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Mikhail Gorbachev elected president of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Gorbachev elected president of the Soviet Union


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The Congress of People’s Deputies elects General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev as the new president of the Soviet Union. While the election was a victory for Gorbachev, it also revealed serious weaknesses in his power base that would eventually lead to the collapse of his presidency in December 1991.

Gorbachev’s election in 1990 was far different from other “elections” previously held in the Soviet Union. Since coming to power in 1985, Gorbachev had worked hard to open up the political process in the Soviet Union, pushing through legislation that eliminated the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and establishing the Congress of People’s Deputies. The public at large elected the Congress by secret ballot. By 1990, however, Gorbachev was facing criticism from both reformers and communist hard-liners. The reformers, such as Boris Yeltsin, criticized Gorbachev for the slow pace of his reform agenda. Communist hard-liners, on the other hand, were appalled by what they saw as Gorbachev’s retreat from Marxist principles. In an attempt to push forward his reform program, Gorbachev led a movement that amended the Soviet constitution, including writing a section establishing a new and more powerful presidency, a position that had previously been largely symbolic.

On March 14, 1990, the Congress of People’s Deputies elected Gorbachev to a five-year term as president. While this was certainly a victory for Gorbachev, the election also vividly demonstrated the problems he faced in trying to formulate a domestic consensus supporting his political reform program. Gorbachev had worked assiduously to make sure that the Congress gave him the necessary two-thirds majority, including making repeated threats to resign if the majority was not achieved. Had he not received the necessary votes, he would have had to campaign in a general election against other candidates. Gorbachev believed that a general election would result in chaos in an already unsteady Russia; others in the Soviet Union attributed his actions to fear that he might lose such an election. The final vote in the Congress was extremely close, and Gorbachev achieved his two-thirds majority by a slim 46 votes.

Gorbachev won the presidency, but by 1991 his domestic critics were pillorying him for the nation’s terrible economic performance and faltering control over the Soviet empire. In December 1991 he resigned as president, and the Soviet Union dissolved. Despite the criticism he received, Gorbachev is credited for instituting a dizzying number of reforms that loosened the tight grip of communism on the Soviet people.

READ MORE: What Is Perestroika and Glasnost?


Mikhail Gorbachev elected president of the Soviet Union - HISTORY

He introduced a policy of openness or "glasnost" and he was also the architect of "perestroika" or deep political and economic reforms. But his reforms led to severe economic hardship at home. Growing nationalist movements spearheaded by the Baltic states led him to propose a loose federation of Soviet states.

But this proved the last straw for communist hardliners. In August 1991 he survived a coup attempt - largely thanks to the support of the Russian authorities, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin continued to attract more support which led eventually to the resignation of Gorbachev on 25 December 1991. The Soviet flag, the hammer and sickle, was lowered for the last time on 31 December.

Gorbachev is now president of the Green Cross - an organisation concerned with the clean-up of chemical and biological weapons.

His wife Raisa, the only wife of a Soviet leader to become a public figure in recent times, died of leukaemia in 1999.


Gorbachev and the Collapse of Communism

Mikhail Gorbachev's period as President of the Soviet Union, 1985-91, was truly revolutionary. But Steven Morewood argues that he failed to understand or control the forces he unleashed.

When Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev came to power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) on 11 March 1985 drastic reforms were demanded if the faltering USSR was to remain a superpower still able to compete with its arch-rival, the United States. Enmeshed in Afghanistan, threatened by the 'New Cold War', with a hawk (Ronald Reagan) in the White House, the economy was in free fall and living standards were plummeting. Gorbachev's predecessor, Yuri Andropov, had already concluded that reforms were needed, but he fell fatally ill before he could initiate them.

Under Gorbachev, political, economic, social and foreign policy changes became the order of the day. Each fed off the other, so that reform gained a momentum of its own, and, in the end, control over policy was wrested from the centre. Ultimately, the limited transformation which was intended to salvage the socialist system brought its collapse – in the Eastern European outer empire in 1989 and the USSR itself in December 1991, when Gorbachev fell from power and 15 independent states emerged.

