Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose rise to power in the Soviet Union set in motion a series of revolutionary changes that transformed the map of Europe and ended the Cold War that had threatened the world with nuclear annihilation, has died in Moscow. He was 91.
His death was announced on Tuesday by Russia’s state news agencies, citing the city’s central clinical hospital. The reports said he had died after an unspecified “long and grave illness.”
Few leaders in the 20th century, indeed in any century, have had such a profound effect on their time. In little more than six tumultuous years, Mr. Gorbachev lifted the Iron Curtain, decisively altering the political climate of the world.
At home he promised and delivered greater openness as he set out to restructure his country’s society and faltering economy. It was not his intention to liquidate the Soviet empire, but within five years of coming to power he had presided over the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He ended the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan and, in an extraordinary five months in 1989, stood by as the Communist system imploded from the Baltics to the Balkans in countries already weakened by widespread corruption and moribund economies.
For this he was hounded from office by hard-line Communist plotters and disappointed liberals alike, the first group fearing that he would destroy the old system and the other worried that he would not.
It was abroad that he was hailed as heroic. To George F. Kennan, the distinguished American diplomat and Sovietologist, Mr. Gorbachev was “a miracle,” a man who saw the world as it was, unblinkered by Soviet ideology.
But to many inside Russia, the upheaval Mr. Gorbachev had wrought was a disaster. President Vladimir V. Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” For Mr. Putin — and his fellow K.G.B. veterans who now form the inner circle of power in Russia — the end of the U.S.S.R. was a moment of shame and defeat that the invasion of Ukraine this year was meant to help undo.
“The paralysis of power and will is the first step toward complete degradation and oblivion,” Mr. Putin said on Feb. 24, when he announced the start of the invasion, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Gorbachev made no public statement of his own about the war in Ukraine, though his foundation on Feb. 26 called for a “speedy cessation of hostilities.” A friend of his, the radio journalist Aleksei A. Venediktov, said in a July interview that Mr. Gorbachev was “upset” about the war, viewing it as having undermined “his life’s work.”
When he came to power, Mr. Gorbachev was a loyal son of the Communist Party, but one who had come to see things with new eyes. “We cannot live this way any longer,” he told Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who would become his trusted foreign minister, in 1984. Within five years he had overturned much that the party held inviolable.
A man of openness, vision and great vitality, he looked at the legacy of seven decades of Communist rule and saw official corruption, a labour force lacking motivation and discipline, factories that produced shoddy goods, and a distribution system that guaranteed consumers little but empty shelves — empty of just about everything but vodka.
The Soviet Union had become a major world power weighed down by a weak economy. As East-West détente permitted light into its closed society, the growing class of technological, scientific and cultural elites could no longer fail to measure their country against the West and find it wanting.
The problems were clear; the solutions, less so. Mr. Gorbachev had to feel his way toward his promised restructuring of the Soviet political and economic systems. He was caught between tremendous opposing forces: On one hand, the habits ingrained by 70 years of cradle-to-grave subsistence under Communism; on the other, the imperatives of moving quickly to change the old ways and to demonstrate that whatever dislocation resulted was temporary and worth the effort.
It was a task he was forced to hand over to others when he was removed from office, a consequence of his own ambivalence and a failed coup against him by hard-liners whom he himself had elevated to his inner circle.
The openness Mr. Gorbachev sought — what came to be known as glasnost — and his policy of perestroika, aimed at restructuring the very underpinnings of society, became a double-edged sword. In setting out to fill in the “blank spots” of Soviet history, as he put it, with frank discussion of the country’s errors, he freed his impatient allies to criticize him and the threatened Communist bureaucracy to attack him.
Still, Mr. Gorbachev’s first five years in power were marked by significant, even extraordinary, accomplishments:
■ He presided over an arms agreement with the United States that eliminated for the first time an entire class of nuclear weapons, and began the withdrawal of most Soviet tactical nuclear weapons from Eastern Europe.
