“Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev died this evening following a serious and prolonged illness,” the central clinical hospital announced on Tuesday, according to RIA Novosti.
The man credited with introducing key political and economic reforms in the USSR and helping to end the Cold War had been in failing health for some time.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told RIA Novosti.
Putin will send a message to Gorbachev’s family and friends on Wednesday, RIA Novosti added.
With his outgoing and charismatic nature, Gorbachev broke the mold of Soviet leaders who until then were mostly aloof and frosty characters. Almost from the start of his term, he strove to bring about significant reforms, so that the system would work more efficiently and more democratically. Hence the two key phrases of the Gorbachev era: “glasnost” (opening) and “perestroika” (restructuring).
“I started these reforms and my guiding stars were freedom and democracy, without bloodshed. Thus, the people would cease to be a flock led by a shepherd. They would become citizens,” he said more late.
He will be buried next to his wife at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, RIA Novosti reported citing the Gorbachev Foundation.
From farm labor to rising party star
Gorbachev had humble beginnings: he was born into a peasant family on March 2, 1931 near Stavropol and as a child he did agricultural work alongside his studies, working with his father who was a combine operator. Later in life, Gorbachev said he was “particularly proud of my ability to instantly detect a fault in the combine, just by the sound of it”.
He became a member of the Communist Party in 1952 and graduated with a law degree from Moscow University in 1955. It was there that he met – and married – fellow student Raisa Titarenko.
In the early 1960s, Gorbachev became head of the agricultural department for the Stavropol region. By the end of the decade, he had risen to the top of the party hierarchy in the region. He came to the attention of Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov, members of the Politburo, the main political body of the communist part of the Soviet Union, who got him elected to the Central Committee in 1971 and organized trips to the abroad for their rising star. .
In 1978, Gorbachev was back in Moscow, and the following year he was chosen as a candidate member of the Politburo. His management of Soviet agriculture was not successful. As he realized, the collective system was fundamentally flawed in more ways than one.
A full member of the Politburo since 1980, Gorbachev became more influential in 1982 when his mentor, Andropov, succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as the party’s general secretary. He earned a reputation as an enemy of corruption and inefficiency, eventually rising to the party’s top spot in March 1985.
“A man you can do business with”
Hoping to transfer resources to the civilian sector of the Soviet economy, Gorbachev began to advocate for an end to the arms race with the West.
However, throughout his six years in power, Gorbachev always seemed to move too fast for the party establishment – which saw its privileges threatened – and too slow for the more radical reformers, who hoped to end the state at single party and command economy.
Desperately trying to keep control of the reform process, he seems to have underestimated the depth of the economic crisis. He also seemed to have had a blind spot for the power of the nationality issue: Glasnost made ever louder calls for independence from the Baltics and other Soviet republics in the late 1980s.
He was successful in foreign policy, but mainly from an international perspective, with other world leaders taking note. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called him “a man you can do business with”.
In 1986, face to face with US President Ronald Reagan at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Gorbachev made a stunning proposal: to eliminate all long-range missiles held by the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 “for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community”.
The resulting pact, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, remained a mainstay of arms control for three decades until in 2019 the United States formally withdrew and the Russian government declared that it had been thrown in the trash.
Revolt of the tough
While Gorbachev’s arms control agreements with the United States could be considered to be in the Soviet interest as well, the separation of some of the countries of Eastern Europe, followed by German unification and the NATO membership for the new unified Germany (West Germany was previously in NATO), angered the old school communists.
By August 1991, the diehards had had enough. With Gorbachev vacationing in Crimea, they staged a revolt. Boris Yeltsin, president of the largest Soviet republic – Russia – and a fierce critic of what he saw as Gorbachev’s halfway reforms, nevertheless came to his aid, facing and defeating the putschists.
But across the Soviet Union, republics – one after another – declared independence, and on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president. Reading his resignation speech, Gorbachev defined what his legacy is likely to be: “The country received freedom, was liberated politically and spiritually, and that was the most important achievement.”
The red flag that flew above the Kremlin, symbol of the USSR, has been lowered. The Soviet Union was over and Yeltsin was in charge. “We live in a new world,” Gorbachev said.
In 1996 Gorbachev ran against Yeltsin for the Russian presidency but won less than 1% of the vote.
Speaking after the presidency
Three years later, Gorbachev lost the love of his life – his 46-year-old wife, Raisa – to cancer. The couple had a daughter, Irina. “In the worst times, I was always very calm and balanced. But now that she’s gone, I don’t want to live anymore. The central point of our lives is gone,” he said.
But Gorbachev went on, speaking out on nuclear disarmament, the environment, poverty – and in memory of his wife, together with the family established the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation to fight childhood cancer.
Previously, he had created the Green Cross – to deal with ecological issues – and the International Foundation for Socio-economic and Political Studies, or Gorbachev Foundation. In 2011, Gorbachev also launched the annual “Gorbachev Prizes” to celebrate “those who have changed the world for the better”.
Gorbachev’s involvement in Russian politics also continued. He was the head of the Social Democratic Party of Russia from 2001 until his resignation in 2004 due to conflicts with the leadership and party leadership.
In 2007, he took the lead of a new Russian political movement, the Union of Social Democrats, which in turn created the Independent Democratic Party of Russia, an opposition party.
In a 2019 interview with CNN, Gorbachev said the United States and Russia must work to prevent a “new cold war” from developing despite rising tensions. “This could turn out to be a hot war which could mean the destruction of our entire civilization. This must not be allowed,” he said.
“All chords in it are preserved and not destroyed,” he said. “But these are the first steps towards the destruction of [that which] must not be destroyed under any circumstances. The ultimate goal of arms control, he added, must be to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether.
Gorbachev’s post-USSR life also featured a few surprises as he worked to raise money for his causes with appearances in advertisements for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton. In 2004, Gorbachev won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for Children for “Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf / Beintus: Wolf Tracks”, which he recorded with former US President Bill Clinton and actress Sophia Loren.
Other accolades include the 2008 Medal of Freedom from the U.S. National Constitution Center and Russia’s highest honor, the Order of St. Andrew, bestowed on him on his 80th birthday in 2011. by then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
But until the end, Gorbachev was a more respected leader in other countries than at home. In Russia, he was reviled by some for destroying the Soviet empire and by others for moving too slowly to free his nation from the grip of communism. In the West, however, he remains the Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped end the Cold War.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Gorbachev died at age 91.
CNN’s Tim Lister contributed reporting.