Last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dead at 91

STORY: Mikhail Gorbachev, who was lauded in the West as the man who helped bring down the Berlin Wall and end the Cold War without bloodshed, but was widely despised at home, has died, Russian news agencies reported. He was 91.

After decades of Cold War tension and confrontation, Gorbachev – the last soviet president with a distinctive port-wine birthmark on his head - broke with the past. He helped to remove the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe and bring about the reunification of Germany.

He struck nuclear arms deals with the United States and brought the Soviet Union closer to the West than at any point since World War Two.

Gorbachev struck up a rapport with the West and with Ronald Reagan, the hawkish U.S. president who had called the Soviet Union "the evil empire". Together they negotiated a landmark deal in 1987 to scrap intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

Gorbachev, though, was not able to prevent the Soviet Union's collapse.

When pro-democracy protests swept across the Soviet bloc nations of communist Eastern Europe in 1989, he refrained from using force, unlike previous leaders who had sent tanks to crush uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But those protests fueled aspirations for autonomy in the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, which disintegrated over the next two years in chaotic fashion.

Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 at age 54...

He was a reformer — setting out to revitalize the system by introducing limited political and economic freedoms.

His policy of ‘glasnost’ – or free speech – allowed previously unthinkable criticism of the party and the state, but also emboldened nationalists who began to press for independence in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and elsewhere.

While he was celebrated in the west, many Russians never forgave Gorbachev for the turbulence that his reforms unleashed... believing it was too high a price to pay for democracy.

And in the final months of his life Gorbachev has seen much of his legacy destroyed as President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brought sanctions on Moscow and talks in both Russia and the West of a new Cold War.

As one Kremlin-watcher told Reuters -- "It's one of the ultimate tragedies”... that none of the values that Gorbachev ultimately came to embrace “have been preserved by the leaders of Russia today."