MOSCOW, Russia — Before Mikhail Gorbachev came along, the Soviet Union seemed an immovable superpower in perpetual antagonism to the United States. With a breathtaking series of reforms, Gorbachev changed all that — and re-directed the course of the 20th century.
Alongside Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev was a key protagonist in a global drama that many thought impossible and, for those who lived through it, seemed almost surreal.
Under Gorbachev, the Berlin Wall crumbled, thousands of political prisoners were released and millions of people who had known only communism got their first real taste of freedom. But he was unable to control the forces he unleashed — and ultimately waged a losing battle to salvage a crumbling empire.
Gorbachev died Tuesday at a Moscow hospital at 91.
Although little known outside Sovietologist circles before he became leader in 1985, he quickly became a dominant and charismatic figure on the world stage. The splotchy purple birthmark on his bald pate made him instantly recognizable, and his vigor stood in sharp contrast to the recent run of aged and barely articulate Kremlin leaders.
His vision of remaking the Soviet Union into a more humane and flexible country had the power of the epochal. By 1990, he had won the Nobel Prize for his “leading role” in ending the Cold War and reducing nuclear tensions.
But a mere year later, he was the sad and bewildered embodiment of failure. The country had fallen apart in his hands, and at home he was derided, despised and increasingly shunted aside as irrelevant.
His power hopelessly sapped by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, Gorbachev spent his last months in office watching republic after republic declare independence until he resigned on Dec. 25, 1991, and the Soviet Union wrote itself into oblivion a day later.
Many of the changes, including the Soviet breakup, bore no resemblance to the transformation that Gorbachev had envisioned when he became the Soviet leader in March 1985.
By the end of his rule, he was powerless to halt the whirlwind he had sown. Yet Gorbachev may have had a greater impact on the second half of the 20th century than any other political figure.
“I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world,” Gorbachev told The Associated Press in a 1992 interview shortly after he left office.
“I am often asked, would I have started it all again if I had to repeat it? Yes, indeed. And with more persistence and determination,” he said.
Russians blamed him for the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union — a once-fearsome superpower whose territory fractured into 15 separate nations.
His run for president in 1996 was a national joke, and he polled less than 1 percent of the vote. In 1997, he resorted to making a TV ad for Pizza Hut to earn money for his charitable foundation.
His former allies deserted him and made him a scapegoat for the country’s troubles.
“In the ad, he should take a pizza, divide it into 15 slices like he divided up our country, and then show how to put it back together again,” quipped Anatoly Lukyanov, a one-time Gorbachev supporter.
Gorbachev never set out to dismantle the Soviet system. He wanted to improve it.
Soon after taking power, he began a campaign to end his country’s economic and political stagnation, using “glasnost,” or openness, to help achieve his goal of “perestroika,” or restructuring.
In his memoirs, he said he had long been frustrated that in a country with immense natural resources, tens of millions were living in poverty.
“Our society was stifled in the grip of a bureaucratic command system,” Gorbachev wrote. “Doomed to serve ideology and bear the heavy burden of the arms race, it was strained to the utmost.”
Once he began, one move led to another: He freed political prisoners, allowed open debate and multi-candidate elections, gave his countrymen freedom to travel, halted religious oppression, reduced nuclear arsenals, established closer ties with the West and did not resist the fall of communist regimes in Eastern European satellite states.
But the forces he unleashed quickly escaped his control. Long-suppressed ethnic tensions flared, sparking wars and unrest in trouble spots such as the southern Caucasus region. Strikes and labor unrest followed price increases and shortages of consumer goods.
In one of the low points of his tenure, Gorbachev sanctioned a crackdown on the restive Baltic republics in early 1991. The violence turned many intellectuals and reformers against him.
Competitive elections also produced a new crop of populist politicians who challenged Gorbachev’s policies and authority. Chief among them was his former protege and eventual nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, who became Russia’s first president.
“The process of renovating this country and bringing about fundamental changes in the international community proved to be much more complex than originally anticipated,” Gorbachev told the nation as he stepped down.
“However, let us acknowledge what has been achieved so far. Society has acquired freedom; it has been freed politically and spiritually. And this is the most important achievement, which we have not fully come to grips with, in part because we still have not learned how to use our freedom.”
There was little in Gorbachev’s childhood to hint at the pivotal role he would play on the world stage. On many levels, he had a typical Soviet upbringing in a typical Russian village.
But it was a childhood blessed with unusual strokes of good fortune.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born March 2, 1931, in the village of Privolnoye in southern Russia. Both his grandfathers were peasants, collective farm chairmen and members of the Communist Party, as was his father.
Despite stellar party credentials, Gorbachev’s family did not emerge unscathed from the terror unleashed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin: Both grandfathers were arrested and imprisoned for allegedly anti-Soviet activities. But, rare in that period, both were eventually freed.
In 1941, when Gorbachev was 10, his father went off to war, along with most of the other men from Privolnoye. Meanwhile, the Nazis pushed across the western steppes in their blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union. They occupied Privolnoye for five months. When the war was over, young Gorbachev was one of the few village boys whose father returned.
