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Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has died at 91

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses a group of 150 business executives in San Francisco, Monday, June 5, 1990. Russian news agencies are reporting that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has died at 91. The Tass, RIA Novosti and Interfax news agencies cited the Central Clinical Hospital.
David Longstreath
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AP
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses a group of 150 business executives in San Francisco, Monday, June 5, 1990. Russian news agencies are reporting that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has died at 91. The Tass, RIA Novosti and Interfax news agencies cited the Central Clinical Hospital.

Updated August 30, 2022 at 6:27 PM ET

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who played a central role in ending the Cold War, died Tuesday at the age of 91.

Russian media reported his death, citing the hospital that was treating him as saying he died of a "serious and protracted disease," without providing more information.

Gorbachev's trademark policies of glasnost and perestroika helped open up the Soviet economy and liberalize society in the late 1980s, confront its past and engage with Western leaders on arms control. He also oversaw the withdrawal of Soviet troops from about a decadelong military campaign in Afghanistan, as well as the USSR's handling of Chernobyl.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, he was seen by many abroad, including President Ronald Reagan, as a visionary. But his legacy is complicated at home, where many viewed him as the man who engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He felt he belonged to a generation of children of World War II

He was born in 1931 in Privolnoye, a village in southern Russia. He was the son of peasants and knew how to operate farm equipment. He also knew the horror of war.

In an interview with the Academy of Achievement years later, Gorbachev said watching the Nazis occupy his village as a boy shaped his life.

"This was all happening right in front of our eyes, the eyes of the children," he said. "Thus, you see, I belong to the so-called children-of-the-war generation. The war left a heavy mark on us, a painful mark. This is permanent, and this is what determined a lot of things in my life."

Gorbachev never wanted to see global conflict again, leaving him determined to make the world less suspicious of communism.

He was a young star in the Communist Party, and when he was named Soviet leader in 1985, he was already at work engaging Western leaders like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had given him a historic endorsement in 1984.

"I like Mr. Gorbachev," she said. "We can do business together."

Andrei Grachev, one of Gorbachev's closest advisers, likened that endorsement to a Frank Sinatra song.

"If you use the phrase from Sinatra's song, 'If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.' So if he could say it to himself that he could do it with Thatcher, he would be ready and capable of doing it with anyone else," Grachev says.

Grachev traveled with his boss to Paris in 1985 for a news conference with French President François Mitterrand. Gorbachev's staff was used to distributing scripted questions for Soviet reporters. But Gorbachev did the unthinkable: He fielded whatever questions reporters felt like asking.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gestures during a joint news conference with French President Francois Mitterrand who appeared to be supporting Gorbachev's proposal to the U.S. to ban weapons in space, but also rejected the Soviet leader's offer of direct disarmament talks with France at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Friday Oct. 4, 1985.
/ AP
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AP
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gestures during a joint news conference with French President François Mitterrand who appeared to be supporting Gorbachev's proposal to the U.S. to ban weapons in space, but also rejected the Soviet leader's offer of direct disarmament talks with France at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Oct. 4, 1985.

"As he said, 'I have my shirt wet, like working in the field. It was really hot to me,' " Grachev recalls, "because he had to answer quite a lot of questions at the time."

Gorbachev, a son of a poor farming family, had arrived on the world stage.

"That was, kind of, the pride of a peasant who had accomplished something, of which he was proud," Grachev says.

The goal of nuclear nonproliferation gave Gorbachev and Reagan an unexpected rapport

Gorbachev then set his sights on President Ronald Reagan. The Soviet leader was the world's cheerleader for communism, which Reagan considered evil. But the two men shared a belief they didn't need to point nuclear weapons at each other. Reaching for that shared goal gave them an unexpected rapport.

"Though my pronunciation may give you difficulty, the maxim is, 'Doveryai, no proveryai' — trust but verify," Reagan famously said at their meeting.

Gorbachev's response — "You repeat that at every meeting!" — was met with laughter.

