The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev , who turns 80 on Wednesday, changed the course of modern history by triggering the demise of the USSR and allowing Eastern Europe to peacefully exit Soviet rule.
Seeking to create a more open and prosperous Soviet Union through glasnost and perestroika, Gorbachev ended up inadvertently unleashing forces that swept the country he had sought to preserve from the map and himself from power.
Lionised in the West for championing freedom and change at a time when many feared the Cold War could never end, Gorbachev has not been forgiven by many in his home country for destroying what was for some a proud empire.
In most instances he chose peace over confrontation, hastening thawing relations with the West through close relationships with key 1980s Western leaders such as German chancellor Helmut Kohl and US president Ronald Reagan.
Britain’s Margaret Thatcher famously remarked: “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.”
But the more he relaxed restrictions during his 1985-1991 rule, the more he was sidelined by the energetic democrat Boris Yeltsin, then a fast-rising Communist official. By the time the USSR collapsed, he was an irrelevance.
Born March 2, 1931 into a peasant family in Russia’s southern Stavropol region, Gorbachev grew up during tyrant Joseph Stalin’s repressions — which sent his grandfather to a Gulag labour camp for nine years — and the hardships of World War II.
But Gorbachev was bright and exceptionally hard working. At the age of 16 he was awarded the Red Banner of Labour for helping in a record harvest, and in 1950 he won a coveted place at Moscow State University to study law.
Five years later, the ambitious graduate and his young wife Raisa moved back to Stavropol, where he began a rapid rise in the Communist Party that made him the youngest member of the Politburo, at age 49, by 1979.
In 1985, Gorbachev was elected general secretary of the Communist Party, taking over the world’s biggest state and second superpower. He was 54 and full of fresh ideas — a startling contrast to the geriatric ideologues previously in control of the Kremlin.