He will be remembered, at least in the West, as a pragmatic leader who transparently transitioned the Soviet Union from its Evil Empire days to a more modernized, globally integrated economy.
At home, however, he is largely seen as the man who brought about the collapse of Soviet-era prestige and power, preaching reform while protecting his own influence. In 2017 survey of Russians, 30% say they feel anger or disgust towards him, and 13% say they feel disgust or hatred towards him. For many, he was a harbinger of the end of Russian greatness.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led to punitive economic sanctions and the highest tensions with the US and Europe since the Cold War, is seen as an attempt to regain at least some of the power and glory lost as a result of the Gorbachev Legacy .
Gorbachev himself has refrained from commenting publicly on the war, but in 2016 claimed that the tension was the fault of Kyiv’s pro-NATO leanings. “This conflict is not the work of Russia. It has its roots in Ukraine itself,” Gorbachev asserted.
When he left office at the end of 1991, there was no guide as to what he should do next.
The three most recent leaders of the Soviet system had died in office, and the last to leave in good health, Nikita Khrushchev, died 20 years ago. They offered several lessons about what exactly a former absolute leader of the Soviet system might do when he retires.
The leader of the new Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, made his disdain for Gorbachev clear by confronting him, ordering his offices to drink whiskey before 9 a.m., and kicking Gorbachev out of his Kremlin apartment in a manner that, according to Gorbachev’s 1995 memoirs, “was most uncivilized, in the worst inherited Soviet traditions”. Yeltsin didn’t even meet him to hand over the nuclear codes. (“I had to send him somewhere,” Gorbachev told an interviewer during a 2019 documentary.)
And so, at the age of 60, the ruler of a crumbling superpower found himself in the Russian cold. The Russian public dismissed him as a fool who embodied a failed experiment with communism and a more ill-conceived drive for reform. The country quickly set about burying its past, voting to rename Leningrad St. Petersburg in one of the most high-profile attempts at historical revision. To promote a sense of national identity, the country will also begin reviving the Tsarist-era parade, including its national anthem.
In the years that followed, Gorbachev would emerge in the West as a global figure presiding over what was at the time believed to be a peaceful end to Cold War. He started what is commonly called the Gorbachev Foundation to publish documents related to the period of perestroika that it also guides his approaches to politics. He also became something of a celebrity, charging hefty speaking fees. He wrote a monthly column on global affairs for The New York times and also appeared in Pizza Hut ads, a hint of how closely the world was watching the collapse of an empire that spanned 11 time zones.
“Change is rarely painless,” Gorbachev wrote in his 2016 memoir. “It affects people’s lives and interests, and so we must do everything we can to mitigate the painful consequences. There should be no ‘big bang’ attempts at the very beginning.”
4-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, here as a child in Privolnoe in Ukraine, ca. 1935
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was born into a peasant family in Privolnoe, a small village about 800 miles south of Moscow, on March 2, 1931. Joseph Stalin led the country through many dark days of poor harvests and brutal authoritarianism; resources were so scarce that some types of theft were a felony. Two uncles and an aunt died during a famine that Stalin organized to punish the peasants, and his two grandfathers were sent to Gulag labor camps, where at least one was tortured. World War II began in 1939 and German forces occupied Privolnoe in 1942. “Here were my roots; this was my homeland. I was tied to her land, her lifeblood flowed in my veins,” Gorbachev would later write.
As a teenager, Gorbachev joined the youth wing of the Communist Party, the only political party in the Soviet Union. His biography seemed taken directly from the best of Soviet propaganda. He excelled in school and his essay “Stalin is our military glory, Stalin gives flight to our youth” was cited as a model of communist patriotism. In 1948, Gorbachev was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor for his sometimes 20-hour days in the farm fields during the summer vacations of his studies. This honor won him admission without even the humiliation of the entrance exam to study law at Moscow State University. There he met Raisa Titarenko, a young Ukrainian woman who would become his wife and peerless adviser, as well as Czech student Zdenek Mlinar, who would be the ideological champion behind the pro-liberal Prague Spring of 1968.
