Thaw and Disorder

Gorbachev: His Life and Times BY William Taubman. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 880 pages. $39.

The cover of Gorbachev: His Life and Times

No statesman in living memory has experienced a more meteoric rise, and at his height enjoyed more universal esteem—or suffered a more precipitous fall, and thereafter more curious neglect—than Mikhail Gorbachev. When he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, few knew what to make of this bald-pated, purple-birthmarked former secretary of agriculture. His relative youth (he was fifty-four years old) immediately distinguished him from the dotard preceding him and the gerontocrats still surrounding him in the politburo—but no one could have anticipated the revolution that followed.

Over the next six years, with the support of a small coterie of enlightened apparatchiks—men who were influenced by the earlier reformist premier Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw and sympathetic to the ideas of the Prague Spring, and who had been biding their time in quiet corners of the system, waiting for a receptive patron—Gorbachev embarked on a series of reforms aimed at realizing the long-standing dream of building “socialism with a human face.” He also set out to reduce tensions with the West and bring an end to the Cold War.

Gorbachev’s reforms went by two watchwords: perestroika, or restructuring, and glasnost, or openness. Perestroika was aimed at decentralizing the economic system in order to improve its efficiency and encourage the growth of small-scale private enterprise; glasnost at increasing governmental transparency and expanding the scope for public participation and debate. His hope was that the latter would generate support for the former, by engaging the citizenry and attracting intellectuals’ support against party hard-liners. By proceeding slowly—by evolutionary rather than revolutionary steps—he hoped to keep these two forces balanced long enough to enact the necessary transformation without being deposed à la Khrushchev.

The strategy worked, for a time. Gorbachev became incredibly popular. Within months of his accession, videotapes of his speeches were “selling for five hundred rubles on the black market, an outlet normally reserved for bearded bards singing dissident ballads,” writes William Taubman in his weighty new biography, Gorbachev: His Life and Times. Such genuine, uncultivated appeal was unprecedented for a Soviet politician—as was Gorbachev’s international reception. Soon this charismatic, erudite, infectiously energetic former farm boy had become a global icon. He charmed not only the West’s leaders—Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl—but also its peoples, who mobbed him, as if he were a rock star, wherever he traveled. There was “mass hysteria” when he visited Milan, an aide noted in his diary. “Cars could barely move through crowds in the streets.” “Everywhere people were piled on top of each other—in windows, on railings, on any protruding surface.” In Washington, DC, when he decided to take a walkabout, an account executive who happened to cross his path and shake his hand said, quivering, “It was like the coming of the second Messiah or something.” Gorbachev’s 1987 book Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World sold five million copies in eighty languages.

In 1990 Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating groundbreaking nuclear-disarmament treaties with the United States, staging unilateral withdrawals of Soviet forces from Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, accepting the peaceful collapse of communism throughout the USSR’s former satellite states, acceding to the reunification of Germany as a member of NATO, and opening Soviet society to the world. A year later, he was out of a job. Fed up but feckless hard-liners—who resented his concessions to the West and his decision to renounce the Communist Party’s monopoly on power—staged a coup, which failed but nevertheless discredited the central organs of power, upon which Gorbachev relied. In its wake, Boris Yeltsin and leaders of the Soviet Union’s other constituent republics—who were riding waves of nationalism and populist resentment at Gorbachev’s failure to halt economic collapse and embrace more radical reform—unceremoniously informed him that they were dissolving the union and apportioning its assets. Yeltsin gave him a few days to clear out his desk and prepare a final statement. And just like that, the USSR ceased to exist.

Gorbachev attempted a comeback in 1996, running a desultory campaign against Yeltsin for the presidency of Russia. He came in seventh, with 0.5 percent of the vote. His popularity has never recovered. For the past quarter century he has been reduced to running a think tank of no consequence and publishing books and articles to which no one—not even his biographer—pays much attention. Nowadays most Russians revile him as the man who piddled away their country’s power and prestige in pursuit of Western approbation.

