Putin in tears over the death of last Soviet leader, Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

How sad ARE you, Vlad?

Russian president Putin has expressed sympathy over the death of Mikhail Gorbachev aged 91 – despite claiming the end of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest catastrophe’ and being accused of destroying his legacy of peace.

Vladimir Putin’s spin doctors claimed that the Russian tyrant expressed ‘sympathies’ over the death of Mikhail Gorbachev aged 91 – even though the last leader of the USSR is largely despised by Kremlin hardliners for failing to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union after the Cold War.

The Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow said that Gorbachev died ‘after a serious and long illness’ but gave no other details, according to the Interfax, TASS and RIA Novosti news agencies. 

He had been suffering from long term kidney problems and was on dialysis – and had been confined to a clinic during the Covid pandemic.

Though in power less than seven years, Gorbachev unleashed a series of reforms that resulted in breathtaking changes, including the reunification of Germany, the collapse of Stalin’s empire, the liberation of Eastern European nations including Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic republics from decades of Russian domination, and the end of the nuclear confrontation with the West.

In a statement, Putin’s spokesman said that the President – who has famously called the collapse of the USSR the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century – has expressed ‘deep sympathies’ over Gorbachev’s death. Reacting to the news, Western leaders including Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the former Soviet ruler as ‘trusted and respected’, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called Gorbachev a ‘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 Cold War’.

On becoming general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 at the age of 54, Gorbachev inherited a vast empire in decline – and set out to revitalise the system by introducing limited political and economic freedoms. His policy of ‘glasnost’ – free speech – allowed previously unthinkable criticism of the party and the state, but it also emboldened nationalists who began to press for independence in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and elsewhere. 

Gorbachev largely refrained from using force to handle the pro-democracy protests which swept across the Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe in 1989 – unlike previous Kremlin leaders who had sent tanks to crush uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in stark contrast to the Tiananmen Square massacre by China in the same year.

However, he was unable to keep a lid on the aspirations for autonomy in the 15 republics of the USSR, and his authority was fatally undermined after surviving a shambolic coup by hardliners in August 1991 that fell apart after three days. Four months later his great rival, Boris Yeltsin, engineered the break-up of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day.

Though the West celebrated the demise of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Russians never forgave Gorbachev for the turbulence that his reforms unleashed, considering the subsequent plunge in their living standards too high a price to pay for democracy.

Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Gorbachev attending the German-Russian Petersburg Dialogue conference in Dresden, 2006/CREDIT: Reuters

A quarter-century after the collapse, Gorbachev said he had not considered using widespread force to try to keep the USSR together because he feared chaos in a nuclear country.

‘The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And it would have immediately pushed the country into a civil war,’ he told The Associated Press.

Many of the changes, including the Soviet breakup, bore no resemblance to the transformation that Gorbachev had envisioned when he became the Soviet leader in March 1985. By the end of his rule he was powerless to halt the whirlwind he had sown. Yet Gorbachev may have had a greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than any other political figure.

‘I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world,’ Gorbachev told The AP in a 1992 interview shortly after he left office.

‘I am often asked, would I have started it all again if I had to repeat it? Yes, indeed. And with more persistence and determination,’ he said.

Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War and spent his later years collecting accolades and awards from all corners of the world. 

Yet he was widely despised at home, and he saw his legacy largely destroyed in the final months of his long life, as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brought Western sanctions crashing down on Moscow, and politicians in both Russia and the West began to speak openly of a new Cold War – and the risk of a nuclear Third World War.

Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-appointed official in a part of Ukraine now occupied by pro-Moscow forces, said Gorbachev had ‘deliberately led the (Soviet) Union to its demise’ and called him a traitor. 

And after visiting Gorbachev in hospital on June 30, liberal economist Ruslan Grinberg told the armed forces news outlet Zvezda: ‘He gave us all freedom – but we don’t know what to do with it.’

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, though, 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 to 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 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.

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 reign. 

Paying tribute, Boris Johnson praised Gorbachev’s ‘courage and integrity’, writing on Twitter: ‘I’m saddened to hear of the death of Gorbachev. I always admired the courage and integrity he 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 added, referring to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed Gorbachev as a ‘trusted and respected leader’ who ‘opened the way for a free Europe’.