Gorbachev: motives and interpretations

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1985: Gorbachev Becomes General Secretary of the Communist Party and Leader of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Gorbachev was elected the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR on this day in 1985. Due to the fall of the USSR, Gorbachev also became the last General Secretary in history. It is interesting that he was elected to that position only a few hours after the death of the previous General Secretary – Konstantin Chernenko. Namely, Chernenko died in the evening of 10 March, while Gorbachev was elected by the Central Committee the very next morning.

It is also interesting that, at the moment of election, Gorbachev was the youngest member of the Politburo. These elections were allegedly the fastest in Soviet history. The Politbuto nominated Gorbachev, and the Central Committee elected him almost immediately afterward. By attaining the position of General Secretary, Gorbachev de facto became the leader of the Soviet Union. He later also became the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. From 1990, Gorbachev’s function was renamed to “President of the Soviet Union”.


History

The office of the presidency was formally established on March 15, 1990, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika policies towards restructuring the Soviet Union. Prior to this, the head of state was held by the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev was elected among the members of the Congress of People's Deputies (which was the national legislature at the time), becoming the office's inaugural holder. Though Gorbachev was selected to serve the office by the legislature, future presidents were to be democratically elected by the people of the Soviet Union.

Soviet presidents Nikolai Ryzhkov (left) and Mikhail Gorbachev (right).

Following the adoption of a new constitution in 1992, Mikhail Gorbachev announced that election for the presidency were to be scheduled within weeks and that he would not seek re-election. Gorbachev stated that he helped bring democracy to the Soviet people and that it was now their time to take the reigns. Gorbachev soon announced his endorsement for his former premier, Nikolai Ryzhkov. Ryzhkov campaigned on a platform of Normalnost ("normalcy"), which focused on stabilizing the Soviet economy as a "regulated market economy," while continuing Gorbachev's social policies of Glasnost ("openness") and the liberalization of the USSR. Ryzhkov soon gained the support from Soviet reformers and some of the hardliners within the Communist Party. On June 21, 1992, Nikolai Ryzhkov was elected as the second president of the Soviet Union and became the first democratically elected leader in the region's history. The Ryzhkov administration would see the stabilization of the Soviet economy (which had been in recession since the 1970s) and economic growth which had not been since since the time of Nikita Khrushchev. Ryzhkov's foreign policy focused on continuing open and positive relation with East Asia, the United States, and Western Europe while at the same time continuing to support the USSR's Cold War allies in their own moves towards democracy (often referred to as the Ryzhkov Doctrine).

President Alexander Lebed.

The final years of Nikolai Ryzhkov's presidency became focused on the War on Terror. The Soviet Union quickly announced their support for the United States following the September 11 attacks in 2001. With Ryzhkov constitutionally barred from seeking a third term in office, the presidential elections in 2002 would become pitted between two newly established political parties: Alexander Lebed for the Democratic Party and Yuri Luzhkov for the Liberal Party. Due to his time as a lieutenant general in the Soviet Armed Forces, as well as being a relatively new and young face within Soviet politics, Alexander Lebed easily won the presidency. Within months following his inauguration, the Moscow Metro was struck by a series of terrorist bombings. Though orchestrated by Soviet citizens, the attackers gained funding and training by Al-Qaeda and militant groups currently in operation in Somalia. Backed by the international community, a joint Ethiopian-Soviet coalition would launch a war against these groups in Somalia, becoming the first foreign war for the Soviet Union since Soviet War in Afghanistan. With his foreign policy focused on the War on Terror and the war in Somalia, Lebed's domestic policies would focus mostly on stopping terrorism from within the USSR. Many have criticized the Lebed administration for abandoning the notion of Glasnost for the sake of security, as well as inciting a de facto policy of Islamaphobia and Russian nationalism.

President Valentina Tereshkova.

Due to the controversies surrounding the administration of Alexander Lebed, the presidential elections for 2007 would become the most heated election cycle for the Soviet Union. Liberal deputy and former cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, would challenge Lebed. After runoff election, Tereshkova would defeat Lebed by a few thousand votes, becoming the first woman president of the USSR. Unlike her predecessor, Tereshkova campaigned on a platform of re-liberalization, multi-nationalism, more privatization of the economy, and bringing the war in Somalia to an end. The first years of the Tereshkova administration focused around the Great Recession, which effected the Soviet economy (though nowhere near the levels seen within the Eurozone and the United States). Internationally known for being the first woman in space, it came as no surprise that Tereshkova's presidency has become noted for the expansion of the Soviet Space Program back to levels not seen since the Space Race. Tereshkova re-romanticized the national pride for the Soviet Space Program and has pushed for the USSR to lead in what has become known as the "Second Space Race."

