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.