Last week, the former Soviet leader who brought the Cold War to a peaceful end, died at the age of 91 after a long and serious illness.
Born in 1931 to a poor peasant family of Russian and Ukrainian heritage, he grew up under the rule of Joseph Stalin at the height of communism.
It was, therefore, ironic that when he took power in 1985, Gorbachev was the one who introduced wide-ranging reforms as well as opened up the Soviet Union to the world through his twin policies of perestroika (market reforms) and glasnost (openness).
After coming through the ranks of the Communist Party, the Politburo elected Gorbachev as Secretary-General, the de facto leader, following the brief tenures of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, and three years after the death of long-serving Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
At the time, Gorbachev was 54 and the youngest member of the Politburo and was seen as a breath of fresh air after several ageing predecessors.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the first to identify Gorbachev as a man the West could “do business with” and she provided American President Ronald Reagan with good cover against hard-line Republicans who accused him of going “soft” on communism by agreeing to a superpower summit in the autumn with the new Soviet leader.
Although committed to preserving the Soviet Union, Gorbachev believed that significant reforms were necessary, particularly after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. He withdrew troops from the Soviet-Afghan War and embarked on summits to limit nuclear arms and end the Cold War.
Domestically, his policy of glasnost allowed for enhanced freedom of speech and press, while his perestroika sought to decentralise economic decision-making to improve efficiency. His democratisation measures and formation of the elected Congress of People’s Deputies undermined the one-party state.
Gorbachev declined to intervene militarily when various Eastern Bloc countries abandoned Marxist-Leninist ideologies leading up to the breaking down of the Berlin Wall in 1990.
Internally, growing nationalist sentiment threatened to break up the Soviet Union, causing hard-line Marxist-Leninists to launch the unsuccessful August Coup against Gorbachev in 1991. In the wake of the coup, the Soviet Union dissolved against Gorbachev’s wishes, and he resigned.
Gorbachev was buried in a low-key ceremony on Saturday, 3 September at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery in the same grave as his wife Raisa, as per wishes in his will.
In the West, he is seen as an architect of reform who created the conditions for the end of the Cold War in 1991, a time of deep tensions between the Soviet Union and Western nations, including the US and Britain.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 “for the leading role he played in the radical changes in East-West relations”.
However, in the new Russia that emerged after 1991, he was on the fringes of politics, focusing on educational and humanitarian projects. He did make one ill-advised attempt to return to politics in 1996, receiving only 0.5 percent of the vote in presidential elections.
Henry Kissinger, who served as US Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon remarked that Gorbachev would “be remembered in history as a man who started historic transformations that were to the benefit of mankind and the Russian people.”
Although Gorbachev was a darling of the West, in Russia he was often derided for facilitating the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an event which weakened Russia’s global influence and precipitated an economic collapse in Russia and its satellite states.
Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-appointed official in occupied Ukraine, said Gorbachev had “deliberately led (Soviet) Union to its demise” and called him a traitor.
Until his last days, the lost prestige of the empire and social turmoil his reforms unleashed made him as unpopular at home as he remained popular in the West. The ancient Greeks would call him a tragic figure.
May his soul rest in eternal peace.