Photo/Illutration Mikhail Gorbachev in a December 2019 interview with The Asahi Shimbun (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

When Mikhail Gorbachev turned 91 years old on March 2, Russia was in the early stages of its invasion of Ukraine.

The escalation of the Ukrainian crisis into a war, about 30 years after the end of the Cold War, must have taken a toll both physically and psychologically on the last leader of the Soviet Union.

In his autobiography published in Russia in 2017, Gorbachev wrote: “My mother was Ukrainian. My wife, Raisa, was also Ukrainian. This is an issue that should not be handled as propaganda. But there are those who feel a need to stir up animosity between Russia and Ukraine and have an interest in worsening relations between those two nations.”

One source said concerns had been raised about Gorbachev’s mental state because he could not sufficiently contact relatives still living in Ukraine after the invasion.

On Feb. 26, two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation,” Gorbachev’s foundation in Moscow issued a statement calling for an immediate suspension of fighting and the start of peace negotiations.

“There is nothing more precious in the world than human lives,” the statement said. “Negotiations and dialogue based on mutual respect and recognition of interests are the only possible way to resolve the most acute contradictions and problems.”

Gorbachev died on Aug. 30 as the war continued to rage in Ukraine.


In 1990, Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching the first nuclear arms reduction treaty and for bringing an end to the Cold War.

His “new thinking” foreign policy sought cooperation rather than confrontation and emphasized the common interests of humankind.

The principles behind that new thinking were evident in the statement issued by his foundation about Russia’s invasion.

But any evaluation of his achievements always had two sides. Western nations were enthralled by his efforts to promote perestroika in the totalitarian state of the Soviet Union ruled by the Communist Party. But his domestic popularity was low because many Russians considered him a delicate individual who caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, what he left behind for humanity was huge.

In 1985, he and U.S. President Ronald Reagan reached agreement on the first treaty that reduced nuclear weapons. They also issued a statement with the memorable words, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

That treaty led to the end of the Cold War, which allowed for the long-awaited reunification of Germany. Gorbachev was also instrumental in allowing a reunified Germany to join NATO.

The starting point of such actions was his strong belief that the only way for humankind to survive in a world with so many nuclear weapons would be to nip the buds of war and eliminate all nuclear weapons.

In 1986, when he was still general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred. That catastrophe also contributed to his thinking about the need to abolish nuclear weapons.

“The explosion of a single nuclear reactor has created this amount of nuclear damage,” he said. “What would happen if a nuclear weapon was used in war?”

Gorbachev was the first president of a nuclear power to visit Nagasaki, where he shook hands with survivors of the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bombing of that city.

He had heated exchanges with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, as an advocate of nuclear deterrence, opposed the nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Soviet Union.

He told her, “You are overjoyed to be sitting on a barrel of ammunition, in other words, on top of nuclear weapons.”

Gorbachev also warned Thatcher that nuclear weapons, if not eliminated, would one day cause massive destruction.


On Dec. 3, 2019, exactly 30 years after the Cold War was declared over in Malta, I was able to interview Gorbachev at the Moscow office of his foundation, the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies.

He showed up using a walker, which he said had been named Maria after his mother.

In August 2019, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which was the starting point for reducing nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union, was invalidated by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

I asked Gorbachev how he felt about that treaty, in which he played such a large role in bringing about.

He talked about the agreement he had reached with Reagan in which they concluded, “A nuclear war is not acceptable, and there will be no winners in a nuclear war.”

Gorbachev’s expression also became lively when he recalled his meeting in Malta with U.S. President George Bush.

“Toward the end of the meeting, I said we are ready to announce publicly to the whole world that we do not consider America our enemy,” Gorbachev said. “Bush got up and offered his hand across the entire width of the table and shook me by the hand, saying that he did not consider us enemies either.”

But Gorbachev had much harsher words for Trump.

After prefacing his remarks with an apology for the language, he spewed out foul words in describing Trump. Gorbachev made very clear he would never forgive Trump for sounding the death knell on a treaty that had been in place for 30 years.


On March 2, colleagues gathered at foundation headquarters like in past years to celebrate Gorbachev’s birthday. Congratulatory messages came in from around the world, even from Putin.

Gorbachev took part in the event online from his hospital room because of concerns about COVID-19.

One participant at the gathering was Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Russia’s independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.

The paper has been critical of Putin, especially after the invasion of Ukraine and his threat to use nuclear weapons.

Gorbachev is a shareholder of Novaya Gazeta, and he used some of the money from his own Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 to buy computers for the paper.

In the interview, Gorbachev said Novaya Gazeta was the manifestation of his glasnost policy of information disclosure, which was promoted as part of perestroika.

That background goes a long way in explaining the current relationship between Gorbachev and Putin.

A close associate of Gorbachev said in January, “The two have not been in contact with each other for a long time.”

The next month, Russia invaded Ukraine.

At the base of Gorbachev’s philosophy has been a consistent emphasis on “mutual respect,” “dialogue and cooperation” and “demilitarization of political thinking.”

The hand I shook was thick, and his autograph in his book was strong.

The legacy of one of the giants of the 20th century will surely continue to serve as a guiding light for humanity in this century.

Gorbachev will be buried in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, next to his beloved wife.