The next presidential elections are scheduled to take place in early March of 2017. Incumbent Valentina Tereshkova would be barred from seeking a second term.


03/11 – Mikhail Gorbachev’s Election

Gorbachev (R) meeting with American president George H. W. Bush in 1991. (The Times of Israel)

On this day in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Soviet Union (USSR). A former tractor driver, Gorbachev joined the Communist Party in his youth and attained a law degree during the Khrushchev Thaw of the 1950s and 60s. Unlike many of his counterparts, Gorbachev was highly educated and well-travelled (intellectuals were generally disparaged as elitist or bourgeois in Soviet society) additionally, he publicly admired foreign leaders like Canada’s Pierre Trudeau and spoke openly about the failings of the Soviet system. Despite these “flaws”, he managed to become the 8th – and final – leader of the USSR in 1985.

Russian workers in 1972. (The New York Review of Books)

Almost immediately, Gorbachev began changing things up. Nuclear disarmament treaties with the Americans were followed by the normalization of diplomatic relations with China and Western Europe later on, the Red Army was evacuated from Afghanistan. Perhaps his most famous reforms were those of glasnost(openness) and perestroika(restructuring): an effort to demystify the famously secretive (and undemocratic) Communist government, and reform the entire Soviet system based on the findings of several wide-reaching studies. These reforms helped reveal an incredibly inefficient economy and society that was essentially rotting from within, bankrupted by the Cold War arms race with NATO. Free elections in 1989 – a novelty in the USSR – critically weakened the Communist Party and made Gorbachev’s task of keeping the Union together next to impossible.

A map of the USSR in 1989. Following the dissolution of the Union, all Soviet Republics became independent the semi-autonomous regions, like Chechnya and Georgia, remained a part of the new Russian Federation. (Wikimedia Commons)

For obvious reasons, Gorbachev was and is a polarizing figure in Russian history. His character and actions seemed at odds with the state that, forged in bloodshed, murdered millions of its own citizens and morphed into one of the most oppressive security states the world has ever seen. Although Gorbachev had hoped to reform the USSR to the point of recovery, by the 1980s, it was simply too late. The USSR’s hulking, over-stretched economic and political infrastructure was out of money and fundamentally broken, and no amount of glasnost or perestroika would fix it. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Soviet System collapsed – followed by Communist Russia itself. Gorbachev’s well-intentioned reforms did not kill the USSR, nor did they “fix” it instead, his efforts likely helped bring a smooth and bloodless end to the dying Soviet Union.


Mikhail Gorbachev elected president of the Soviet Union - HISTORY

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union before it dissolved in 1991. He brought many reforms to the Soviet Union including new freedoms which eventually led to many countries breaking away from the union claiming independence. His relationships with western leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher helped bring an end to the Cold War.


Mikhail Gorbachev
Source: White House Photographic Office

Where did Mikhail grow up?

Mikhail was born in Stavropol, Russia on March 2, 1931. His parents both worked in agriculture. Mikhail also worked in agriculture while attending school. His childhood was filled with difficult events. In 1933 a famine swept through much of Russia. Two of his sisters and an uncle died during the famine. In 1937 his grandfather was arrested for supporting the followers of Leon Trotsky. Later, in 1942, his town was occupied by the Germans in World War II.

In 1950 Mikhail went to Moscow University where he received a degree in law. He also met his wife Raisa Titorenko there and joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

Rising in the Communist Party

After graduating in 1955, Gorbachev first worked as a member of the Communist Youth Organization. He became the leader of the division in Stavropol. In 1961 he was selected to be the delegate for Stavropol at the 22nd Communist Party Congress in Moscow.

Over the next several years Gorbachev became a leader in the Communist Party. First, in 1970, he became First Secretary for the entire Stavropol territory. Then, in 1971, he moved to Moscow as the Secretary of Agriculture.

Mikhail quickly became a force in Moscow gaining influence with such powerful leaders as Yuri Andropov (KGB leader who later became leader of the Soviet Union). In 1980 Gorbachev was selected to be a member of the Politburo, the most powerful group in the Communist Party. He was the youngest member of the Politburo.

