His Life and Times
By William Taubman
852 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $39.95.
When my wife and I arrived in Moscow as journalists early in the reign of Vladimir V. Putin, the first person we interviewed was the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. He told us he had recently visited Putin at the Kremlin and asked the question many around the world were asking: Did Putin plan to return Russia to authoritarianism? “His answer,” Gorbachev told us, “was a very definite no.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Putin’s answer of course looks disingenuous. To Putin, Gorbachev was an intermediary to the West, sending a reassuring if deceptive message. Westerners like us flocked to see Gorbachev as an oracle of democracy. But what Putin knew was that Gorbachev was no hero to his own people. Russians despised Gorbachev as the destroyer of their empire and supported Putin as its restorer. Gorbachev lived then, as now, in a dual reality — admired and feted in Washington, London and Berlin, reviled and ostracized in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.
William Taubman, a professor emeritus at Amherst College, grapples with this dichotomy in his masterly new biography, “Gorbachev: His Life and Times,” which will surely stand as the definitive English-language chronicle of this most intriguing figure for many years to come. Taubman, whose brilliant 2003 biography of Nikita S. Khrushchev won the Pulitzer Prize, delivers another richly layered portrait of a Russian leader determined to reform a thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional society, only to be swept away by forces he could not control.
That this book should come out now is fortuitous as Americans debate Russia’s role in the world — and in our own political system. To understand today’s Russia, it is necessary to understand what happened during Gorbachev’s time, how he opened up a hermetically sealed society after 70 years of stifling Communist rule but was unable to solve its deeper problems and was ultimately pushed aside by the ambitious and mercurial Boris Yeltsin. A populist democrat more interested in breaking apart the sclerotic system than reforming it, Yeltsin introduced a raucous version of democracy and a crony version of capitalism that ended up discrediting both in the eyes of Russians who lost their savings while oligarchs snatched up lucrative state assets.
By the time Putin, the cold-eyed former K.G.B. lieutenant colonel, came along, many Russians were eager for a strong hand, willing to trade some of their newfound freedom for a leader promising order and a return to national greatness. When Putin lamented that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he was met with cheers, not jeers. Gorbachev begat Yeltsin and Yeltsin begat Putin.
But Gorbachev, now 86 and still living in Moscow, remains celebrated in the West and it is hard to think of many figures who shaped the last half-century of world history more than he did. He put an end to the totalitarian system created by Lenin and Stalin. He freed Russians to speak their minds without fear, ended the Communist monopoly on power and held competitive elections. He paved the way for Eastern Europe to leave Moscow’s orbit, largely without violence. And he made peace with the West.
“Gorbachev was a visionary who changed his country and the world — though neither as much as he wished,” Taubman writes. Gorbachev’s problem, he says, was that Russia had no real experience with the freedom it was being offered. “It is more the fault of the raw material he worked with than of his own real shortcomings and mistakes that Russian democracy will take much longer to build than he thought.”
Surprisingly, this is the first serious, full-fledged biography of Gorbachev in English with the magnitude he deserves. While there were some quick books written about his life while he was still in office, like those by Gail Sheehy and the team of Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, they were by definition incomplete.
Since then, most of what has appeared have been accounts of the fall of the Soviet Union, in which Gorbachev is obviously a central player but not the sole focus — notably David Remnick’s exemplary “Lenin’s Tomb” and Michael Dobbs’s remarkable “Down With Big Brother.” There have also been academic looks at the man who ended the Cold War, like Archie Brown’s worthy “The Gorbachev Factor.” Gorbachev’s own memoirs were not especially satisfying and the series of other books he has written over the years seem more aimed at staking his claim as world statesman than revealing anything about the man and his moment.
So while a shelfful of books on Putin has appeared in recent years, Gorbachev largely disappeared, until now. Taubman took on the project with characteristic care. He benefited from archival research and the many memoirs written by people around Gorbachev, as well as the essential diary of Anatoly Chernyayev, one of Gorbachev’s closest advisers. He also conducted interviews with several key players, including eight sessions with Gorbachev himself over the course of several years. What emerges is the portrait of a leader who is vain, impatient and at times petulant, but also wise and thoughtful, a complicated man for a complicated time.
Born in 1931 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Gorbachev was close to his father, who fought in World War II, but had a more complex relationship with his mother, who was severe and whipped him with a belt. He worked five summers helping his father operate a combine harvester, earning the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, signed by Stalin himself, and wore it proudly throughout his first year at college. At Moscow State University, he was a country boy who did not even know what the ballet was.
But he was a quick study and became a master of the system he would later destroy, rising through the ranks as a provincial official in Stavropol. His real break was getting to know Yuri Andropov, another son of Stavropol, who became K.G.B. director and later general secretary of the Communist Party. The two were close enough that they vacationed together. Andropov brought Gorbachev to Moscow and into the Politburo, setting him up as an eventual successor in 1985. “We owe everything to him,” said Raisa Gorbachev, his wife.
From the inside, Gorbachev understood the system was rotting away. A turning point for him was the government’s knee-jerk cover-up of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “Chernobyl really opened my eyes,” Gorbachev said later. His life, he said, could be divided into two parts — before Chernobyl and after. His programs of glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, economic restructuring, changed Russian society. But his was a gradual, stutter-start revolution, a “revolution by evolutionary means,” as he put it.
Through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the summit meetings with Ronald Reagan and the changes in Soviet society, Gorbachev’s efforts to straddle between reformers and hard-liners satisfied neither side. His personal feud with Yeltsin sowed the seeds for his fall. Gorbachev, Taubman writes, may have recognized his own “arrogance, vanity, pride” in Yeltsin. “Gorbachev’s anger may have been aimed at least partly at himself.”
When the end came, as it inevitably would, the hard-liners turned against him first, mounting an amateurish coup attempt in 1991 that quickly fell in the face of popular resistance led by Yeltsin. But it was the reformers who finally did him in, as Yeltsin then shoved Gorbachev aside. Gorbachev’s final attempt at a comeback, a tragicomic run against Yeltsin, who was seeking re-election in 1996, yielded a humiliating 0.5 percent of the vote. That was the Russians’ judgment on the man who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the West.
When Yeltsin gave way to Putin at the start of 2000, Russia had changed, imperfectly, Gorbachev insisted, but still for the better. But it was turning again. “The truth is that Russia under Vladimir Putin largely abandoned Gorbachev’s path at home and abroad and returned to its traditional, authoritarian, anti-Western norm,” Taubman writes. “But that only underlines how exceptional Gorbachev was as a Russian ruler and world statesman.”