Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine, has died at the age of eight

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Leonid Kravchuk, a one-time communist official who became the first president of an independent Ukraine and played a central role in his country’s abandonment of nuclear weapons stockpiles after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, died on May 10. He is 88 years old.

Ukraineform News Agency reported his death. Other details were not immediately available, but according to the Associated Press, Mr Kravchuk was in poor health after undergoing heart surgery last year.

With a population of over 50 million, Ukraine was the second largest of the 15 republics of the USSR and, with the declaration of independence in 1991, became a major player in the last days of the Soviet era.

Mr Kravchuk reached the height of his power at the time, winning Ukraine’s first popular election in 1991 and establishing a tradition of peaceful transfer of power after his resignation after losing the re-election bid in 1994.

His life was stopped by war. When World War II began, when he was 5, he lost his father, who served in the Red Army and witnessed the Holocaust massacre. In the last months of his life, he once again saw his country plunged into war, with Russia invading Ukraine under President Vladimir Putin in late February.

Announcing Mr Kravchuk’s death in the ongoing conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said “at a time of crisis, when the future of the whole country depends on the courage of one person.”

Mr. Kravchuk was a skilled politician in all respects – a man who, in the phrase of an old Ukrainian expression, could steal a chicken without disturbing the farmer. A joke is spread that he doesn’t need an umbrella when it rains; He simply skirted in the raindrops.

Trained as an economist, he served as head of the propaganda department within the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party during the Soviet era and as chairman of the law-making body known as the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet, a role that effectively made him the leader of the republic.

But amid growing nationalist movements in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Kravchuk became a strong advocate for Ukraine’s independence.

“The transformation of Leonid M. Kravchuk is something that even a butterfly might find fascinating,” wrote New York Times reporter Serge Schmann. “After more than 30 years as a staunch communist ideologue, stunned by any manifestation of nationalism, he suddenly exploded as Ukraine’s first popularly elected national leader, dedicated to lead it from the Soviet Union.”

Asked if his transformation was at least partly motivated by political opportunism, Mr Kravchuk replied: “One cannot live the same life. It’s a natural process, but I’ve only changed it once. “

He quoted his grandchildren and what he said was the fear of going to school when he was a top communist official. “I wanted them to be proud of me,” he remarked, “no shame.”

Mr Kravchuk resigned from the Politburo in August 1991 after communist extremists staged a failed coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Less than four months later, on December 1, more than 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence. About 60 percent of voters voted for him as president.

“We can be rich and we can be poor,” he declared after his election. “We can be strong and we can be weak. But I promise you that we will master our own home: we will be a state.

A few days later, Mr. Kravchuk signed the Minsk Agreement with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian leader Stanislav Shushkevich, declaring that “the USSR has ceased to exist as a matter of international law and geopolitical reality.” (Shushkevich died on May 4, at the age of 87, leaving Mr. Kravchuk as the last surviving signatory to the treaty. Yeltsin died in 2007 at the age of 76.)

Stanislav Shushkevich, who led Belarus to independence, dies at 87

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States sought to consolidate Russia’s nuclear arsenal in order to avoid what Ukrainian historian Serhi Plokhi described as “Yugoslavia with nuclear” – a region of political and ethnic tensions where the presence of a nuclear weapon would escalate conflict.

Mr Kravchuk agreed to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal, the world’s third-largest, in exchange for security assurances.

According to Ploki, Mr. Kravchuk had little choice but to comply because he needed the political and economic support of the United States. He “tried his best to discuss the situation,” Ploki said in an interview, but “there was not much room for strategy.”

Mr Kravchuk expressed immediate concern about the outcome of the deal. “If Russia goes to Crimea tomorrow,” he said, referring to the Ukrainian territory that Putin annexed in 2014, “no one will raise an eyebrow.”

George E., a fellow of the German Marshal. “Under these terms, Ukraine has confiscated a Soviet nuclear arsenal inherited from Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom in exchange for promises and ‘assurances’ of Western assistance,” Bogden said. Funded by the United States, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in March. “Disarmament experts have welcomed the agreement, but it has invited Mr Putin to reconsider.”

In his last days in office and beyond, Mr Kravchuk argued that Ukraine could be a beacon of democracy in Eastern Europe.

“Everyone should understand that Russia will never agree to be on the side of the world,” he declared during a visit to the United States in 1994. “They could not abandon their 1,000-year history.”

“We can and do want to give the countries of the world the opportunity to stabilize and balance the situation in Europe,” he added. “We can open the door to democracy in the East.”

Leonid Makarovich Kravchuk was born on January 10, 1934, in the village of Veliki Zhitin, then part of Poland.

He attended a technical school and currently attends the Faculty of Economics at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kiev, working as a teacher before entering politics.

Mr Kravchuk lost to Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma in his presidential campaign. Plokki, a professor at Harvard University and author of “The Last Empire: The Final Day of the Soviet Union,” described Mr. Kravchuk’s decision to allow a peaceful transfer of power as a “contribution …” to the history of his homeland, and later the Soviet space as a whole.

Mr. Kravchuk was married to the former Antonina Mikhailovna and had a son. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov wrote A tweet After Mr. Kravchuk’s death that “with his signature, the Evil Empire collapsed.

“Thank you for the peaceful renewal of our freedom,” he continued. “We are now defending it with weapons in our hands.”

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