The last head of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, is dead. He lived to be 91. Gorbachev died at Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital, a heavily guarded medical facility managed by the Russian president’s administrative directorate. Spokespeople for the hospital said in a press release that the former Soviet leader died on Tuesday evening, August 30, “after a severe and prolonged illness.” Sources told the tabloid Mash that Gorbachev arrived at Central Clinical Hospital the day before for hemodialysis to address alleged problems with his kidneys. At the time of this writing, the date of Gorbachev’s funeral isn’t set, but officials have announced that he will be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery beside his late wife, Raisa Gorbacheva, who died in September 1999. Meduza reviews reactions to the passing of the last Soviet leader and looks back at his legacy.
Vladimir Putin has expressed his “deep condolences,” speaking through his press secretary. Other world leaders have also responded to the news of Gorbachev’s death. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recalled Gorbachev’s “crucial role” in ending the Cold War and “bringing down the Iron Curtain.” Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, “In a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, [Gorbachev’s] tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all.”
Around the world, other public figures and celebrities are commenting on Gorbachev’s death, as well. Political expert Ekaterina Schulmann wrote that he “got out alive from the terrifying Soviet Olympus, where it was thought you only left [dragged out] feet first, and he died a human being.”
Journalist Yuri Saprykin thanked Gorbachev for dissolving state censorship and paving the way to a cultural renaissance in Russia. “He was someone who, I’m sure, saved the world from nuclear war and gave us all at least 35 more years of life, and they weren’t the worst 35 years, either,” Saprykin wrote on his Telegram channel, praising the USSR’s last leader for “not clinging to power and believing in peace.”
Sharing a photo of the two shaking hands, former California Governor and Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted about Gorbachev that he was “lucky to call him a friend,” adding that “all of us can learn from his fantastic life.” Schwarzenegger also described him as “a hero who dismantled the Communist system despite what it meant for his own power.”
Mikhail Gorbachev was the USSR’s first and last president. The position was introduced in 1990, when he had already led the Soviet Union for five years as the general secretary of the USSR’s Communist Party (the holder of the office was the de facto head of the Soviet state). Most famously, Gorbachev withdrew the USSR’s troops from Afghanistan and launched Perestroika — a series of economic and political reforms intended to renew the Soviet system that instead led to the country’s collapse and the dissolution of the entire Eastern Bloc, as well as the so-called “parade of sovereignties” (declarations of independence by the USSR’s constituent republics).
In August 1991, a group of eight high-level officials within the Soviet government, the Communist Party, and the KGB tried but failed to overthrow Gorbachev. A few months later, in late December 1991, Gorbachev resigned from the Soviet presidency, after the leaders of national entities in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed a pact to dissolve the USSR.
Gorbachev won a Nobel Peace Prize in October 1990 “for his leading role” in negotiations that opened up “new possibilities for the world community to solve its pressing problems across ideological, religious, historical, and cultural dividing lines.” In his acceptance speech for the award, Gorbachev said:
I’m an optimist and I believe that together we’ll be able to make the correct historic choice now, without missing a great chance at the turn of the century and the millennium to complete today’s enormously challenging transition to a peaceful world order.
Gorbachev was the second and last-ever Soviet recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, following scientist and peace activist Andrei Sakharov, who got the award in 1975.
Gorbachev is beloved in much of the West (where he’s often called “Gorby”), but many in Russia blame him for the Soviet Union’s collapse. Meanwhile, people who knew him say that Gorbachev was a dedicated socialist who tried his best to save the USSR but wasn’t willing to accept the bloodshed needed to preserve the country. Many years later, Gorbachev said he feared that trying to cling to power after the signing of the Belovezh Accords would have provoked violence: “I think I caught the scent of civil war. It was dangerous. It would have looked like I was doing it just to hold onto power, but that needed to be achieved by democratic means.”
Before Gorbachev stepped down, however, he did order Soviet troops into multiple cities to suppress nationalist unrest. For example, more than a dozen civilians were killed in Lithuania in January 1991, when soldiers fired on independence demonstrators. A year earlier, to halt an anti-Armenian pogrom amid tensions over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region (still unresolved to this day), Gorbachev sent thousands of Soviet troops to Baku, leading to clashes that killed more than 130 civilians. In April 1989, also on Gorbachev’s orders, the Soviet Army crushed a pro-independence demonstration in Tbilisi, killing 21 civilians and injuring hundreds.
In 1996, Gorbachev ran for president in Russia. He won 0.51 percent of the vote, finishing seventh out of 10 candidates. Even after this crushing defeat, he remained engaged in politics. Gorbachev also gave lectures, wrote books, helped launch the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and founded the Gorbachev Foundation, a nonprofit organization that researches the Perestroika era and current issues of Russian history and politics.
In 2004, he won a Grammy Award for best spoken word children’s album together with Bill Clinton and Sophia Loren, who also voiced narration for “Wolf Tracks and Peter and the Wolf.”
Gorbachev supported anti-Lukashenko protesters in Belarus and persecuted activists from the Memorial human rights organization in Russia, but he never publicly condemned the annexation of Crimea or the invasion of Ukraine. In 2016, the former Soviet leader said that he “always favors the will of the people, and most people in Crimea wanted reintegration with Russia.” He never commented on Russia’s more recent full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but his close friend, journalist Alexey Venediktov, claimed in July that Gorbachev was against the war: “He hasn’t spoken publicly, but I can tell you that he’s upset. Naturally, he understands. It was his life’s work. Freedom is Gorbachev’s business.”
Gorbachev’s life is impossible to imagine without his late wife, Raisa. The couple shared 46 years together and raised a daughter. Raisa Gorbacheva was the first wife of a Soviet leader to appear regularly in public. She won many fans abroad, though her reception at home was more mixed. Raisa died in 1999 at the age of 67 after being diagnosed with leukemia. Gorbachev never remarried.
“For almost 50 years, Raisa and I were together, side by side, and it was never a burden. On the contrary, we were always good together,” Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs. On the 10th anniversary of her death, he released a charity album together with Russian rock legend Andrey Makarevich, titled “Songs for Raisa.”
This article was first published in Meduza, and republished in Transit Magasin under a Creative Common CC BY 4.0 – Attribution 4.0 International. You can find the original article using this link.