Gorbachev: His Life and Times

  • By William Taubman
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 880 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ren Meinhart
  • November 8, 2017

An accessible portrait of a decent, idealistic statesman.

There is a section in the middle of William Taubman’s substantial biography of Mikhail Gorbachev in which the author gives a play-by-play of Gorbachev’s visit to Washington in 1987 to negotiate and sign a key nuclear-arms agreement. While speaking at a celebratory dinner following the signing, Gorbachev praises the “profound awareness” that relations between the two countries “could not continue” on their trajectory for bringing the U.S. and Russia to this breakthrough moment.

One can’t help but find these words refreshing in the context of a modern geopolitical landscape that is seemingly defined by standoffs and challenging rhetoric. It is also a moment that lays bare for the reader the decency, idealism, and optimism that the author casts as defining characteristics of his protagonist in this comprehensive, humanizing portrait of a leader caught between political forces.

The book spends substantial real estate, as many biographies do, delving into the formative years that shaped the leader the world would later know. It begins with a childhood in the North Caucasus that was described as happy despite austere living conditions in a poor village and a “cold and punitive” mother.

That Gorbachev describes this period fondly is due in part to his own sunny temperament and his close relationship with his kind father, a WWII-veteran-turned-agricultural-worker who instilled a strong work ethic in his son.

The book follows Gorbachev to the University of Moscow and then on his climb through the regional and national Communist Party organs in a career boosted by a friendship with Yuri Andropov, who would go on to run the K.G.B. and the party.

During transitional years at university, Gorbachev broadened his cultural, political, and intellectual consciousness and met his wife, Raisa. Throughout the book, Raisa, a philosopher in her own right, is fondly portrayed as an inseparable intellectual partner to Gorbachev.

In detailing Gorbachev’s early formative years and evolutionary political development, Taubman highlights the man’s innate charm, self-esteem, and optimistic worldview, without which his career would not have been possible. Taubman — pulling from interviews, diaries, and memoirs from Gorbachev and his contemporaries — walks readers through the experiences that sparked Gorbachev’s political tenets and allows us to watch him master the Soviet system and then begin to take it down.

For example, we see how Gorbachev’s aversion to the use of force stems from witnessing the fallout of World War II. We see Gorbachev’s desire to give working people more of a voice and improve their living conditions stem from his own family’s experience with collective farming and the conditions he observed as a regional communist official.

And we see how his shock and dismay about the errors that led to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and the government’s handling of the crisis, made him question a system that perpetuated “rampant incompetence, cover-ups, and self-destructive secrecy.”

When we see Gorbachev become head of the Soviet Union in 1985 and begin using his broad and sweeping powers to enact change, we are not surprised, having seen him say some version of “we cannot go on like this” at many turns.

The portions of the book about Gorbachev’s efforts to change Russia’s relationship with the West are riveting — particularly the scandals, snafus, poorly timed jokes, and assumptions that nearly derailed the summits that led to key nuclear treaties with the U.S. and Gorbachev’s historic speech at the U.N. in 1988, in which he announced the drawdown of 500,000 Russian troops, including more than 50,000 from Eastern Europe. Taubman’s focus on the very human reactions and emotions of the leaders on both sides of negotiations brings the tension of this period to life.

While exploring the details of Gorbachev’s efforts to achieve lofty, radical goals through gradual half-measures and attempts to balance competing political camps, one can’t help but wonder: What if he had pulled it off? What if he had transformed Russia into a shining example of democratic socialism with a functional economy and relationships that transcended historic East-West barriers?

Taubman’s key thesis seems to be that we should not judge Gorbachev too harshly for falling short, noting that it is “no wonder he could not live up to his expectations,” given the enormity of the challenges he faced. Taubman paints Gorbachev as a “tragic hero" of Shakespearean proportions, brought low by high-minded goals and even higher obstacles and, ultimately, deserving of “understanding and admiration.”

He suggests we embrace what Gorbachev did accomplish, including concessions that helped end the Cold War and prevent the escalation of conflict that may have happened under a different leader. Taubman praises Gorbachev for overseeing the end of the Soviet Union and the introduction of free elections without a shot fired, questioning whether the alternatives — a lengthy and painful attempt to muddle through or the use of force to hold onto Eastern Europe — might have brought about more dire outcomes.

While the West awarded Gorbachev the Nobel Peace Prize, his people had another verdict. When he attempted a political comeback by challenging Boris Yeltsin for the presidency in 1996, he earned only 0.5 percent of the vote. In later years, Vladimir Putin rose to power with the refrain that the end of the Soviet Union had been a geopolitical catastrophe.

That Taubman is able to keep this hefty biography accessible and engaging is an accomplishment unto itself; while the sheer bulk of this tome will dissuade some readers, those who tackle it will be glad they did.

As Gorbachev and the author both admit at the outset, “Gorbachev is hard to understand.” Because of this meticulously researched and thoughtfully rendered biography, current readers and future scholars will find the task a little less daunting.

Ren Meinhart is a foreign policy analyst with the federal government. She lives in Alexandria, VA, with her dog, Huckleberry, and many, many piles of books. See what she’s reading on Instagram at @writinren.

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