Mikhail Gorbachev: How has Europe reacted to the death of the Soviet Union’s last leader?

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Tributes have been paid from across Europe to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who has died aged 91

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said his legacy would not be forgotten. 

“Mikhail Gorbachev was a trusted and respected leader,” she said. “He played a crucial role to end the Cold War and bring down the Iron Curtain. It opened the way for a free Europe … R.I.P Mikhail Gorbachev.”

French President Emmanuel Macron described the 91-year-old as a “man of peace”.

He said Gorbachev had “opened a path of liberty for Russians. His commitment to peace in Europe changed our shared history.”

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

“In a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all,” Johnson added. 

In Russia, the official reaction to the death of Gorbachev was more frosty, with the last Soviet leader viewed by some as the author of the break up of the USSR.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin expressed “his deepest condolences”, via Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

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

Reactions to Gorbachev’s passing in Ukraine are more divided. 

Some commentators said he mishandled the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, which killed thousands, while others recognised how he paved the way for Ukrainian independence. 

A report by Russia’s state-owned Tass news agency described Gorbachev in a dry, laconic way. 

Their report simply stated that he had died and that Gorbachev “promoted … 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.”

Others in Russia were more scathing. 

Vitaly Milonov, a Russian MP, said the former Soviet president left a legacy “worse than Hitler for our country”, according to a tweet reported in the pro-Kremlin Federal news agency.

Milonov pointed out that it was telling that Gorbachev died amid a “deconstruction of the world order”, referring to the invasion of Ukraine, which is seen by some experts as an attempt by Putin to restore part of the USSR and revive the glory of the old superpower. 

Anne Applebaum, a 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.”

Outside of Europe, politicians in the US — the USSR’s age-old foe — heaped praise on Gorbachev, who helped forge more peaceful relations between the Western and Eastern worlds. 

US President Joe Biden called him a “rare leader”, highlighting his work toward controlling arms. 

“Mikhail Gorbachev was a man of remarkable vision,” Biden said. “As leader of the USSR, he worked with President Reagan to reduce our two countries’ nuclear arsenals, to the relief of people worldwide praying for an end to the nuclear arms race.” 

“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,” he added.

Now deceased, former US President Ronald Reagan was Gorbachev’s main adversary in the West. But the pair ended up forming a good bond which aided the end of the Cold War.

The Reagan Foundation and Institute said it mourned the death 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,” it added.