Like the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, and his Soviet predecessor, Tsar Nicholas II before him, Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the collapse of a once great power.
The eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, who died at the age of 91, did not fight his reformers until the collapse of the communist state in 1991.
In fact, Gorbachev signed his resignation just six years after taking office and a year after winning the country’s only presidential election.
In 1985, he led the disorganized Soviet Union and eventually paved the way for the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the rise of current president Vladimir Putin at the turn of the millennium.
Gorbachev became general secretary in 1985 promising revolutionary anti-Stalinist reforms, and while his efforts failed to shore up the ailing Soviet Union, he ultimately helped end the Cold War with the United States.
Ronald Reagan (left) and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (right) at the first summit in Geneva, Switzerland, November 19, 1985.
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was born in 1931 in the remote village of Privolnoe in southwestern Russia during the reign of Joseph Stalin.
Although his grandfather had realized Stalin’s dream of collectivization by creating the first village communal farm, the Soviet famine of 1932-33, during which the forced requisition of crops claimed the lives of an estimated five million people, was an early memory for the future Soviet leader.
Two of Gorbachev’s uncles and an aunt were killed by starvation, and both of his grandfathers were sent to the infamous Gulag camps a few years later.
This did not stop the family’s devotion to the communist cause – Gorbachev’s father Sergey received the prestigious award of the Order of Lenin for threshing more than 800 thousand kilograms of grain in 1948.
This allowed Gorbachev, who had excelled both academically and politically throughout his childhood, to be admitted to Moscow State University in 1950 at the Faculty of Law without a single exam.
It was here that he met his wife, Raisa, who later became an ardent teacher of Marxist-Leninist philosophy before becoming First Lady.
The couple sent their daughter Irina to an “ordinary” school, according to her, in Stavropol, and not to a party school.
Stalin’s eventual death in 1953 brought a new hero, Gorbachev, to the fore when Nikita Khrushchev, arguably the first “reformer” of Soviet leaders, took over as First Secretary of the Communist Party.
The initial “de-Stalinization” of the Soviet Union lasted only 11 years, when Gorbachev quietly worked his way into political office.
He rose through the ranks under Leonid Brezhnev, first leading the Stavropol region for seven years before becoming a coveted member of the Central Committee in 1978.
Meeting of Mikhail Gorbachev with the workers of the Peugeot factory near Paris during a visit to France, October 1985.
After becoming general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, Gorbachev was finally able to flex his reformist muscles without fear of retribution from party hardliners.
Glasnost, or “openness,” which was implemented in 1986, was a key ideological shift in Soviet thought and represented a stark contrast to Stalin’s authoritarian rule.
Freedom of the press and speech first became possible in the minds of citizens when Gorbachev implemented various anti-corruption measures and encouraged control of the Kremlin.
This did not win the Soviet leader supporters among Communist Party hardliners, but it created a landmark plan for Gorbachev’s “perestroika,” or reconstruction, as liberal reforms continued—much to the delight of then-US President George W. Bush.
In 1987, he lashed out at Stalin in a furious tirade, saying: “To remain true to historical truth, we must see both Stalin’s indisputable contribution to the struggle for socialism and the abuses committed by him and those around him, for which our people paid a heavy price and had severe consequences for the life of our society.
“The guilt of Stalin and his inner circle before the party and the people for massive repressive measures and lawlessness is enormous and unforgivable.”
The Soviet Union abandoned its dreams of becoming a global socialist superpower and instead liberalized and consolidated under Gorbachev.
He took the unprecedented step of withdrawing troops from the disastrous 1988 invasion of Afghanistan after the Soviet Union invaded the country nine years earlier as part of the Cold War.
Arguably, his isolationism – combined with “glasnost” – inspired the revolutions of 1989, when the peoples of Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany rose up against Moscow.
The Brezhnev Doctrine allowed the Kremlin to intervene in any socialist state, but Gorbachev has virtually abandoned this policy, meaning citizens can rebel without fear of repression.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who has died aged 91, talks to US President Ronald Reagan in 1985
Yet amid fury from the traditional wing of the Communist Party, Gorbachev simply said in 1988: “The Soviet people want full-blooded and unconditional democracy.”
In Gorbachev’s camp, this meant further concessions to NATO and the restoration of relations with the United States.
He first met with then-US President Ronald Reagan in 1985 in Geneva and laid the groundwork for stronger relations between Washington and Moscow – and ultimately the end of the Cold War – during three subsequent summits.
Two decades after the first landmark meeting, he would consider Reagan “a great president with whom the Soviet leadership was able to start a very difficult but important dialogue.”
After comfortably winning the presidency in 1990, he proposed plans to further decentralize and privatize the economy.
However, this meant that the reformist leader found himself caught in the middle between the old guard and the new liberal rival Boris Yeltsin, both of whom called for the leadership to choose between the binary of communism and capitalism.
It was Yeltsin who ultimately ushered his country into a new era – what political scientist Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history” – and Gorbachev stepped down.
A few months later, Yeltsin, believed to have been backed by Washington, signed a decree dissolving the Soviet Union along with 11 heads of republic.
However, the last Soviet leader did not simply disappear from politics.
A fierce critic of Putin, he said in 2016 that the current president rules through “friends from school, with people he played soccer with on the same street.”
The expiration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in August 2019 – after 32 years – was a reminder of Gorbachev’s rare ability to seek peace with the US – something neither his predecessors nor his successors achieved.