Mikhail Gorbachev, whose drive to transform the Soviet Union ended the Cold War but inadvertently helped bring about his own country’s collapse, has died, according to Russian news agencies. He was 91. The Tass, RIA Novosti, and Interfax agencies cited the Central Clinical Hospital, according to the Associated Press.
Gorbachev’s reign as the last Soviet premier from 1985 until 1991 was marked indelibly by two bywords: perestroika — literally “restructuring,” but implying reform — and glasnost, or “openness,” symbols of his intent to shake off the torpor caused by seven decades of authoritarian rule and staid central planning. Hoping to return the Communist Party to its roots in Vladimir Lenin’s October Revolution of 1917, Gorbachev opened up the Soviet political system to broader political participation, public scrutiny, and a re-examination of Josef Stalin’s legacy of mass imprisonment and murder, prompting years of national soul-searching.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born to a family of peasant farmers March 2, 1931, in Privolnoye, a small village in the province of Stavropol in southern Russia. Growing up during the height of Stalinism, he was a straight-A student and model young Communist. He led his school’s branch of the Komsomol, the party’s youth wing, won plaudits for star performances harvesting grain in his spare time, and became a candidate for full party membership at 18. He was admitted to Moscow State University, Russia’s most prestigious educational institution, to study law, taking up a bed in a ramshackle dormitory with six other students. At a ballroom dance there, he met Raisa Titarenko, a sophisticated philosophy student from Siberia, whom he soon married. Later, when he was premier, she would reject the traditional dowdy roles given to leaders’ wives and become the USSR’s first real first lady. She died of leukemia in 1999.
After graduating, Gorbachev took up a party job back home in Stavropol — an unconventional choice for rising apparatchiks, who coveted cushier jobs in Moscow or abroad. It was unglamorous stuff: Gorbachev’s hometown was a notorious backwater, rife with corruption and petty Stalinist bureaucracy. But the young couple had come there at an auspicious time. Nikita Khrushchev, the winner of a power struggle to succeed Stalin after his death in 1953, had just delivered his infamous “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress, in which he denounced some — but not all — of the dictator’s violent repressions in the Great Terror of the late 1930s. The shock to the system ushered in a period known as the “Thaw,” where top-down control gradually loosened and minor criticism was tolerated. Gorbachev would later say that his early years in Stavropol struggling with retrograde local officials laid the seeds in his mind for perestroika.
Gorbachev quickly became a star in the provincial party apparat, winning plaudits for his efforts to improve agricultural production. Eventually, he caught the eye of senior Communists who plucked him to Moscow to be agriculture secretary for the party’s Central Committee in 1978. By 1980, he became the youngest-ever member of the Politburo, its elite nine-member executive committee.
Gorbachev’s rise came as the Soviet Union had begun to stagnate drastically. Under the aging Leonid Brezhnev, who deposed Khrushchev in 1964, corruption was rampant, the economy moribund, and most of the leadership equally geriatric. A few of them understood the dangers and made Gorbachev their protégé, but had the unfortunate habit of dying before he had time to do much. Mikhail Suslov, the party’s ideological leader, was the first to go in 1982. Yuri Andropov, the KGB boss who succeeded Brezhnev later that year, lasted until 1984. Konstantin Chernenko was already gravely ill when he took over from Andropov and died in March 1985. Jokes about season tickets to party leaders’ funerals circulated widely.
Three hours after Chernenko’s death was announced, Gorbachev became general secretary. At 54, he was the youngest man to take up the post. He saw his appointment as less a chance to break with Soviet tradition and embrace the West than to return the party to its Leninist roots. “Much of the atmosphere that Stalin created still existed and people were afraid of talking to the government,” he told the Times of London in 2009. “We said very directly, ‘Our people are free to speak their minds, free to write, free to assemble and discuss.’ And what glasnost meant was that the entire society was set in motion.”
