Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Reformist Soviet Leader, Is Dead at 91

Marilyn Berger – NY Times – 30 Aug

“Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose rise to power in the Soviet Union set in motion a series of revolutionary changes that transformed the map of Europe and ended the Cold War that had threatened the world with nuclear annihilation, has died in Moscow. He was 91. 

His death was announced on Tuesday by Russia’s state news agencies, citing the city’s central clinical hospital. The reports said he had died after an unspecified “long and grave illness.”

Few leaders in the 20th century, indeed in any century, have had such a profound effect on their time. In little more than six tumultuous years, Mr. Gorbachev lifted the Iron Curtain, decisively altering the political climate of the world.

At home he promised and delivered greater openness as he set out to restructure his country’s society and faltering economy. It was not his intention to liquidate the Soviet empire, but within five years of coming to power he had presided over the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He ended the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan and, in an extraordinary five months in 1989, stood by as the Communist system imploded from the Baltics to the Balkans in countries already weakened by widespread corruption and moribund economies.

For this he was hounded from office by hard-line Communist plotters and disappointed liberals alike, the first group fearing that he would destroy the old system and the other worried that he would not.

It was abroad that he was hailed as heroic. To George F. Kennan, the distinguished American diplomat and Sovietologist, Mr. Gorbachev was “a miracle,” a man who saw the world as it was, unblinkered by Soviet ideology.

When he came to power, Mr. Gorbachev was a loyal son of the Communist Party, but one who had come to see things with new eyes. “We cannot live this way any longer,” he told Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who would become his trusted foreign minister, in 1984. Within five years he had overturned much that the party held inviolable.

A man of openness, vision and great vitality, he looked at the legacy of seven decades of Communist rule and saw official corruption, a labor force lacking motivation and discipline, factories that produced shoddy goods, and a distribution system that guaranteed consumers little but empty shelves — empty of just about everything but vodka.

The Soviet Union had become a major world power weighed down by a weak economy. As East-West détente permitted light into its closed society, the growing class of technological, scientific and cultural elites could no longer fail to measure their country against the West and find it wanting.

The problems were clear; the solutions, less so. Mr. Gorbachev had to feel his way toward his promised restructuring of the Soviet political and economic systems. He was caught between tremendous opposing forces: On one hand, the habits ingrained by 70 years of cradle-to-grave subsistence under Communism; on the other, the imperatives of moving quickly to change the old ways and to demonstrate that whatever dislocation resulted was temporary and worth the effort.

It was a task he was forced to hand over to others when he was removed from office, a consequence of his own ambivalence and a failed coup against him by hard-liners whom he himself had elevated to his inner circle.

The openness Mr. Gorbachev sought — what came to be known as glasnost — and his policy of perestroika, aimed at restructuring the very underpinnings of society, became a double-edged sword. In setting out to fill in the “blank spots” of Soviet history, as he put it, with frank discussion of the country’s errors, he freed his impatient allies to criticize him and the threatened Communist bureaucracy to attack him.

Still, Mr. Gorbachev’s first five years in power were marked by significant, even extraordinary, accomplishments:

■ He presided over an arms agreement with the United States that eliminated for the first time an entire class of nuclear weapons, and began the withdrawal of most Soviet tactical nuclear weapons from Eastern Europe.

■ He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, a tacit admission that the invasion in 1979 and the nine-year occupation had been a failure.

■ While he equivocated at first, he eventually exposed the nuclear power-plant disaster at Chernobyl to public scrutiny, a display of candor unheard-of in the Soviet Union.

■ He sanctioned multiparty elections in Soviet cities, a democratic reform that in many places drove stunned Communist leaders out of office.

■ He oversaw an attack on corruption in the upper reaches of the Communist Party, a purge that removed hundreds of bureaucrats from their posts.

■ He permitted the release of the confined dissident Andrei D. Sakharov, the physicist who had been instrumental in developing the Soviet hydrogen bomb.

■ He lifted restrictions on the media, allowing previously censored books to be published and previously banned movies to be shown.

■ In a stark departure from the Soviet history of official atheism, he established formal diplomatic contacts with the Vatican and helped promulgate a law on freedom of conscience guaranteeing the right of the people to “satisfy their spiritual needs.”

But if Mr. Gorbachev was lionized abroad as having helped change the world — he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 — he was vilified at home as having failed to live up to the promise of economic change. It became widely said that in a free vote, Mr. Gorbachev could be elected president anywhere but the Soviet Union.

After five years of Mr. Gorbachev, store shelves remained empty while the union disintegrated. Mr. Shevardnadze, who had been his right hand in bringing a peaceful end to Soviet control in Eastern Europe, resigned in late 1990, warning that dictatorship was coming and that reactionaries in the Communist Party were about to cripple reform.

Peter Reddaway, an author and scholar of Russian history, said at the time: “We see the best side of Gorbachev. The Soviets see the other side, and hold him to blame.”

