Mikhail Gorbachev, final leader of Soviet Union, dies at 91

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Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has died “after a serious and long illness,” the Central Clinical Hospital reported on Tuesday.

He was 91 years old. A more specific cause of death was not immediately clear.

Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union before it dissolved. He ruled as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991 and was the country’s only president, in the waning months of his time in office.

Young and energetic, his rise to power in the ’80s signaled a new spring for what was then one of the world’s two superpowers. A political insider with a view to the outside, Gorbachev set into motion radical reforms — that led to a series of unintended events.

He tore through the Iron Curtain between the USSR and the West by opening relations with the U.S., agreeing to a series of crucial summits soon after taking power. He signed treaties to reduce the size of his country’s nuclear arsenal and, in a well-received reversal in military policy, he withdrew troops from a nine-year war in Afghanistan.

Domestically, Gorbachev had two trademarks: more transparency and freedom — a policy known as glasnost — and bold economic reform, or perestroika.

It was not, ultimately, a winning combination.

Glasnost brought a feeling of liberation and empowerment to the Soviet people and when Gorbachev’s economic policies didn’t work, they weren’t afraid to express their disillusionment.

PHOTO: Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, signs the decree relinquishing control of nuclear weapons to Boris Yeltsin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Dec. 25, 1991.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, signs the decree relinquishing control of nuclear weapons to Boris Yeltsin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Dec. 25, 1991.

Liu Heung Shing/AP, FILE

Gorbachev’s vision was to legitimize communism by putting a democratic face on it. What he didn’t seem to realize was that his people would start demanding the real thing.

Discontent spread like wildfire to the countries of the East bloc. And Gorbachev allowed the peaceful revolutions to happen.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.

Gorbachev was revered in the West for ending the Cold War. He was ridiculed at home for the collapse of the country.

As the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin in Moscow, Gorbachev had no choice but to resign. Others benefitted far more from his changes than he did.

His political rival, Boris Yeltsin, rose out of the post-Soviet chaos. When Gorbachev ran against Yeltsin, he received less than 1% of the vote, a humiliating end to his political career.

But the Nobel Peace Prize winner — so honored, the Nobel organization said, “for the leading role he played in the radical changes in East-West relations” — remained a man of influence.

After his closest ally, wife Raisa, died in 1999, Gorbachev devoted himself to campaigning for environmental causes.

ABC News’ Christine Theodorou contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.