Changes came fast. Gorbachev fought to curb alcoholism by raising prices and restricting sales. Communists who had fallen afoul of Stalin, perished in the terror, and been airbrushed from history were rehabilitated. Limited private enterprise was introduced. In 1989, Gorbachev ended the disastrous decadelong Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, often thought of as the USSR’s equivalent of the Vietnam War. Gorbachev reformed the structure of the USSR too, creating a presidential system and holding the first free election in the country since 1917.
Foreign leaders saw a chance for a breakthrough. “I like Mr. Gorbachev,” British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said after meeting him in 1984. “We can do business together.” Relations with the US had been particularly dire. US president Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and, parsing Trotsky, mused about “[leaving] Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”
With Gorbachev in power, that changed quickly. In October 1986, the two men met in Reykjavik for a summit where they pledged to work to eliminate nuclear weapons. Though the talks collapsed over Reagan’s refusal to abandon his “Star Wars” missile defense program, they laid ground for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of missiles, the next year. Gorbachev loosened the Soviet sphere of influence in the Eastern Bloc, choosing to stand by as, one by one, jubilant crowds overthrew Communist dictatorships. By the time Gorbachev met Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, in Malta in December 1989, he felt confident enough to declare the Cold War over.
“The world is leaving one epoch and entering another,” he said. “We are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era.”
At home, however, trouble was brewing. Gorbachev’s reforms failed to revive the Soviet Union’s struggling economy; for many ordinary Soviet citizens, perestroika came to mean long lines and empty shelves. Nationalist fervor led to violent clashes with police throughout the country. Legislatures in individual republics that had largely been set up as ceremonial valves for letting off dissent began asserting their primacy over Soviet laws. A new treaty made their membership in the Soviet Union entirely voluntary.
Hardliners in the Soviet apparat became convinced Gorbachev’s reform was driving the Soviet Union to collapse. On Aug. 19, 1991, a group of eight top officials arrested Gorbachev at his dacha in Crimea and declared a state of emergency due to the premier’s “illness.” A recording of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, looping for hours, played on state TV and radio as tanks moved into central Moscow. Thousands of Muscovites mobilized to resist them around the White House, home to Russia’s parliament. Soldiers held their fire, and the putschists’ confidence wavered. The mass arrests they planned — they ordered hundreds of thousands of pairs of handcuffs made for the occasion — never happened. Boris Yeltsin, who had recently been elected president of Russia and who was one of the main targets for arrest, triumphantly climbed on a tank to make a speech. It became the enduring image of the coup attempt. The plotters held a disastrous press conference (in which some of them were visibly drunk) and were arrested within days.
Gorbachev was restored to power, but the damage had been done. The Soviet Union looked unsustainable as Soviet, and as a union. Over the next few months, its death spiral intensified. Yeltsin, whose popularity skyrocketed after his bravura during the coup attempt, abolished the party in Russia and gradually began to take over government functions from Gorbachev. One by one, individual republics declared their independence. By the time Ukraine voted overwhelmingly to leave in early December, the end was near. Within weeks, the USSR was replaced with the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Yeltsin took over Gorbachev’s Kremlin office.
Gorbachev tried to find a place for himself in Russia’s new democratic politics, but none was forthcoming. Many ordinary Russians, struggling with the effects of “shock therapy” capitalist reforms, came to revile him for allowing the country they grew up in to collapse. A majority of respondents to a 2013 poll said that Brezhnev had been the best Soviet leader, and Gorbachev the worst. He ran for president in 1996 but came in seventh with less than a percent of the vote. Multiple efforts to start his own party fared no better.
Though relegated to the sidelines of politics, Gorbachev remained active throughout his later years. He set up a foundation in his name, modeled after a US presidential library. He wrote prolifically, gave frequent interviews to riff on affairs of the day, and became a regular guest of honor at black-tie galas. He even appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial where diners thanked him for bringing capitalism — and, thus, Pizza Hut — to Russia.
Still, Gorbachev remained convinced in his final years that history would come to approve of the forces he unleashed. “A new generation has grown up in Russia under entirely different conditions — and it is much freer than in the Soviet Union,” he said in an interview with Der Spiegel in 2015. “Glasnost and perestroika live on and they can no longer be stopped.”