There was little in his early life that would have led anyone to believe that Mikhail Gorbachev could become such a dynamic leader. His official biography, issued after he became the new party chief, traced the well-traveled path of a good, loyal Communist.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in Privolnoye, a farming village in the Stavropol region of the Caucasus. His parents were genuine peasants, earning their bread by the sweat of their brows. During his infancy, the forced collectivization of the land turned a once-fertile region into “a famine disaster area,” the exiled writer and biologist Zhores A. Medvedev wrote in a biography of Mr. Gorbachev.

“The death from starvation was very high,” he added. “In some villages, all the children between the ages of 1 and 2 died.”

Misha, as Mikhail was known, was a bright-eyed youngster whose early photographs show him in a Cossack’s fur hat. He grew up in a house of straw held together with mud and manure and with no indoor plumbing. But his family was well respected among the Communist faithful. Mr. Gorbachev wrote in his book “Memoirs” that both his grandfathers had been arrested for crimes against the Czarist state. Still, the family’s embrace of Soviet ideology was not all-encompassing; Mr. Gorbachev’s mother and grandmother had him baptized.

After graduating from the village primary school, Mr. Gorbachev attended secondary school in Krasnogvardeisk and joined the Komsomol, the Communist Party youth organization. While his father was at the front during World War II, young Mr. Gorbachev worked as a combine operator’s assistant and after the war was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

At 19, in 1950, he left home to attend Moscow State University, a journey of more than 850 miles that took him through an impoverished countryside, devastated first by collectivization and then by the German invasion in World War II. At the end of the trip was the Stromynka, a vast, austere and crowded dormitory — eight to 15 students to a room — that had been a military barracks in the time of Peter the Great.

Once he became a law student, Mr. Gorbachev was permitted to read books, forbidden to other students, on the history of political ideas. He became familiar with Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel and Rousseau. (Years later, during the meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies that installed him as an American-style president, delegates were seen carrying around copies of the Constitution of the United States and asking American observers about “checks and balances.”)

Mr. Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader since Lenin to have studied law, and as a student of courtroom rhetoric he became an effective public speaker. Fellow students recalled him as self-confident, forthright and open-minded, but also quite capable of unscrupulous scheming. In one instance, according to Time magazine, he got himself named Komsomol organizer for his class by getting his predecessor drunk and then denouncing him at the next day’s meeting.

Most accounts say that after joining the Communist Party, Mr. Gorbachev was a loyal functionary, although in his book “On My Country and the World,” he wrote that he had had reservations about Stalin but expressed them only privately.

One evening his friends dragged him away from his books to a ballroom dancing class, where he found himself waltzing with a lively and attractive philosophy student named Raisa Maximovna Titarenko. They began dating. More sophisticated than him, Raisa took the earnest and still provincial Mikhail to concerts and museums, filling in the gaps in his cultural education. They were married in 1953.

But a life in Moscow’s more cultivated society was not immediately in the cards. Mr. Gorbachev returned to the provinces in 1955, taking his young wife with him. The next year he was named first secretary of the Komsomol for the Stavropol region.

It was the start of his Soviet political career — he began inching up the ladder in municipal posts — but it would keep him in Stavropol for the next 22 years. By 1970 his stature had grown sufficiently to be named party chief for the entire Stavropol region, a post equivalent in some respects to the governor of an American state.

He also earned a diploma in agronomy and became a reformer, willing to challenge some tenets of a centralized economy. Through a system of offering private plots of land and bonuses, agricultural production increased as much as 50 percent in some places. But bad weather and breakdowns in the coordination of farm machinery brought more crop failure.

A formative influence on the young Mr. Gorbachev was the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev. Khrushchev’s “secret speech” to the 20th Party Congress in 1956 had exposed the reign of terror of the Stalin era — the purges, mass arrests and labor camps — and changed the complexion of Soviet politics, making a deep impression on Mr. Gorbachev.

So had Khrushchev’s campaign against corruption, party privilege and bureaucratic inefficiency. Mr. Gorbachev and others of his generation came to call themselves “the children of the 20th Congress.”

Unlike most party functionaries, Mr. Gorbachev made it a practice to spend time with workers. But even more important to his future, his position as Stavropol party chief enabled him to rub shoulders with the party’s elite, who came to the region for its spas, some reserved almost exclusively for members of the Politburo, the party’s ruling body.

It was Mr. Gorbachev’s task as the local party leader to greet the dignitaries at the train, take them to their dachas, entertain them and escort them back to the railroad station for their return to Moscow. One ailing leader followed another: Premier Alexei N. Kosygin with a heart condition; Yuri V. Andropov, head of the K.G.B. and briefly premier, with a chronic kidney problem; Mikhail A. Suslov, the party ideologist, who latched on to Mr. Gorbachev as a young counterweight to the aging clique surrounding the supreme leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev.

