Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union and a reformer who helped end the Cold War and lead his country from communism to capitalism, died Tuesday at 91, according to the Gorbachev Foundation.
“Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev died this evening after a serious and long illness,” the Central Clinical Hospital reported, according to the Interfax news agency.
He will be buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow next to his wife, Raisa Gorbachev, according to the agency.
Born in the village of Privolnoye, Gorbachev grew up a committed communist during World War II. After he graduated from Moscow State University with a law degree in 1955, he rose through the ranks of the Communist Party and ascended to its top position — general secretary — in March 1985.
Gorbachev ushered in sweeping changes like “perestroika” and “glasnost,” reforms that sought to restructure the Soviet Union’s lagging economy and make its government more transparent.
Gorbachev and his wife were also known for a stylish charm at odds with the images of their predecessors. The Daily Mail dubbed them “the Gucci couple.”
When pro-democracy rallies began in Poland and swept across the Soviet bloc in 1989, Gorbachev did not send in Soviet tanks to crush the uprisings. The following year, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Cold War.
The Soviet Union quickly began to disintegrate as the captive Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia peeled away and other nations that had long been under Moscow’s yoke, including Ukraine, sought independence.
Months after an attempted coup, Gorbachev resigned on Dec. 25, 1991. The Soviet Union was dissolved a day later.
“I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world,” Gorbachev told The Associated Press in 1992 shortly after he left office.
“I am often asked, would I have started it all again if I had to repeat it? Yes, indeed. And with more persistence and determination,” he told the AP.
A journalist and close friend of Gorbachev’s, Alexey Venediktov, told Forbes Russia this year that Gorbachev was “disappointed” by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It was his life’s work,” Venediktov said, recalling perestroika and glasnost. “Freedom is Gorbachev’s business.”
Venediktov told the outlet he believed Gorbachev’s legacy was being destroyed.
On Tuesday, Putin expressed “deep condolences” over his death, the Russian state news agency Tass reported.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other officials praised Gorbachev’s leadership Tuesday, saying he changed the course of history and paved the way for a free Europe.
“The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace,” he said. “I’m deeply saddened by his passing.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said that Gorbachev was a rare leader because he had the “imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it.”
“After decades of brutal political repression, he embraced democratic reforms. He believed in glasnost and perestroika — openness and restructuring — not as mere slogans, but as the path forward for the people of the Soviet Union after so many years of isolation and deprivation,” Biden said in a statement Tuesday night.
Associated Press contributed.