When you talk about Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, many assume he died decades ago. Given the lack of news about him or anything he has done in 30 years or so, it’s reasonable to believe he died years ago. Not so fast.
Gorbachev had been battling a long and severe illness before dying at 91 on August 30th.
Despite the lack of news about him in decades was because he accomplished so much before disappearing. Taking over the Communist Party in 1985 at the age of 54, he decided to steer the ship in an entirely new direction, opting to push for a policy called perestroika or openness. By being open with the people, they were able to see communism for the horrible thing it is. With the Berlin Wall crashing down in 1989, and the Soviet Union crumbling just two short years later, he put everything in motion.
This fall of communism destroyed his political career. This meant he had to stand by idly and watch as his beloved mother Russia spun into a political and economic revolution that communism would have never allowed. On Christmas day in 1991, his presidency was officially over, and he gave his people a speech to let the people know that he was proud of what he had done and would do it again.
“I understood that initiating reforms on such a large scale in a society like ours was a most difficult and risky undertaking. But even now, I am convinced that the democratic reforms started in the spring of 1985 were historically justified.”
After quietly leaving his now eliminated role, Gorbachev enjoyed a relatively quiet life. He ran for Russian President in 1996, but only received 1% of the vote. Needless to say, there were still far too many members of the old guard to prevent him from having a real chance at another political run, but he was still well received in the West.
A large reason for his popularity in the west came from his political meetings. It was his highly publicized trips to the UK and Italy in 1984 that made him a household name with so many. Even Margaret Thatcher thought he was a decent human being and someone she wanted to work with. While he wasn’t at the top, these meetings helped propel him in that direction. By showing he could be respected on a global stage he got his shot a year later when the party’s general secretary passed after a year in office.
Stepping into his new role like it was made for him, Gorbachev took control and showed the people what the story was. The meltdown of Chornobyl was the catalyst for the fall of the Soviet Union. Delayed reporting and responses poked holes in the Soviet Union and what they were accomplishing. There was no more hiding the truth of communism and what it had done to their land. The people of Chornobyl and the surrounding areas knew it all too well.
In 1986, he broke precedent and released Andrei Sakharov, the dissident Russian scientist and winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. Sakharov had been in exile in the Russian city of Gorky, which is now known as Nizhny Novgorod, and was now a freedman. The books that had landed him there were now selling at a tremendous rate, and people were learning his theories all over again. People were starting to travel to the west again.
His previous meeting with Ronald Reagan in 1985, and then again in 1986 and 1987 set the table for the Soviet Union to lay down their mid-range nuclear weapons. The two would develop a special relationship, one that ultimately won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
Gorbachev may have died in obscurity, but the man was instrumental in preventing Russia from being even more emboldened and disastrous than it is now.