Last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dies aged 91

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has died aged 91, Russian state media reported on Tuesday, citing Moscow’s central clinical hospital.

Gorbachev died following a “serious and long-term illness”, the hospital said, according to the report. He will be buried at Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow, the final resting place for hundreds of Russian and Soviet dignitaries, alongside his wife Raisa, who died in 1999.

Worldwide reaction to the death of the last surviving world leader involved in ending the cold war was a reflection of Gorbachev’s complicated legacy, one that won him international praise for halting decades of Soviet authoritarianism and allowing a divided Europe to reunite peaceably but left him reviled at home for presiding over the bloc’s acrimonious collapse in 1991.

Among those most critical of Gorbachev’s legacy has been the Kremlin’s current occupant, Vladimir Putin, who famously termed the Soviet Union’s collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

Russia’s president issued only a short statement via the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, who told the Interfax news service that Putin expressed “his deepest condolences” over Gorbachev’s death. Putin made no mention of Gorbachev’s historical role, with Peskov adding only that the president would send the late Soviet premier’s relatives a telegram on Wednesday morning.

Reaction in the Russian state media on Tuesday was equally muted.

Leaders in the west, on the other hand, were fulsome in their encomiums, with several using Gorbachev’s passing to contrast his handling of the Warsaw Pact’s collapse — he played a role in preventing a military response to East German protests that led to fall of the Berlin Wall, for example — to Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

“I always admired the courage and integrity he showed in bringing the cold war to a peaceful conclusion,” said Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister. “In a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all.”

In some ways, the two events are directly connected. Since ordering the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has continued to draw on revanchist sentiment triggered by the disorder following Gorbachev’s tenure, arguing the war was made necessary after decades of Soviet policy that created what he dubbed an “anti-Russia”, and encouraged Ukrainian identity.

Putin has viciously criticised the US for allegedly reneging on a promise James Baker, then secretary of state under president George HW Bush, made to Gorbachev in 1990 that Nato would expand “not one inch” eastward if the USSR released east Germany from its grasp.

Though Baker later disputed that account, the incident has fed Putin’s narrative of a western betrayal of Moscow, fuelling decades of resentment and providing him with justification for the invasion.

Any criticisms of Gorbachev-era polices were to be found nowhere outside of Russia on Tuesday, however, with American and European leaders echoing many of the same sentiments that helped Gorbachev secure the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in midwifing the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.

“He played a crucial role to end the cold war and bring down the Iron Curtain,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president. “It opened the way for a free Europe. This legacy is one we will not forget.”

Added Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary of state and a Soviet scholar: “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.”

Gorbachev himself did not comment publicly about the Ukraine invasion before his death, but Alexei Venediktov, the longtime editor of a liberal Moscow radio station that Russian authorities shut down shortly after the war began, said in July that the former leader was “upset” by Putin’s attack and turn to authoritarianism.

“Everything Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev did has been destroyed. All Gorbachev’s reforms have been reduced to zero, dust, smoke,” Venediktov told the Russian edition of Forbes magazine.

“This was his life’s work,” Venediktov said. “Freedom — Gorbachev did that . . . Freedom of speech, private property — that was Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. So what’s he going to say now?”

Daniel Fried, who oversaw Russia policy at the US state department during the George W Bush administration, said: “Mikhail Gorbachev tried to do the impossible: reform the USSR. Though he failed, he tried to bring his country to a better place.”

Additional reporting by Mark Odell in London


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