Mr. Suslov and Mr. Andropov became powerful patrons of Mr. Gorbachev, as did Fyodor D. Kulakov, who was installed in the Politburo in 1971 and put in charge of agriculture. When Mr. Kulakov, who was seen as a possible successor to Mr. Brezhnev, died in 1978, Mr. Gorbachev was chosen to deliver the funeral oration. It was his first speech in Red Square, and the first time television viewers saw the man with the distinctive strawberry birthmark on his forehead.

Returning to Stavropol, Mr. Gorbachev was on hand to welcome Mr. Brezhnev and Konstantin U. Chernenko, a high-ranking Politburo member. Mr. Andropov, who was resting at a nearby spa, also came to greet them. It was a remarkable moment in Soviet history. As a Time magazine biography noted, “There on the narrow platform stood four men who would rule the Soviet Union in succession: Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev.”

The meeting was apparently enough to convince Mr. Brezhnev that Mr. Gorbachev was the man to take over the agriculture portfolio for the Central Committee. His opinion may have been fortified by Mr. Gorbachev’s admiring critique of Mr. Brezhnev’s recently ghostwritten memoir, “Little Land.” In his book “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire,” David Remnick quoted Mr. Gorbachev as writing, “Communists and all the workers of Stavropol express limitless gratitude to Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev for this literary work of deep philosophical penetration.”

It was the stilted language of a party hack. But beneath it, seemingly in hiding, was a reformist zeal. There was much to reform when the Gorbachevs arrived back in Moscow in 1978 from their long sojourn in the provinces. Hardly any effort had been made to conceal rampant official corruption. Mr. Brezhnev was old and ailing. His relatives were under investigation for shady dealings. The bureaucracy was bloated. Wages were low; people stood in lines at stores when they were supposed to be working, often finding nothing to buy. “They pretend to pay us,” the slogan went, “and we pretend to work.”

It was Mr. Andropov, from his seat high in the Politburo, who guided Mr. Gorbachev’s ascendance. Reported to have been disgusted by the corruption, Mr. Andropov sought to stem it, but knew that to do so he would have to circumvent the men around Mr. Brezhnev. In Mr. Gorbachev, he found a vigorous lieutenant to help him.

Mr. Gorbachev’s rise to the Politburo was more rapid than that of anyone since Stalin. Before his 50th birthday he was a Central Committee secretary, a position that placed him in the innermost circle of power. Healthy and strong, he stood out among the gerontocracy, a full quarter of a century younger than the 20 people ranked ahead of him. He became a full member of the Politburo in 1980.

Mr. Brezhnev died on Nov. 10, 1982, and his successor, Mr. Andropov, proceeded to wage a yearlong campaign against corruption, forcing workers who were absent without leave to return to work, purging the bureaucracy of deadwood and appointing younger men to top offices. He gave Mr. Gorbachev greater responsibility for the economy and named him a member of the Politburo and committee secretary in charge of ideology, considered the No. 2 job in the party and therefore the country.

But when Mr. Andropov died on Feb. 9, 1984, at 69, after a year of debilitating illness, the Politburo named not Mr. Gorbachev but Mr. Chernenko, 72, as general secretary. Mr. Gorbachev was designated to give the nominating speech before the Supreme Soviet, the nation’s highest legislative body, a role that made him the equivalent of the crown prince. The old generation was going to be allowed to bow out gracefully.

And it bowed out quickly, as it turned out. Mr. Chernenko was so weak from emphysema that he could not lift his arms to help carry the coffin bearing his predecessor into Red Square. Little more than a year later, his own remains were carried to the same final destination.

Mr. Gorbachev experienced a sense of the country’s economic stagnation and corruption during the Brezhnev years, but it was not until he moved into powerful posts under Mr. Andropov and Mr. Chernenko that he saw how crippling the problems were. As a Central Committee secretary, he arranged for a crash course on the economic crisis and organized seminars specifically on rescuing the agricultural sector.

Already he was demonstrating a flexibility rare for Soviet leaders. Quoting Lenin in a speech, he said the country’s main task was “to mobilize a maximum of initiative and to display a maximum of independence.” The word perestroika, a restructuring, was taking shape in his mind.

He nevertheless struck Western visitors as a committed Marxist who accepted without question reports of widespread poverty in the United States and the general view that American presidents took orders from the military-industrial complex. He seemed convinced that the United States was bent on military aggression.

But he understood Western public relations and the power of personality, which he demonstrated in 1983 on a visit to Canada, where he chatted with women, dandled their babies and marveled at the efficiency of Canadian workers and the productivity of Canadian soil.

A year later he traveled to Britain, where he impressed Britons with his knowledge of their literature. Visiting the British Museum, where Karl Marx did much of his research, he remarked, “If people don’t like Marx, they should blame the British Museum.”

But when a British lawmaker brought up the issue of persecution of religious groups in the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev’s good humor evaporated. “You govern your society,” he snapped, “you leave us to govern ours.”

Still, the British were taken with Mr. Gorbachev and his fashionable wife, who was seen using an American Express Gold Card to shop at Harrods. “I like Mr. Gorbachev,” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in 1984. “We can do business together.” She later encouraged President Ronald Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev to do business together as well.

