Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the late and unlamented USSR, has died at 91. Though he was Soviet leader for fewer than six years, they were hugely eventful years, and that period, coupled with his fame and long post-premiership, led him to have significant interactions with multiple American presidents.
Gorbachev had a keen understanding of the presidency and its outsize ability to shape American perceptions. He acquired this understanding early on: on a visit to Monticello in 1993, after his premiership, he recalled studying Thomas Jefferson’s political thought in college.
Gorbachev assumed the Soviet premiership at a fraught time for U.S.–Soviet relations. Ronald Reagan had come to power promising to take a much tougher stance on the Soviet Union than his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Back in 1977, Reagan had told his future national security advisor Richard Allen that his strategy for the Cold War was simple: “We win and they lose.” The Soviets watched Reagan carefully, including both his defense buildup and his toughness, which he made evident in his firing and replacing the illegally striking air traffic control workers in 1981. Allen even called it Reagan’s “first foreign policy decision.”
Reagan had wanted to meet with the Soviets, but a succession of geriatric leaders died before he had a chance to do so. “They keep dying on me,” he joked. Then, in 1985, came Gorbachev—a vigorous 54 and far more dynamic than your typical Soviet apparatchik. Gorbachev came to power in part because of his willingness to butter up old Soviets like Leonid Brezhnev, but he would prove different than his predecessors. His youth certainly helped, as did his glamorous-looking wife Raisa. In his book Reagan at Reykjavik, Ken Adelman joked that Raisa “was the only wife of a Soviet leader who weighed less than her husband.”
Decades of mistrust did not go away easily. Initially, U.S. leaders didn’t know what to make of a Soviet leader who seemed interested in a more peaceful path. Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, even told him that Gorbachev “will package the Soviet line better for Western consumption.” Then-Senator Joe Biden said in September 1986, a month before the Reykjavik summit, “were I the president, I would not go to the summit. Summitry does not produce arms control agreements.”
Gorbachev tried to use his charm on Reagan, but Reagan was not completely sold. As Reagan put it, “I find Gorbachev affable, completely different from many of the leaders I’ve met with from their side. But I don’t have any illusions that I can convert him or talk him into anything.” Reagan used stagecraft to show up Gorbachev at their first meeting in Geneva, appearing youthful and coatless as he greeted Gorbachev, who wore a heavy overcoat. At Reykjavik, they came close to making a groundbreaking agreement that would have benefited the Soviets more, but Reagan wisely balked. This led Jackie Mason to joke, “He came back from Reykjavík from that meeting with Gorbachev. Everyone said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘Nothing.’ Everybody said, ‘Thank G-d.’” And Gorbachev’s name is invoked in perhaps the most famous words Reagan said as president, in June 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Gorbachev recognized the inherent weaknesses of the Soviet system and persisted in his efforts to show Westerners that he was different. In December 1987, Gorbachev got out of his limousine during a visit to Washington, winning over the crowd with his display of openness. He had been riding along with Vice President Bush to a meeting with Reagan at the White House, but stopped the limo at Connecticut and L St., right outside Duke Ziebert’s restaurant. When he finally arrived at the White House, an hour and a half late, Reagan joked, “I thought you’d gone home.” Gorbachev responded, “I had a chat with a group of Americans who stopped our car.”
By this time, Gorbachev had won over Bush, who was preparing to run for president himself. In a limo ride together, he told Gorbachev that they could “ignore” Bush’s campaign-trail sentiments on the issue of Ukrainian independence—then as now, a sore spot between the U.S. and Russia. Ex-president Jimmy Carter also met with Gorbachev in Russia, joking, “Two farmers can’t be antagonistic toward each other.” A pre-presidential Donald Trump tried to get in on the Gorbachev action as well, seeking a meeting in Russia but settling for attendance at a State Dinner Reagan held for Gorbachev in 1987. Trump spoke with Gorbachev about economics and the hotel business.
As president, Bush worked closely with Gorbachev, meeting with him multiple times and coming up with a significant arms-reduction deal in 1990. But Gorbachev’s popularity was greater in the West than it was among the embittered old Soviet guard. During a coup attempt in 1991, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft woke Bush to let him know that Gorbachev had resigned. Bush observed that the U.S. was taken by surprise by the development, to which Scowcroft responded, “Yes, so was Gorbachev!”
The coup failed, and Gorbachev returned to power, but not for long. On December 25, 1991, he resigned from office. He called Bush to tell him the news that Boris Yeltsin had taken over, saying, “Mr. President, you can spend Christmas evening in peace.”
Gorbachev then spent three decades as an elder statesman and continued to interact with presidents. He even won a Grammy award for his role in a Peter and the Wolf album, which he recorded along with Bill Clinton and Sophia Loren. He attended Reagan’s 2004 funeral, and he met with Barack Obama during the president’s trip to Russia. Obama later recalled feeling sorry for Gorbachev, calling him “a strangely tragic figure.” He was indeed that, but he was also, for a five-year period, one of the most interesting and compelling men in the world. No, Gorbachev did not end the Cold War, as some continue to claim, but he did recognize the inevitable and move the USSR in the right direction at a crucial moment. It was Reagan’s strategy that forced Gorbachev’s hand, but Gorbachev deserves immense credit for realizing that the Soviet Union he led had become unsustainable.
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