From perestroika to Putin, the life of Mikhail Gorbachev in pictures

·10-min read
From perestroika to Putin, the life of Mikhail Gorbachev in pictures

The death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final president of the Soviet Union, has sparked renewed reflection about a key period in contemporary world history.

Presiding over the waning USSR, Gorbachev was seen as a peacemaker by the West for his role in ending the Cold War — for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

The reforms he initiated, intended to modernise the country and bring it closer to the rest of Europe, ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of 15 sovereign states.

Coupled with the wave of democratisation and independence of former socialist and communist countries in Europe, Gorbachev played a significant role in what turned out to be a tectonic shift for the continent and the world.

We look back at some of the most important moments in the life of the eighth and last leader of the USSR.

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The first and last Soviet leader to change the world's view of his private life: Gorbachev and his wife Raisa - AP Photo

With Gorbachev's rise to the top of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, the world witnessed a change in the way power was portrayed in the world's largest country and biggest nuclear power.

The appearance of his wife, Raisa Gorbacheva, at many work meetings and official trips gave a rare insight into the life of a Soviet leader -- who, unlike his predecessors, was open and vocal about the fact that she was the main pillar in his life and an everyday confidante.

Raisa Gorbacheva was not just the "First Lady of Glasnost," however: she actively promoted the participation of women in politics and was known for her charity work, including raising funds for cancer treatment in children.

Gorbachev was said to have been deeply struck by Raisa's death in 1999 when she succumbed to leukaemia at the age of 67.

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The last Soviet leader tried to be "close to the people" and Gorbachev understood the need for economic reforms to boost private initiatives by citizens - AP Photo

Inheriting a state in dire need of economic reforms, Gorbachev sought to preserve the integrity of the Soviet Union and fought until the end to transform the country. His main policies were expressed in his world-famous triad: perestroika, glasnost and new political thinking.

He saw a way to accelerate the economy by promoting the development of small and medium entrepreneurship, at first limited to co-operatives and joint ventures. At the same time, he eschewed ruling from the top, choosing to appear more often amongst the people in a bid to bring the state closer to its citizens.

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The summit meetings began a détente in relations between the USSR and the United States and, through them, the West as a whole - AP Photo

Gorbachev's merits on the international stage are still seen by many in the West as his main legacy today --- spearheaded by his meetings with his US counterparts, starting with Ronald Reagan.

The first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders of world powers that had been at loggerheads for decades took place in November 1985 in Geneva, with Reagan and Gorbachev coming together for another four annual summits.

The summits were the first step toward ending the Cold War, launching an international détente that included agreements on strategic nuclear arms reductions, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eradicated an entire class of missiles from existence.

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Reagan and Gorbachev, both known for their sense of humour, pose as cowboys - AP Photo

For the first time since World War II, an informal relationship began to develop between the leaders of the West and the Soviet blocs. Despite reservations early on, culminating in Reagan branding the USSR as an "evil empire," Reagan and Gorbachev saw their relations become more positive and, at times, even warm.

Gorbachev continued to meet with Western leaders after retiring from politics, maintaining friendly relations with both Reagan and Bush Sr. When Reagan died in 2004, Gorbachev attended his funeral, sitting right behind Reagan's closest of kin.

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Gorbachev was keen to partner up with his European neighbours - AP Photo

Gorbachev's desire to open up the country and bring it closer to the rest of Europe not only spurred the fall of the Berlin Wall but also led to the development of closer economic ties.

In Britain, Gorbachev's era of leadership coincided with Margaret Thatcher's term as Prime Minister, and similarly to Reagan, most expected the relations between the two to be icy cold, if not escalate into open animosity.

Yet it was the Iron Lady -- a moniker coined by a Soviet journalist, no less -- who famously said in 1984, “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together,” dissuading Reagan from politics of hostility and opening the door to the key US-Soviet Union summits.

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Meeting with Pope John Paul II, December 1989 - AP Photo

In December 1989, Gorbachev met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. The meeting was a watershed in diplomatic relations between the communist USSR and the Vatican previously mired in significant hostilities.

Born Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II's Polish background meant he had a vested interest in the fall of communism in his home country and the rest of Eastern Europe under the Ostpolitik policy of attempting to reestablish the Catholic Church's presence in the region.

Unlike Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who rejected meetings with the Vatican and openly warned John Paul II not to interfere, Gorbachev famously met with the pope in 1989, vowing to allow greater religious freedoms in the Soviet Union.

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A thaw in relations with the United States enabled the signing of a nuclear arms reduction agreement (START I) in July 1991. - AP Photo

Talks on nuclear reductions between the two superpowers grew even further under the US presidency of George HW Bush, leading to the signing of the first START-1 agreement in July 1991, followed by START-2 and START-3 in the post-Soviet era.

In all of his trips, Gorbachev was inevitably accompanied by his personal interpreter Pavel Palazhchenko (pictured in the back), who later became one of the heads of the Gorbachev Foundation.

