(NewsNation) — When one speaks of Mikhail Gorbachev, they’d be hard pressed not to also speak of the Cold War.
The last Soviet leader, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, played an outsized role in ending the decadeslong tensions with Western powers, but at the expense of watching a crumbling empire finally collapse.
Ascending to general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and the presidency in 1990, Gorbachev spent seven years forging arms reduction deals with the United States and partnerships with the West to remove the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since World War II and bring about the reunification of Germany.
A supporter of nuclear disarmament, he met with former President Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986, a summit that led to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The pact banned the two nations’ land-based ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with ranges from 300 to 3,400 miles and resulted in the elimination of nearly 2,700 missiles.
He made unilateral cuts in Soviet military forces and also sought better relations with his European partners, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, which he allowed to be reunified in 1990.
Domestically, he ushered in economic and social reforms that gave more autonomy to Soviet states, a decision that would ultimately lead to the USSR’s demise. His policy of “nostglas” — free speech — allowed previously unthinkable criticism of the party and the state, but also emboldened nationalists who began to press for independence in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and elsewhere.
“He was a great liberator,” said Michael Bernstam, a former economic adviser to the Russian Central Bank. “He removed the threat of nuclear war. Generally, the judgment on history will be extremely positive.”
Bernstam said Gorbachev was a “consequential” figure and a unique leader compared to his predecessors and successors.
“He could have been in power today if he wanted to,” Bersntam said. “He is unique because every one of (the other leaders), someone else put them there. No one else could have done what he’s done.”
His reforms weren’t met with fanfare from all. Many Russians never forgave Gorbachev for the turbulence that his reforms unleashed, considering the subsequent plunge in their living standards too high a price to pay for democracy.
In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the Soviet breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” that fostered separatist movements in the country.
While they may not agree with that particular characterization, a majority of Russians view the breakup as a “bad thing,” according to Pew Research Center survey. The sentiment is shared among many former Soviet states, including Georgia, Armenia and Moldova. Respondents in those countries were more likely to have a favorable view of Josef Stalin than Gorbachev.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.