Reagan's sense of ease sent a message that it was OK to like this Russian. Gorbachev and his glamorous wife, Raisa, traveled the world. "Gorby mania" had struck, including on the streets of Washington, D.C., where the Soviet leader left the motorcade to touch the hands of Americans.

President Ronald Reagan, left, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev talk during a meeting outside the vila Fleur D'Eau at Versoix, near Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1985.
Bob Daugherty / AP
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AP
President Ronald Reagan, left, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev talk during a meeting outside the villa Fleur d'Eau at Versoix, near Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 19, 1985.

Jack Matlock, Reagan's adviser on Soviet affairs, remembers preparing for one of the president's most famous speeches, at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987.

The White House gave the Kremlin almost no warning that Reagan was going to make his historic demand of Gorbachev. But Matlock said there was little need.

"They both understood that they could depend more on their direct conversation with each other than getting too excited about what each said in speeches," Matlock says.

"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate, Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate," Reagan said to applause. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Matlock notes that though Reagan's speech was made in 1987, the Berlin Wall came down in 1990.

"A lot happened in between those two [events], and there was no direct cause and effect," he says.

In fact, a lot happened after 1987 that was not in Gorbachev's plans at all. One misconception about the man is that he favored breaking up the Soviet Union. Not true. Gorbachev believed he could reform the Communist Party and make a more open society, while keeping Soviet power intact. Instead, the republics of the Soviet Union sensed the opportunity to break free.

Inside Russia, Gorbachev's system of perestroika, his push for a more market-style economy and his call for democratic elections were unleashing chaos. Although he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his actions on the world stage, at home, Gorbachev was losing support.

Soviet hard-liners held him hostage in Crimea

Hard-liners from Moscow knew he was vulnerable. In the summer of 1991, they sent the head of the KGB to Gorbachev's vacation home in Crimea, on the Black Sea, to hold the Soviet leader hostage. Gorbachev told his guests they were killing the country.

"The demand was made: 'You will resign.' I said, 'You will never live that long,' " Gorbachev recalled. "And I said, 'Convey that to those who sent you. I have nothing more to say to you.' "

It was a final act of defiance. Gorbachev returned to Moscow, having received the message. He resigned four months later.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev checks the time on his watch before his resignation speech in the Kremlin on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 1991.
Liu Heung Shing / AP
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AP
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev checks the time on his watch before his resignation speech in the Kremlin, Dec. 25, 1991.

Matlock, the Reagan aide, who became U.S. ambassador to Moscow in the final years of the Soviet Union, remembers the anger at Gorbachev, the sentiment among Russians that he had dismantled their country. Russians felt weak, hungry; and it all seemed like Gorbachev's fault.

"People do think that way. But it wasn't Gorbachev who brought down the Soviet Union, after all," Matlock says. "He brought them democracy. He brought them choice. And he made one other choice, which was extremely, I think, important in Russian history: He made no attempt to keep himself in office by using force."

Grachev, Gorbachev's adviser, remembers seeing a different man return from Crimea to step down.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) talks to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (L) before a press conference of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Putin at Gottorf castle in Schleswig on Dec. 21 2004.
Jochen Luebke / DDP/AFP via Getty Images
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DDP/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) talks to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (L) before a press conference of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Putin at Gottorf castle in Schleswig on Dec. 21 2004.

"I saw that something has broken inside him," Grachev says. "He didn't have the same kind of assurance, internal assurance, that he was showing even in the hardest moments."

Still, Russian society has habits that are hard to break. Since the times of the czars, Russians have relished forceful leaders and were willing to give up freedoms for a sense of confidence and order. In his later years, Gorbachev complained that current Russian leaders have backslid on democratic principles and human rights.

"Even now in Russia we have the same problem," he said in 2000. "It isn't so easy to give up the inheritance we received from Stalinism and neo-Stalinism, when people were turned into cogs in the wheel, and those in power made all the decisions for them."

Gorbachev added that a lasting democracy will never come without a fight.

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David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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