With the death of Mr. Chernenko on March 10, 1985, Mr. Gorbachev, who had been substituting for the ailing leader, moved to disarm the opposition and take power. At a hastily called Politburo meeting, Andrei A. Gromyko, the longtime foreign minister, argued the case for Mr. Gorbachev. “Comrades,” he said in a speech, “this man has a nice smile, but he has iron teeth.”

The Central Committee approved the nomination on March 10, 1985. Relieved, one committee member was said to have remarked, “After one leader who was half dead, and another who was half alive, and another who could hardly speak, the youthful, energetic Gorbachev was very welcome.”

Soviet leaders had long kept their grip on power through the cult of personality, using propaganda and the state-run media to exalt them. Mr. Gorbachev put an end to that. There would be no enormous portraits of him along the main thoroughfares. He urged newspapers to stop quoting the party leader in every article; Lenin would suffice. He outflanked party rivals, in one instance arranging the resignation of Leningrad’s party boss, whose rich tastes and corrupt use of power were as well known as his drunken displays.

Perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) became the watchwords of the Gorbachev era. He would let people see him in person when he visited hospitals, factories and schools, and would ask where they thought things had gone wrong.

There would be no Potemkin villages: He would announce that he was visiting one hospital and turn up at another, where there would have been no time to put up a false front. What he saw and heard embarrassed the Moscow party boss, and Mr. Gorbachev had him pensioned off, installing in his place Boris N. Yeltsin in 1985 and opening a half-decade of rivalry and cooperation between the two men.

In May 1985, Mr. Gorbachev chose the Smolny Institute, the very heart of Communist orthodoxy, where Lenin had declared the triumph of Bolshevism in 1917, to be his platform from which to call for bold reform.

Without notes, he walked back and forth, gesturing with his arms as he cajoled, charmed and exhorted. “We must change our attitudes, from the worker to the minister, the secretary of the Central Committee and the leaders of government,” he said.

“Those who do not intend to adjust and who are an obstacle to solving these new tasks must simply get out of the way,” he continued. “Get out of the way! Don’t be a hindrance!” He demanded harder work and products “of world market standard — no less.”

The speech was broadcast on state television three days later. “The public, which had long since lost interest in the public appearances of party leaders, was captivated,” Mr. Medvedev, the biographer, wrote.

Within seven months Mr. Gorbachev had replaced most of the Politburo’s old guard. The following year he replaced 41 percent of the voting members of the 27th Party Congress and pushed top military officers and thousands of bureaucrats into retirement.

In March 1990, Mr. Gorbachev became the first president of the Soviet Union, winning 59 percent of the vote in the Congress of People’s Deputies.
In March 1990, Mr. Gorbachev became the first president of the Soviet Union, winning 59 percent of the vote in the Congress of People’s Deputies.Credit…V. Armand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Even Mr. Gromyko, the party stalwart who had nominated him, was removed as foreign minister after 28 years and booted upstairs to the largely ceremonial post of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, or president. He was replaced by Mr. Shevardnadze, then a relatively unknown and reform-minded party secretary from Georgia.

If Mr. Gorbachev’s style won him popularity, his reforms were less welcome, none more so than his campaign to curb the nation’s thirst for alcohol. Mr. Gorbachev knew from his years under Mr. Andropov just how much damage vodka was doing to the work force and to families.

A bare two months after he took office, he cut vodka production, increased fines for public drunkenness, reduced the number of places where alcohol could be sold and limited the hours those establishments could remain open, raised the prices of alcoholic beverages by 15 percent to 30 percent, and raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

He set up programs to tackle the causes of alcoholism. At official banquets and receptions, tables that were once laden with every variety of vodka now offered only mineral water and fruit juice. The shot glasses that were once part of every table setting and hoisted for toast after toast disappeared.

The program was greeted with grumbling. Vodka had long been a Russian staple, an escape from the dismal conditions of life, not to mention the source of a multibillion-dollar domestic industry. Many even denounced the new rules as an attack on Russian culture. At the few bottle stores that remained, long lines snaking out of doors and around corners became known as “Gorbachev’s nooses.”

Illegal stills produced so much moonshine that sugar became scarce. By 1987, bootlegging caused tax revenues to fall by some 100 billion rubles. And though many lives had been saved, researchers found that more than 10,000 people died of poisoning from impure alcohol. However, bowing to public discontent, Mr. Gorbachev began relaxing the campaign in 1988.

As a loyal Communist, Mr. Gorbachev had intended to work through the party to rehabilitate Soviet society. But it became apparent to him that tinkering would never be enough to repair what was broken. The changes would have to be as broad as the problems were deep. He came to see that Communism could no longer be the ruling force in Soviet life.

Arrayed against him at home were some 18 million party and state officials whose survival depended on the status quo. He consequently followed a zigzag course between change and orthodoxy, taking a few steps forward, then a few steps back, responding to popular demand while trying to placate the party faithful. He called for a revival of Marxism while seeking to dismantle the political structure that had upheld the Communists’ rule.

