with highly publicized trips to the UK and Italy.

Following Chernenko

“I like Mr. Gorbachev,” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said after his visit. “We can do business together.”

In 1985, Gorbachev took over as the Communist Party’s general secretary after Konstantin Chernenko, Andropov’s successor, died a year into the job. He said his early goals weren’t revolutionary.

“We, myself included, said that perestroika was a continuation of October,” he wrote in 1988, referring to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. “The illusion, shared by me and most people, lay in thinking that we could obtain our objectives by perfecting the existing system.”

Gorbachev called for more transparency, or glasnost, which opened up the Soviet Union’s historical secrets and restored broader political debate after seven decades of totalitarian control.

Early capitalists

On the economic front, Gorbachev gave local factory directors more power and authorized the creation of “cooperatives,” which became incubators for Russia’s first capitalists.

Gorbachev’s first major crisis erupted on April 26, 1986, when an explosion occurred at a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The delayed reporting and reaction to the accident revealed the deficiencies of the secretive Soviet system.

“Chernobyl shed light on many of the sicknesses of our system as a whole,” Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs.

In December 1986, the Soviet leader broke with the past by authorizing the release of Andrei Sakharov, the dissident Russian scientist and winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, from exile in the Russian city of Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod.

Banned books including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” were published in journals, selling millions of copies. Citizens were allowed to travel to the West more freely.

Nobel Prize

Outside of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev met with U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Geneva in 1985, Reykjavik in 1986, and a year later in Washington, where he signed a treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Together with Reagan, Gorbachev developed the U.S.-Soviet relationship and his efforts in fostering East-West reconciliation won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

By May 1989, change was sweeping the Soviet Union’s republics. There were ethnic clashes in Uzbekistan and Georgia, the Baltic states declared their sovereignty and Azerbaijan was in the early stages of a war with Armenia.

On Nov. 9 that year, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and one by one, the members of the Warsaw Pact of eastern European satellite states pulled away from the Soviet orbit.

At home, Gorbachev tried to balance the old guard with new leaders such as Boris Yeltsin, who pushed for deeper, faster change and finally broke with the Communist Party. Hard-line party members such as Yegor Ligachev saw Gorbachev as a traitor.

Communism’s end

In August 1991, a group of conservative Communists staged a coup d’etat to avert the signing of a treaty on relations between the republics that they believed would mean the end of the centralized Soviet Union. Gorbachev was held under virtual house arrest at his summer villa in the Crimea. In Moscow, Yeltsin rallied popular support and repelled the plotters, effectively sidelining Gorbachev.

In December 1991, Yeltsin signed an agreement with the leaders of the Ukraine and Belarus republics to bury the Soviet Union and dissolve Gorbachev’s office as its president.

While Gorbachev remained a sought-after speaker on the Western lecture circuit, he surfaced only rarely in Russian public life. When he ran for president in June 1996, he won less than 1% of the vote.

“There is a contrast between the view of him from the inside and outside Russia,” Grachev said in an interview. “After all, it was Russian society that had to pay the totality of the cost of the transition, while the West could profit from the benefits.”

Gorbachev’s wife died of leukemia in 1999 at a hospital in Muenster, Germany. Her illness brought a rare wave of sympathy for Gorbachev, whose devotion to Raisa earned him respect from average Russians.

Putin critic

Gorbachev became disillusioned about Russia’s future under President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel who succeeded Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve 1999 and once described the Soviet collapse as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

Gorbachev openly criticized the Russian leader for the first time in 2011, urging him not to seek a third presidential term. Putin won another six years in the Kremlin in 2012 after facing down unprecedented protests, and was re-elected to a fourth term in 2018.

“If you try to do everything in the country without taking the people into account, while imitating democracy, that will lead to a situation like in Africa, where leaders sit and rule for 20 or 30 years,” Gorbachev told Bloomberg News.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, lashed out at Gorbachev in 2011 while also praising the Brezhnev era as a “huge plus” for the country. Brezhnev ruled from 1964 until his death in 1982.

The Gorbachev Foundation issued a statement in the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 saying that “we affirm the need for an early cessation of hostilities and immediate start of peace negotiations. There is nothing more precious in the world than human lives.”

Polling results

Gorbachev’s status in the West was highlighted by his 80th birthday celebrations in London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2011. Sharon Stone and Kevin Spacey hosted the 4 1/2 hour event that included tributes from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bono and Sting.

In Russia, a survey released in March 2010 by an independent polling company found 76% of respondents either hostile or indifferent to Gorbachev. Forty-five percent wanted a return to the Soviet era before his perestroika, the same poll showed.

However many middle-class Russians, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, appreciated Gorbachev as the leader who had enabled their freedom and who had quietly given up power, particularly after the protests surrounding Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 and the political crackdown leading up to the war in Ukraine.

“In every society, from ancient Greece, where Socrates was sentenced to a cup of poison, there are people who outpace society in their thinking,” Russian newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev, who together with Gorbachev supported the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said in a September 2012 interview. “The majority of Russians probably still think Stalin was a good thing for the country. They are lucky not to have suffered that.”

Gorbachev and Raisa had a daughter, Irina, who was named vice-president of the Gorbachev Foundation, an independent policy research organization in Moscow.

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.

Read More

Ukraine InvasionCybersecurityEnergyTravel IndustryAutos