Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman - review by Robert Service

Robert Service

The Last Comrade

Gorbachev: His Life and Times


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It is one of the paradoxes of Soviet history that Mikhail Gorbachev, who did more than any other Kremlin leader to show his ‘personal’ side to a watching world, has eluded his biographers. Nobody before William Taubman has achieved an in-depth psychological portrait. Political accounts have been two a penny; economic and ideological studies have come at a discount. But what made Gorbachev tick, as a man and a leader, has always been hooded in speculation. Taubman has dedicated a dozen years to gathering first-hand evidence from the man himself. This cannot have been an easy task. When I met Gorbachev in the early 1990s I ruined my brief chance of getting him to open up by mentioning that I was doing research on Lenin. Gorbachev instantly closed down what he sensed might be an indelicate conversation. Taubman, by contrast, has gained Gorbachev’s full cooperation, even though the man himself warned him, ‘Gorbachev is hard to understand.’

Leaders who speak of themselves in the third person often turn out to be egotists of the first degree. Julius Caesar exhibited this linguistic trick to rhapsodise about his war against the Gauls. Leon Trotsky found that it enabled him to commandeer the historical spotlight without committing the sin of direct self-eulogy. But neither Caesar nor Trotsky presented himself as an enigma. Perhaps it is Gorbachev’s way of consoling himself in old age, living as he does in a Russia that seems unimpressed with the freedoms that he provided and has unhappy memories of the economic collapse over which he presided. While Germans continue to fete him as the statesman who reunited their nation, Russians cannot forget the mess that he left behind when the USSR fell apart in 1991.

Taubman admires Gorbachev and has relished the challenge of solving the many riddles of his career. He has not confined himself to Gorbachev’s career in Moscow but has fossicked in the Stavropol region in the northern Caucasus, where Gorbachev grew up and began his political life, listening to the stories that surviving acquaintances can tell him. The result is a highly readable, reliable and accurate work, one that will be used by all future generations of historians.

Gorbachev was a human rocket launched from a small village in southern Russia into the skies of Soviet power and global politics. Born in 1931, he had a tough childhood. He witnessed the German military occupation during the Second World War and had to labour hard on a collective farm while his father was away at the front. Bright and energetic, he worked diligently at school and benefited from an educational system that rewarded industry, helping him secure a place as a law student at the prestigious Moscow State University. There he met the love of his life, Raisa, and it is a merit of this biography that it gives us a credible account of that remarkable woman. Strikingly elegant, she was endowed with an even stronger will than her husband, but despite rumours to the contrary she fell in line with the path he chose to tread. She was his invaluable political confidante. On graduating, the Gorbachevs went back to Stavropol, where Mikhail rose fast within the Communist Party hierarchy.

Taubman has delved productively into this period, turning not only to Gorbachev himself but also to those he worked with, including an inveterate detractor, Viktor Kaznacheyev. Gorbachev could be a demanding comrade, and he stood up to those superiors who offended his dignity. Stavropol regional party secretary Leonid Yefremov accused him of ‘getting too big for his boots’ after Gorbachev criticised his preferred candidates for local promotion. Gorbachev shouted back at him ‘almost at the top of [his] voice’ that he ‘rejected the charge’. If his opinion was not shown respect, he wanted to know what the point was of attending party meetings.

His cheekiness was forgiven by both Yefremov and the Politburo chieftains who jetted in from Moscow every summer on their way to the southern holiday resorts. By the time he became Stavropol’s regional party secretary, Gorbachev was well placed to impress visiting leaders, which was how he became a protégé of KGB chairman Yuri Andropov. Taubman persuaded Gorbachev to speak about Andropov and the encouragement that he gave him as a young apparatchik who had to handle the chieftains: ‘Listen, you’re the host here, so you take the initiative in leading the conversation.’ Eventually Gorbachev was promoted to the Central Committee Secretariat under party leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose decline in health he witnessed up close. Protected by Andropov, who became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1982 after Brezhnev’s death, and by his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev himself succeeded to the post in 1985 and introduced reforms that he believed would prove the inherent superiority of communism over capitalism. Measures of democratisation and decentralisation crashed like an avalanche upon the creaking Soviet order.

By 1990 the USSR was being overwhelmed by economic crises. In the previous two years Gorbachev had won global acclaim for signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the USA, withdrawing his armed forces from Afghanistan and permitting the decommunisation of eastern Europe. Not since mid-1917 had Russia enjoyed such a degree of internal freedom. But the situation caught up with him and his policies. His own appointees to high office turned against him and in August 1991 backed a military coup led by individuals opposed to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Their treachery was foiled by Gorbachev’s radical ex-communist adversary Boris Yeltsin, who rescued him. But by December, Yeltsin had decided to declare the disestablishment of the USSR and to dispatch Gorbachev into retirement.

In charting this history, Taubman follows a route of analysis that was well marked even during Gorbachev’s years in high office. But whereas he examines Reagan’s weakness as an international negotiator, he omits consideration of how Gorbachev in 1986–7 came close to blowing the opportunity to end the Cold War. At the Reykjavik summit of October 1986 and for months afterwards Gorbachev insisted that Reagan had to accept the entirety of his package of disarmament proposals if the American president wanted a deal. This was ill-judged brinkmanship, and the book contains little mention of the pressure that the Politburo, including Gorbachev’s friend Eduard Shevardnadze and his ageing foe Andrei Gromyko, successfully put on Gorbachev to untie his package and pursue his peace agenda on a more piecemeal basis. Another gap lies in the discussion of Gorbachev’s economic thinking. Gorbachev seriously thought that if he reversed Stalin’s collectivisation of Soviet agriculture and broke up the appalling collective farm system, the human carnage would be as bad as the mayhem of the early 1930s – a gross misjudgement.

For what it is worth, I believe that the key to understanding Gorbachev can be found in his myopic comprehension of the chemistry of Soviet communism. He had not learned the lesson that if the Politburo pulled out one or more elements from the existing compound, such an experiment would destroy the USSR. In that regard, conservative communists like Gromyko and moderate communist reformers like Yegor Ligachev were more clear-sighted than he was. But unlike them, Gorbachev could at least appreciate that an unreformed or merely semi-reformed USSR could never compete with the multiple achievements of the advanced West. He benefited from access to critical Western literature, some of it Marxist, that circulated in the innermost circle of the Soviet leadership. He also drew on his experiences on several privileged foreign trips to Canada and western Europe. He became convinced that fundamental change had to happen, and he had the brains, guts and charisma to attempt it.

Gorbachev was a towering figure in his time. Other accounts have accorded greater attention to political structures, ideology, lobby groups, the economy and the social scene. This monumental biography will become the standard personal portrait, especially of the years before Gorbachev became party secretary. Taubman has charmed more out of him than any of his subordinates ever managed to. But riddles remain. Gorbachev is still an enigma, perhaps even to himself.

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