Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first president and a key force in its declaration of independence from the former Soviet Union, died Tuesday, according to Ukrainian officials. He was 88.
Kravchuk led Ukraine in the declining years of the Soviet Union, as a Communist Party leader, and held the Ukrainian presidency from 1991 through 1994. While president, he agreed to give up Ukraine’s Soviet nuclear arsenal in a deal brokered by the United States.
The cause of his death was not immediately known.
Writing on Twitter late Tuesday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said that “with his signature, the Evil Empire disintegrated” — a reference to Kravchuk’s pivotal role in disbanding the Soviet Union.
“Thank you for the peaceful renewal of our Independence. We’re defending it now with weapons in our hands,” Reznikov wrote.
His death comes a week after that of Stanislav Shushkevich, who served as Belarus’s first leader following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Shushkevich became an outspoken critic of the current Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994 with an iron fist and is a staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Although Kravchuk was a communist leader who spent a lifetime fulfilling decrees written in Moscow, during the waning years of the Soviet Union, his strongly nationalist line brought him head to head with Russia in a struggle over the Black Sea Fleet and Crimea, The Washington Post reported ahead of his first official visit to the United States in 1992.
By refusing to sign President Mikhail Gorbachev’s treaty to restructure the Soviet Union, Kravchuk helped engineer its collapse in December 1991. Before the referendum, both Moscow and Washington were confident that Ukraine and its ex-communist leader were only toying with the idea of separation.
Kravchuk was born in the western Ukrainian countryside — a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism. An economist by training, he climbed up the Communist Party hierarchy, eventually becoming chief ideologist on the Ukrainian party’s Central Committee. He was fluent in Ukrainian, an unusual trait for a Communist Party apparatchik at the time.
In 1989, he was tasked by the party with crushing the grass-roots nationalist movement, Rukh. He ultimately wound up running the country by forging an alliance between moderate communist and nationalist legislators.
Zelensky on Tuesday praised Kravchuk’s unending loyalty to Ukraine, noting that as a child, he had survived World War II and the Nazi occupation.
“Leonid Makarovych knew what freedom costs. And with all his heart, he wanted peace for Ukraine. I’m sure we will implement it. We will achieve our victory and our peace,” Zelensky said.