French President Emmanuel Macron praised Gorbachev as a ‘man of peace’ and sent his ‘condolences for the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, a man of peace whose choices opened up a path of liberty for Russians. His commitment to peace in Europe changed our shared history’.

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said Gorbachev ‘performed great services’ but was ‘not able to implement all of his visions’, telling BBC’s Newsnight: ‘The people of eastern Europe and the German people, and in the end the Russian people, owe him a great debt of gratitude for the inspiration, for the courage in coming forward with these ideas of freedom.’

He added: ‘He will still be remembered in history as a man who started historic transformations that were to the benefit of mankind and to the Russian people.’

Born March 2, 1931 into a peasant family in Russia’s southern Stavropol region, Gorbachev grew up with the hardships of the Second World War and the repressive rule of dictator Joseph Stalin, whose regime sentenced his grandfather to nine years in a labour camp.

As a boy Gorbachev was bright and hard working. At 16 he was awarded the Red Banner of Labour for helping in a record harvest, and in 1950 he won a coveted place at Moscow State University to study law.

Five years later, the ambitious graduate and his young wife Raisa moved back to Stavropol, where he began a rapid rise through the ranks of the Communist Party, becoming the youngest member of the Politburo, at age 49, in 1979.

The ex-farm worker with the rolling south Russian accent and distinctive port-wine birthmark on his head gave notice of his bold ambition soon after winning a Kremlin power struggle in 1985, at the age of 54.

Television broadcasts showed him besieged by workers in factories and farms, allowing them to vent their frustrations with Soviet life and making the case for radical change. It marked a dramatic break with the cabal of old men he succeeded – remote, intolerant of dissent, their chests groaning with medals, dogmatic to the grave. Three ailing Soviet leaders had died in the previous 2-1/2 years.

Gorbachev inherited a land of inefficient farms and decaying factories, a state-run economy he believed could be saved only by the open, honest criticism that had led so often in the past to prison or labour camp. It was a gamble. Many wished him ill.

With his clever, elegant wife Raisa at his side, Gorbachev at first enjoyed massive popular support.

‘My policy was open and sincere, a policy aimed at using democracy and not spilling blood,’ he told Reuters in 2009. ‘But this cost me very dear, I can tell you that.’

His policies of ‘glasnost’ (free speech) and ‘perestroika’ (restructuring) unleashed a surge of public debate arguably unprecedented in Russian history.

Moscow squares seethed with impromptu discussions, censorship all but evaporated, and even the sacred Communist Party was forced to confront its Stalinist crimes.

Glasnost faced a dramatic test in April 1986, when a nuclear power station exploded in Chornobyl, Ukraine, and authorities tried at first to hush up the disaster. Gorbachev pressed on, describing the tragedy as a symptom of a rotten and secretive system.

In December of that year he ordered a telephone to be installed in the flat of dissident Andrei Sakharov, exiled in the city of Gorky, and the next day phoned him to personally invite him back to Moscow. The pace of change was, for many, dizzying.

The West quickly warmed to Gorbachev, who had enjoyed a meteoric rise through regional party ranks to the post of General Secretary. He was, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘a man we can do business with’. The term ‘Gorbymania’ entered the lexicon, a measure of the adulation he inspired on foreign trips.

Gorbachev struck up a warm personal rapport with Ronald Reagan, the hawkish US president who had called the Soviet Union ‘the evil empire’, and with him negotiated a landmark deal in 1987 to scrap intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

In 1989, he pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, ending a war that had killed tens of thousands and soured relations with Washington.

Later that year, as pro-democracy protests swept across the Communist states of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, the world held its breath.

With hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops stationed across Eastern Europe, would Moscow turn its tanks on the demonstrators, as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968?

Gorbachev was under pressure from many to err on the side of force. That he did not may have been his greatest historic contribution – one that was recognised in 1990 with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Reflecting years later, Gorbachev said the cost of trying to prevent the fall of the Berlin Wall would have been too high.

‘If the Soviet Union had wished, there would have been nothing of the sort and no German unification. But what would have happened? A catastrophe or World War Three.’

