The last Soviet leader, Michael Gorbachev, passed away on Tuesday at a Moscow hospital after being treated for a long and serious illness, according to his doctors.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called him “a one-of-a-kind statesman” and that “the world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace.”
Gorbachev set out to reform his country, but he was about to embark on a historical journey with unprecedented consequences for the Soviet Union.
The collapse of the Soviet empire was a blessing for many people who sought freedom from the tyrannical rule that began under Stalin and was carried out by the infamous KGB.
The oppressive institution kept everyone under check and shaped the mind and ideas of a young officer who was to become the leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in the Stavropol region of southern Russia, when Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist.
His parents were farmers, and he helped on the collective farms as a teen.
Gorbachev was a committed communist.
He graduated from Moscow State University in 1955 and, upon returning to his hometown with his wife Raisa, rose quickly through the party ranks.
By 1961 he became secretary of the Young Communist League and a delegate to the Party Congress.
But his political ambitions did not stop there.
By 1978 he rose to become a member of the Central Committee’s Secretariat for Agriculture, and in 1980 he was appointed as a member of the Politburo, the highest decision-making body of the Communist Party.
His amicable character and friendly approach to the West became his future trademark. During the Yuri Andropov administration, he travelled abroad for assignments and on one of his trips to London, he made a good impression on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
She later admitted in an interview with the BBC that she was optimistic about future relations with USSR.
“I like Mr Gorbachev,” she was quoted saying.
“We can do business together,” implying that relations can improve.
Little did she know that this was the man who would help end the Cold War.
Although he was expected to succeed Andropov after he died in 1984, another old-school hardliner became general secretary of the Communist Party, Konstantin Chernenko.
But he died within less than a year, and Gorbachev became secretary general, the firstborn after the 1917 Bolshevist revolution.
He quickly sought openness and change.
The world soon learned of two Russian words, “perestroika”, or restructuring and “glasnost”, openness.
He brought about change through free elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies.
End of the Soviet Union
The collapse of the Soviet Union did not come about because of the six years of Gorbachev’s rule.
The culmination of centralised planning of consistently poor economic policies led to the erosion of competitiveness and even food shortages during the last couple of years of his rule.
It was simply a geopolitical event waiting to happen.
Andrei Kozyrev, the first foreign minister of the Russian Federation, said as much in his book Fire Bird – the elusive fate of Russian democracy.
“The next morning, August 25, the parliaments of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation assembled in a joint session to condemn the coup attempt.
“From the podium of the parliamentary assembly hall, Yeltsin held up a draft decree banning the Communist Party of the USSR and declared he had already signed the document.
“After a standing ovation, he asked whether Gorbachev would change his mind and sign it too. “Gorbachev was obviously hesitant, but Yeltsin took his arm, led him to the centre of the stage, and asked him to sign on the spot, which Gorbachev did, to a burst of laughter from the audience.
The gathering, including the signing episode, was carried live on state television.”
Gorbachev initiated the winds of change, but he couldn’t envision that they would be so strong that they swept an empire, albeit corrupt and oppressive to its neighbours and its own people.
During a historic visit to Berlin, then US President Ronald Reagan said, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”.
Two years later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the reunification of Germany became a reality.
That marked the end of the Cold War and the beginning of new relations between the Soviet Union and the West.
Gorbachev’s reaction wasn’t the expected one to send the tanks.
Instead, he proclaimed that the reunification of Germany was an internal German affair.
The following year, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his leading role in the radical changes in East-West relations”.
And that’s what he will be remembered for.
Michael S. Olympios is an economist, business advisor, and Editorial Consultant to the Financial Mirror