Although Gorbachev was in power for less than seven years, he unleashed a breathtaking series of changes. But they soon caught up with him and resulted in the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet state, the liberation of Eastern European nations from Russian rule and the end of decades of East-West nuclear confrontation.
His decline was humiliating. Hopelessly undermined by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, he spent his last months in office proclaiming independence, republic after republic, until he resigned on December 25, 1991. The Soviet Union wrote itself into oblivion a day later.
A quarter of a century after the collapse, Gorbachev told The Associated Press that he had not considered using widespread force to hold the USSR together, fearing chaos in the nuclear country.
“The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And it would have immediately pushed the country into civil war,” he said.
Towards the end of his rule, he was powerless to stop the whirlwind he had sown. Yet Gorbachev may have had a greater influence on the latter half of the 20th century than any other political figure.
“I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were needed for the country and for Europe and the world,” Gorbachev told the AP in a 1992 interview shortly after he left office.
“I often get the question: Would I have started it all over if I had to repeat it? Yes indeed. And with more perseverance and determination,” he said.
Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War and spent his later years collecting accolades and awards from all corners of the globe. Yet he was widely despised at home.
The Russians blamed him for the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 – a once terrifying superpower whose territory was split into 15 separate nations. His former allies abandoned him and made him a scapegoat for the country’s problems.
His 1996 presidential election was a national joke and he won less than 1% of the vote. In 1997, he resorted to making a TV ad for Pizza Hut to earn money for his charitable foundation.
Gorbachev never set out to dismantle the Soviet system. He wanted to improve it.
Shortly after coming to power, Gorbachev launched a campaign to end his country’s economic and political stagnation, using “glasnost” or openness to help achieve his goal of “perestroika” or restructuring. .
In his memoirs, he said he had long been frustrated that in a country with immense natural resources, tens of millions were living in poverty.
Once he started, one movement led to another: he freed political prisoners, allowed open debate and multi-candidate elections, gave his countrymen freedom to travel, ended religious oppression, reduced nuclear arsenals, forged closer ties with the West. and did not oppose the fall of communist regimes in Eastern European satellite states.
But the forces he unleashed quickly escaped his control.
Long-suppressed ethnic tensions flared up, leading to wars and unrest in troubled areas such as the South Caucasus. Strikes and labor unrest followed price increases and shortages of consumer goods.
Competitive elections also spawned a new crop of populist politicians who challenged Gorbachev’s policies and authority. Chief among them was his former protege and eventual nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, who became Russia’s first president.
“The process of renovating this country and bringing about fundamental changes in the international community turned out to be much more complex than originally anticipated,” Gorbachev told the nation when he stepped down.
“However, let’s recognize what has been achieved so far. Society has been given freedom; it is politically and spiritually liberated. And this is the most important achievement.”
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931 in the village of Privolnoye in southern Russia. At the age of 15, he helped his father drive a combine harvester after school and during the region’s sweltering, dusty summers.
His performance earned him the order of the Red Banner of Labour, an unusual award for a 17-year-old. That award and his parents’ party background helped him gain entry to the best university in the country, Moscow State, in 1950.
There he met his wife, Raisa Maximovna Titorenko, and joined the Communist Party.
His early career coincided with the “thaw” that began Nikita Khrushchev. As a young communist propaganda official, he was given the task of explaining the 20th Party Congress that revealed the multimillion-dollar repression of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to local party activists.
He was elected a member of the party’s powerful Central Committee in 1971, took over Soviet agricultural policy in 1978, and became a full member of the Politburo in 1980.
Along the way, he was able to travel west, to Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and Canada. Those travels had a profound effect on his thinking and shaken his belief in the superiority of Soviet-style socialism.
“The question haunted me: why was the standard of living in our country lower than in other developed countries?” he recalled in his memoirs.
But Gorbachev had to wait his turn. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982 and was succeeded by two other geriatric leaders: Yuri Andropov, Gorbachev’s mentor, and Konstantin Chernenko.
It was not until March 1985, when Chernenko died, that the party finally chose a younger man to lead the country: Gorbachev. He was 54.
His tenure was filled with rocky periods, including the withdrawal of the Soviet military from Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
But from November 1985, Gorbachev began a series of high-profile summits with world leaders, in particular US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, which led to unprecedented, deep reductions in the US and Soviet nuclear arsenals.
After years of watching a parade of stodgy leaders in the Kremlin, Western leaders nearly fainted at the charming, powerful Gorbachev and his stylish, intelligent wife.
But perceptions were very different at home, where the rickety Soviet economy was collapsing, bringing huge economic hardships for the country’s 290 million residents.
More recently, Gorbachev has fluctuated between criticism and mild praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was attacked for backtracking on the democratic achievements of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras.
While he said Putin was doing much to restore stability and prestige to Russia after the tumultuous decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev protested increasing restrictions on media freedom.
Gorbachev also spoke out against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. A day after the February 24 attack, he issued a statement calling for “a rapid cessation of hostilities and the immediate start of peace negotiations”.
“There is nothing more precious in the world than human lives. Negotiations and dialogue based on mutual respect and recognition of interests are the only way to resolve the most acute contradictions and problems,” he said.
Vladimir Isachenkov and Kate de Pury in Moscow contributed.