Gorbachev, last leader of Soviet Union who ended Cold War in Malta, dies

Mikhail Gorbachev dies at 91 – in 1989 he and US President George Bush held a summit in Malta, effectively ending the Cold War

Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev with US president George H. Bush in Malta in 1989
Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev with US president George H. Bush in Malta in 1989

Mikhail Gorbachev – the last leader of the former Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991 – has died at the age of 91, after a long illness.

Gorbachev is credited with introducing key political and economic reforms to the United Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) and helping to end the Cold War with the United States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences, while US President Joe Biden called him “a man of remarkable vision”.

“As leader of the USSR, he worked with President Reagan to reduce our two countries’ nuclear arsenals, to the relief of people worldwide praying for an end to the nuclear arms race,” Biden said, adding that Gorbachev’s reforms led to “a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.”

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter that Gorbachev’s role in ending the Cold War “opened the way for a free Europe. This legacy is one we will not forget.”

But while loved and celebrated in liberal democracies, Gorbachev was reviled by Russians who never forgave him for the turbulence that his reforms unleashed. His policy of ‘glasnost’, or openness, gave Russians previously unthinkable levels of freedom, but for many, his rule will be remembered by the dramatic plunge in living standards that followed.

Gorbachev was in Malta in December 1989 for a summit with then US president George Bush Snr that was held aboard the Soviet ship Maxim Gorky in Marsaxlokk Bay. The summit, held in inclement weather, is credited to have ended the Cold War just a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Gorbachev had been praised for holding back the Soviet army from intervening as protesters in East Berlin tore down the wall that had divided their city and people in eastern Europe rose up against their Communist governments.

Gorbachev himself helped kickstart independent Russian journalism, using part of his 1990 Nobel peace prize money to help set up the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a paper which went on to become the country’s most praised independent newspaper, shedding light on some of Russia’s darkest chapters. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Novaya Gazeta was also forced to cease its operations.

Few knew Gorbachev better than his biographer, William Taubman, who in 2017 wrote that Gorbachev’s main issue was that Russia simply had no real experience with the freedom it was being offered.

Others, haunted by Soviet nostalgia, saw Gorbachev as the destroyer of their empire and blame his policies for emboldening nationalists who successfully pushed for independence in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and elsewhere across the former Soviet bloc.

With his outgoing, charismatic nature, Gorbachev broke the mould for Soviet leaders who until then had mostly been remote, icy figures. The other key phrase of the Gorbachev era was “perestroika” (restructuring).

Born into a peasant family on March 2, 1931 near Stavropol, he became a member of the Communist Party in 1952. Backed by Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, he was elected to the Central Committee in 1971 and was placed on foreign trips.

A full Politburo member since 1980, Gorbachev became more influential in 1982 when his mentor, Andropov, succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as general secretary of the party. He built a reputation as an enemy of corruption and inefficiency, finally rising to the top party spot in March 1985.

Gorbachev began to argue in favour of an end to the arms race with the West, but he moved to fast for the party establishment and he underestimated the depth of the economic crisis.

His Glasnost poilicy also is said to have created the natioanlist movements that led to the calls for independence from the Baltics and other Soviet republics in the late 1980s.

In 1986, face to face with American President Ronald Reagan at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Gorbachev made a stunning proposal: eliminate all long-range missiles held by the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and the agreement was signed in 1989 in Malta.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 “for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community.”

The pact that resulted, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, endured as a pillar of arms control for three decades until, in 2019, the United States formally withdrew and the Russian government said it had been consigned to the trash can.

In August 1991, hard-liners staged a coup when Gorbachev was on vacation in the Crimea. Across the Soviet Union, republics – one after another – were declaring independence and on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president.

As he read his resignation speech, Gorbachev defined what likely will be his legacy: “The country received freedom, was liberated politically and spiritually, and that was the most important achievement.”

In 2012, Gorbachev accused his successor, Boris Yeltsin, of betraying him. “He spoke about cooperating with me, working with me on a new union treaty, he signed the draft union treaty, initialed that treaty. But at the same time, he was working behind my back.”