Russia’s Founding Father

A new, definitive biography of Mikhail Gorbachev tells the story of the man most responsible for ending the Cold War.

When Mikhail Gorbachev rose to give his first address as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, listeners could be forgiven for having low expectations. The previous three Soviet premiers were walking fossils. Their mumbling speeches inspired no one. Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev’s immediate predecessor, wheezed and coughed and was as yellow as old fingernails; a British diplomat observed an “air of abstraction and bewilderment” about him. Gorbachev, by contrast, was as bright as a new page of history. He spoke with passion, his eyes twinkling with the joy of argument. Secretary of State George Schulz found him “quicker, fresher, more engaging, and more wide-ranging” than his predecessors. According to a joke, someone observed Gorbachev speaking without notes and decided he was worse than the others: the poor young man didn’t even know how to read.

Gorbachev brought ideas as well as energy to the Politburo. He felt that citizens should have a say in government, and questioned why a nation of farmers could not feed itself. As premier, his watchwords were glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). These abstract terms took on concrete meaning for generations of Soviet citizens. Glasnost meant they were allowed to read books like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, and discuss them openly. Perestroika led to the dismantling of the USSR, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and—eventually—the transformation of Russia into a market-based democracy. But Gorbachev’s greatest accomplishment concerned ideology, not politics. He recognized the monstrosity of Stalinism and refused to rationalize it away. Sacrificing his own political career, he devoted his life to making sure it could never happen again.

This is a fascinating moment to step back and reevaluate Gorbachev, the single most indispensable figure during the end of the Cold War. Russia dominates the headlines in a way it has not done for decades. A new nationalism permeates the country, fusing authoritarianism at home and aggression abroad in the sinister person of Vladimir Putin. The Baltics once more fear their eastern neighbor, and countries like Ukraine and Georgia again find themselves under the bear’s paw. Strikingly, Gorbachev in his retirement has occasionally praised Putin for restoring order after the freewheeling ‘90s. This mixed history risks tarnishing Gorbachev’s enviable legacy. What is that legacy, exactly, in light of the new Russian revanchism?

Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman Simon & Schuster, 880 pp.

William Taubman’s Gorbachev: His Life and Times is exceptionally well-timed to illuminate this question. It is also, in a word, exceptional. The first full biography in English since Gorbachev’s retirement in 1991, it is a landmark achievement. Taubman is a Russia expert at Amherst College and a celebrated biographer of Nikita Khruschev. In 800 pages he traces Gorbachev’s remarkable journey—heretofore untold—while ranging with ease over nearly a century of Soviet cultural and political history. To Taubman, Gorbachev is a “tragic hero” who deserves our admiration: a man who is revered abroad but reviled at home for neutering his own country. His fall from power does not diminish his achievement: “Few, if any, political leaders have not only a vision but also the will and ability to bring it fully to life. To fall short of that, as Gorbachev did, is not to fail.” Sympathetic in his judgments yet clear-eyed in his criticisms, Taubman has rendered Gorbachev in a vast and complex portrait that will be the standard for years to come.

The Russian hinterlands dominate Gorbachev’s story. He was born in 1931 in a village in the north Caucuses, far from Moscow. Supported by doting grandparents and a loving father, Gorbachev grew into an optimistic boy and a gifted student. His household was not especially political, but the seeds of disillusionment received plenty of rain. Gorbachev’s maternal grandfather was arrested during a 1937 purge and imprisoned for fourteen months for no clear reason. His paternal grandfather refused to join a collective farm and worked an unowned stretch of land. After Germany attacked the USSR in 1941, Gorbachev’s beloved father left for the front. An injury ended his service in 1944. During long days working the harvest with the teenage Mikhail, he shared stories of privation and horror while fighting for the Red Army. Taubman writes that “Sergei Gorbachev never got over what he had seen and experienced in the war—and neither did his son.”

After graduating from the elite Moscow State University, Gorbachev received his first assignment from the Communist Party. He was to work in the USSR Procurator’s Office, rehabilitating innocent victims of Stalin’s terror. It would have been an extraordinary job for a radical-on-the-make, but it turned out to be an error. The headstrong Gorbachev rejected several alternative postings and ultimately chose to work for the government of Stavropol, a provincial region near his home village. Talented and ambitious, Gorbachev rose quickly. Beginning in the agitation and propaganda department, he earned promotions during the 1950s and ‘60s to become head of the region’s agriculture committee, and, in 1970, the first secretary of the regional party itself. He was thirty-nine, a full generation younger than his colleagues.

