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Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, dies at 91

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Mikhail Gorbachev, who changed the course of history by bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union and was one of the great figures of the 20th century, died in Moscow on Tuesday at the age of 91.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev

The death of the last leader of the USSR was announced by the Russian news agencies, which specified that he died in a hospital in the Russian capital.

“Today (Tuesday) night, after a long serious illness, Mikhail Sergeivich Gorbachev died,” reported the Central Clinical Hospital (TSKB), quoted by Interfax, TASS and RIA Novosti.

Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1990 for his role in ending the confrontation between East and West in the last century, Gorbachev spent the last 20 years of his life withdrawn from politics, although he regularly made himself heard, concerned about the new tensions with Washington.

He often urged the Kremlin and the White House to dialogue and reach an agreement to guarantee world security and reduce their arsenals, as he already did in the 1980s with the US president at the time, Ronald Reagan.

Gorbachev was the last leader still alive from the Cold War era, a period that seems to resonate today since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offensive in Ukraine launched on February 24.

Although Gorbachev did not speak publicly about Russian military action in Ukraine, his foundation called for “a cessation of hostilities and the immediate start of peace negotiations.”

– Controversial legacy in Russia –

Highly respected abroad, he received praise from great personalities around the world on many occasions, such as for his 90th birthday, when US President Joe Biden and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated him.

In Russia, on the other hand, since the disappearance of the USSR in 1991, he was seen as an ambivalent figure. Although he was the one who paved the way for freedom of expression, for many he was responsible for the end of the superpower and the terrible years of economic crisis that followed.

When he was in power, between 1985 and 1991, he carried out important democratic reforms, known as “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (transparency), which brought him great recognition in the West.

His actions caused the fall of the “iron curtain”, as the old political and ideological border between Western and Eastern Europe was known. Gorbachev also ordered an end to the disastrous Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan.

The years after the dissolution of the USSR continue to be a trauma for many Russians who were plunged into poverty and confronted with political chaos and a brutal war with Chechnya.

In 1990, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “peacefully ending the Cold War.”

– International accolades –

It was this legacy that international leaders most recognized after learning of his death.

For the UN Secretary General, Gorbachev was “a unique statesman who changed the course of history” and “did more than any other individual to bring about a peaceful end to the Cold War.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed him as a “trustworthy and respected leader” who “blazed the path for a free Europe.”

For his part, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson extolled “his indefatigable commitment to opening up Soviet society.”

And French President Emmanuel Macron hailed him as a “man of peace” whose “commitment” to “changed the history” of Europe.

In Moscow, Putin expressed “deep condolences” on the death of the former ruler.

– ‘Geopolitical catastrophe’ –

With the coming to power in 2000 of Putin, for whom the disappearance of the USSR is the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, the State imposed itself on society and returned Russian power to the international scene.

For Gorbachev, relations with the new Kremlin leaders were always complex, whether with the first Russian president Boris Yeltsin, his staunch enemy, or with Putin, whom he criticized but saw as an opportunity for stable development in Russia.

After a brief unsuccessful attempt to return to politics in the 1990s, Gorbachev devoted himself entirely to educational and humanitarian projects. He was also an early supporter of Russia’s main opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.

Born in southwestern Russia in 1931, Mikhail Gorbachev spent part of the coronavirus pandemic in a Russian hospital, saying that, like many of his compatriots, he was “tired of everything”.

In recent weeks, the Russian press had mentioned the former leader’s recurring health problems.

A source close to the Gorbachev family told the TASS news agency that he would be buried next to his wife Raísa at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery.

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