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The life and legacy of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

According to various Russian state media accounts, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has died at the age of 91 after a long illness. Gorbachev played a pivotal role in ending the Cold War, and many blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he had tried to reform. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1990.

NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes joins us to discuss his life and legacy. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Remind us of Gorbachev's role in Soviet political life.

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, he was the last Soviet leader, both as general secretary of the USSR and the only president of the Soviet Union before it collapsed in 1991. I mean, when he ascended to the post of general secretary, it was 1985. The Soviet Union had just lost three leaders in short succession, all older men who died in office. And, you know, Gorbachev seemed the remedy to that.

He was just 54 years old when he was nominated. He was the youngest member of the Politburo. And he was very aware of the shortcomings of Soviet life and the political system and had ideas how to fix it. You know, he believed in the Soviet Union but as a country that had lost its way and - but was yet redeemable.

SHAPIRO: And so what was his solution to helping the USSR find its way?

MAYNES: Well, you know, he introduced the concept of glasnost. It was an opening up of Soviet society that brought with it new freedoms - you know, in the press, in academia, music, cinema, talking about the repressions in Russia, the Stalinist legacy of repressions. And many, of course, will remember his word, perestroika, that we would hear a lot in the U.S. in this period. It was a policy that amounted to a push to restructure the Soviet economy and make it more dynamic. He negotiated key arms control deals with the U.S., working very closely with President Ronald Reagan at the time to bring down the temperature of the Cold War and genuinely made the world a safer place with arms control deals.

You know, but in the end, he was overtaken by history. I mean, he opened up Soviet society and many Soviets wanted even more, even as Soviet hardliners wanted less. They tried to overthrow him in 1991, but ultimately his great rival, Boris Yeltsin, who later became Russia's first elected president, came to seize the mantle of reform in Russia, really, by dismantling the Soviet Union. And that left Gorbachev president of a country that no longer existed.

SHAPIRO: That all was more than 30 years ago. So what had he done since then?

MAYNES: You know, he's remained active in public life to a degree. He helped found Novaya Gazeta. This is one of Russia's great independent newspapers, very much under threat these days. He had his Gorbachev Foundation, which tended to his legacy and promoted many of his ideas of world peace and trying to preserve the arms control deals of the late Cold War period. There were also signs of difficult times that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev famously did this commercial for Pizza Hut, which many thought was very unbecoming of a figure of his stature.

But he was also a doting husband. You know, family was important to him by all accounts. His wife, Raisa, was the love of his life, and they were a very public couple, which was unusual for Russia. And Raisa passed away in 1999. But even last year, Gorbachev recorded an album of romance songs dedicated to her, which just, you know, tells you how keenly he felt her absence.

SHAPIRO: How do you think he's going to be remembered?

MAYNES: Well, he's clearly one of the giant figures of the 20th century. I mean, you know, he oversaw the peaceful withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern Central Europe. The Cold War, you know, essentially ended really without any bloodshed, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His willingness to negotiate on arms control helped lower the temperature of the Cold War. And I think a lot of people forget now just how nervous everybody was about the idea of a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the USSR. Those fears really evaporated under his watch. And, you know, for many around the world, that makes him a hero.

But inside Russia, it's more complicated. You know, a lot of people would say he gave up the empire for nothing. They blamed him for the breakup of the USSR and some of the economic chaos that ensued. And those resentments are really important because they're at the heart of Vladimir Putin's ideology today. You know, his passing - or Gorbachev's passing, excuse me, comes as, you know, Putin seems determined at great cost to essentially reassert Russian power and turn the clock back in many ways politically, culturally and, of course, in terms of global influence and empire. And in many ways, you could argue that Putin is harkening back to a vision of Russia before Gorbachev introduced all these changes.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Moscow correspondent, Charles Maynes. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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