Gorby the Great

Policy - - Book Reviews - Re­view by An­thony Wil­son-Smith

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

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 muchy­ounger 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 cleareyed, richly de­tailed por­trait. Taub­man re­counts that when he be­gan, Gor­bachev—re­fer­ring to him­self, as

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