Gorbachev, the great reformer of communist Russia and father of ‘perestroika’ | International
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Mikhail Gorbachev has died in Moscow at the age of 91. Celebrated abroad and despised by many at home, the last leader of the Soviet Union, the great reformer of Communist Russia; also the man who led to the end of the USSR and the Soviet empire, he has died in a hospital in the Russian capital, according to the state agency Tass. Born in Stavropol, Gorbachev blazed a path to democracy for tens of millions of people and eased a Cold War that locked the world in lockdown and heated up confrontation for four decades. He was one of the key figures of the 20th century.
“The Soviet Union fell apart when Gorbachev weakened the state in an attempt to strengthen the individual,” says William Taubman in Gorbachev, life and times (Debate) an extensive biography of the former Soviet leader. Great foundations of his democratic legacy have all but collapsed in Russia today. Most of the disarmament treaties he signed have been liquidated, many of the taboos that fell due to his reform processes have been re-imposed and are more acute since the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, ordered the invasion of Ukraine last February 24th.
In recent years, whoever was the last president of the USSR had become a rather isolated figure in Russia, with most of his contemporaries now deceased. The state media, to say the least, ignored him because of his criticism of democratic problems in Russia today and, though mostly veiled, of Vladimir Putin’s government. From time to time, voices (even prominent ones) arose that proposed prosecuting him for inciting the collapse of the Soviet Union, defined by Russian President Vladimir Putin as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century; and more so at a time when those nostalgic for Soviet times have increased, according to polls.
The politician had no immunity and his foundation moved carefully to avoid being labeled a “foreign agent.” In recent years, his health had serious ups and downs. He lived alone in Moscow. His daughter, his two granddaughters and his two great-grandchildren live outside the country. His reddish birthmark on his forehead had faded.
Coming from a rural background but educated at Moscow State University, where he studied law, Gorbachev rose to the top of the communist party. As he ascended, his doubts about the system became more intense, his biographers have recounted. Those doubts marked his career, first as Soviet General Secretary and later as President. And they led him to carry out a momentous reform of Soviet society between 1985 and 1990 with the introduction of the perestroika (restructuring) of the economy and the glasnost (transparency) in political cultural affairs.
That reform included the democratization of the party, the transformation of the country into a presidential republic and a constitutional reform to allow multi-party politics. Gorbachev ordered, for example, that Parliament proceedings be televised. The changes he pushed through helped bring down some of the worst repression of the communist system.
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It paved the way for free enterprise and open borders. His intention was not to overthrow but to save the USSR and make socialism great again in its essence. He promoted his vision of the European Common Home from the Atlantic to Vladivostok. Although the impressive changes that he promoted, also in foreign policy, where he signed a series of key arms control agreements with the United States and participated in the conclusion of the Cold War (which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990), unleashed all kinds of centrifugal forces that he couldn’t control; among them an economy in serious problems, the discontent of part of the population due to changes that they still did not see tangible. And the yearning for independence in some Soviet republics.
Some defined Gorbachev as “the man who changed the world” for his role in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a symbol of the division between East and West, which meant not only the unification of Germany but also the symbolic end of the Cold War. Hundreds of documents declassified a few years ago revealed that the last leader of the USSR never put on the table the option of using force to prevent collapse. The demolition of the wall was a decisive crack in the fall of the Soviet empire. It was followed like dominoes by the collapse of the remaining Eastern European communist regimes: Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria. And thus the end of Moscow’s control of the former Eastern Bloc.
Gorbachev, who lived through a coup by hard-line communists, was hopeful that he could hold the country together; even after the republics that made up the USSR declared their independence. Until the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which brought together 11 of the former Soviet republics. “What happened with the USSR was my drama. And a drama for all those who lived in the Soviet Union”, he commented in an interview.
On December 25, 1991, a holiday in the West but not in Russia, Gorbachev addressed the population of a country that had practically already died—the Soviet Union—and announced his resignation. In his speech, he explained that although he had always supported the sovereignty of the republics, he had also been a strong supporter of the unity of the state; but events had taken another turn. On that day, in the Kremlin, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time.
In 1996, he unsuccessfully tried to run for the presidency of Russia. And with the rise of Putin in power and an increasingly authoritarian regime, the reformist politician became a critic of modern Russia, of its attacks on democracy, of the widening of economic and social differences resulting from privatization corrupt and years of patronage.
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