Gorbachev: His Life and Times
by William Taubman
As memories of the Cold War fade, and worries about a new era of tense relations between Russia and the West emerge, the moment is ripe to revisit the decades when the United States and the Soviet Union—the world’s two “super powers”—dictated geopolitical strategy, foreign policy, and economic stability.
There were many reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Russia, but one man in particular was able to conceive of a post-Communist future in which peace and prosperity might be shared with former enemies and adversaries. In Gorbachev: His Life and Times, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian William Taubman combines rigorous biographical research, compelling narrative skill, and extensive access to his subject to create a portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the most important political figures of the twentieth century.
An exemplary biography as well as a compelling history of the Soviet Union and Russia, Taubman’s sweeping account has the amplitude of a Tolstoy novel. Gorbachev shows how a dirt-poor farm boy of the Stalinist era and later a Communist Party stalwart became the USSR’s most significant reformer; how the leader of the “evil Empire” forged a peaceful partnership with the United States aimed at the idealistic goal of eliminating nuclear arms; and, finally, how Gorbachev’s reformist policies of perestroika and glasnost collapsed. Along the way, Taubman also affords revealing cameos of world leaders from Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher to West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who once compared Gorbachev to Goebbels.
Mikhail Gorbachev was born in 1931 to a family in a rural district in the North Caucasus. He subscribed to the Soviet ideal; his high-flown tribute to Stalin won a high school prize. Gorbachev left a collective farm for Moscow State University. He turned his outsider status as country bumpkin to his advantage: with no need to adopt an urban pose of worldliness, Gorbachev became a voracious student. It was there that he met his wife Raisa. An intellectual equal and fiercely protective of Mikhail, Raisa would be Gorbachev’s influential partner until her death in 1999.
Gorbachev rose up the ranks of Communist party apparatus through the Khrushchev years. He gained a reputation as an energetic, detail-oriented, effective administrator. In the post- Khrushchev era, Soviet leadership passed through the hands of a series of older, often ineffectual, sometimes tragicomically unsuitable leaders. With each change of cast, Gorbachev got closer to power and seemed more and more like the winning combination of new blood and old values. He rose to power with the support of Politburo members who soon came to regret that they had selected him.
Western powers were initially distrustful, but Gorbachev’s personal presence, expansive mind, and willingness to engage soon won over Western leaders. This was especially true of Ronald Reagan. Though fond of describing the USSR with apocalyptic rhetoric, Reagan found in Gorbachev a remarkably compatible rival and partner. After experiencing the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl, Gorbachev was uniquely placed to understand the horrors of a nuclear war. Given Reagan’s fierce anti-Communism and the fact that Reagan was surrounded by even more hawkish advisors, Gorbachev’s efforts to push for nuclear arms reduction with Reagan seemed quixotic. But through a relentless campaign of summits and a bravura diplomatic performance that could alternate between concession and threat, warmth and outrage, Gorbachev aligned himself with Reagan and sold some of Reagan’s advisers (especially Secretary of State George P. Shultz) on de-escalating the Cold War. This, combined with his domestic reforms and the end of the military disaster in Afghanistan, made Gorbachev a rock star of world politics.
The critical state of Soviet affairs allowed Gorbachev to engage in unprecedented reforms, all the while maintaining that he was an orthodox Leninist. Initially, Gorbachev’s new style and approach was wildly popular at home. But his domestic agenda almost immediately bogged down in false starts, such as an abortive effort to enhance and enforce the USSR’s official temperance laws. As his reforms grew more radical, Gorbachev found himself caught between democratizers, led by upcoming rival Boris Yeltsin, who wanted faster and more far-reaching reforms, and party hard- liners, whose resistance to reforms led to the failed military coup of August 1991. Gorbachev’s wave of reform ultimately crashed against the twinned rise of nationalist movements in breakaway Soviet republics and populist radical reformers, led by Yeltsin.
In addition to nuanced political insights, Taubman’s masterful study provides a rich portrait of the Gorbachev family—their intimate conversations, their family interactions, and their walks on the beach at their dachas. Especially moving is Gorbachev’s remarkable marriage to Raisa, a woman he loved beyond measure, and yet of whom, after her death from leukemia, he said, “I am guilty. I’m the one who did her in.”
An honest appraisal of Gorbachev’s triumphs and missteps, Gorbachev tells a riveting story of how leaders succeed and fail. It is also a timely reminder of the importance of character, ideals, and moral leadership. The Cold War was the product of fear, caution, and grim belief in the evil inherent in the heart of the enemy. The Cold War’s end is a testament to vision, courage, and the importance of leaders who understood that the value of power is its ability to create a better world.
U.S. Publisher: WW Norton
Publication date: September 5, 2017
Price: $39.95 hardcover
Page count: 928
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