Kruschev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin in 1956 was a revelation to much of the country, but not to Gorbachev. While others had difficulty comprehending the enormity of Stalin’s crimes, Gorbachev would later write, “For me it was easier. My family had itself been one of the victims of the repression.” Strikingly, he refused to confine blame to Stalin. To do so, argued Gorbachev in turgid Soviet prose, would be to reduce “a series of highly complicated political, socio-economic and socio-psychological processes to various evil traits in the leader’s character.” In other words, he was beginning to think that communism itself was the problem.

During his work in Stavropol, Gorbachev despaired of the corruption and inefficiency all around him. He wrote to his wife Raisa of the “contempt for science,” and the “acceptance of convention, subordination, with everything predetermined, the open impudence of officials.” Yet publicly, he played the game and mouthed the words. When Soviet forces crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, killing scores of pro-democracy demonstrators, Gorbachev didn’t dare speak out and jeopardize his budding relationship with Premier Leonid Brezhnev. Suppressing his misgivings, he “fully and entirely approve[d] the decisive and timely measures” taken by the state. Gorbachev also peppered his speeches and writings with quotations from Lenin and Marx, taking care not to stand out. This may have been cynical careerism, but it worked. Gorbachev soon received an invitation to join the party’s Central Committee in Moscow, and then the Politburo.

As he cultivated relationships with other party leaders, Gorbachev adopted the persona of a moderate radical. He voiced his misgivings about economic stagnation and political dysfunction, but only in private. Energy and optimism rather than ideology formed the basis for his appeal. He also tempered his fierce ambition with patience. When the dying Yuri Andropov tried to name Gorbachev his successor as premier in 1984, Gorbachev declined to press the claim. He stepped in line behind the ailing Chernenko, who would last only a year. Gorbachev used that time to make himself an heir-apparent, courting allies and giving speeches. He traveled abroad, sparring and flirting with Margaret Thatcher, whom he instantly recognized as his equal in the battle for ideas. Gorbachev’s succession to the position of general secretary in 1985 was smooth and orderly. None could know that in a mere six years, the Soviet Union would cease to exist.

As his ascent to power demonstrates, Gorbachev was a natural politician. Like his genial adversary, Ronald Reagan, he was charming and funny, and unfailingly optimistic. (“He’d make a good actor because he’s loose,” observed Paul Newman.) Gorbachev was also tenacious, hard-working, cultured, and decent. Taubman writes that he was both “extraordinarily self-confident, and self-woundingly narcissistic.” Examples abound of Gorbachev referring to himself in the third-person while singing his own praises. He loved nothing better than to duel with western heads of state—with whom he shared a closer affinity than his Soviet contemporaries—and then to go out and perform for the assembled cameras. Gorbachev enjoyed a remarkable partnership with his wife and advisor Raisa, but consistently put his needs before hers, particularly when he decided over her objections to re-enter public life in 1996.

Taubman establishes that Gorbachev did not come to office planning to dismantle communism. He nevertheless understood that the Soviet Union was losing to the United States both economically and militarily, and badly needed reform. Proceeding cautiously at first, he eased rivals from the Politburo and surrounded himself with brilliant progressives, notably foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and advisor Anatoly Chernyaev. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 marked a turning point, freeing Gorbachev to criticize a broken system openly. Taubman quotes fascinating Politburo meeting notes from the following months, in which Gorbachev voiced his frustrations. “We talk about embarking on a ‘Five-Year Plan of Efficiency and Quality,’ but we haven’t had either and we don’t now.” “[P]eople wait ten to fifteen years for housing. A city right next to a lake has no drinking water. There’s no children’s clothing. They’ve never seen ice cream. Not even apples are available.”

