When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, the USSR was one of the world's two superpowers. By 1989, his liberal policies of perestroika and glasnost had permanently transformed Soviet Communism, and had made enemies of radicals on the right and left.Read more...
When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, the USSR was one of the world's two superpowers. By 1989, his liberal policies of perestroika and glasnost had permanently transformed Soviet Communism, and had made enemies of radicals on the right and left. By 1990 he, more than anyone else, had ended the Cold War, and in 1991, after barely escaping from a coup attempt, he unintentionally presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union he had tried to save. In the first comprehensive biography of the final Soviet leader, William Taubman shows how a peasant boy became the Soviet system's gravedigger, how he clambered to the top of a system designed to keep people like him down, how he found common ground with America's arch-conservative president Ronald Reagan, and how he permitted the USSR and its East European empire to break apart without using force to preserve them. Throughout, Taubman portrays the many sides of Gorbachev's unique character that, by Gorbachev's own admission, make him "difficult to understand." Was he in fact a truly great leader, or was he brought low in the end by his own shortcomings, as well as by the unyielding forces he faced?
Drawing on interviews with Gorbachev himself, transcripts and documents from the Russian archives, and interviews with Kremlin aides and adversaries, as well as foreign leaders, Taubman's intensely personal portrait extends to Gorbachev's remarkable marriage to a woman he deeply loved, and to the family that they raised together. Nuanced and poignant, yet unsparing and honest, this sweeping account has all the amplitude of a great Russian novel.
Revisiting a complex figure
Everybody likes Mikhail Gorbachev, right? All the former Soviet leader did was attempt to bring democracy to an authoritarian system, work for reform and seek to end the Cold War with a bold proposal to abolish nuclear weapons. But wait, Gorbachev isn’t universally loved? He was hounded from office, and today Russians regard him as the man who gave away their country? How can this be?
William Taubman takes on the complicated life of, as he puts it, “the Soviet system’s gravedigger” in Gorbachev: His Life and Times, a substantial volume that befits a substantial man, who remains a presence on the world scene at 86. With a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Nikita Khrushchev to his credit, Taubman is well-positioned to undertake the challenge, and he does so in a clear, direct style. Gorbachev’s cooperation no doubt helped, but cooperation doesn’t necessarily produce sympathy in this evenhanded work.
Particularly compelling is Gorbachev’s rise from peasant beginnings to the top of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. His ascent is in some ways conventional and in other ways not, but what’s important is what he did once he reached the summit. Was it his intent all along to replace autocracy with democracy, or was it a gradual shift? Did he really mean to let Eastern Europe go so suddenly, or did events simply overtake him?
The narrative is enhanced by a vivid cast of characters, including Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, and ally-turned-rival Boris Yeltsin, not to mention jousting foes such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Rarely seen photos made available by the Gorbachev Foundation add to the experience of reading this important book.