■ He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, a tacit admission that the invasion in 1979 and the nine-year occupation had been a failure.
■ While he equivocated at first, he eventually exposed the nuclear power-plant disaster at Chernobyl to public scrutiny, a display of candor unheard-of in the Soviet Union.
■ He sanctioned multiparty elections in Soviet cities, a democratic reform that in many places drove stunned Communist leaders out of office.
■ He oversaw an attack on corruption in the upper reaches of the Communist Party, a purge that removed hundreds of bureaucrats from their posts.
■ He permitted the release of the confined dissident Andrei D. Sakharov, the physicist who had been instrumental in developing the Soviet hydrogen bomb.■ He lifted restrictions on the media, allowing previously censored books to be published and previously banned movies to be shown.
■ In a stark departure from the Soviet history of official atheism, he established formal diplomatic contacts with the Vatican and helped promulgate a freedom-of-conscience law guaranteeing the right of the people to “satisfy their spiritual needs.”
But if Mr. Gorbachev was lionized abroad as having helped change the world — he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 — he was vilified at home as having failed to live up to the promise of economic change. It became widely said that in a free vote, Mr. Gorbachev could be elected president anywhere but the Soviet Union.
After five years of Mr. Gorbachev, store shelves remained empty while the union disintegrated. Mr. Shevardnadze, who had been his right hand in bringing a peaceful end to Soviet control in Eastern Europe, resigned in late 1990, warning that dictatorship was coming and that reactionaries in the Communist Party were about to cripple reform.
Peter Reddaway, an author and scholar of Russian history, said at the time: “We see the best side of Gorbachev. The Soviets see the other side, and hold him to blame.”
A son of peasants
There was little in his early life that would have led anyone to believe that Mikhail Gorbachev could become such a dynamic leader. His official biography, issued after he became the new party chief, traced the well-traveled path of a good, loyal Communist.Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in Privolnoye, a farming village in the Stavropol region of the Caucasus. His parents were genuine peasants, earning their bread by the sweat of their brows. During his infancy, the forced collectivization of the land turned a once-fertile region into “a famine disaster area,” the exiled writer and biologist Zhores A. Medvedev wrote in a biography of Mr. Gorbachev. “The death from starvation was very high,” he added. “In some villages, all the children between the ages of 1 and 2 died.”
Misha, as Mikhail was known, was a bright-eyed youngster whose early photographs show him in a Cossack’s fur hat. He grew up in a house of straw held together with mud and manure and with no indoor plumbing. But his family was well respected among the Communist faithful. Mr. Gorbachev wrote in his book “Memoirs” that both his grandfathers had been arrested for crimes against the Czarist state.
Still, the family’s embrace of Soviet ideology was not all-encompassing; Mr. Gorbachev’s mother and grandmother had him baptized.
After graduating from the village primary school, he attended secondary school in Krasnogvardeisk and joined the Komsomol, the Communist Party youth organization. While his father was at the front during World War II, young Mr. Gorbachev worked as a combine operator’s assistant. After the war, he was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner of Labour.
In 1950, at 19, he left home to attend Moscow State University, a journey of more than 850 miles that took him through an impoverished countryside, devastated first by collectivization and then by the German invasion in World War II. At the end of the trip was the Stromynka, a vast, austere and crowded dormitory — eight to 15 students to a room — that had been a military barracks in the time of Peter the Great.Once he became a law student, Mr. Gorbachev was permitted to read books, forbidden to other students, on the history of political ideas. He became familiar with Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel and Rousseau. (Years later, during the meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies that installed him as an American-style president, delegates were seen carrying around copies of the Constitution of the United States and asking American observers about “checks and balances.”) Mr. Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader since Lenin to have studied law, and as a student of courtroom rhetoric he became an effective public speaker. Fellow students recalled him as self-confident, forthright and open-minded, but also quite capable of unscrupulous scheming. In one instance, according to Time magazine, he got himself named Komsomol organizer for his class by getting his predecessor drunk and then denouncing him at the next day’s meeting.
