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Gorbachev, who led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, dies at 91

Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. [AP photo/Boris Yurcheko, File]

MOSCOW (AP) — Before Mikhail Gorbachev came along, the Soviet Union seemed an immovable superpower in perpetual antagonism to the United States. With a breathtaking series of reforms, Gorbachev changed all that — and redirected the course of the 20th century.

Alongside Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev was a key protagonist in a global drama that many thought impossible and, for those who lived through it, seemed almost surreal.

Under Gorbachev, the Berlin Wall crumbled, thousands of political prisoners were released and millions of people who had known only communism got their first real taste of freedom. But he was unable to control the forces he unleashed — and ultimately waged a losing battle to salvage a crumbling empire.

Gorbachev died Tuesday at a Moscow hospital at 91.

Although little known outside Sovietologist circles before he became leader in 1985, he quickly became a dominant and charismatic figure on the world stage. The splotchy purple birthmark on his bald pate made him instantly recognizable, and his vigor stood in sharp contrast to the recent run of aged and barely articulate Kremlin leaders.