Gorbachev: The Man Who Prevented World War III?

Central European countries continued to rise up and declare independence: Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Yugoslavia.

East Germany was just one on the list but it dramatically captured the period's mood. "To put it briefly, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a synthesised indication of what was going on in the world and where it was heading to," Gorbachev said Thursday.

"It was very, very symbolic," says Kobrinskaya. "The Berlin Wall was a symbol of a bipolar world of two systems which co-existed and confronted."

First the Wall Fell, Then the USSR Unravelled

Over the next two years, a wave of self-determination swept over the Soviet Union. Its 15 republics were increasingly free to set their own course -- and break away from Moscow. The USSR continued to unravel as Gorbachev struggled to walk a thin line between supporting reform while keeping the union intact.

In August 1991, almost two years after the Berlin Wall fell, communist hardliners arrested Gorbachev in an attempted coup d'état. After days of protests the coup ended and Gorbachev was restored to power.

By that point, the Soviet Union was unified in name only. Each republic declared its independence in the months that followed and on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the USSR ceased to exist.

Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for helping to bring the Cold War to a close. A hero to many in the West, Gorbachev keeps a low profile in Russia where many still mourn the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"My policy was open and sincere, a policy aimed at using democracy and not spilling blood," he said last week. "But this cost me very [dearly], I can tell you that."

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