Gor­bachev: His Life and Times

The Week (US) - - 22 - By Wil­liam Taub­man Boot Max Michael O’Don­nell Peter Baker

(Nor­ton, $40) Mikhail Gor­bachev re­mains a tragic fig­ure, said

in The Wall Street Jour­nal. In the decades since 1945, few other peo­ple “have had as much suc­cess in trans­form­ing the world”—or “been as frustrated with the con­se­quences.” Dur­ing Gor­bachev’s six years as leader of the Soviet Union, he man­aged the su­per­power’s nearly blood­less tran­si­tion from a com­mu­nist to­tal­i­tar­ian em­pire to a fledg­ling free-mar­ket democ­racy with a chance to be more ally than threat to the West. None of this was fore­or­dained; none of it worked out as Gor­bachev had hoped. Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Wil­liam Taub­man, a Pulitzer Prize–win­ning bi­og­ra­pher, is “su­perbly qual­i­fied” to ex­plain why Gor­bachev even took the risks he did. Taub­man’s lat­est, though “not a thing of lit­er­ary beauty,” will “un­doubt­edly stand for years as the de­fin­i­tive ac­count of the Soviet Union’s last ruler.”

Some an­swers emerge in the book’s por-

trayal of Gor­bachev’s youth, said The Econ­o­mist. Born to peas­ant farm­ers in 1931, he lost two un­cles to famine, and both of his grand­fa­thers were swept into Stalin’s gu­lags. But he grew up work­ing the land and be­liev­ing in so­cial­ist ideals. Re­warded with a univer­sity seat in Moscow, he be­came close friends with a school­mate who’d one day draw up 1968’s thwarted Prague Spring re­forms. Gor­bachev him­self qui­etly nursed a vi­sion of a peo­ple-ori­ented so­cial­ist state, and aimed to achieve it through grad­ual re­form when he was ap­pointed Com­mu­nist Party leader in 1985. His cau­tion van­ished a year later, said in The Wash­ing­ton Monthly. Freed by the 1986 Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear dis­as­ter to at­tack the old ways, Gor­bachev “re­moved his hat and be­gan to gal­lop”—end­ing the war in Afghanistan, al­low­ing greater free­dom of speech, and pre­par­ing for open elec­tions.

“It was the re­form­ers who fi­nally did him in,” said in The New York Times. Fol­low­ing the Soviet Union’s breakup, Gor­bachev was pushed aside by the more rad­i­cal Boris Yeltsin, and many Rus­sians blamed Gor­bachev for the en­su­ing hard eco­nomic times. When he ran for pres­i­dent in 1996, he tal­lied a hum­bling 0.5 per­cent. Now 86, Gor­bachev lives, as he did then, in a dual re­al­ity—“ad­mired and feted in Wash­ing­ton, London, and Ber­lin, re­viled and os­tra­cized in Moscow.”

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