Mikhail Gorbachev, Final Leader of the USSR, Dead at 91

by Caitlin Berard

Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, has died at the age of 91, Russian state media reported on Tuesday. “Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev died this evening after a severe and prolonged illness,” the Central Clinical Hospital said, according to RIA Novosti.

The former USSR President became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 and held the position until 1991. During that time, Gorbachev also served as the USSR’s head of state.

Throughout his time as the leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s mission was to reform the Soviet Union and its empire. As such, he introduced policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), drawing the ire of his fellow countrymen. “He destroyed a great state,” Vasily Ivchenko told The Daily Beast. “The collapse of the Soviet Union started with Gorbachev, and Yeltsin continued with what he started.”

Gorbachev, however, was always led by the beacons of freedom and democracy. “I began these reforms and my guiding stars were freedom and democracy, without bloodshed,” the USSR leader later said. “So the people would cease to be a herd led by a shepherd. They would become citizens.”

Unlike those before him, Mikhail Gorbachev was a charismatic figure, eager to kickstart the Russian economy and lead his country into a new era. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously referred to the Russian leader as “a man one can do business with.”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s Efforts to End the Cold War

As President of one of the largest countries in the world, Gorbachev’s contributions to history were many. Perhaps the most significant of them all, however, was his aid in ending the Cold War.

In 1985, Gorbachev met President Ronald Reagan face-to-face at the Geneva summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. Though both men wanted the meeting, they were also wary of each other. As such, their discussions often became heated. Gorbachev, in particular, stated that he didn’t feel that Reagan was hearing what he was trying to say.

After many debates, however, the pair finally agreed to a joint commitment to avoid nuclear war. And though they still had a long way to go, the meeting marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community.”

A year later, rapid changes were occurring worldwide. In late 1991, the Iron Curtain was lifted and the Soviet Union dissolved, with Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Russia declaring themselves independent from the USSR. Thus, Gorbachev was left without a country to lead, and on Christmas Day, 1991, he formally resigned.

“The country received freedom, was liberated politically and spiritually,” he said in his resignation speech. “And that was the most important achievement.”