Becoming the Leader of the Soviet Union

Within a few short years, Gorbachev gained considerable influence on the Politburo. After two aging leaders died in 1984 and 1985, the Communist Party wanted someone young and healthy to take over as leader. On March 11, 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Union.

When Gorbachev took over as leader, the Soviet economy was struggling. He wanted to reform the economy as well as the government. In order to do this he needed support, so he began to replace some of the older members of the politburo with younger men who shared his vision.

Glasnost and Perestroika

Gorbachev announced two main areas of reform. He called them Glasnost and Perestroika. Glasnost called for increased openness in government. It also allowed for some freedom of speech and less censorship. Perestroika was a restructuring of the economy and industry. It allowed for some private ownership and economic reforms to try and improve the Soviet economy.

Gorbachev also made attempts to end the Cold War and improve relations with the west. He met with US President Ronald Reagan and signed the INF treaty regarding nuclear weapons. He also removed Soviet troops from Afghanistan ending the Soviet Afghanistan War.


Gorbachev and Reagan signing the INF treaty
Source: White House Photographic Office

Gorbachev also indicated that the Soviet Union would no longer interfere with other countries in Eastern Europe. This caused a major change in the world. Without the fear of the Soviet Union, countries such as Eastern Germany, Poland, and Hungary got rid of their communist governments. In 1989 the Berlin Wall in Germany was torn down.

In August of 1991, communist "hardliners" who didn't agree with Gorbachev's reforms tried to take over the government. They kidnapped Gorbachev and said he was sick and couldn't rule. Soon protests grew and Gorbachev was set free, but the damage to the government had been done.

Collapse of the Soviet Union

Although Gorbachev's reforms allowed for more freedom, many states used this freedom to protest and eventually claim independence from the Soviet Union. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed. On December 25, 1991 Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Soviet Union and the Union was split into 15 separate countries.

Since resigning Gorbachev has remain involved in politics. He started new political parties in Russia and even ran for president in 1996 (he didn't win). Recently he has criticized the rule of President Vladimir Putin.


Gorbachev's Greatest Hits

Mikhail Sergeyevich Turns 90 Archive marks milestone with new publication of Gorbachev memcons with Castro, Mitterrand, and Shamir compilation of dozens of Gorbachev primary sources.

Gorbachev made history, then freed history by opening his documents

Click on images to read the postings

Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or [email protected]

Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa Gorbacheva on their way to Iceland, October 1986 (courtesy Gorbachev Foundation archive)

Undated photo of Gorbachev in the car [source: www.pastdaily.com]

Gorbachev and his wife Raisa at home. (Photo credit SputnikImages.com)

Gorbachev and his wife Raisa return from their fateful vacation in Foros in August 1991 (courtesy Gorbachev Foundation archive)

Gold standard biography of Gorbachev

Washington, D.C., March 2, 2021 – The first and only president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, is turning 90 years old today in Moscow. On the occasion of his anniversary, the National Security Archive has compiled a collection of postings called “Gorbachev’s Greatest Hits.” These documents help illuminate the story of the end of the Cold War, political reform of the Soviet system, and the vision of a world built on universal human values.

This compendium, accompanied by a collection of Russian-language documents on the Archive’s Russia Page, is intended to encourage scholars and others to revisit and study those miraculous years in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the global confrontation stopped, walls fell, peoples found freedom, and Europe was seen as a common home. Though not for long.

Gorbachev made history, and to a remarkable degree he also freed history from the usual constraints of security classifications and archival restrictions that often go on needlessly for decades. Only a year or two out of office, he had already started publishing the transcripts of his head-of-state meetings through the Gorbachev Foundation and he liberated top aides like Anatoly Chernyaev to publish their memos and their diaries from which the international scholarly community has benefited enormously, and from which the National Security Archive has built dozens of Web postings, including the selections highlighted here, and published two award-winning books, Masterpieces of History and The Last Superpower Summits.

From the very beginning, Gorbachev engaged with U.S. and European leaders, believing that if only they met face-to-face and explained their beliefs to each other, they would no longer see each other as enemies. Gorbachev arguably saved Ronald Reagan’s presidency – without Gorbachev, Reagan would be remembered today mostly for the Iran-contra scandal and for selling the national debt to China. But in Geneva in 1985, Reagan met Gorbachev, and there the Soviet and the U.S. leaders proclaimed “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”(EBB 172).

