“A true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics.”
“At 33rd Street you pass the Empire State Building, which for many years was the tallest building in the world and is still a VERY tall building indeed. But when you pass it in a car there’s this phenomenon – a kind of parallax phenomenon – that any building that’s nearer it, or even a person, will seem taller because you can’t gauge it’s full height until you get a bit of distance. And if you get a good run of green lights on 5th avenue and you look out of the back of the taxi as you go down and down and down the Empire state building rises and rises and rises – like a rocket. It actually goes up and up and up as all the buildings close to it are revealed to be so much smaller.”
Stephen Fry’s comparison of the emergence of Oscar Wilde from his 19th century milieu as being like the emergence of the Empire State Building on the New York Skyline might also stand for Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Gorbachev was born in the Stalin years. He lived through the Soviet Union’s decades of turmoil and decay. He rose from the humblest of origins to become one of the most revered and yet reviled statesmen of the 20th Century. Fry’s summary of Wilde’s reputation – “The best of his age and getting taller and taller with every decade which comes” – might also stand for the man who led the Soviet Empire to its peaceful dissolution.
William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Amherst College. His biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. Taubman is also the author of Stalin’s American Policy: From Entente to Détente to Cold War, and co-author with his wife, retired Amherst College professor of Russian Jane Taubman, of Moscow Spring. He has received the Karel Kramar Medal of the Czech Republic and the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Gorbachev: His Life and Times was published in September 2017 by Simon & Schuster. To find out more click here.
Why Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev?
Gorbachev changed his country and the world, although, it must be added, he changed neither as much as he wished. All political leaders have power—by definition. But some, like Soviet leaders, unencumbered by the rule of law, constitutional constraints, or a free press, have more than others. Moreover, Gorbachev used that power in a way that was unique; No other Soviet leader would have done what he did. And that uniqueness cries out for biography–to try to explain how his character helps to account for what he did.
If Plutarch were to parallel the life of Gorbachev, whom among his contemporaries outside the Soviet Union might he select?
The two American leaders to whom I most often compare Gorbachev are Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Since the two of them were so different (an arch-conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat), how can Gorbachev resemble both? Reagan and Gorbachev shared a commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. But in addition, personal similarities (including some striking parallels in their marriages to Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev) created personal chemistry that, in turn, led them toward major agreements that ended the cold war.
I explore such similarities in my book, but recently Jack F. Matlock, Jr., American ambassador to Moscow during the Gorbachev years, confirmed them. I was describing my impression of Gorbachev during the eight interviews my wife, Professor Jane Taubman, and I had with him over the course of ten years: he was warm, natural, informal and with a sense of humor. Lacking similar exposure to other world leaders, I told Matlock, I couldn’t compare Gorbachev with them, but I doubted many of them came across the same way. “There’s at least one such leader who did,” Matlock replied. “Ronald Reagan.”
As for Gorbachev -Obama parallels, I’d list the following: Both were highly educated and thought of themselves as intellectuals; both were deeply devoted to their wives; both tried to reserve supper time for dining with their families rather than politicking; both wanted to carry out radical reforms in their countries; both failed in the end to achieve their grandest goals owing to the fierce political opposition they faced.
Nixon and Reagan occasionally met off camera during the latter’s presidency – is there any evidence Gorbachev once had / or is having a similar direct input into the thinking of his successors?
On the contrary. Gorbachev initially praised Putin when the latter assumed the Russian presidency in 1999-2000 and supported him for reelection in 2004. But they have since become estranged and have rarely, if ever, met since Putin was elected again in 2012, Gorbachev seemed closer to Dmitri Medvedev, who served as president between Putin’s second and third terms, but he evidently had no direct input into Medvedev’s thinking either.
Has Gorbachev found a meaningful role beyond the Kremlin?
After being forced out of power in December 1991, Gorbachev established a foundation, the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (also known as the Gorbachev Foundation) which, in addition to charitable endeavors, has sponsored conferences and publications on issues domestic and international. He has also chaired Green Cross International (an ecological organization), and the World Political Forum. He has commented regularly on political issues, and in 1996 he ran for the Russian presidency, but received less than one percent of the vote.
