Some leaders and statesmen of the 20th Century gained their prominence or notoriety through aggression, conflicts, empire building and the defence of empires. Mikhail Gorbachev gained his through reforms of such extensive scopes that, unlike any other statesman of his class, changed the world for the better.
He will be remembered as the man who almost singlehandedly ended the over 40-year-old Cold War – the period of geo-political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies, with ever-looming fears of a nuclear war. This Gorbachev started doing as soon as he became the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 at 54.
He introduced Perestroika – the restructuring of the political and economic systems – and also Glasnost, the opening up of the famous Iron Curtain. The Soviet system needed these reforms because the old system operated by gerontocrats led to the economic decline of the Union which produced goods that could not compete internationally. Also, the old system had resorted to spending its lean resources on the military and supporting socialist and communist countries and movements abroad.
Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan, allowed the non-Russian Soviet states to regain their independence and refrained from intervening when communist leaders were toppled in popular upheavals. Under him, East Germany and West Germany were reunited without a single gunshot. He and President Ronald Reagan ratified the treaty to eliminate Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces.
These led to great easing of tensions between the two superpowers, whereby in later years up to the war in Ukraine, the threat of nuclear conflict virtually disappeared from the news. Predictably, the demise of such a historic figure as Gorbachev has elicited an outpouring of encomiums. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, calls him “one of a kind statesman; the world has lost a towering global leader, committed multi-lateralist, and tireless advocate for peace”.
President Joe Biden of the USA calls him a “rare leader…who had the imagination to see that a different future was possible”. Despite their politically-strained relationships, President Vladimir Putin also said that Gorbachev had a “huge impact on the course of world history”. Actually, Vladimir Rogov, a Russian official in occupied Ukraine, called Gorbachev a “traitor” who deliberately saw to the end of the Soviet empire.
Gorbachev was a man despised at home but loved internationally. In 1995, his bid to run for president of Russian received only five per cent of the votes. But internationally, he won every prestigious award on display, including the Nobel Peace Prize.
Born on March 2, 1931 in the Stavropol region of Southern Russia, to a family of collective farm workers, Gorbachev rapidly rose through the Communist Party as an agronomist.
We wish him eternal rest.