A year later in Reykjavik, Reagan and Gorbachev came very close to abolishing nuclear weapons altogether – a dream they shared. (EBB 203). No matter how one views Gorbachev’s policies, it is undeniable that no leader before or after him even came close to this achievement, all noble aspirations notwithstanding.

Breaking the Kremlin mold, Gorbachev went around the world, talking, persuading, and changing his own views along the way. He could hold a wide-ranging, passionate but respectful conversation with leaders as different as Margaret Thatcher, with whom he discussed revolutionary movements in the Third World (EBB 422), and Fidel Castro, with whom he conversed about U.S. politics (Document 1). The first and only Soviet leader to do so, he met with the Pope and found common ground as they deliberated over matters of peace and socialist choice (Document 8, EBB 298).

Gorbachev believed that together with his former opponents they could end all regional conflicts, starting with the war in Afghanistan. He announced the date for Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and completed it exactly on that date – February 15, 1989, ending a bitter Soviet war that had gone on for almost ten years. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union cut military aid to third world dictatorships, even those who were considered “good” allies he supported the United States in the Persian Gulf War even though his peaceful approach did not prevail. (EBB 745).

Of course he ran out of time. His domestic opponents – the hardliners in August 1991 seeking the old Soviet Union, and his “democratic” denunciator Boris Yeltsin afterwards, seeking his own power – brought Gorbachev down. Left behind were many global problems, not least the U.S.-Cuban confrontation that Gorbachev hoped to solve. He played behind-the-scenes mediator, telling George H. W. Bush he was mistaken about Castro, and telling Castro he needed to open to the U.S. Gorbachev passed messages between the two sides, but did not have time to complete the project.

Today the National Security Archive publishes three new memcons translated from the Russian, never posted before in any language, that reflect three important aspects of Gorbachev’s policy and aspirations. In his first trip to Cuba in 1989, Gorbachev spent long hours with Castro, whom he considered a legendary revolutionary leader but also hardheaded and mildly hostile to perestroika. Trying to explain perestroika to him, Gorbachev softly suggested that Cuba also needed to change and improve relations with the United States. (Document 1).

Meeting with Yitzhak Shamir of Israel, right before the beginning of the 1991 Madrid Conference on the Middle East, Gorbachev celebrated the new era he had just opened in Soviet-Israeli relations, re-establishing diplomatic ties, and aspiring to find a solution to the Palestinian issue within an international framework. (Document 2).

The last conversation published here is with Francois Mitterrand of France, right after the opening of the Madrid conference (Document 3). Gorbachev, on the high note of a successful start of the conference, was hoping to talk to Mitterrand about building the “common European home.” He believed the French leader shared his vision of Europe. There were many common features between the “European confederation” and “common European home” that the two leaders had discussed many times before. Now, however, after German unification in NATO, the war in the Gulf, and the August coup in the Soviet Union, the French leader wanted to talk about integration only on “his” side of the European continent.

Gorbachev did not have time to realize many of his ideas, chief among them the creation of a new voluntary and democratic and demilitarized Soviet Union. But the seven years he spent as leader of the Soviet Union changed the world to an extent nobody imagined before. Gorbachev, more than any other figure, ended the Cold War, then worked to ensure the story could be told.


Mikhail Gorbachev – Soviet president

Gorbachev and his granddaughter Anastasia

Raisa Gorbacheva and Mikhail Gorbachev

Zafar Tursunov and Mikhail Gorbachev

Pretty Raisa Gorbacheva Mikhail Gorbachev

President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev – Soviet president

Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Gorbachev have dinner at the restaurant Nevsky Palace in St. Petersburg, 1995

School theater. Mikhail Gorbachev in the play Masquerade by Mikhail Lermontov. 1940


Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev was perhaps the most significant player in putting an end to the Cold War and effecting the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics' gradual dismemberment. Aware that the U.S.S.R.'s economy was on the brink of collapse, Gorbachev proceeded to offer concessions to American arms negotiators and even announced a unilateral reduction in Soviet troop strength. In short order, the arms race would come to an end. In his position as General Secretary between 1985 to 1991, Gorbachev introduced policies of glasnost (openness), and perestroika (economic restructuring). These new policies conceded more personal freedoms for Soviet people and promoted a friendlier environment towards international commerce.