Most accounts say that after joining the Communist Party, Mr. Gorbachev was a loyal functionary, although in his book “On My Country and the World,” he wrote that he had had reservations about Stalin, which he expressed only privately.
One evening his friends dragged him away from his books to a ballroom dancing class, where he found himself waltzing with a lively and attractive philosophy student named Raisa Maximovna Titarenko. They began dating. More sophisticated than he was, Raisa took the earnest and still provincial Mikhail to concerts and museums, filling in the gaps in his cultural education. They were married in 1953.
But a life in Moscow’s more cultivated society was not immediately in the cards. Mr. Gorbachev returned to the provinces in 1955, taking his young wife with him. The next year he was named first secretary of the Komsomol for the Stavropol region.
It was the start of his Soviet political career — he began inching up the ladder in municipal posts — but it would keep him in Stavropol for the next 22 years. By 1970 his stature had grown sufficiently that he was named party chief for the entire Stavropol region, a post equivalent in some respects to the governor of an American state.
He also earned a diploma in agronomy and became a reformer, willing to challenge some tenets of a centralized economy. Through a system of offering private plots of land and bonuses, agricultural production increased as much as 50 percent in some places. But bad weather and breakdowns in the coordination of farm machinery brought more crop failure.
A formative influence on the young Mr. Gorbachev was the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev. Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to the 20th Party Congress in 1956 had exposed the reign of terror of the Stalin era — the purges, mass arrests and labour camps — and changed the complexion of Soviet politics, making a deep impression on Mr. Gorbachev.
So had Khrushchev’s campaign against corruption, party privilege and bureaucratic inefficiency. Mr. Gorbachev and others of his generation came to call themselves “the children of the 20th Congress.”
Unlike most party functionaries, Mr. Gorbachev made it a practice to spend time with workers. But even more important to his future, his position as Stavropol party chief enabled him to rub shoulders with the party’s elite, who came to the region for its spas, some of them reserved almost exclusively for members of the Politburo, the party’s ruling body.
It was Mr. Gorbachev’s task as the local party leader to greet the dignitaries at the train, take them to their dachas, entertain them and escort them back to the railroad station for their return to Moscow. One ailing leader followed another: Premier Alexi N. Kosygin, with a heart condition; Yuri V. Andropov, head of the K.G.B. and briefly premier, with a chronic kidney problem; Mikhail A. Suslov, the party ideologist, who latched on to Mr. Gorbachev as a young counterweight to the aging clique surrounding the supreme leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev.
Mr. Suslov and Mr. Andropov became powerful patrons of Mr. Gorbachev, as did Fyodor D. Kulakov, who was installed in the Politburo in 1971 and put in charge of agriculture. When Mr. Kulakov, who was seen as a possible successor to Mr. Brezhnev, died in 1978, Mr. Gorbachev was chosen to deliver the funeral oration. It was his first speech in Red Square, and the first time television viewers saw the man with the distinctive strawberry birthmark on his forehead.
Returning to Stavropol, Mr. Gorbachev was on hand to welcome Mr. Brezhnev and Konstantin U. Chernenko, a high-ranking Politburo member. Mr. Andropov, who was resting at a nearby spa, also came to greet them. It was a remarkable moment in Soviet history. As a Time magazine biography noted, “There on the narrow platform stood four men who would rule the Soviet Union in succession: Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev.”The meeting was apparently enough to convince Mr. Brezhnev that Mr. Gorbachev was the man to take over the agriculture portfolio for the Central Committee. His opinion may have been fortified by Mr. Gorbachev’s admiring critique of Mr. Brezhnev’s recently ghostwritten memoir, “Little Land.” In his book “ Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire,” David Remnick quoted Mr. Gorbachev as writing, “Communists and all the workers of Stavropol express limitless gratitude to Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev for this literary work of deep philosophical penetration.” It was the stilted language of a party hack. But beneath it, seemingly in hiding, was a reformist zeal.