Boris Yurchenko/Copyright 1989 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
In Moscow, Gorbachev explains the January 1991 events in Lithuania - Boris Yurchenko/Copyright 1989 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Not everything was rosy in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, however. Facing massive unemployment, a spike in crime and other negative trends, the Russia-dominated USSR also had to contend with its member states slowly growing restless and moving towards eventual independence, especially in the Baltics.

In January 1991, a violent crackdown was launched in Lithuania, where the Soviet military killed 14 and injured another 140 in an attempt to prevent it from leaving the USSR over the course of three days, and left a lasting stain on Gorbachev's image as a pacifist.

Gorbachev explained the escalation of violence by stating that the orders to use force were given out by Soviet army officers in Lithuania and that reactionary "dark forces" in Moscow forced his hand to act despite avoiding violence in Poland and East Germany before that.

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The 1991 putsch resulted in the abolition of the posts Gorbachev held and the collapse of the USSR - AP Photo

In August 1991, Gorbachev was on vacation in a government dacha in Crimea when an attempt was made by the hardliners in Moscow to seize power in order to, in their view, preserve the Soviet Union in its former borders and restore it to its former glory under the likes of Joseph Stalin.

The plotters dispatched KGB officers to Gorbachev's holiday estate to detain him but failed to do so with Boris Yeltsin, recently elected president of the newly-reformed Russia.

Met with resistance by Yeltsin and anti-communist protesters in Moscow, the coup of the so-called "Gang of Eight" failed after two days. Yet, the fate of the Soviet Union was sealed and Gorbachev, back in Moscow, was just months away from leaving the Kremlin for good.

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The uneasy relationship between the leaders of the Soviet Union and Russia, Gorbachev and Yeltsin - AP Photo

After the August 1991 coup, Gorbachev faced a barrage of criticism from the rising leadership of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

The President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, had been pushing for a total ban on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev disagreed with Yeltsin, who he saw as a nationalist and a populist, and pushed for a renewal of the party instead.

In the end, Yeltsin prevailed. He shut down the Communist Party, arranged the dissolution of the Union, and told Gorbachev to resign and vacate the Kremlin by the end of 1991.

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Gorbachev in his new role as a philanthropist with former US President Clinton and U2 lead singer Bono Vox, in March 2002 - AP Photo

Gorbachev remained active after leaving office and found a new purpose in creating the Gorbachev Foundation.

The non-profit was tasked with researching the history of perestroika as well as current issues in Russian and world history, while Gorbachev participated in many charitable projects and repeatedly gave lectures in the USA and other countries.

To mark the politician's 80th birthday, a concert featuring the world's biggest stars was held at London's Royal Albert Hall in 2011. Among those who took to the stage was the German band Scorpions, whose hit "The Wind of Change" became firmly associated with the perestroika era.

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Mikhail Gorbachev has repeatedly criticised the Russian authorities in recent years - AP Photo

Gorbachev has in recent years criticised the changes taking place in Russia, and has openly supported dissenting voices, including the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, of which he was a co-founder.

Gorbachev and Novaya Gazeta chief editor Dmitri Muratov won the Nobel Peace Prize 30 years apart.

After Russia's military invasion of Ukraine began, Gorbachev, according to journalist Alexei Venediktov, was very upset and said Russian President Vladimir Putin had "ruined his life's work".

"All Gorbachev's reforms — to zero, to ashes, to smoke," Venediktov, a close friend of his, said in July.

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Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin in 2004 - AP Photo

In fact, Gorbachev has been critical of Putin for decades. In a 2007 op-ed for the New York Times, the former Soviet leader dug into Putin, voicing his concern over the "disturbing developments in inter-ethnic relations and the xenophobia and intolerance that the government does not always respond to promptly."

Gorbachev's only other blip came in 2014 when he said that the Russian-annexed Crimea was a part of Ukraine "based on Soviet laws, which means party laws, without asking the people," stating he believed the people had the right to a referendum to determine whether they would rather be a part of Russia.

However, experts believe that this comment came from Gorbachev's need in his later years to make his legacy more palatable to ordinary Russians, who mostly consider him to be the main culprit for the dissolution of the once formidable Soviet empire and not as a way of making peace of Putin.

Being of mixed Russian-Ukrainian origin, Gorbachev never bought into the notions of nationalism and imperialism behind Putin's desire to bring Kyiv under Moscow's control and back into the Russian orbit -- especially not by force.

Ivan Sekretarev/Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
The last Soviet leader will be buried next to his wife at Novodevichy Cemetery - Ivan Sekretarev/Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

In turn, Putin has shown minimal respect to the departing Soviet leader, opting not to come to his funeral on Saturday, 3 September, due to "scheduling conflicts".

Putin appeared at the open-casket commemoration in Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital to bring flowers, lingering briefly next to Gorbachev's body on display.

Furthermore, the Kremlin has decided that Gorbachev's burial will only have "elements of a state funeral," according to Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

According to his will, Mikhail Gorbachev will be buried at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow next to his wife.