Influence and education

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in Privolnoye, Stavropol, an agricultural province of Soviet Russia. As a young boy, Mikhail was exposed to Socialist indoctrination. He became a member of the Communist Party in 1952. Gorbachev attended Moscow State University's law school, where in 1953 he married a philosophy student, Raisa Maksimovna Titorenko (1932?–99), and graduated in 1956. He was then eligible to become a more active member of the Communist Party. The Gorbachev marriage produced a daughter who married and produced two granddaughters. Gorbachev spent much time working for the party, but great problems led him to make big changes. Eventually, he matriculated in the Stavropol Agriculture Institute, from which he was graduated in 1967 with a degree in agriculture economy. With his experience in that field and holding command positions in the party, he fashioned a famous 10-year food plan for the country in 1974. Unfortunately, the scheme was set aside when an extremely bad harvest rendered it into a failure. The beginning of radical change Owing mainly to looming economic collapse, the 1989 Congress of People's Deputies voted in March 1990 to end the Communist Party's control over the government, and the body elected Gorbachev executive president. During 1990 and 1991, however, the reform drive stalled, and Gorbachev appeared only to be pacifying holdout hardliners. The hardliners were disgruntled over the Soviet empire's deterioration and progressive marginalization of the Communist Party. An unsuccessful anti-Premier Gorbachev coup by hardliners in August 1991 nevertheless shifted greater authority to the Russian Republic's president, Boris Yeltsin, and greatly accelerated change. Gorbachev proscribed the Communist Party, granted independence to the Baltic States, and proposed a much looser, chiefly economic federation among the remaining republics. With the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on December 8, 1991, the federal government of the Soviet Union became dissolved, and on December 25, Gorbachev resigned as president. The statesman's latter days Gorbachev stands for what he calls "democratic socialism," or "socialism with a human face." He currently heads the Gorbachev Foundation, Green Cross International, and the Civic Forum movement. Gorbachev now lives in Moscow.


Gorbachev, Last Soviet Leader Whose Rule Changed History, Turns 90

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev turned 90 on March 2, receiving greetings from the world leaders as well as the Kremlin.

Gorbachev is considered one of the greatest reformers of the 20th century.

After taking over the Soviet leadership in 1985, Gorbachev introduced his reform policies known as "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (restructuring), which opened up the Soviet Union to the world, and ultimately led to the collapse of the communist regime and the end of the Cold War with the United States.

"Your commitment to freedom and your courage over the decades to make the tough, albeit necessary, decisions, have made the world a safer place," U.S. President Joe Biden wrote in a letter released by Gorbachev's staff.

The letter said that the agreed extension to the U.S.-Russian New START nuclear-arms treaty was proof that the two countries would continue Gorbechev's "legacy."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Gorbachev, who was instrumental in the German reunification in 1990.

"I take your day of honor as an opportunity to thank you once more for your personal commitment for the peaceful overcoming of the Cold War and the completion of German unity," Merkel wrote in a letter to the former leader.

"Your important contribution to a reunification in freedom remains as unforgotten in Germany as your constant personal engagement for friendly relations between our two countries," Merkel said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also congratulated Gorbachev, despite cool relations between the Kremlin and the former Soviet leader.

Gorbachev also owns a political foundation and co-owns the Kremlin-critical newspaper Novaya gazeta.

"You rightly belong to those bright, unconventional people, extraordinary statesmen of our time, who have had a significant impact on the course of national and international history," Putin wrote in a congratulatory letter to Gorbachev, published by the Kremlin.

Gorbachev's "great professional and life experience" still allowed him to "actively participate in popular social and educational work" as well as "international humanitarian projects," Putin wrote.

Many Russians also say he is responsible for the ensuing downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin himself has called the Soviet Union's collapse the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the previous century.

A poll conducted by the All-Russia Opinion Research Center had 51 percent of respondents saying that he brought the nation more harm than good, while 32 percent said it was about equal, 7 percent viewed his action as mostly positive, and the rest were undecided. The nationwide poll of 1,600 was conducted on February 28 and had a margin of error of no more than 2.5 percentage points.

Pro-democratic forces, however, see him as a symbol of freedom, as he has criticized repression under Putin and warned against falling back into a dictatorship.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and dpa

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