There was much to reform when the Gorbachevs arrived back in Moscow in 1978 from their long sojourn in the provinces. Hardly any effort had been made to conceal rampant official corruption. Mr. Brezhnev was old and ailing. His relatives were under investigation for shady dealings. The bureaucracy was bloated. Wages were low; people stood in lines at stores when they were supposed to be working, often finding nothing to buy. “They pretend to pay us,” the slogan went, “and we pretend to work.”
It was Mr. Andropov, from his seat high in the Politburo, who guided Mr. Gorbachev’s ascendance. Reported to have been disgusted by the corruption, Mr. Andropov sought to stem it, but he knew that to do so he would have to circumvent the men around Mr. Brezhnev. In Mr. Gorbachev, he found a vigorous lieutenant to help him.
Mr. Gorbachev’s rise to the Politburo was more rapid than that of anyone since Stalin. Before his 50th birthday he was a Central Committee secretary, a position that placed him in the innermost circle of power. Healthy and strong, he stood out among the gerontocracy, a full quarter of a century younger than the 20 people ranked ahead of him. He became a full member of the Politburo in 1980.
Mr. Brezhnev died on Nov. 10, 1982, and his successor, Mr. Andropov, proceeded to wage a yearlong campaign against corruption — forcing workers who were absent without leave to return to work, purging the bureaucracy of deadwood and appointing younger men to top offices. He gave Mr. Gorbachev greater responsibility for the economy and named him a member of the Politburo and committee secretary in charge of ideology, considered the No. 2 job in the party and therefore the country.But when Mr. Andropov died on Feb. 9, 1984, at 69, after a year of debilitating illness, the Politburo named not Mr. Gorbachev but Mr. Chernenko, 72, as general secretary. Mr. Gorbachev was designated to give the nominating speech before the Supreme Soviet, the nation’s highest legislative body, a role that made him the equivalent of the crown prince. The old generation was going to be allowed to bow out gracefully. And it bowed out quickly, as it turned out. Mr. Chernenko was so weak from emphysema that he could not lift his arms to help carry the coffin bearing his predecessor into Red Square. Little more than a year later, his own remains were carried to the same final destination.
Mr. Gorbachev experienced a sense of the country’s economic stagnation and corruption during the Brezhnev years, but it was not until he moved into powerful posts under Mr. Andropov and Mr. Chernenko that he saw how crippling the problems were. As a Central Committee secretary, he arranged for a crash course on the economic crisis and organized seminars specifically on rescuing the agricultural sector.
Already he was demonstrating a flexibility rare for Soviet leaders. Quoting Lenin in a speech, he said the country’s main task was “to mobilize a maximum of initiative and to display a maximum of independence.” The word perestroika (restructuring) was taking shape in his mind.
He nevertheless struck Western visitors as a committed Marxist who accepted without question reports of widespread poverty in the United States and the general view that American presidents took orders from the military-industrial complex. He seemed convinced that the United States was bent on military aggression.
But he understood Western public relations and the power of personality, which he demonstrated in 1983 on a visit to Canada, where he chatted with women, dandled their babies and marveled at the efficiency of Canadian workers and the productivity of Canadian soil.
A year later he traveled to Britain, where he impressed Britons with his knowledge of their literature. Visiting the British Museum, where Karl Marx did much of his research, he remarked, “If people don’t like Marx, they should blame the British Museum.”But when a British lawmaker brought up the issue of persecution of religious groups in the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev’s good humor evaporated. “You govern your society,” he snapped, “you leave us to govern ours.” Still, the British were taken with Mr. Gorbachev and his fashionable wife, who was seen using an American Express gold card to shop at Harrods. “I like Mr. Gorbachev,” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in 1984. “We can do business together.” She later encouraged President Ronald Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev to do business together as well.
‘Nice smile, iron teeth’
With the death of Mr. Chernenko on March 10, 1985, Mr. Gorbachev, who had been substituting for the ailing leader, moved to disarm the opposition and take power. At a hastily called Politburo meeting, Andrei A. Gromyko, the long-time foreign minister, argued the case for Mr. Gorbachev. “Comrades,” he said in a speech, “this man has a nice smile, but he has iron teeth.”
