Mikhail Gorbachev, whose attempt to modernize communist control of the Soviet Union unleashed forces that brought down the superpower, has died, Russian news agencies reported Tuesday.
The Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow said Gorbachev died after “a long and grave illness. ” He was 91.
Leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until its dissolution in 1991, Gorbachev tried to revive the moribund communist state by introducing polices of economic and political openness, known as perestroika and glasnost.
One of the major global political figures of the second half of the 20th century, Gorbachev introduced significant political and economic change and presented a more modern, friendlier face to the rest of the world than that of his predecessors atop the Soviet regime. The reforms met with resistance but eventually sparked the end of the Cold War.
His posture paved the way for a reduction in nuclear arms with the United States, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize. His changes by lui sparked demands – from Russians and the states controlled by the Soviet Union for decades – for an end to the dictatorship of the Communist Party that Gorbachev had served his entire life di lui.
Ultimately he was pushed by democratic activists led by Moscow’s mayor, Boris Yeltsin, to abolish the Communist Party, eliminating a totalitarian regime that had taken over Eastern Europe and spread communism worldwide.
Gorbachev served as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in effect its leader, and in 1990 he became the Soviet Union’s first president.
Under his rule, the Soviets began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 1988, ending a disastrous 10-year military campaign that saw 15,000 Soviet soldiers and about 1 million Afghan civilians killed.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his efforts at arms control in which he and President Ronald Reagan agreed to the first reductions in nuclear stockpiles between the two nations. The Norwegian Nobel Committee said he contributed significantly to opening “new possibilities for the world community to solve its pressing problems across ideological, religious, historical and cultural dividing lines. ”
A year later, he was out of power as the Soviet Union was disbanded and its Eastern European bloc freed, followed by the first free elections in more than 70 years won by his arch-enemy Yeltsin. Gorbachev’s resignation signaled the end of the Cold War period that followed World War II and was marked by rising tensions between the United States and its allies against the Soviets and their puppet states.
It was during the Cold War that the world came closest to nuclear war, when the USSR tried establishing missiles sites in Cuba in 1962.
Gorbachev hoped to revive Soviet fortunes, devastated by central planning of the economy and hampered by attempts to keep pace with a military buildup under Reagan, whose pursuit of a space-based anti-nuclear missile system agitated the Soviets. The two leaders agreed to stop making nuclear weapons and to eliminate some.
Under his domestic policy of glasnost, Gorbachev allowed Soviet citizens to speak more freely and have limited electoral rights. Under perestroika, or restructuring, he introduced private ownership and the first steps toward establishing a market economy. He opened the door for some Soviet citizens to travel outside the country after decades of being banned from doing so.
Gorbachev’s changes were criticized at home as either too much too fast or not enough, as common goods grew scarce on store shelves, civic unrest grew, particularly among the Baltic and Caucasus states, and national economic problems deepened.
As Moscow weakened, Eastern bloc countries abandoned communism, and some republics long dominated by the Soviets demanded independence. In August 1991, hard-liners in the government launched an abortive coup d’etat. They ordered the Soviet Army to put down demonstrations in Moscow, but the soldiers refused at the urging of Yeltsin.
After the failed takeover, Gorbachev attempted to change the party further, but his power had been overwhelmed by the democratic forces. He resigned from the presidency Dec. 25, 1991, a day before the Soviet Union dissolved.
Gorbachev’s rise to power, after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982 and the two leaders who briefly followed Brezhnev, roughly coincided with that of Reagan, who was first elected in 1980 with a political appeal based in part on hardline anti-communism. The two met in five summits, the first in Geneva in 1985, where they sat around a fire with only interpreters present in an effort to find common ground and build a relationship, both between themselves and between their countries.
A year later, they met in Reykjavik, Iceland, where they came close to an agreement to eliminate all medium-range missiles based in Europe. The plan failed in disagreement over the US space-based missile-defense system, a project of Reagan’s that he refused to yield.
They met three more times, in Washington, Moscow and New York, to advance their dialogue. In 1987, they signed a treaty eliminating all nuclear-armed ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 310 to 3,100 miles – the first agreement to reduce nuclear weapons.
Reagan famously invoked Gorbachev’s name in his speech in 1987 at the Berlin Wall, when he demanded that the Soviet leader tear down the wall that had divided the city between east and west and become emblematic of the Cold War.
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! Reagan said.
Reagan prefaced that demand with a figurative hat tip to the political and economic changes Gorbachev had achieved: “Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control. ”
“Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state?” Reagan asked. “Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? ”
Two years later, in 1989, the wall was opened to permit travel between the two Berlins, and it was gone a year later.
Gorbachev was born Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev on March 2, 1931, to a Russian-Ukrainian peasant family in the village of Privolnoye, Krasnogvardeisky district, Stavropol territory, an agricultural region in the south of the Russian republic.
After leaving power, Gorbachev focused on his Gorbachev Foundation, focusing on change in Russia. In 1999, his wife di lui, Raisa, whom he married in 1953, died after battling leukemia.
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