Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who has died aged 91, brought about an almost improbable thawing of east-west relations in just a few years, but remained up to his death a polarising figure in Russia.

Credited with bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end, thousands of people came to honour Gorbachev’s memory at his funeral earlier this week. Many queued for hours to view his open coffin, held inside the Columned Hall of the House of Unions – a place where other former Soviet leaders, including Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev, lay in state. 

Among those who paid tribute included US President Joe Biden, calling Gorbachev “a rare leader – one with the imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it.”

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres said the former Soviet leader was a “one-of-a-kind statesman who changed the course of history”.

Yet, despite his peacemaker status in the West, Gorbachev was a controversial figure in his native Russia. Many there blamed him for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing tumult, along with his economic and political reforms, that they saw as weakening Russia.

Notably, President Vladimir Putin, with whom Gorbachev had an infamously strained relationship, did not attend the funeral, with the Kremlin citing ‘no space in his schedule’ as the reason. The funeral was also not a state one, something previous Soviet leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev had received. Only one head of state, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, attended because of Russia’s ongoing offensive in Ukraine.

However, in spite of his controversial reputation in Russia, so many Russians came to pay their respects at his funeral that the ceremony had to be extended.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, into a peasant family. They lived in the southern farming village of Privolnoye, which would go on to be one of dozens ravaged by Stalin’s collectivisation policies. As a teenager, Gorbachev helped his parents on the farm by operating combine harvesters.

His family were well respected communists: both his grandfathers had been arrested for crimes against the Tsarist state, and young Mikhail joined the youth wing of the Communist Party, the Komosol, when he reached secondary school.

Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But, comrades, you should not think about lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism.

Gorbachev studied law at Moscow State University, becoming the first Soviet leader since Lenin to have done so. It was also at university that he met his future wife, Raisa, who introduced him to concerts and museums. She would go on to be a constant presence by his side.

In 1980, he was appointed as a member of the Politburo. Five years later, he was made general secretary.

Immediately, Gorbachev cut a distinct figure among previous men who had filled the role. The first general secretary to have been born after the 1917 revolution, his open and direct manner was seen as ‘refreshing’ after the stagnant years of Brezhnev. He and wife Raisa appeared uncharacteristically stylish, and their modern approach appealed to the West.

“I like Mr Gorbachev,” said then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. “We can do business together.”

In 1987, The Washington Post described him as “charming” and were “giving Gorbachev approval ratings higher than those for all the Democratic candidates except Jesse Jackson.”

‘Glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ were two words commonly associated with Gorbachev. The former was a political slogan that roughly translated to ‘openness’. He sought to be more transparent with the activities within the Soviet Union and its government, encouraging Soviet citizens to openly discuss the issues of the nation. This transparency also extended to political leaders – Gorbachev supported a more detailed level of scrutiny and criticism directed towards members of the Communist Party. In fact, he himself oversaw an attack on corruption within the highest circles of the party in 1985, which ultimately removed hundreds of bureaucrats from their positions.

‘Perestroika’, literally translated as ‘reconstruction’, was a term used to describe Gorbachev’s move to reform the USSR’s political and economic landscape. The Soviet Union had entered a period known as the Era of Stagnation under Brezhnev, characterised by inadequate living standards and slowing economic development. Perestroika aimed not to end the command economy, but instead introduced market-like reforms and more space for independence in order to make socialism better meet the needs of the Soviet people.

“Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But, comrades, you should not think about lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism,” said Gorbachev in a 1985 speech to party delegates.

In March 1990, he became the first president of the Soviet Union. Among one of his first plans was his ‘500 Days’ program, which aimed to accommodate market-driven prices and private enterprises. 


However, the program was slow to show signs of progress, and people used Gorbachev’s policy of ‘glasnost’ to criticise and publicly protest his policies during the May Day parade that year. Crime rates were climbing, and one in four Moscow residents wanted to emigrate.

Yet in spite of the failures of perestroika, Gorbachev was also mapping out a more peaceful future for Russia and the world. Notably, he finally withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan and a bloody nine-year occupation that had, at last, been acknowledged as a failure. 

He also negotiated an arms agreement with the United States that ultimately abolished an entire class of nuclear weapons, as well as the withdrawal of most Soviet tactical nuclear weapons from Eastern Europe. When the Baltic states began to break away from the USSR, he stood by and chose not to retaliate.

All of this culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989, when Soviet hardliner East Germany allowed its citizens to freely cross into West Berlin. Rather than responding with military force, Gorbachev announced that the reunification of Germany was an internal German affair.

In other words, the Cold War was coming to an end. Many Soviet states declared their independence shortly afterwards, with Kazakhstan being the last on December 16, 1991. Just over a week later, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.

Gorbachev was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 “for the leading role he played in the radical changes in East-West relations”.

He thought to unite the impossible: Communism with the market, public property with private property, political pluralism with the Communist Party.

His role in bringing about the end of the Cold War was lauded in the West, but the steadfast decline of the Soviet Union made him an unpopular figure among Russians. In 1991, during a military coup, he was arrested and stripped of virtually all political power in return for freedom.

Despite his controversial status, Gorbachev accomplished much within the first five years of his tenure. Not only did he take major strides to end the Cold War and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but he also made good on his promise of glasnost by exposing the Chernobyl public disaster to public criticism and scrutiny. Additionally, he lifted media restrictions on banned books and films, as well as authorising democratic reforms such as multiparty elections. 

“He thought to unite the impossible: Communism with the market, public property with private property, political pluralism with the Communist Party,” said Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor and first president of Russia.

Whether or not he succeeded at this task is still a matter of public debate. But regardless of whether he is viewed as a peacemaker or the man who destroyed the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev undoubtedly changed the state of a nation forever.

Main image by Mitya Aleshkovsky/Flickr and Nichloas Raymond/Flickr.