The Central Committee approved the nomination on March 10, 1985. Relieved, one committee member was said to have remarked, “After one leader who was half dead, and another who was half alive, and another who could hardly speak, the youthful, energetic Gorbachev was very welcome.”
Soviet leaders had long kept their grip on power through the cult of personality, using propaganda and the state-run media to exalt them. Mr. Gorbachev put an end to that. There would be no enormous portraits of him along the main thoroughfares. He urged newspapers to stop quoting the party leader in every article; Lenin would suffice. He outflanked party rivals, in one instance arranging the resignation of Leningrad’s party boss, whose rich tastes and corrupt use of power were as well known as his drunken displays.
Perestroika and glasnost (openness) became the watchwords of the Gorbachev era. He would let people see him in person when he visited hospitals, factories and schools, and would ask where they thought things had gone wrong.
There would be no Potemkin villages: He would announce that he was visiting one hospital and turn up at another, where there would have been no time to put up a false front. What he saw and heard embarrassed the Moscow party boss, and Mr. Gorbachev had him pensioned off, installing in his place Boris N. Yeltsin in 1985 and opening a half-decade of rivalry and cooperation between the two men.
In May 1985, Mr. Gorbachev chose the Smolny Institute, the very heart of Communist orthodoxy, where Lenin had declared the triumph of Bolshevism in 1917, to be his platform from which to call for bold reform.
Without notes, he walked back and forth, gesturing with his arms as he cajoled, charmed and exhorted. “We must change our attitudes, from the worker to the minister, the secretary of the Central Committee and the leaders of government,” he said.
“Those who do not intend to adjust and who are an obstacle to solving these new tasks must simply get out of the way,” he continued. “Get out of the way! Don’t be a hindrance!” He demanded harder work and products “of world market standard — no less.”
The speech was broadcast on state television three days later. “The public, which had long since lost interest in the public appearances of party leaders, was captivated,” Mr. Medvedev, his biographer, wrote.
Within seven months Mr. Gorbachev had replaced most of the Politburo’s old guard. The following year he replaced 41 percent of the voting members of the 27th Party Congress and pushed top military officers and thousands of bureaucrats into retirement.
Even Mr. Gromyko, the party stalwart who had nominated him, was removed as foreign minister after 28 years and booted upstairs to the largely ceremonial post of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, or president. He was replaced by Mr. Shevardnadze, then a relatively unknown and reform-minded party secretary from Georgia.If Mr. Gorbachev’s style won him popularity, his reforms were less welcome, none more so than his campaign to curb the nation’s thirst for alcohol. Mr. Gorbachev knew from his years under Mr. Andropov just how much damage vodka was doing to the work force and to families.
A bare two months after he took office, he cut vodka production, increased fines for public drunkenness, reduced the number of places where alcohol could be sold and limited the hours those establishments could remain open, raised the prices of alcoholic beverages by 15 percent to 30 percent, and raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.
He set up programs to tackle the causes of alcoholism. At official banquets and receptions, tables that were once laden with every variety of vodka now offered only mineral water and fruit juice. The shot glasses that were once part of every table setting, and hoisted for toast after toast, disappeared.
The program was greeted with grumbling. Vodka had long been a Russian staple, an escape from the dismal conditions of life, not to mention the source of a multibillion-dollar domestic industry. Many even denounced the new rules as an attack on Russian culture. At the few bottle stores that remained, long lines snaking out of doors and around corners became known as “Gorbachev’s nooses.”
Illegal stills produced so much moonshine that sugar became scarce. By 1987, bootlegging caused tax revenues to fall by some 100 billion rubles. And though many lives had been saved, researchers found that more than 10,000 people died of poisoning from impure alcohol. However, bowing to public discontent, Mr. Gorbachev began relaxing the campaign in 1988.