How the world reported on the death of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

Media praises him for ‘ending Cold War’ but others criticise him for ‘darkness’ and ‘naivety’

Mikhail Gorbachev in his office in Moscow
Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in his office in Moscow on 22 December 2017
(Image credit: Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images)

The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has died, aged 91, after suffering from a long and serious illness, the Moscow Central Clinical Hospital has confirmed.

Gorbachev, who was born in Privolnoye, southwestern Russia, and took power in 1985, was praised for opening up the Soviet Union to the world and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his achievements. But, said the BBC, he was “unable to prevent the slow collapse of the union, and many Russians blamed him for the years of turmoil that ensued”.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said Gorbachev “changed the course of history”, while US President Joe Biden described him as a “rare leader”. Boris Johnson said “his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all”.

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Gorbachev will be buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery, the resting place of many prominent Russians, including Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol.

Global tributes

In the US, the New York Post said Gorbachev “ended decades of East-West nuclear confrontations”, while The Washington Post said that “for the sheer improbability of his actions and their impact on the late 20th century” Gorbachev “ranks as a towering figure”. Fox News said he unleashed a “breathtaking series of changes”.

Al Jazeera said the former president “ended the Cold War”, adding that the dissolution of the Soviet bloc “ended… years of confrontation between East and West, freed Eastern European nations from Soviet domination, and established the modern Russian state”.

However, some noted the crises on Gorbachev’s watch. “He could not forgive himself for his role in the country’s plunge into a political abyss,” said the French newspaper Le Monde, adding that “he dwelled on the tribulations of daily life at the time, of shortages and queues, of bartering at any cost – cigarettes as payment for a cab ride, three eggs for a movie ticket”.

The Jerusalem Post recalled that when pro-democracy protests swept across the Soviet bloc nations of communist Eastern Europe, Gorbachev refrained from using force, but the protests “fuelled aspirations for autonomy in the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, which disintegrated over the next two years in chaotic fashion”.

Russia’s response

The Moscow Times said Gorbachev “helped shape the world as we know it” but “while he was admired in the West for his role in ending the Cold War”, he was “a divisive figure at home”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed “his deepest condolences” following the news of Gorbachev’s death, said the independent Russian news agency Interfax. However, The Guardian noted, the coverage of his death on the state-backed Tass news agency was “low on superlatives”.

On Twitter, writer and University of Oxford fellow Samuel Ramani pointed out that Vitaly Milonov, a Russian MP, claimed Gorbachev had left a legacy that “can be compared with a catastrophe that even Hitler did not inflict on our country”.

A complicated legacy

“There’s a darkness to Gorbachev’s legacy,” said Politicos Brussels Playbook. “On his watch, Soviet troops brutally massacred 22 protestors in Tbilisi in April 1989” and “in Azerbaijan, the military killed 150 people in the Black January massacre in 1990”.

Gorbachev is also “often reviled” in Lithuania for a 1991 massacre in which 14 civilians were killed when the Soviet army stormed the parliament and a TV station, added Politico, as well as in Latvia, for the killing of five people when Soviet troops stormed a ministerial building.

The Global Times, a state-run newspaper based in Beijing, reported that “Chinese observers” said Gorbachev was “naive and immature” and that “blindly worshipping the Western system” led the Soviet Union to lose its independence, which China “considered a lesson to draw experience from for its own governance”.

“His internal reforms helped weaken the Soviet Union to the point where it fell apart,” said Swiss Info, reporting that this was “a moment that President Vladimir Putin has called the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the twentieth century”.

In its obituary for Gorbachev, Politico wondered whether his positive influence had been overstated. “One can debate… how much of the change was Gorbachev’s doing and how much was forced on him by the tide of history” and “leaders like Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, and President Ronald Reagan”, said the site.

Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald reminded readers that in 1997, “a year after his failed run for Russian president was viewed as a national joke”, Gorbachev “resorted to making a TV ad for Pizza Hut to earn money for his charitable foundation”.

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