By age 15, Gorbachev was helping his father drive a combine harvester after school and during the region’s blistering, dusty summers. His performance earned him the order of the Red Banner of Labor, an unusual distinction for a 17-year-old.
That prize and the party background of his parents helped him land admission in 1950 to the country’s top university, Moscow State. There, he met his wife, Raisa Maximovna Titorenko, and joined the Communist Party.
The award and his family’s credentials also helped him overcome the disgrace of his grandfathers’ arrests, which were overlooked in light of his exemplary Communist conduct.
In his memoirs, Gorbachev describes himself as something of a maverick as he advanced through the party ranks, sometimes bursting out with criticism of the Soviet system and its leaders.
His early career coincided with the “thaw” begun by Nikita Khrushchev. As a young Communist propaganda official, he was tasked with explaining the 20th Party Congress that revealed Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s repression of millions to local party activists. He said he was met first by “deathly silence,” then disbelief.
“They said: ‘We don’t believe it. It can’t be. You want to blame everything on Stalin now that he’s dead,’” he told the AP in a 2006 interview.
He was a true if unorthodox believer in socialism. He was elected to the powerful party Central Committee in 1971, took over Soviet agricultural policy in 1978 and became a full Politburo member in 1980.
Along the way, he was able to travel to the West, to Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and Canada. Those trips had a profound effect on his thinking, shaking his belief in the superiority of Soviet-style socialism.
“The question haunted me: Why was the standard of living in our country lower than in other developed countries?” he recalled in his memoirs. “It seemed that our aged leaders were not especially worried about our undeniably lower living standards, our unsatisfactory way of life, and our falling behind in the field of advanced technologies.”
But Gorbachev had to wait his turn.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, and was succeeded by two other geriatric leaders: Andropov, Gorbachev’s mentor, and Konstantin Chernenko. It wasn’t until March 1985, when Chernenko died, that the party finally chose a younger man to lead the country. Gorbachev was 54.
His tenure was filled with rocky periods, including a poorly conceived anti-alcohol campaign, the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
But starting in November 1985, Gorbachev began a series of attention-grabbing summit meetings with world leaders, especially U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, which led to unprecedented, deep reductions in the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals.
After years of watching a parade of stodgy leaders in the Kremlin, Western leaders practically swooned over the charming, vigorous Gorbachev and his stylish, brainy wife.
But perceptions were very different at home. It was the first time since the death of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin that the wife of a Soviet leader played such a public role, and many Russians found Raisa Gorbachev showy and arrogant.
Although the rest of the world benefited from the changes Gorbachev wrought, the rickety Soviet economy collapsed in the process, bringing with it tremendous economic hardship for the country’s 290 million people.
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In the final days of the Soviet Union, the economic decline accelerated into a steep skid. Hyper-inflation robbed most older people of their life’s savings. Factories shut down. Bread lines formed — and popular hatred for Gorbachev and his wife grew.
But the couple won sympathy in summer 1999, when it was revealed that Raisa Gorbachev was dying of leukemia. During her final days, Gorbachev spoke daily with television reporters, and the lofty-sounding, wooden politician of old was suddenly seen as an emotional family man surrendering to deep grief.
Gorbachev worked on the Gorbachev Foundation, which he created to address global priorities in the post-Cold War period, and with the Green Cross foundation, which was formed in 1993 to help cultivate “a more harmonious relationship between humans and the environment.”
He took the helm of the small United Social Democratic Party in 2000 in hopes it could fill the vacuum left by the Communist Party, which he said had failed to reform into a modern leftist party after the breakup of the Soviet Union. He resigned from the chairmanship in 2004.
He continued to comment on Russian politics as a senior statesman — even if many of his countrymen were no longer interested in what he had to say.
“The crisis in our country will continue for some time, possibly leading to even greater upheaval,” Gorbachev wrote in a memoir in 1996. “But Russia has irrevocably chosen the path of freedom, and no one can make it turn back to totalitarianism.”
Gorbachev veered between criticism and mild praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been assailed for backtracking on the democratic achievements of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras. He said Putin had done much to restore stability and prestige to Russia after the tumultuous decade following the Soviet collapse.
He did, however, protest growing limitations on media freedom and in 2006 bought one of Russia’s last investigative newspapers, Novaya Gazeta, with a businessman associate.
“We should — this is one of our goals — promote the newspaper’s qualitative development in the interests of democratic values,” he said, tacitly criticizing the Kremlin’s efforts to bring Novaya Gazeta and other independent media outlets to heel.
Gorbachev ventured into other new areas in his 70s, winning awards and kudos around the world. He won a Grammy in 2004 along with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Italian actress Sophia Loren for their recording of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and the United Nations named him a Champion of the Earth in 2006 for his environmental advocacy.
He had a daughter, Irina, and two granddaughters.
Vladimir Isachenkov and Kate de Pury in Moscow contributed.