Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dies at 91

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Mikhail Gorbachev, who as the last leader of the Soviet Union fought a losing battle to save a crumbling empire but produced extraordinary reforms that led to the end of the Cold War, has died at 91 years old.

News agencies quoted a statement from Central Clinical Hospital that he died after a long illness. No other details were given.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that President Vladimir Putin had offered his sincere condolences over the death of Mr Gorbachev and would send an official telegram to his family in the morning .

Although in power for less than seven years, Mr. Gorbachev unleashed a breathtaking series of changes, but they quickly overtook him and resulted in the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet state, the liberation of the nations of Eastern Europe of Russian Domination and the End of Decades of Western Nuclear Confrontation.

His power sapped by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, he spent his final months in power watching republic after republic declare independence until stepping down on Christmas Day 1991.

The Soviet Union was written into oblivion a day later.

Mikhail Gorbachevin 1990 (David Longstreath/AP)

A quarter of a century after the collapse, Mr Gorbachev told The Associated Press that he had not considered using all-out force to try to hold the USSR together because he feared chaos in a nuclear country.

“The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And that would have immediately plunged the country into a civil war,” he said.

Many changes, including the breakup of the Soviet Union, were nothing like the transformation he envisioned when he became the Soviet leader in March 1985.

At the end of his reign he was powerless to stop the whirlwind he had sown, but he may have had a greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than any other political figure.

“I see myself as a man who launched the reforms that were necessary for the country, for Europe and the world,” he said shortly after leaving office.

“I am often asked, would I have started all over again if I had to do it all over again? Yes indeed. And with more perseverance and determination,” he said.

Mr Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War and spent his later years garnering accolades and awards around the world, but he was widely despised at home.

The Russians blamed him for the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 – a once formidable superpower whose territory fractured into 15 separate nations. His former allies abandoned him and made him a scapegoat for the country’s troubles.

Shortly after taking power, Mr Gorbachev launched a campaign to end his country’s economic and political stagnation, using “glasnost” – or openness – to help him achieve his goal of “perestroika”. or restructuring.

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Mikhail Gorbache with Boris Yeltsin in 1991 (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

In his memoir, he said he had long been frustrated that in a country with immense natural resources, tens of millions of people live in poverty.

“Our society has been suffocated by a bureaucratic command system,” he writes. “Doomed to serve ideology and bear the heavy burden of the arms race, it has been sorely tested.

Once it started, one move led to another. He freed political prisoners, allowed open debate and multi-candidate elections, gave his countrymen the freedom to travel, ended religious oppression, reduced nuclear arsenals, established closer ties with the West and did not resist the fall of the communist regimes in the satellite states of Eastern Europe.

But the forces he unleashed quickly eluded him.

Long-suppressed ethnic tensions have erupted, sparking wars and unrest in hotspots such as the southern Caucasus region. Strikes and social unrest followed price hikes and shortages of consumer goods.

In one of the lowest moments of his tenure, Mr Gorbachev sanctioned a crackdown on restive Baltic republics in early 1991.

The violence turned many intellectuals and reformers against him. Competitive elections also produced a new generation of populist politicians who challenged his policies and his authority.

Chief among them was his former protege and eventual nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, who became Russia’s first president.

“The process of renovating this country and bringing about fundamental changes in the international community has proven to be much more complex than originally expected,” Mr. Gorbachev told the nation upon his resignation.

“However, let’s recognize what has been achieved so far. Society has acquired freedom; she was liberated politically and spiritually. And that’s the most important realization, which we haven’t fully mastered in part because we still haven’t learned how to use our freedom.

Although the rest of the world benefited from the changes made by Mr. Gorbachev, the Soviet economy collapsed in the process, causing enormous economic hardship for the country’s 290 million people.

In the final days of the Soviet Union, economic decline accelerated into a steep skid. Hyperinflation robbed most seniors of life savings, factories closed and queues formed.

Popular hatred for Mr Gorbachev and his wife Raisa grew, but the couple won sympathy in the summer of 1999 when it was revealed that Mrs Gorbachev was dying of leukaemia.

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Vladimir Putin with Mikhail Gorbachev in 2004 (Héribert Proepper/AP)

Mr Gorbachev has wavered between criticism and praise for Mr Putin, who has been criticized for backtracking on the democratic achievements of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras.

He said Mr Putin had done much to restore Russia’s stability and prestige after the tumultuous decade following the Soviet collapse, but he protested growing limitations on media freedom and, in 2006, bought one of the last Russian investigative newspapers, Novaya Gazeta, with a businessman. associated.

He ventured into other new areas in his 70s, winning awards and accolades around the world. He won a Grammy in 2004 with former US President Bill Clinton and Italian actress Sophia Loren for their recording of Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf, and the United Nations named him Champion of the Earth in 2006 for his defense of the environment.

Mr. Gorbachev had a daughter Irina and two granddaughters.

The official Tass news agency reported that Gorbachev will be buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery next to his wife.

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