“Members of Gorbachev’s generation emerged from the terrible war with optimism and a fierce determination to improve their lives,” historian William Taubman wrote of that era. But they still operated within the Stalinist system, which meant no open dissent or criticism of the power structure. Realizing this, Gorbachev continued his addiction to the Communist Party, becoming a full member at the age of 21 and launching a career in politics that was marked by a careful assessment of risk.
Stalin’s death in 1953 and the resulting de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union provided an opportunity for Gorbachev. He aggressively embraced Khrushchev’s reformist program – although, to be clear, it was a program to reform the Communist Party as the sole source of power in a growing empire – and Gorbachev began a slow and steady climb to the upper party ranks, always in the mix , but is never responsible for anything that may come back to haunt him later. Finally, in 1985, he reached the top of the Soviet system and began what he saw as a last-ditch effort to save it from itself.
“I could not imagine how enormous our problems and difficulties are,” he said in 1991, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. “I believe that no one at the time could have foreseen or foreseen them.”
Gorbachev did not pretend that his country did not need change. But once Gorbachev started pulling the thread on the frayed Soviet scarf, it unraveled fast and furious. Stalinist Communism superimposed on Central European cultures proved incompatible when offered autonomy. Capitalism triumphed over centrally planned economies. (As happened with corruption and cronyism.) Engagement was more tempting than isolationism. Lithuania seceded from the Soviet Union in March 1990, followed quickly by Estonia and Latvia. By the end of 1991, 10 Soviet republics would declare their independence. Gorbachev, former speaker Andrei Grachev would write in 2008, saw the system “as a pesky obstacle to major reform.”
In the West, observers saw potential. He was a particularly favorite figure of George HW Bush, former vice president and president of the United States. TIME called Gorbachev “Man of the Decade” in the late 1980s, shortly after the first parts of the Berlin Wall came down. When told of this honor, Gorbachev told his associates that this magazine was missing the point. “It’s not about me,” he said, according to a Politburo transcript, “the scale of our design is global.”
General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev (fourth from right) meets with leaders of the United States Congress in December 1987.
At home, his people – at all levels – fed hope and skepticism in equal measure. The party’s politburo was frustrated by Gorbachev’s uneven pace and perhaps excessive expectations. Ordinary Russians did not feel the promised reforms and muttered that, at least under the old regimes, they expected to be hungry. Now? The unrealized hope had angered the Russians. “It was inevitable that the country’s workers would eventually benefit from the new freedoms offered by Gorbachev,” the longtime Washington Publish wrote journalist Robert G. Kaiser in 1991.
But Gorbachev ultimately failed to create his own lasting system. As he pursued reforms and struggled to hold on to power, Gorbachev’s inner circle conspired against him, leading a three-day coup in 1991 that effectively placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his villa in Crimea. The West sought to keep him in power and the Soviet Union functioning and reforming; apparently it didn’t work. As Gorbachev would tell Yeltsin in 1991, “if we want democracy and reforms, we must act according to democratic rules.” For Gorbachev, that meant watching the Soviet flag with the hammer, sickle, and star descend over the Kremlin and be replaced by the tricolor Russian flag.
In the following years, Gorbachev tried to tell his versions of what happened at the end of the Soviet Union. Still, reforms like those begun under Gorbachev take time, and he provided a useful scapegoat for the gap between promise and reality. Yeltsin initially supported a think tank led by Gorbachev after the presidency, only to have that support withdrawn. Gorbachev addressed the US Congress in 1992, warning that the post-Cold War environment was uncertain at best. In his 1995 memoirs, Gorbachev said he was under surveillance and denied any involvement in the new country’s foreign policy.
in Vladimir PutinRussia-era Russia, Gorbachev sought to walk a careful line between pushing through reforms and maintaining his base on the right side of the regime. Writing in 2016, Gorbachev astutely noted that “in Russia there is again a great sense of the need for change” amid a return to authoritarianism. Still, he sided with Moscow when tensions with Ukraine rose.
The Soviet Union is gone, but Gorbachev was never able to completely break with the Soviet mentality itself. Even out of power for almost three decades, there was still a temptation to defend Russia’s imperial history carried out in the twentieth century by a system run by Gorbachev. After all, it took a child born into a family persecuted by Stalin to turn political power inward to destroy that system.
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