The party’s monopoly on power would be replaced with a multiparty system. Mr. Gorbachev enlarged, and weakened, the Politburo, and eliminated the office of general secretary, the very perch from which Soviet leaders had controlled the country since the days of Stalin, replacing it with an elected president — himself — supported by a presidential council of advisers.

In February 1990, the Central Committee gave its endorsement. In March, Mr. Gorbachev became the first president of the Soviet Union, winning 59 percent of the vote in the Congress of People’s Deputies.

The new presidency came with broad powers — many feared they exceeded those of a czar — but Mr. Gorbachev pledged to use them to pull a reluctant nation toward a market economy, acknowledging the painful changes that this would require.

The plan that he and his advisers initially came up with was a form of shock therapy, a “500 Days” program that would accommodate private enterprise, remove subsidies, institute market-driven pricing and create a currency of value.

Mr. Gorbachev soon found himself caught between the pincers of established glasnost and delayed perestroika. The promised changes in the economy were delayed, but the people were free to complain vigorously about the gap between promise and performance. Public disaffection grew so intense that it spilled over into the May Day parade of 1990, when protesters marched through Red Square, hooting and jeering at their leaders standing atop the Lenin Mausoleum. “Gorbachev, the people don’t trust you — resign,” read one placard. On another: “Food is not a luxury.” 

Mr. Gorbachev ultimately backed down from institutionalizing his plan, fearing the trauma and dislocation it would cause. A close associate, Aleksandr N. Yakovlev, was quoted by The Washington Post as lamenting that Mr. Gorbachev had rejected “the last chance for a civilized transition to a new order.”

“It was probably his worst, most dangerous mistake,” he said.

By 1990, perestroika was widely seen to have failed. According to one poll, one in six Muscovites wanted to emigrate, one in four in the broad 18-to-50 age group. Crime rates were climbing, and economic improvement seemed a pipe dream. Instituting political reform, from the Caucasus to the Baltics, proved daunting. Morale in the army was low. And Mr. Gorbachev appeared uncertain about how to correct the problems.

To carry out any reforms and reverse his country’s economic slide, Mr. Gorbachev needed a peaceful world. Arms control agreements with the United States would enable him to cut his military budget and free up money for domestic programs.

President Reagan understood Mr. Gorbachev’s plight, and sought to exploit it. He increased American military spending, deepening his own country’s deficit, in the hope that any effort by the Soviet Union to keep pace would finally force it into bankruptcy and undermine the Communist system.

To begin containing military expenses, Mr. Gorbachev ended the military misadventure in Afghanistan, which had become the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. The intervention, which had begun in December 1979, had been intended to support Afghanistan’s Marxist-Leninist government against Indigenous opposition, the Afghan mujahedeen and foreign volunteers, many of them Arabs. But it dragged on for nine years and cost 15,000 Soviet lives before the last Soviet forces were pulled out, in 1989.

The retreat dramatized Mr. Gorbachev’s break with the muscle-flexing foreign policy of the Brezhnev period. Eight months later, on Oct. 23, 1989, Mr. Shevardnadze, the foreign minister, told the Soviet legislature that the Afghanistan expedition had violated Soviet law and international norms of behavior. The invasion, he said, “with such serious consequences for our country, was taken behind the backs of the party and the people.”

Mr. Gorbachev met with  Pope John Paul II in 1990. Their meeting a year earlier was the first ever between a leader of the Soviet Union and the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Mr. Gorbachev met with Pope John Paul II in 1990. Their meeting a year earlier was the first ever between a leader of the Soviet Union and the head of the Roman Catholic Church.Credit…Luciano Mellace/Reuters

In the same speech, again breaking with the Brezhnev past, Mr. Shevardnadze acknowledged that the construction of an early-warning radar station near Krasnoyarsk in Siberia had, as Washington long contended, violated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the United States.

At the time, the United States was moving toward a space-based antimissile system, which its critics said also violated the treaty. Mr. Gorbachev was positioning himself for new arms agreements.

In pursuit of that goal, he began meeting with Mr. Reagan, first in Geneva in 1985, then in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, and again in Washington in 1987, to sign a landmark agreement that for the first time eliminated an entire class of weapons — medium- and shorter-range weapons in Europe — while calling for on-site inspections to verify the cutbacks.

In May 1988, Mr. Reagan became the first American president to visit Moscow in 14 years. Afterward, he declared: “Quite possibly we are beginning to take down the barriers of the postwar era. Quite possibly we are entering a new era in history — a time of lasting change in the Soviet Union.” 

Mr. Reagan, who in 1987 had challenged Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall, was for all intents and purposes declaring an end to the Cold War.

Mr. Reagan’s successor, George Bush, met with Mr. Gorbachev in December 1989 for a gale-swept summit meeting held on Soviet and American naval ships off Malta. The meeting was meant to bury the Cold War once and for all and solidify a new relationship between the superpowers.

