Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

Gorby the Great

William Taubman

Gorbachev: His Life and Times.
New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

Review by Anthony Wilson-Smith

By the time I met Mikhail Gorbachev, he had already changed the world. In March, 1993, I was home from a three-year stint as Moscow-based correspondent for Maclean’s. Gorbachev was 27 months removed from his six years as leader of the Soviet Union, and from the USSR’s dissolution. I interviewed him during a stop in Calgary for a book promotion. He was jet-lagged and impatient, but still managed his famously long answers to questions. It was a mundane setting for the man who instituted the greatest peaceful revolution of the 20th century.

Today, Gorbachev, 86, is alternately revered or forgotten in the West, and ignored or reviled in his homeland. As William Taubman notes in his masterful biography, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, those are among many paradoxes. “Gorbachev,” Taubman writes, “was a visionary who changed his country and the world—though neither as much as he wished.” He gave his country freedom of speech and democratic elections but at the price of his own power. He set out to overhaul the economy and structure of the country for which he despaired but loved—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. His policies led to its end. Tough, self-confident and willful enough to rule a superpower, he was principled, wise and compassionate in his refusal to take violent steps that could have kept him in power—and the USSR together.

Taubman, a professor at Amherst College, won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2004 biography of Nikita Khruschev. Now, he outlines Gorbachev’s startling rise and fall, in painstaking but never painful detail. Gorbachev, from the Stavropol region of the North Caucasus, seemed more likely to be a disciple of the Soviet status quo than to tear it down. His rise was often eased by his making nice with those above him, and parroting vapid popular slogans. He was conciliatory in a society that prized combativeness in its leaders and compliance in followers. He lacked—initially—the polish of peers from the USSR’s big cities.

But Gorbachev had intelligence, charm and shrewdness. He hid doubts about the status quo, and his enormous belief in himself. No one worked harder or was better-read in the tenets of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. His impatience with orthodoxy occasionally shone through, such as the time he challenged a professor whose lesson plan consisted of reading aloud from Stalin’s works. (Given the harsh punishments inflicted on anyone critical of Stalin during his rule, Gorbachev was brave—or foolhardy.) Gorbachev was unusually respectful to women. That helped when he fell in love with fellow student Raisa Titarenko. Their love affair (until her death in 1999) provided an emotional and intellectual partner, and no end of snippy remarks from chauvinist countrymen.

Gorbachev owed his rise partly to luck. He shared Stavropol roots with the urbane Yuri Andropov, an eventual head of the KGB and USSR leader. Andropov drove Gorbachev’s steady rise, and lobbied Leonid Brezhnev to appoint the much-younger man to the ruling, sclerotic Politburo. After the deaths in short order of Brezhnev and Andropov came Konstantin Chernenko. When Chernenko died just 13 months later, Gorbachev was the only sensible choice to replace him.

No one foresaw Gorbachev’s commitment to dramatic change. Despite Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that Gorbachev was someone with whom she could “do business”, Western leaders didn’t take him seriously. His Politburo counterparts reacted similarly, even as he bumped them in favour of ideological allies. It was only when Gorbachev began piling up one reformist achievement after another that the world took note. The most dramatic was the disarmament treaty he and Ronald Reagan signed. Few had believed that possible and some advisers on both sides thought it undesirable. Gorbachev removed Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and made clear he would not use force to keep Warsaw Pact countries in line—or the Soviet Union together. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

Then in August, 1991, he was the target of a failed coup. By year’s end, the Soviet Union was no more, and he was out of power. His fall was driven by many former allies. Some thought he was too reformist, and some thought not reformist enough—not to mention that his nation was exhausted by change and battered by a ruined economy that could not provide basic necessities.

Five years later, Gorbachev ran for the presidency of Russia. He received less than one per cent of the vote. Since then, he has overseen his eponymous foundation, dabbled in other projects and given occasional interviews. He is not always a fan of Vladimir Putin. He has both praised and harshly criticized him on occasion.

Taubman wrote the book with Gorbachev’s collaboration but not his “authorization”. The result is a clear-eyed, richly detailed portrait. Taubman recounts that when he began, Gorbachev—referring to himself, as he often does, in the third person—observed: “Gorbachev is hard to understand.” Perhaps, but in Taubman’s able hands, less so.

These days, Russia under Putin appears in many ways like the Soviet Union of old—ruled by a cold-eyed autocrat with little tolerance for dissent. That doesn’t concern most Russians, as Putin maintains his long grip on power and high approval rating in polls. A key difference between the two, Taubman concludes, is that “Gorbachev weakened the state in an attempt to strengthen the individual” whereas Putin strengthened the Russian state by “curtailing individual freedoms.” Perhaps, for the average reader in the West, it’s not so much Gorbachev who is hard to understand as the mindset of the country he tried so hard to change.

Anthony Wilson-Smith, a former Moscow correspondent of MacLean’s, is president and CEO of Historica Canada.