Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, Soviet Union), died at the age of 91.
By Erin Viner
Russian media reported that the late leader died at Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow on Tuesday after what was said to have been an extended illness.
Gorbachev, who led the country from 1985 to 1991, was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War with the West.
The late leader is renowned for his “Glasnost” policy of increased government transparency in the USSR as part of the “Perestroika” political movement for reform within the ruling-Communist Party toward the “restructuration” of the Soviet political and economic system during the late 1980s.
In a stunning reversal, Gorbachev canceled religious or anti-Semitic policies against Soviet Jews, and authorized migration to Israel that had long been prohibited. Three million Jews are believed to have left the country, with an estimated 1.6 million moving to Israel.
Gorbachev also reestablished diplomatic ties with Israel in October 1991 that had been severed following Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War over Soviet allies Egypt and Syria, as well as Jordan. In what had previously been unimaginable he made a first-ever five-day visit to Israel in June 1992 where he was given a warm welcome. He respectfully wore a kippah head covering during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site.
“He was a brave leader and great statesman, who contributed greatly to the rehabilitation of relations between his country and Israel,” commented Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, hailing Gorbachev for having “opened the gates of the Soviet Union for the great wave of Jewish immigration to Israel in the 1990s.”
Israeli President Isaac Herzog also issued a statement on Gorbachev’s death.
“Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary figures. He was a brave and visionary leader, who shaped our world in ways previously thought unimaginable,” President Herzog wrote on Twitter, adding, “I was proud to meet him during his 1992 visit to Israel. Heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.”
Pinchas Goldschmidt, who served as Moscow’s Chief Rabbi until earlier this year, also lauded Gorbachev on Twitter, writing that “3 million Soviet Jews owe him their freedom” and that he had allowed the community “to live according to our faith.”
Gorbachev has also been mourned by Western leaders – although his death received a muted response in Russia, which is currently conducting a war against Ukraine in an attempt to regain some of the power it lost when he presided over the USSR’s collapse. Despite his struggle to prevent its disintegration, a series of largely bloodless revolutions fueled aspirations for autonomy in the 15 republics of the Soviet Union – including Ukraine.
After decades of Cold War tension and confrontation, Gorbachev brought his nation closer to the West than at any point since World War Two. His legacy, however, was crushed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February that prompted imposition of Western sanctions that caused leaders on all sides to envision the emergence of a new Cold War – or even worse.
United States President Joe Biden called Gorbachev “a man of remarkable vision” and, like other Western leaders, emphasized the freedoms he introduced, which Putin has steadily eroded.
“As leader of the USSR, he worked with President (Ronald) Reagan to reduce our two countries’ nuclear arsenals … After decades of brutal political repression, he embraced democratic reforms,” said Biden in a statement, adding, “The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.”
French President Emmanuel Macron called Gorbachev “a man of peace whose choices opened up a path of liberty for Russians.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz praised Gorbachev’s “perestroika” reforms that he noted made it possible to bring down the Iron Curtain and reunify Germany. “He died at a time when not only has democracy in Russia failed … but also when Russia and Russian President (Vladimir) Putin have dug new graves in Europe and begun a terrible war,” he said in condemnation of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russian President Putin previously condemned Gorbachev’s economic and political liberalization reforms, which ultimately weakened the Soviet Union to the point where it fell apart, as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.”
It took Putin more than 15 hours to issue a restrained condolence message, in which he said Gorbachev had had a “huge impact on the course of world history” and “deeply understood that reforms were necessary” to tackle the problems of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Gorbachev’s “romanticism” about rapprochement with West had been misplaced, Putin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told an educational forum; while Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergei Naryshkin and Putin confidant commented that, “’Perestroika’ has long become history, but today we all have to deal with its consequences.”
The late Soviet leader’s funeral will be held in accordance with those of his predecessors Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev at the Hall of Columns of the House of Unions near the Kremlin tomorrow at 10 AM Russian time (0700 GMT). He will then be buried at Moscow’s central Novodevichy Cemetery alongside his wife Raisa, who died in 1999, said a source familiar with the family’s wishes cited by Russia’s Tass news agency.
It is not certain whether Putin will attend the services.