The Homefront

At home, though, problems mounted.

The glasnost years saw the rise of regional tensions, often rooted in the repressions and ethnic deportations of the Stalin era. The Baltic states pushed for independence and there was trouble also in Georgia, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, a leading reformist ally, resigned dramatically in December 1990, warning that hardliners were in the ascendant and ‘a dictatorship is approaching’.

The following month, Soviet troops killed 14 people at Lithuania’s main TV tower in an attack that Gorbachev denied ordering. In Latvia, five demonstrators were killed by Soviet special forces.

In March 1991, a referendum produced an overwhelming majority for preserving the Soviet Union as ‘a renewed ‘federation of equal sovereign republics’, but six of the 15 republics boycotted the vote.

In the summer, the hardliners struck, scenting weakness in a man now abandoned by many liberal allies. Six years after entering the Kremlin, Gorbachev and Raisa sat imprisoned at their Crimean holiday home on the Black Sea, their telephone lines cut, a warship anchored offshore.

The ‘August coup’ was mounted by a so-called Emergency Committee including the KGB chief, prime minister, defence minister and vice president. They feared a complete collapse of the Communist system and sought to prevent power from draining away from the centre to the republics, of which the biggest and most powerful was Yeltsin’s Russia.

The putschists ultimately failed, assuming wrongly that they could rely on the party, army and bureaucracy to obey orders as in the past. But it was no outright victory for Gorbachev.

Instead it was the burly white-haired Yeltsin who seized the moment, standing atop a tank in central Moscow to rally thousands against the coup. When Gorbachev returned from Crimea, Yeltsin humiliated him in the Russian parliament, signing a decree banning the Russian Communist Party despite Gorbachev’s protestations.

In later years, Gorbachev dwelt on whether he could have averted the events that ultimately triggered the Soviet Union’s collapse, described by Putin as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

Had he been reckless in leaving Moscow that hot August, as coup rumours swirled?

‘I thought they would be idiots to take such a risk precisely at that moment, because it would sweep them away too,’ he told the German magazine Der Spiegel on the 20th anniversary of the coup. ‘I’d become exhausted after all those years … But I shouldn’t have gone away. It was a mistake.’

Personal revenge may have mingled with politics when in late 1991, at a secluded country house, Yeltsin and the leaders of the republics of Ukraine and Belarus signed accords that abolished the Soviet Union and replaced it with a Commonwealth of Independent States.

On December 25, 1991, the red flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time and Gorbachev appeared on national television to announce his resignation.

Free elections, a free press, representative legislatures and a multi-party system had all become a reality under his watch, he said.

‘We opened up to the world, renounced interference in other countries’ affairs and the use of troops beyond our borders, and were met with trust, solidarity and respect.’

But the USSR, the first Communist state and a nuclear superpower that had sent the first man into space and cast its influence across the globe, was no more. Hardliners accused him of destroying the planned economy and throwing aside seven decades of Communist achievements. To liberal critics, he talked too much, compromised too much, and balked at decisive reforms.

As Moscow’s control ebbed, ethnic tensions broke out that were to erupt into full-scale wars in places such as Chechnya, Georgia and Moldova after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Three decades later, some of those conflicts remain unresolved. Thousands were killed in late 2020 when war broke out again between ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

With his Nobel prize in hand and his stellar reputation abroad, Gorbachev gradually settled into a second career. He made several attempts to found a social democratic party, opened a think-tank, the Gorbachev Foundation, and co-founded the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, critical of the Kremlin to this day.

In 1996, he put his popularity to the test by running for president. But Yeltsin won decisively, and Gorbachev secured a dismal 0.5% of the vote.

Increasingly frail in later years, Gorbachev spoke out to voice his concern at rising tensions between Russia and the United States, and warned against a return to the Cold War he had helped to end.

‘We have to continue the course we mapped. We have to ban war once and for all. Most important is to get rid of nuclear weapons,’ he said in 2018.

His tragedy was that in trying to redesign an ossified, monolithic structure, to preserve the Soviet Union and save the Communist system, he ended up presiding over the demise of both.

The world, however, would never be the same.