BANGKOK (AP) — The passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and for many the man who restored democracy to then-communist-ruled European nations, was mourned Wednesday as the loss of a rare leader who changed the world and for a time gave hope for peace among the superpowers.
But the man who died at age 91 on Tuesday was also reviled by many countrymen who blamed him for the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union and its diminution as a superpower. The Russian nation that emerged from its Soviet past shrank in size as 15 new nations were created.
The loss of pride and power also eventually led to the rise of Vladimir Putin, who has tried for the past quarter-century to restore Russia to its former glory and beyond.
“After decades of brutal political repression, he embraced democratic reforms. He believed in glasnost and perestroika – openness and restructuring – not as mere slogans, but as the path forward for the people of the Soviet Union after so many years of isolation and deprivation” President Joe Biden said.
He added that “these were the acts of a rare leader – one with the imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it. The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.”
Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War but although widely feted abroad, he was a pariah at home. It was unclear how news of his death will be received in Russia amid its nationalist war in Ukraine.
World leaders paid tribute to a man some described as a great and brave leader.
Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “in a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all.”
French President Emmanuel Macron described Gorbachev as “a man of peace whose choices opened up a path of liberty for Russians. His commitment to peace in Europe changed our shared history.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called him “a one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history” and “did more than any other individual to bring about the peaceful end of the Cold War.”
“The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace,” the U.N. chief said in a statement.
Guterres quoted Gorbachev’s observation in his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize speech that “peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity.”
“He put this vital insight into practice by pursuing the path of negotiation, reform, transparency and disarmament,” the U.N. chief said.
Gorbachev’s contemporaries pointed to the end of the Cold War as one of his achievements.
“Mikhail Gorbachev played a critical role in the peaceful end to the Cold War. At home, he was a figure of historical importance, but not in the way he intended,” said Robert M. Gates, who headed the CIA from 1991 to 1993 and later became U.S. defense secretary.
“”By weakening the police state and dismantling Stalinist economic structures, he set in motion the collapse of the Soviet Union as its diverse nationalities declared independence and the economy cratered. In doing so, Gorbachev gave the peoples of the USSR the opportunity for a vastly different and better future, an opportunity subsequently taken from them,” he added.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a tweet that “his life was consequential because, without him and his courage, it would not have been possible to end the Cold War peacefully.”
In Asia, he was remembered as a leader with the courage to bring change.
“The curtain has come down on one of the world’s most significant leaders. He was a pivotal figure at a defining moment. When the world saw conflict and stalemate, he saw peace and possibility,” Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers said at a news conference.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida noted Gorbachev’s important role in the reduction of nuclear weapons held by the Soviet Union and United States, saying he had made “great achievements.”
“Mr. Gorbachev, who possessed great strategic vision and decisive execution, played a very important role,” he said.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and other AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.