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Updated: Last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War, dies aged 91

Last updated: 11am (AEST)
Moscow, Russia

Reuters

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, Russian news agencies cited hospital officials as saying.

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

Mikhail Gorbachev2

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev smiles during a news conference marking the 20th anniversary of Perestroika at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, on 21st October, 2005. PICTURE: Reuters/Jim Young

But his broad internal reforms helped weaken the Soviet Union to the point where it fell apart, a moment that President Vladimir Putin has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. 

GLOBAL REACTIONS TO THE DEATH OF MIKHAIL GORBACHEV

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.

Below are some reactions from around the world:

Russian President Vladimir Putin:
He expressed “his deepest condolences,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency. “Tomorrow he will send a telegram of condolences to his family and friends.” 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, a one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history. He did more than any other individual to bring about the peaceful end of the Cold War. The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen:
“Mikhail Gorbachev was a trusted and respected leader. He played a crucial role to end the Cold War and bring down the Iron Curtain. It opened the way for a free Europe…This legacy is one we will not forget.”

The Reagan Foundation and Institute:
“The Reagan Foundation and Institute mourns the loss of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who once was a political adversary of Ronald Reagan’s who ended up becoming a friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gorbachev family and the people of Russia.”

Former US Secretary of State James Baker III:
“History will remember Mikhail Gorbachev as a giant who steered his great nation towards democracy. He played the critical role in a peaceful conclusion of the Cold War by his decision against using force to hold the empire together…The free world misses him greatly.”

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:
“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Mikhail Gorbachev. He was a man who tried to deliver a better life for his people. His life was consequential because, without him and his courage, it would not have been possible to end the Cold War peacefully.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson:
“I always admired the courage & integrity he showed in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion…In a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all.”

Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney:
“He was a good friend, surprising as that might seem…He was a very pleasant man to deal with and he had great vision for the future of his country which is antithetical to that being articulated now. History will remember him as a great transformational leader.

– Compiled by ROSALBA O’BRIEN and KEVIN LIFFEY

“Mikhail Gorbachev passed away tonight after a serious and protracted disease,” Russia’s Central Clinical Hospital said in a statement.

Putin expressed “his deepest condolences”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency.

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

Putin said in 2018 he would reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union if he could, news agencies reported at the time.

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

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, citing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, 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 World War II. 

But he saw that legacy wrecked in the final months of his life, as the invasion of Ukraine brought Western sanctions crashing down on Moscow, and politicians in both Russia and the West began to speak 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.

Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

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

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 vainly 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.



On becoming general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, aged just 54, he had set out to revitalise 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.

Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost” – free speech – allowed previously unthinkable criticism of the party and the state, but also emboldened nationalists who began to press for independence in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and elsewhere.

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.

Switzerland Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan 1985

US President Ronald Reagan at his first meeting with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland, November, 1985. PICTURE: Reuters/Dennis Paquin

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

“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 in June.

“Gorbachev lived to see some of his worst fears realised 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,” said Cold War historian Sergey Radchenko.

– With MARK TREVALYAN in London, UK, ROSELLE CHEN in New York, US and ELAINE MONAGHAN.

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