Mikhail Gorbachev: tributes pour in for ‘one-of-a kind’ Soviet leader

Mikhail Gorbachev has been described as “one of the greatest figures of the 20th century” in a flood of tributes from across the world to the man universally credited with ending the cold war.

There was gushing praise for the former Soviet president from past and present western leaders, political commentators, academics, historians and celebrities after his death in Russia on Tuesday night aged 91.

President Joe Biden led the tributes from the Soviet Union’s old cold war adversary by saying he was a man of “remarkable vision”, and that he was held in high esteem for leading his country on the path to reform.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at a summit in Reykjavik in 1986.
Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at a summit in Reykjavik in 1986. Photograph: Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images

“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,” Biden said in a statement. “The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.”

António Guterres, general secretary of the United Nations, said Gorbachev was a “one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history”.

“The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace. I’m deeply saddened by his passing,” he tweeted.

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Mikhail Gorbachev was a one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history.

The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace.

I’m deeply saddened by his passing. pic.twitter.com/giu2RHSjrQ

&mdash; António Guterres (@antonioguterres) August 30, 2022

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Mikhail Gorbachev was a one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history.

The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace.

I’m deeply saddened by his passing. pic.twitter.com/giu2RHSjrQ

— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) August 30, 2022

Boris Johnson, the outgoing British prime minister, said he “always admired the courage and integrity he showed in bringing the cold war to a peaceful conclusion”

Sir Keir Starmer, UK opposition Labour leader, said: “One of the great figures of the 20th century, Mikhail Gorbachev’s pursuit of reform forged a path for diplomacy over conflict.

“He will forever be remembered as the last leader of the Soviet Union who had the courage and conviction to end the cold war.”

The president of the European Commission said Gorbachev’s legacy is “one we will not forget”.

In a Twitter post, Ursula von der Leyen said: “Mikhail Gorbachev was a trusted and respected leader. He played a crucial role to end the Cold War and bring down the Iron Curtain. It opened the way for a free Europe. This legacy is one we will not forget. R.I.P Mikhail Gorbachev.”

French President Emmanuel Macron described Gorbachev as a “man of peace” on Twitter early on Wednesday, saying he “opened a path of liberty for Russians. His commitment to peace in Europe changed our shared history”.

In Russia, however, the official reaction to the death of the man blamed for unleashing chaotic capitalism on the crumbling Soviet empire was much cooler.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine is seen as an attempt to restore some of the old Soviet borders, expressed “his deepest condolences” on Gorbachev’s death, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency.

Vladimir Putin listens to Gorbachev during a news conference following talks with German chancellor Gerhard Schroder in 2004.
Vladimir Putin listens to Gorbachev during a news conference following talks with German chancellor Gerhard Schroder in 2004. Photograph: Christian Charisius/Reuters

“Tomorrow he will send a telegram of condolences to his family and friends,” he said.

The report on the official Tass news agency was low on superlatives and merely said he had died and that “Gorbachev promoted glasnost … and perestroika, a policy of political and economic reforms. He was the first and the last president of the Soviet Union, winning elections for the post in March 1990 and resigning on December 25, 1991”.

Vitaly Milonov, a Russian MP, said it was symbolic that Gorbachev died in the “year of the deconstruction of the world order”, referring to the invasion of Ukraine. He said the former Soviet president left a legacy “worse than Hitler for our country”, according to a tweet of a report in the pro-Kremlin Federal news agency.

Former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, said Gorbachev “performed great services” but was “not able to implement all of his visions”, telling BBC’s Newsnight: “The people of eastern Europe and the German people, and in the end the Russian people, owe him a great debt of gratitude for the inspiration, for the courage in coming forward with these ideas of freedom.”

Kissinger, after again acknowledging Gorbachev was unable able to implement his full vision, added: “He will still be remembered in history as a man who started historic transformations that were to the benefit of mankind and to the Russian people.”

Chinese reaction has been muted with no official comments or condolences yet over the death of a man offering an example of how not to reform a one-party state.

However, the Global Times outlet gave a scathing assessment by “Chinese observers” who said Gorbachev’s “naive, immature and blind worship of the western system” led the USSR to lose its independence and remains a major lesson for China’s own governance.

