Mikhail Gorbachev, who as the last leader of the Soviet Union fought a losing battle to save a crumbling empire but implemented extraordinary reforms that led to the end of the Cold War, has died aged 91. Russian media reported on Thursday.
News organizations quoted a statement from the Central Clinical Hospital saying that he died after a long illness. No other details were given.
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 violence to hold the USSR together, fearing chaos in a nuclear country.
“The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And it would have immediately pushed the country into civil war,” he said.
Many of the changes, including the dissolution of the Soviet Union, did not resemble the transformation Gorbachev envisioned when he became Soviet leader in March 1985.
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.
He was featured in the 2018 documentary Meeting with Gorbachev.
The official Tass news agency reported that Gorbachev will be buried next to his wife at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.