The portrait you paint is of a true believer coming up through an undergrowth of hacks, cynics, and hypocrites. Might Gorbachev have found more success if he had been more cynical?
Gorbachev was brilliantly successful at rising through Communist party ranks to become Soviet leader–successful because although he was a true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics. He was equally adept at using his power as party general secretary to browbeat his more hardline colleagues into supporting radical reforms that transformed the Communist system. But Gorbachev wasn’t nearly as skillful at playing the new game of electoral politics (Boris Yeltsin turned out to be more adroit), and he shrank from using force to hold the USSR together when that might have discouraged restive ethnic minorities from breaking away.
Wasn’t the ultimate problem, for anyone trying to maintain the USSR, the inescapable reality that, despite everything, so many Soviet citizens simply didn’t want any part of it?
It is true that by 1991 many Soviet citizens did not want any part of the USSR. Not only non-Russian republics, but many Russians, too, preferred national sovereignty and independence. Since then, however, many Russians have missed their inner empire (the USSR) and their outer empire in Eastern Europe, and hence have strongly supported Putin’s efforts to resurrect Russia as a great power.
The role of China is relatively peripheral in the story you tell. Is that something later authors are likely to revise as new sources and perspectives become available?
Many observers have wondered whether Gorbachev could have been more successful if he had adopted the Chinese model of reform: if had prioritized radical economic reform while maintaining authoritarian political rule (as the Chinese did when they crushed the massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square). But if Gorbachev had done so, he would not have been Gorbachev, the man determined to democratize the USSR.
At least one recent book, Chris Miller’s The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR, argues that quite a few Soviet experts tried to direct Gorbachev’s attention to Chinese economic reforms, but that powerful interest groups (central ministries in Moscow, the collective farm lobby, and the military-industrial complex) were strong enough to resist such reforms, whereas in China, weakened by the effects of the Cultural Revolution, they were not.
In his biography of Scott of the Antartic, Ranulph Fiennes urges armchair historians not to take the catty carping in primary sources – such as expedition diaries – too seriously, lest what is safely and quietly vented into private journals be mistaken for a precise record of the moral and material situation. Is there a similar danger with the testimony of close aides to public figures – after all no man is a hero to his valet?
During pre-Gorbachev Soviet times, it would have been impossible to interview Soviet leaders or their close aides. Post-Soviet Russians who write memoirs or give nterviews became much freer to tell the truth, but only as they remember (or choose to remember) it. Many of them have long-standing scores to settle, which they do with more relish than regard for the facts. In that sense, documents now available in archives provide an important corrective to memoirs, which in turn check them. In the case of certain former Gorbachev aides who had become his mortal enemies (such as Valery Boldin, Gorbachev’s chief-of-staff who joined conspirators in the anti-Gorbachev coup-attempt of August 1991), I was careful to use only selected bits of his testimony which had the ring of truth.
Does Gorbachev consider himself to have been a success?
One of Gorbachev’s greatest admirers, the late Soviet historian Dmitry Furman, wrote that for Gorbachev to have resorted to force and violence to hold on to power would have been “a defeat” since it that would have gone against his principles. In the light of those principles, Furman continued, Gorbachev’s ”final defeat was a victory.” Well, it certainly didn’t feel that way to him at the time. Later, when he seemed depressed, friends assured him that he had given his people freedom, and that if they had made a mess of it that was their own fault.
Gorbachev’s latest book, published in 2017, is titled, I Am Still an Optimist. He still insists he is happy. If so, that is because he rightly believes that he laid the foundations for eventual democracy in Russia—by sponsoring the first free elections since 1917, by establishing a genuine working parliament to replace the rubber-stamp Supreme Soviet, and by turning glasnost into virtually free speech. How long it will take for Russia to be more fully democratized is another matter. Gorbachev himself has said that it may take “decades,” even “the whole twenty-first century.” But in 2011-2012, when demonstrators swarmed the streets of Moscow protesting against what they called rigged elections, Gorbachev couldn’t contain his basic optimism, his hope that the march toward a freer country had begun again.
What (or perhaps who) will your next big project focus on?
I’m not entirely sure what my next project will be. I’m thinking at this point that I may leave Russia behind for a while and that, together with my brother, Philip Taubman, former New York Times correspondent and editor, I may write a book about the late American Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.