World

Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader who ended the Cold War, dead at 91

Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War without bloodshed but failed to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union, died on Tuesday at the age of 91, hospital officials in Moscow said.

Forged partnerships with West to remove Iron Curtain but failed to prevent collapse of Soviet Union

An old man with a birthmark on his scalp looks off camera.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, pictured in 2014, has died at the age of 91. (Al-Moutasim Al-Maskery/The Associated Press)

Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War without bloodshed but failed to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union, died on Tuesday at the age of 91, hospital officials in Moscow said.

Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, forged arms reduction deals with the United States and partnerships with Western powers to remove the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since the Second World War and bring about the reunification of Germany.

But his broad internal reforms — in particular the twin policies of glasnost and perestroika, "openness" and "restructuring," respectively — helped weaken the Soviet Union to the point where it fell apart.

"Mikhail Gorbachev passed away tonight after a serious and protracted disease," Interfax news agency cited Russia's Central Clinical Hospital as saying in a statement.

The Russian Embassy in Canada confirmed his death to CBC News in an email statement.

Three men in suits crowded around a table. One is pointing to a book while holding a handful of pens.
Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan exchange pens during the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signing ceremony at the White House on Dec. 8, 1987. Gorbachev's translator Pavel Palazhchenko stands in the middle. (Bob Daugherty/The Associated Press)

Putin expressed "his deepest condolences" on Gorbachev's death, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Interfax.

"Tomorrow he will send a telegram of condolences to his family and friends," he said.

Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century and in 2018 said he would reverse it if he could.

World leaders pay tribute

In an interview with CBC's Power & Politics, former prime minister Brian Mulroney called Gorbachev "the exact opposite" of Putin.

"Gorbachev was a visionary who sought peace and greater prosperity for his citizens," Mulroney said. "He sought restraint on the exercise of military power and this is the opposite of what we're witnessing now with this reckless and unacceptable war in Ukraine."

In a separate interview with As It Happens, Mulroney said Gorbachev "was friendlier than the Soviet leaders of past — all stern apparatchiks from the Communist regime who knew very little about the rest of the world and seemed less inclined to learn anything about it, about us."

WATCH | A 'transformative leader,' says Mulroney: 

'I feel a sense of loss,' says former PM of Gorbachev

3 months ago
Duration 4:58
Brian Mulroney speaks about how Mikhail Gorbachev was a good friend to him, and a 'transformational leader' who worked for peace.

"He was a great leader with a profound sense of what could take place, but also a sense of history," Mulroney said.

Other world leaders were quick to pay tribute. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Gorbachev had opened the way for a free Europe.

U.S. President Joe Biden called Gorbachev a "man of remarkable vision" and a "rare leader" who had "the imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it.

"The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people," Biden said in a statement.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Gorbachev's "tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all."

After decades of Cold War tension and confrontation, Gorbachev brought the Soviet Union closer to the West than at any point since the Second World War.

But he saw that work marred in the final months of his life, as Putin's invasion of Ukraine brought Western sanctions crashing down on Moscow, as politicians in both Russia and the West began to speak openly of a new Cold War.

"Gorbachev died in a symbolic way when his life's work, freedom, was effectively destroyed by Putin," said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Gorbachev during a news conference following bilateral talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at Schloss Gottorf Palace in the northern German town of Schleswig on Dec. 21, 2004. (Christian Charisius/Reuters)

Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War and reducing nuclear tensions.

He will be buried in Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery next to his wife, Raisa, who died in 1999, said Tass news agency, citing the foundation that the former Soviet leader set up once he left office.

Reforms emboldened nationalists

When pro-democracy protests swept across the Soviet bloc nations of communist Eastern Europe in 1989, he refrained from using force — unlike previous Kremlin leaders who had sent tanks to crush uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But the protests fuelled aspirations for autonomy in the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, which disintegrated over the next two years in chaotic fashion.

Gorbachev — who was briefly deposed in an August 1991 coup by party hardliners — struggled in vain to prevent that collapse.

"The era of Gorbachev is the era of perestroika, the era of hope, the era of our entry into a missile-free world … but there was one miscalculation: we did not know our country well," said Vladimir Shevchenko, who headed Gorbachev's protocol office when he was Soviet leader.

"Our union fell apart, that was a tragedy and his tragedy," RIA news agency cited him as saying.

WATCH | CBC speaks with Gorbachev: 

Interview: Mikhail Gorbachev

13 years ago
Duration 4:01
20 years after the end of the Cold War, Alexandra Szacka talks to former USSR head Mikhail Gorbachev

On becoming general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 at just 54, he had set out to revitalize the system by introducing limited political and economic freedoms, but his reforms spun out of control.

"He was a good man — he was a decent man. I think his tragedy is in a sense that he was too decent for the country he was leading," said Gorbachev biographer William Taubman, a professor emeritus at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

His policy of glasnost allowed previously unthinkable freedom of speech and, thus, 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.

By the end of his rule, he was powerless to halt the whirlwind he had started. 

"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 Associated Press in 1992, 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." 

WATCH | Gorbachev was more popular in West than at home: 

Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader who ended Cold War, dead at age 91

3 months ago
Duration 4:03
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who’s credited with ending the Cold War without bloodshed, has died at age 91. As the last leader of the Soviet Union before it disbanded, he leaves behind a divisive legacy.

Many 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.

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

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

Cold War historian Sergey Radchenko said Gorbachev "lived to see some of his worst fears realized and his brightest dreams drowned in blood and filth. But he will be remembered fondly by historians, and one day — I believe it — by Russians."

Gorbachev and Bulgarian Chairman of the Council of State Todor Zhivkov, at far right, talk to residents of Sofia in October 1985. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Gorbachev was 92. In fact, he was 91.
    Aug 30, 2022 4:52 PM ET

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press

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