Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, died at the age of 91.

 Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, died at the age of 91.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, died at the age of 91.

On June 5, 1990, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addressed a gathering of 150 business leaders in San Francisco. According to a statement from the Central Clinical Hospital, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev died at the age of 91.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who played a central role in ending the Cold War, died Tuesday at age 91.

Russian media reported his death, citing the hospital where he was treated as saying he died of a "serious and protracted illness," without providing further information.

Gorbachev's trademark policies of glasnost and perestroika helped open the Soviet economy and liberalize society in the late 1980s, coming to terms with the past and reaching agreement with Western leaders on arms control. He also oversaw the withdrawal of Soviet troops from a military campaign in Afghanistan that lasted about a decade and the USSR 's handling of Chernobyl.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 and was considered a visionary by many abroad, including President Ronald Reagan. But his legacy is complicated at home, where many see him as the man who brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He felt he belonged to a generation of World War II children.

He was born in 1931 in Privolnoye, a village in southern Russia. He was the son of peasants and knew how to operate farm equipment. He also knew the horrors of war.

In an interview with the Academy of Achievement years later, Gorbachev said that the sight of his childhood Nazi occupation of his village shaped his life.

"It all happened right before our eyes, the eyes of children," he said. "So I belong to the so-called generation of war children. The war left a heavy mark on us, a painful mark. It's permanent, and that has determined many things in my life."

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, died at the age of 91.

Gorbachev never wanted to see another global conflict. Therefore, he was determined to reduce the world's distrust of communism.

He was a young star in the Communist Party, and by the time he was appointed Soviet leader in 1985, he was already winning over Western leaders like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had given him a historic endorsement in 1984.

"I like Mr. Gorbachev," she said, "we can do business together."

Andrei Grachev, one of Gorbachev's closest advisers, likened that endorsement to a Frank Sinatra song.

"If you use the line from Sinatra's song, 'If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.' So if he could say to himself that he could make it with Thatcher, he would be willing and able to make it with anyone else," Grachev said.

In 1985, Grachev and his boss traveled to Paris for a press conference with French President Fran├žois Mitterrand. Gorbachev's staff was used to asking Soviet reporters ready-made questions. But Gorbachev did the unthinkable: he answered all the questions the reporters wanted to ask him.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, died at the age of 91.
At a press conference held at the Elysee Palace in Paris on October 4, 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gestures with French President Fran├žois Mitterrand, who appears to support Gorbachev's suggestion to the United States to outlaw weapons in space but also rejects the Soviet leader's offer of direct disarmament talks with France.

"As he said, 'My shirt is wet, as if I were working in the field. I was really hot,'" Grachev recalls, "because he had to answer a whole lot of questions at that time."

Gorbachev, a son of a poor peasant family, had arrived on the world stage.

"It was something like the pride of a peasant who had achieved something he was proud of," Grachev says.

The objective of nuclear nonproliferation brought Gorbachev and Reagan together in an unexpected way.

Gorbachev then took aim at President Ronald Reagan. The Soviet leader was the world's proponent of communism, which Reagan believed was evil. But the two men shared the belief that they did not need to fight each other with nuclear weapons. Achieving this common goal led to an unexpected rapport between them.

"Although my pronunciation may cause you difficulty, the maxim is: 'Doveryai, no proveryai' - trust, but verify," Reagan said at their meeting.

It was received with laughs as Gorbachev said, "You say that at every meeting!"

Reagan conveyed a message that it was acceptable to appreciate this Russian by appearing at comfortable. Together with his stunning wife Raisa, Gorbachev traveled extensively. "Gorby fever" had descended, even on the streets of Washington, D.C., when the Soviet leader got out of the motorcade to shake Americans' hands.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, died at the age of 91.
On November 19, 1985, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met outside the chateau Fleur d'Eau in Versoix, close to Geneva, Switzerland.

Jack Matlock, Reagan's adviser on Soviet affairs, recalls preparations for one of the president's most famous speeches at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987.

The White House had given the Kremlin little warning that Reagan would make his historic demand of Gorbachev. But Matlock said there was no need to.

"They both understood that they could rely more on talking directly to each other than getting too excited about what each was saying in their speeches," Matlock said.

"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you want peace, if you want prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you want liberalization, come here to this gate, Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate," Reagan said to applause. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Matlock notes that while Reagan's speech was delivered in 1987, the Berlin Wall did not fall until 1990.

"A lot happened between those two events, and there was no direct cause and effect," he says.

In fact, a lot happened after 1987 that Gorbachev had not planned at all. One misconception about this man is that he advocated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He did not. Gorbachev believed he could reform the Communist Party and create a more open society while keeping Soviet power intact. Instead, the republics of the Soviet Union sensed an opportunity to break free.

Within Russia, Gorbachev's perestroika, his push for a more free-market economy, and his call for democratic elections unleashed chaos. Although he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his actions on the world stage, Gorbachev lost support at home.

Soviet hardliners held him hostage in Crimea

Hardliners in Moscow knew he was vulnerable. In the summer of 1991, they sent the head of the KGB to Gorbachev's vacation home in Crimea on the Black Sea to hold the Soviet leader hostage. Gorbachev told his guests that they would destroy the country.

"The demand was made, 'You will resign.' I said, 'You will not live that long,'" Gorbachev recalled. "And I said, 'Tell that to those you sent. I have nothing more to say to you.' "

It was a final act of defiance. Gorbachev returned to Moscow after receiving the news. Four months later, he resigned.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, died at the age of 91.

Before delivering his resignation address in the Kremlin on December 25, 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev checks the time on his watch.

Matlock, the Reagan adviser who became U.S. ambassador to Moscow in the last years of the Soviet Union, recalls the anger at Gorbachev, the Russians' feeling that he had dismantled their country. Russians felt weak, hungry, and everything seemed to be Gorbachev's fault.

"People think that way. But it was not Gorbachev, after all, who brought down the Soviet Union," Matlock says. "He brought them democracy. He brought them choice. And he made another decision that I think was extremely important in Russian history: he did not try to keep himself in office by force."

Grachev, Gorbachev's adviser, recalls how another man returned from Crimea to step down.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, died at the age of 91.
On December 21, 2004, in the Gottorf castle in Schleswig, Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) talks with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (L) before a news conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Putin.

"I saw that something in him was broken," Grachev says. "He no longer had the same kind of confidence, inner confidence, that he showed even in the most difficult moments."

But Russian society has habits that are hard to break. Since the times of the tsars, Russians have had a preference for strong leaders and have been willing to give up freedoms for a sense of security and order. In his later years, Gorbachev complained that today's Russian leadership had fallen behind in democratic principles and human rights.

"Even now we have the same problem in Russia," he said in 2000. "It's not so easy to give up the legacy we received from Stalinism and neo-Stalinism, when people became cogs in the wheel and those in power made all the decisions for them."

Gorbachev added that lasting democracy will never be had without a fight.

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