How did Gorbachev accomplish what he did? And why did he ultimately fail? These are the questions Taubman aims to answer. Amazingly, his book is the first proper biography of Gorbachev—in English or in Russian. (It follows the model of, and can be seen as something of a sequel to, his Pulitzer Prize–winning 2003 study of Khrushchev.) Drawing on archival sources, memoirs, and interviews with Gorbachev himself, Taubman paints an admiring but not uncritical portrait of an inquisitive, moral, and self-possessed man who strove to transcend—and then transform—his stultifying, corrupt circumstances. Regardless of what one makes of his choices and their outcomes, one cannot finish Taubman’s book without gaining an appreciation for the mess Gorbachev inherited and the gargantuan efforts he made to set his country and its relations with the world right.

Taubman’s sketch of Gorbachev’s youth and young adulthood is episodic but enlightening. We learn how having grandfathers who were swept up in Stalin’s Great Terror led him to appreciate the gap between Soviet rhetoric and Soviet reality—as well as the way in which brutish means ensure base ends—and how that knowledge, along with his firsthand experience of Nazi occupation during World War II, led him to renounce violence as a means of political control. We also learn how Gorbachev’s study of law at the elite Moscow State University, and his exposure to the capital’s cultural and intellectual life, led him to develop an open and philosophical cast of mind that would later set him apart from the vast majority of Soviet politicians.

After university, Gorbachev returned to his home province of Stavropol, where he worked, first for the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) and later for the party apparatus itself. By 1970 he was boss of the entire region. He became well acquainted with problems on the ground, and grew disenchanted with the system’s rigid centralization and the Kremlin’s often unworkable directives. He also began traveling abroad as a member of various delegations. These trips shook his “a priori belief in the superiority of socialist over bourgeois democracy.” He saw that “people lived better there,” and could not help but wonder, “Why did our people live worse than in other developed countries?” He became determined to push for reform.

Louis Vuitton advertisement, 2008. Mikhail Gorbachev.
Louis Vuitton advertisement, 2008. Mikhail Gorbachev.

Realizing that changes “could only come from the top,” Gorbachev set about cultivating the leaders who vacationed in his region’s mountain resorts. Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB and later the party’s general secretary, took an especial liking to him and brought him under his wing. In 1978, Gorbachev returned to Moscow as a Secretary of the Central Committee; the following year he joined the politburo. Six years later, after Andropov and his successor Konstantin Chernenko died, just over a year apart, the party’s power brokers elevated Gorbachev, hoping that a younger man would prove more energetic and serve longer, ensuring continuity and stability.

The bulk of Taubman’s book is given over to chronicling the policy discussions, party meetings, summits, fetes, and coups de théâtre of Gorbachev’s subsequent years in power. These he describes in great, often granular, detail. (Sometimes this can get to be a bit much. Do we really need to know the color and model of the car Gorbachev rode in, or the state of traffic, or the route taken, or how he and his wife were attired, or the floor plan and decor of the venue, on this, that, and the other occasion?) Taubman’s tome is unlikely to be surpassed as a general account of these matters.

From the plethora of details, one point emerges that bears particular mention: Taubman’s book ought to put to rest the notion—still prevalent in some ideological circles—that the West “won” the Cold War through manful displays of resolve and military buildup. It is true that free markets proved more efficient than command economies, that democracy proved more attractive and resilient than one-party authoritarian rule, and that Gorbachev understood his system’s comparative disadvantages. But he did not feel beaten or resigned or forced to submit. Laggard, retrograde, inefficient, and coercive as the Soviet Union clearly was, it could have kept chugging along under a leader more concerned with maintaining power than with forcing systemic change. It was Gorbachev’s optimism and outsize ambition—his dream of realizing a socialist utopia at home, and peace in the world—that prompted him to democratize the country’s political system and pursue rapprochement and disarmament with the West. Ronald Reagan’s arming of mujahideen, imprecations of the “evil empire,” and calls for Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall had nothing to do with it. If anything, they made Gorbachev’s job harder by raising Soviet hard-liners’ hackles.