Gorbachev’s timing as a reformer was integral to his success. A gradualist at heart, he feared alarming the Politburo with bold action. But once a backlash began to take hold among the old guard, Gorbachev removed his hat and began to gallop. He brought the calamitous war in Afghanistan—the Soviets’ Vietnam—to a close. He declined to use force when satellite members of the USSR began inching toward independence. He allowed the Berlin Wall to come down, and refused to stand in the way of German reunification. Meeting with Reagan at summit after summit, Gorbachev made astonishing concessions to ease the arms race and thereby relieve pressure on the gasping Soviet economy. The Gorbachev-Reagan summits have been ably recounted elsewhere, and Taubman wisely does not belabor them. Yet he does establish the stakes between these two men whose chemistry and friction defined an era.

Along the way, Gorbachev made enemies, none more dangerous than Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev fatally underestimated him. A populist and a rube—a vainglorious blubberer who wept and shouted and danced and sweated—he filled the refined Gorbachev with loathing. (“Every Monday his face doubles in size,” Gorbachev complained of his hard-drinking rival.) Taubman discerns a streak of self-defeating cruelty in Gorbachev’s decision to denounce Yeltsin at a party conference in 1987. After Yeltsin criticized Gorbachev from the stage, the latter stood by while his allies excoriated Yeltsin as disloyal, thoughtless, and crude. Gorbachev himself then joined in the butchery. Several weeks later Yeltsin made a half-hearted attempt at suicide. After that Gorbachev convinced him to attend another session—and publicly brutalized him again. The affair “turned tensions between the two men into a deep, mutual hatred.”  Although Taubman does not make this comparison, the episode calls to mind President Obama’s merciless roasting of Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

During the critical years of 1989 to 1991, Gorbachev faced pressure from all sides. As he opened elections and dismantled the state, hard-liners accused him of destroying the Soviet Union while radicals like Yeltsin attacked him for doing too little. Meanwhile friendly adversaries like George H.W. Bush and John Major of Great Britain professed friendship but refused the financial assistance that might have enabled Gorbachev to preserve his mandate. The stress was immense:

Who could have faced what he was facing with steady equanimity? He had forced through reforms, but they were being sabotaged by some and pushed too hard by others. He created a new role for himself as president of the USSR, but was unable to play it successfully. The most severe troubles he faced, like economic collapse and nationalist uprisings, couldn’t be wished away.

Taubman—who must be a fan of classical music—describes Gorbachev’s adroit balancing of the competing tensions by comparing him to a virtuoso or a maestro. This is not quite right. After all, the book shows that Gorbachev suffered terribly during these years, losing his temper and confronting despair. The better analogy is to a prisoner under questioning. They say that everyone breaks under torture. The point is merely to hold out as long as you can. Gorbachev made as many reforms as he could before surrendering to Yeltsin without violence in December 1991. Gorbachev seems to have understood that single-handedly transforming the Soviet Union into a democracy meant sacrificing himself.

Much has happened in the years since. Does the rise of Putin fundamentally undermine Gorbachev’s achievement of burying communism? Taubman thinks not, and makes his point with a comparison to the glacial pace of change in western politics. The founding fathers, he argues, established a republic but accepted slavery, a compromise that would not be resolved until the Civil War 90 years later. Yet the founders’ achievement endures. The natural progression of history, Taubman suggests, does not include unequivocal victories. For his own part, Gorbachev is characteristically immodest in defending his accomplishments, arguing that a new generation has grown up “much freer than in the Soviet Union. The clock can no longer be turned back.”

An equally fascinating question for American readers is whether President Bush should have done more to accommodate Gorbachev near the end. Here was a bona-fide liberal who badly needed western aid to shore up his economy while he continued making reforms. But, egged on by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Chief of staff James Baker, Bush politely refused Gorbachev’s requests. One of Bush’s allies felt this was all wrong: Margaret Thatcher wanted to keep Gorbachev in power as long as possible, and thought the west should be willing to pay to make it so. But the United States held a winning hand and intended to play all five cards. It is far from clear that foreign aid could have insulated Gorbachev from his domestic rivals. Yet hindsight reveals that a few more years of his leadership would have been vastly preferable to the oligarchy and chaos of the Yeltsin era, which, after all, led straight to Putin.

No historian this close to the events can predict a statesman’s legacy in all its complexities and contradictions. Yet this much is certain: Gorbachev’s will be debated for years. With Taubman’s biography, the conversation can now begin.

Michael O’Donnell

Michael O’Donnell is a writer and attorney who is a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly. His writing also appears in the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Nation.