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In a historical reflection, #Gorbachev’s naïve, immature &amp; blindly worshipping of the Western system led the great power, the USSR, to lose its independence, which #China considered as a major lesson for its own governance: Chinese observers https://t.co/mNxMgB47MF

&mdash; Global Times (@globaltimesnews) August 31, 2022

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In a historical reflection, #Gorbachev’s naïve, immature & blindly worshipping of the Western system led the great power, the USSR, to lose its independence, which #China considered as a major lesson for its own governance: Chinese observers https://t.co/mNxMgB47MF

— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) August 31, 2022

Gorbachev’s main sparring partner in the west when he came to power was then US president Ronald Reagan and their ability to form a good relationship was a key factor in hastening the end of the cold war.

The Reagan Foundation and Institute set up by the late president said in a statement that it mourned the loss of a man “who once was a political adversary of Ronald Reagan’s who ended up becoming a friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gorbachev family and the people of Russia”.

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The Reagan Foundation and Institute mourns the loss of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who once was a political adversary of Ronald Reagan’s who ended up becoming a friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gorbachev family and the people of Russia. pic.twitter.com/j8EQ8JZqrq

&mdash; The Reagan Foundation and Institute (@RonaldReagan) August 30, 2022

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The Reagan Foundation and Institute mourns the loss of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who once was a political adversary of Ronald Reagan’s who ended up becoming a friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gorbachev family and the people of Russia. pic.twitter.com/j8EQ8JZqrq

— The Reagan Foundation and Institute (@RonaldReagan) August 30, 2022

One of Gorbachev’s direct cold war adversaries, former US secretary of state, James Baker, who negotiated the reunification of Germany and the end of the cold war, said: “History will remember Mikhail Gorbachev as a giant who steered his great nation towards democracy. He played the critical role in a peaceful conclusion of the Cold War by his decision against using force to hold the empire together … The free world misses him greatly.”

President George H Bush, left, Gorbachev, and US secretary of state James Baker at a summit in 1989.
President George H Bush, left, Gorbachev, and US secretary of state James Baker at a summit in 1989. Photograph: Jonathan Utz/AFP/Getty Images

Another who dealt with was Canada’s former prime minister, Brian Mulroney. “He was a good friend, surprising as that might seem,” he said. “He was a very pleasant man to deal with and he had great vision for the future of his country which is antithetical to that being articulated now. History will remember him as a great transformational leader.”

Dan Rather, the famous American news anchor who reported on many of the changes wrought by Gorbachev’s reforms, said: “At inflection points in history some leaders rise, others falter. Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away today, rose to make our world safer. He was imperfect, as we all are. But he had a vision for stability over chaos and ultimately freedom over repression. We need more of that.”

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At inflection points in history some leaders rise, others falter. Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away today, rose to make our world safer. He was imperfect, as we all are. But he had a vision for stability over chaos and ultimately freedom over repression. We need more of that.

&mdash; Dan Rather (@DanRather) August 30, 2022

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At inflection points in history some leaders rise, others falter. Mikhail Gorbachev, who passed away today, rose to make our world safer. He was imperfect, as we all are. But he had a vision for stability over chaos and ultimately freedom over repression. We need more of that.

— Dan Rather (@DanRather) August 30, 2022

John Simpson, the BBC broadcaster who covered many of the post-1989 upheavals, also met Gorbachev and paid tribute to “a decent, well intentioned, principled man who tried to rescue the unrescuable”. He added: “In private he was charming & surprisingly amusing. It wasn’t his fault things went so wrong.”

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Really sad that Mikhail Gorbachev has died: a decent, well intentioned, principled man who tried to rescue the unrescuable. ‘I studied the law &amp; saw it wasn’t observed in our country.’ In private he was charming &amp; surprisingly amusing. It wasn’t his fault things went so wrong.

&mdash; John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) August 30, 2022

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Really sad that Mikhail Gorbachev has died: a decent, well intentioned, principled man who tried to rescue the unrescuable. ‘I studied the law & saw it wasn’t observed in our country.’ In private he was charming & surprisingly amusing. It wasn’t his fault things went so wrong.

— John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) August 30, 2022

Anne Applebaum, historian of eastern Europe, said: “Not many people have it in their power to change the world as much as Mikhail Gorbachev did. Even if he didn’t start out wanting to do so.”

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Not many people have it in their power to change the world as much as Mikhail Gorbachev did. Even if he didn't start out wanting to do so.

&mdash; Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) August 30, 2022

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Not many people have it in their power to change the world as much as Mikhail Gorbachev did. Even if he didn’t start out wanting to do so.

— Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) August 30, 2022

Australia’s prime minister Anthony Albanese said Gorbachev “freed the nations of eastern Europe from the prison of Soviet rule”, and helped bring an end to the cold war. “With his death we have lost one of the true giants of the 20th century,” he said.

The Guardian