But the “the ultimate test” of his leadership, Mr. Gorbachev acknowledged to Mr. Bush, was still the economy. Following the Malta summit talks, to buoy the Soviet leader, Mr. Bush took steps toward a trade agreement that would grant the Soviet Union most-favored-nation status, lowering American tariffs on Soviet goods and giving it easier access to the American market, which in turn would help the country modernize.

Perhaps as momentous as the arms agreements was Mr. Gorbachev’s visit to the Vatican on Dec. 1, 1989. His meeting with Pope John Paul II was the first ever between a leader of the Soviet Union and the head of the Roman Catholic Church. It was there that Mr. Gorbachev pledged to adopt a law on freedom of conscience, which would guarantee the right of his people to “satisfy their spiritual needs.”

Nearly four months later, the Vatican and the Soviet Union declared that they would restore formal diplomatic relations for the first time since 1923.

Mr. Gorbachev’s perestroika was graphically demonstrated when, in a stunning chapter of history, Eastern Europe’s Communist regimes fell, one after another.

In a few euphoric months in 1989, the political architecture of Europe was transformed by popular demand for democracy. Seven countries that had been locked behind the Iron Curtain for more than four decades once again tasted independence. Some historians have ranked 1989 alongside 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution, and 1848, a year of political upheaval throughout Europe, in importance.

There is little question that Mr. Gorbachev was the catalyst of that change. Whatever was to happen within the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev would be remembered as the man who restored Europe to what it was before World War II, a continent of independent national states. 

Until he arrived, the Soviet Union had embraced what the West called the Brezhnev doctrine, under which the Kremlin arrogated to itself the right to interfere in the affairs of faltering Communist regimes of the Warsaw Pact.

Brezhnev invoked that right in 1968, when he dispatched Soviet forces to destroy the liberalization movement in Czechoslovakia that became known as the Prague Spring, and Khrushchev did so in 1956, when his army crushed a revolt in Hungary.

Mr. Gorbachev laid that policy to rest. If a regime was failing, he said, it — and it alone — would have to forge a genuine social compact with its people.

Gennadi I. Gerasimov, Mr. Gorbachev’s spokesman, pronounced the epitaph during a visit to Finland in October 1989. “I think the Brezhnev doctrine is dead,” he said.

Months earlier Poland had become the first Warsaw Pact country to oust the Communists and end their monolithic power. In a democratic election on June 4, the Solidarity movement achieved a stunning victory over the Communist candidates.

On July 29, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the man who in 1981 had imposed martial law to crush Solidarity, resigned as Communist Party leader but remained as president. The next month, he named a senior Solidarity official, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, as the first non-Communist prime minister since the early postwar years.

The countries of Eastern Europe quickly followed, ousting their Communist regimes with dizzying speed.

In Prague in October, thousands of marchers converged on Wenceslas Square, the scene of a bloody crackdown in 1968, and again faced riot police officers. The next day, tens of thousands of people took their place in the square.

As the daily demonstrations grew, Alexander Dubcek, the reformist leader of the Prague Spring of 1968, was cheered by 250,000 people as he called for the resignations of President Gustav Husak and the party leader, Milos Jakes. Three days later, Mr. Jakes was replaced. (In the most stunning turnaround in a year of upheaval, Vaclav Havel, the playwright who had been censored and imprisoned by the Communists and who had become a symbol of the opposition, was elected president in December.)

In East Germany, tens of thousands of people, mostly young, were streaming out of the country heading west, mainly through Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Hungary signed an agreement pledging not to return refugees to their countries, then started cutting through the barbed wire that separated East from West at its border with Austria.

In Leipzig, hundreds of thousands of East Germans rallied for weekly freedom marches demanding democratic elections, independent labor unions and the dismantling of the secret police.

The unrest soon reached East Berlin, the capital and a bleak, barbed-wire symbol of Cold War tensions. On Oct. 7, Mr. Gorbachev, visiting the city to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Communist rule, warned Communist leaders not to use force against their own people. “Life itself punishes those who delay,” he said.

By November the streets were swelling with demonstrators. The East German government tried to stem the flight to the West by publishing the draft of a law permitting every citizen to travel abroad or emigrate.

On Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall came down and waves of Germans swarmed westward.

The next day, the dictator Todor I. Zhivkov resigned as Bulgaria’s president and Communist Party chief after ruling for 35 years, more than any other Eastern European leader.

In Romania, crowds surged into the streets of Bucharest in December, forcing Nicolae Ceausescu, the most repressive and most hated of all the Communist leaders, to flee. Apprehended within a day, he and his equally despised wife, Elena, were tried by the military and executed by a firing squad. Elections were scheduled.

Except for Albania, every totalitarian Communist regime in Europe had fallen before the new year and the new decade.

With memories of World War II still fresh, Moscow had strong doubts that a reunited and resurgent Germany was something to be desired. Though many Warsaw Pact countries were content to see a reunited Germany within NATO, the Soviet Union rejected that proposal, suggesting instead that Germany be a member of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. That idea was rejected by the United States.

