The last Soviet leader, Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War and won a Nobel Prize, has died at the age of 91

(Reuters) – Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War without bloodshed but failed to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union, died on Tuesday at the age of 91, hospital officials said.

Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, struck arms reduction deals with the United States and partnerships with Western powers to remove the Iron Curtain that has divided Europe since World War II and bring about German reunification.

But his internal reforms helped weaken the Soviet Union to the point where it collapsed, a moment President Vladimir Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

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“Mikhail Gorbachev died tonight after a serious and prolonged illness,” said the Central Clinical Hospital of Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax that Putin expressed his “deepest condolences”. “Tomorrow he will send a telegram of condolences to his family and friends,” he said.

News agencies reported that Putin said in 2018 he would reverse the dissolution of the Soviet Union if he could.

World leaders were quick to pay tribute. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Gorbachev, winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, opened the way for a free Europe.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, citing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, said that “Gorbachev’s tireless commitment to open Soviet society remains an example to all of us.”

There was no immediate reaction from the White House or the US State Department. Former US Secretary of State James Baker described Gorbachev as “a giant who led his great nation toward democracy.”

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Western Partnerships

After decades of tension and confrontation in the Cold War, Gorbachev brought the Soviet Union closer to the West than at any time since World War II.

“He gave freedom to hundreds of millions of people in and around Russia, as well as half of Europe,” said former Russian liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky. Few leaders in history have had such a decisive influence on their time.

But Gorbachev saw his legacy shattered late in his life, as the invasion of Ukraine collapsed Western sanctions on Moscow, and politicians in both Russia and the West began talking about a new Cold War.

“Gorbachev died symbolically when Putin effectively destroyed his work, freedom,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Citing the foundation set up by the former Soviet leader once he left office, TASS said he will be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery next to his wife, Raisa, who died in 1999.

“We are all orphans now. But not everyone realizes that,” said Alexei Venediktov, head of a liberal media radio station that shut down after coming under pressure for its coverage of the Ukraine war.

When pro-democracy protests rocked Soviet bloc countries in communist Eastern Europe in 1989, Gorbachev refrained from using force — unlike previous Kremlin leaders who sent tanks to crush uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But the protests fueled aspirations for autonomy in the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, which over the next two years disintegrated in a chaotic fashion. Read more

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Gorbachev – who was briefly overthrown in the August 1991 coup d’état by party hardliners – struggled in vain to prevent this collapse.

violent reforms

Vladimir Shevchenko said: “The Gorbachev era is the age of perestroika, the age of hope, the era of our entry into a world without missiles … But there was one miscalculation: we did not know our country well.” He headed Gorbachev’s protocol office when he was a Soviet leader.

“Our union has collapsed… It was a tragedy and a tragedy,” he was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying.

When he became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, aged just 54, he had set out to revitalize the system by introducing limited political and economic freedoms, but his reforms spiraled out of control. Read more

Gorbachev biographer William Tubman, Professor Emeritus at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said, “He was a good man–he was a gentleman. I think his tragedy was in the sense that he was very fit for the country he was leading.”

Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost” – freedom of speech – allowed for previously unimaginable criticism of the party and the state, but also encouraged nationalists who began to press for independence in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and elsewhere.

Many Russians have never forgiven Gorbachev for the disruption caused by his reforms, considering the subsequent decline in their standards of living too prohibitively expensive to pay for democracy.

Vladimir Rogov, the Russia-appointed official in a part of Ukraine now occupied by pro-Moscow forces, said Gorbachev “deliberately led the (Soviet) union to its demise” and called him a traitor.

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“We were given all the freedom – but we don’t know what to do with it,” liberal economist Ruslan Greenberg told the Zvezda Armed Forces news agency after visiting Gorbachev in hospital in June.

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Additional reporting by David Leungren in Ottawa, Mark Trevelyan in London, Crossel Chen in New York and Elaine Monaghan; Written by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Rosalba O’Brien and Richard Boleyn

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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