The Soviet leader who presided over the collapse of the USSR is dead at the age of 91. Mikhail Gorbachev is probably best known for being the subject of Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Berlin speech in which he admonished the leader, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The wall was torn down two years later. It was the series of changes that Gorbachev put in place that caused the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. By the time Gorbachev stepped down at the end of 1991, the USSR was for all intents and purposes disbanded.
History tells us that Gorbachev could have used force to keep the union together. It would have been in keeping with other Soviet leaders and Russian history. But he refused because he realized that the weaponry within the collective could bring chaos to the country.
The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And it would have immediately pushed the country into a civil war.
For that stance and his “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness) working with the West, Russians hated him. He received a Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Nuclear Arms Race, but at home, the disbanding of the USSR made him a pariah. His rapprochement with the West led to many reforms within Russia that untied the yoke from the necks of the Soviet nation-states. Soon they began to declare independence. The world rejoiced. Gorbachev was left adrift in the whirlwind of his own making. But was it his intent to destroy the USSR? No.
His decline was humiliating. His power hopelessly sapped by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, he spent his last months in office watching republic after republic declare independence until he resigned on Dec. 25, 1991. The Soviet Union wrote itself into oblivion a day later…
By the end of his rule he was powerless to halt the whirlwind he had sown. Yet Gorbachev may have had a greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than any other political figure.
“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 AP in a 1992 interview 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 said.
Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War and spent his later years collecting accolades and awards from all corners of the world. Yet he was widely despised at home.
Russians blamed him for the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union — a once-fearsome superpower whose territory fractured into 15 separate nations. His former allies deserted him and made him a scapegoat for the country’s troubles.
Mikhail Gorbachev started a wave of reforms that he hoped would improve the USSR. Instead it was destroyed. But as we have seen with the current leader of Russia, there is still a historical thread of viciousness. He had hoped to lift his people out of the wrenching poverty, but the long history of bureaucratic leaders who insisted on their own power stood in his way. His rival, Boris Yeltsin, became the first President of Russia after Gorbachev stepped down.
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