Negotiations on German unification were held in what became known as the “two plus four” talks, including the foreign ministers of the two Germanys and the victorious World War II powers: the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Britain.

Mr. Gorbachev sought a “synchronization” of two issues, German unity and European security. Finally, on July 16, 1990, an agreement was reached placing a unified Germany within NATO. Mr. Gorbachev declared, “We are leaving one epoch in international relations and entering another, a period, I think, of strong, prolonged peace.” 

Peace was not at hand everywhere, however. If glasnost gave free rein to public debate in the Soviet Union and cast light on past errors and current problems, it also rekindled nationalist aspirations, religious rivalries and ethnic hatreds that had been smoldering in the outlying Soviet republics since before Stalin, Lenin and Marx.

In Georgia on April 9, 1989, 19 people were killed when Interior Ministry troops used tanks, shovels and possibly poison gas to attack Georgian separatists while they were singing and dancing in the streets in what the Georgians said was a peaceful demonstration. There were similar nationalist demonstrations in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

Armenians also took the new liberalization as license to settle old disputes, setting their sights on Nagorno-Karabakh, a semiautonomous territory populated largely by Armenians but administered by Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, had been locked in a centuries-old blood feud with Armenia, which is predominantly Christian, and for more than a year Azerbaijani nationalists had attacked road and rail traffic into the territory.

On Jan. 20, 1990, Mr. Gorbachev intervened, sending troops into Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, a city of two million on the Caspian Sea. In the fighting between the Soviet Army and a paramilitary organization known as the Popular Front, more than 140 people were killed, at least 30 of them Soviet soldiers.

The confrontation, pitting the Soviet Army against Soviet people, was so unpopular throughout the nation that mothers demonstrated in the streets to keep their sons from being sent to Azerbaijan. Thousands of conscripts burned their draft cards, and military desertion rates climbed.

In Baku, as crowds rioted, there were reports that more than 500 servicemen fled with their weapons. Mr. Gorbachev finally gave in and withdrew. No one could remember a Soviet leader ever having backed down like that in the face of public demand.

The challenge to the central authority in Moscow was underscored when the warring Azerbaijanis and Armenians agreed to meet not in the Kremlin, but under the aegis of the separatist leaders of the three Baltic States, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The parties met in Riga, the Latvian capital, and in February 1990 agreed to a truce.

But the unrest was reaching a boiling point. On Feb. 25, Lithuania voted overwhelmingly for independence and declared its independence less than a month later. The break with Moscow threatened to unravel the Soviet Union.

It was also a repudiation of Mr. Gorbachev. Lithuania had forged ahead despite a personal plea from him to remain loyal to the central party and the Kremlin. 

Beyond declaring its independence, Lithuania began asserting it, deciding to issue its own citizen identity cards. When Mr. Gorbachev warned of stiff sanctions if the measure was not repealed, Lithuania refused. It boycotted the Soviet military’s spring call-up and laid claims to property in Lithuania that Moscow said was owned by the Soviet government and the Soviet Communist Party.

Mr. Gorbachev resorted to stronger tactics, denying Lithuania critical supplies of oil, natural gas and coal, and imposing an embargo on medicines and baby food. In retaliation, the Lithuanians began cutting off food exports and making separate shipping arrangements with Soviet cities in which the Communists had been voted out.

Mr. Gorbachev also tried to forestall independence moves by Estonia and Latvia. Though any Soviet republic supposedly had a constitutional right to secede, Mr. Gorbachev had a new law written codifying lengthy procedures for withdrawal.

The law, opposed by the Baltic States, required a republicwide referendum for independence, a five-year negotiating period and a final vote in the national legislature. The Baltic States insisted that because they had been annexed illegally in 1940, the law did not apply to them.

On Dec. 26, 1991, the formal end of the Soviet empire was sealed when Mr. Gorbachev resigned as president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
On Dec. 26, 1991, the formal end of the Soviet empire was sealed when Mr. Gorbachev resigned as president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.Credit…Vitaly Armand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Baltic problem was Mr. Gorbachev’s gravest crisis and only the tip of an iceberg of secessionist sentiment throughout the Soviet Union. His challenge was to hold the nation together without using force while keeping his liberal reform program on track after a year of indecision.

This was the climate in which the old order struck back.

On Sunday, Aug. 18, 1991, Mr. Gorbachev was on vacation in Foros, a Black Sea resort area on the Crimean Peninsula. He was putting the finishing touches on a major speech about a new union treaty that would transfer considerable power from the Kremlin to the nation’s 15 republics, which were to begin signing the document on Tuesday. Then, without warning, a delegation of Kremlin hard-liners from the military and the K.G.B. arrived at the door of his dacha, having cut off his phones. They demanded that he declare a state of emergency and resign.

What unfolded was a chain of events that some called the three days that shook the world. At 6 a.m. Monday, the official news agency Tass announced that Mr. Gorbachev had been ousted, citing his “inability for health reasons” to perform his duties. Vice President Gennadi I. Yanayev took power under a new entity, the State Emergency Committee.

