The last leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, dies at the age of 91

The last leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, dies at the age of 91

Mikhail Gorbachev – the last leader of the USSR and the man despised by Vladimir Putin and Russian nationalists for ending the Cold War and preventing the collapse of the Soviet Union – has died at the age of 91, Russian news outlets quoted hospital officials as saying.

Gorbachev forged arms reduction agreements with the US and partnerships with Western powers to remove the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since World War II and bring about the reunification of Germany.

As pro-democracy protests swept through the Soviet bloc of communist Eastern Europe in 1989, he largely refrained from resorting to violence – unlike previous Kremlin leaders who had sent tanks to quell uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But the protests fueled autonomy efforts in the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, which fell apart chaotically over the next two years. Gorbachev tried in vain to prevent this collapse.

When he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 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.

His policy of “glasnost” — freedom of speech — allowed for previously unthinkable criticism of the party and state, but also emboldened nationalists who began pushing for independence in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and elsewhere.

Many Russians have never forgiven Gorbachev for the turmoil his reforms unleashed, seeing the subsequent decline in their living standards as too high a price to pay for democracy.

After visiting Gorbachev in hospital on June 30, liberal economist Ruslan Grinberg told the armed forces’ Zvezda news agency: “He gave us all freedom – but we don’t know what to do with it.”

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Bradford Betz

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