Reagan deserves credit for eventually reciprocating Gorbachev’s overtures, and for eschewing hawkish counsel. “Gorbachev’s point, a revolutionary break with his predecessors’ thinking, was that the Soviet Union’s security depended on its adversaries also feeling secure,” Taubman writes. He understood national interest not in zero-sum terms, wherein one’s gain was perforce the other’s loss, but as a mutually reinforcing dialectic, wherein all stood to gain from “building a ‘common European home’ . . . and a new world order based, as far as possible, on the renunciation of force.” Such utopianism appealed to the sunny-minded Reagan. Less so to the buttoned-up George Bush. Heeding “realist” advisers who viewed Gorbachev’s entreaties as hopelessly naive—if not simply a ploy to buy time for entrenchment—he backtracked on promises to avoid NATO expansion and denied significant economic aid, lest “the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.”

These decisions sowed the seeds of future resentment. “The world might be better off had it followed [Gorbachev’s] lead,” Taubman argues.

Vladimir Putin has blamed the West for expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders—and used that to justify aggression in Georgia and Ukraine. What if, instead of rejecting Gorbachev’s vision as a dream, the West had joined him in creating a new pan-European security structure? . . . [W]hat looked and still looks utopian to “realists” may have been a last chance that was missed.

Whatever the prospects of Gorbachev’s vision, it is hard to see how it could have come to fruition, considering how soon thereafter he was ousted.

Why did Gorbachev fail? In retrospect, a large part of the problem was that he was “indifferent to formal institutions” and had a “penchant for willful improvisation,” as one aide put it. As a result, while he managed to dismantle the old command system, he never managed to create a workable democratic replacement. By 1990, the increasingly factious and fractious union functioned only insofar as he was able to impose his will on it—and his influence was fading. For he had replaced

the old political “game,” at which he excelled, with a new one that he never really mastered. He had devised the new rules of electoral and parliamentary politics, but their effect was to liberate his radical critics (who proved to be more adept at the new game than he was) while further alienating hard-liners.

This explanation is true, as far as it goes, but it fails to account for one thing: namely, the terrible hand Gorbachev had to play—regardless of skill level—because of the country’s parlous economic state and his precipitately vanishing popularity.

Taubman’s book, for all its strengths, fails to deliver on the promise of its subtitle. For while it does an admirable job of illuminating the man, it fails to cast adequate light on crucial aspects of his times. He pays too little attention to economics and social developments: key factors in understanding why Gorbachev’s support waned and his project failed. Taubman shows just how poor a grasp the leadership had on matters, owing to their intellectual poverty, lack of economic literacy, and difficulty in acquiring accurate statistics because of the system’s endemic secrecy and functionaries’ tendency to conceal, massage, or manufacture data. But by relying on documents and memoirs that reflect those leaders’ thinking, he recapitulates their relative ignorance. Like his subjects, he notes that the economy was failing—but he never really explains why. There is no adequate discussion of how plunging world oil prices wrecked the standard of living by requiring the USSR to curtail its import of consumer goods—since it was reliant on energy exports for hard currency—just as perestroika handicapped central planners’ ability to compensate by rejiggering domestic production. This is no small matter, since it was that remorselessly immiserating dynamic—in the midst of glasnost, which was raising expectations—as much as any ineptitude at playing the new populist “game,” that caused Gorbachev’s popularity to plummet.

Taubman’s final judgment is that Gorbachev was a “tragic hero” whose ultimate failure was due less to “his own real shortcomings and mistakes” than to “the raw material that he worked with.” Russians have a predilection, he argues, for rule by an “iron hand” and “a gruff, strong-minded, authoritarian tsar.” That helps explain why, when given a chance, they opted for the hulking Yeltsin—and latterly for Putin, under whom the country “abandoned Gorbachev’s path at home and abroad and returned to its traditional, authoritarian, anti-Western norm.” But if that is the case, why had they earlier embraced Gorbachev, with such spontaneous, unaffected fervor, when he promised to relieve them of such barbarism?

If Gorbachev’s example shows us anything, it is that the desire to lead a life of freedom and comity can rouse a Russian heart as much as any other. Just not when the corresponding mind is forced to choose between that and the prospect of, say, a pension or employment. The damnably hard trick is establishing institutions that are viable and durable enough to make such trade-offs needless, over the long term, until most stop longing for the iron hand’s allotment.

Marc Edward Hoffman lives in Istanbul.