An hour later, an emergency decree was announced suspending political parties and closing the opposition press. Mr. Gorbachev’s whereabouts was unknown. Boris N. Yeltsin, president of what was now called the Russian federated republic, called the takeover a coup d’état.

Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin had often been at odds, but now Mr. Yeltsin had become his most important — and most visible — ally. By 11 a.m. Soviet troops and tanks had surrounded the government building known as the White House and by early afternoon hundreds of demonstrators had surrounded the tanks.

To begin containing military expenses, Mr. Gorbachev ended the military intervention in Afghanistan, which had begun in December 1979 and had dragged on for nine years.
To begin containing military expenses, Mr. Gorbachev ended the military intervention in Afghanistan, which had begun in December 1979 and had dragged on for nine years.Credit…Vitaly Zaporozhchenko/Associated Press

Mr. Yeltsin joined them. Climbing atop a T-72 tank, megaphone in hand, he called for a general strike. Alongside him was Gen. Konstantin Kobets, defense minister of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, who ordered the armed forces to stand down. “Not a hand will be raised against the people or the duly elected president of Russia,” General Kobets said.

The turmoil soon spread to the capitals of other republics. The next day Mr. Yeltsin demanded to see Mr. Gorbachev and insisted that foreign doctors examine him, and crowds outside the Russian Parliament grew to 150,000.

On Wednesday, with the tide turning against the hard-liners, Soviet troops withdrew from the center of Moscow, and the coup leaders fled. On Thursday, Mr. Gorbachev returned to Moscow to reassert control. 

The coup had unraveled, but the political blow to Mr. Gorbachev was critical. Mr. Yeltsin had replaced him as the symbol of democracy in Russia. On Aug. 24, Mr. Gorbachev resigned as general secretary of the Communist Party and dissolved its Central Committee. On Dec. 25, the formal end of the Soviet empire was sealed when he resigned as president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Mr. Yeltsin provided him with a dacha, bodyguards, a pension and what Mr. Remnick, in “Lenin’s Tomb,” called “a fine piece of real estate — the former Party institute,” which Mr. Gorbachev would use as a base for research but not for political opposition. They were soon at each others’ throats again, however.

“Yeltsin’s aides began chipping away at Gorbachev’s retirement deal,” Mr. Remnick wrote, “first taking away his limousine and replacing it with a more modest sedan, then threatening worse. ‘Soon,’ one newspaper cracked, ‘Mikhail Sergeyevich will be going to work on a bicycle.’ ”

Raisa Gorbachev, who suffered a stroke during the coup, died of leukemia in 1999, and Mr. Gorbachev started spending more time abroad giving speeches and traveling the international diplomatic circuit.

Mr. Gorbachev remained popular in the West (he was even selected for an advertising campaign for Louis Vuitton in 2007), but in Russia his kind of thinking became obsolete as the corruption he had fought against reached new heights, with billions flowing into the hands of oligarchs and then out of the country.

By 2009, Anatoly B. Chubais, an economist-turned-politician who personally benefited richly from the privatization, said that “Gorbachev is the most hated man in Russia.”

In his occasional interviews with Western news outlets, Mr. Gorbachev enumerated the mistakes he felt he had made, saying that he should have formed a new political party and relegated the Communist Party to the dustbin of history; that he should have found a way to release the former Soviet republics more gently; even that he should not have gone on that vacation leading up to the coup.

Mr. Yeltsin, his sometime ally and frequent opponent, offered his own assessment of Mr. Gorbachev in 1991: “He thought to unite the impossible: Communism with the market, public property with private property, political pluralism with the Communist Party. These are incompatible couples, but he insisted on them, and therein lay his fundamental strategic mistake.”

In recent years Mr. Gorbachev would weigh in on the issues of the day, but his voice had lost resonance. He warned against the eastward expansion of the European Union, worried publicly about the possibility of a new Cold War, and welcomed the Russian parliamentary vote to annex Crimea.

He ran hot and cold on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, a virtual antithesis to almost everything Mr. Gorbachev had tried to accomplish. At first he praised Mr. Putin for restoring stability, even at the price of authoritarianism, but he came to oppose Mr. Putin’s crackdown on news media freedom and his changes in electoral laws in Russia’s regions.

Mr. Putin, he said, saw himself “second only to God” and never sought his advice.

Information about Mr. Gorbachev’s survivors was not immediately available.

Despite the difficulties he faced, Mr. Gorbachev succeeded in permanently upending the political, economic and social character of what was once the Soviet Union, as well as the entire map of Eastern Europe. But he, more than anyone, knew how far he had fallen short.

In an interview during his final days in office, he told The New York Times, “For all the mistakes, miscalculations — or, on the contrary, for all the great leaps — we accomplished the main preparatory political and human work.”

“In this sense,” he added, “it will never be possible to turn society back.”

Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.

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