Magazine | October 2, 2017, Issue

Regime Change

Gorbachev: His Life and Times, by William Taubman (Norton, 880 pp., $39.95)

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was the seventh general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, which had held undisputed power in Russia since the 1917 revolution. The man in that position was at the mercy of an ideology stating that the Party could do no wrong. Decisions had to appear to be unanimous because open disagreement ran the risk of ending in schism, in which case one or the other side had to be in the wrong. Lenin and Stalin warned that schism was the greatest danger facing the Party, and to guard against it they had an inflexible operating principle: Those who stand by opinions different from the Party’s must be met with whatever degree of compulsion is needed to shut them up. First comes ostracism, then imprisonment, deportation to the Gulag, exile, and finally murder. Protected like that, the rule of the Party looked unbreakable. Literary amateurs, such as Malcolm Muggeridge, and Russian dissidents with a vested interest in change, such as Vladimir Bukovsky or Andrei Amalrik, used to maintain that Communism was contrary to human nature and therefore bound to fail one day, but there was no immediate evidence of it.

A professor at Amherst and an experienced Kremlinologist, William Taubman is the author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (2003), a 929-page biography. According to footnotes in the 880 pages of this new biography, Gorbachev, Taubman began a series of interviews with his subject in 2003. Since then, he has been in close touch with some of Gorbachev’s loyal collaborators and aides, and has made full use of source material in Russia and the United States. What sets this volume apart from other serious biographies of Gorbachev and the extensive literature devoted to the Soviet collapse is that Taubman takes at face value the man and everything he did and said. For him, Gorbachev was a high-minded intellectual, charming and persuasive, genuinely and deservedly popular, big enough to admit that socialism was a mess yet determined to make it work in some democratic sense. As in a Shakespeare play or an opera by Verdi, here is a great man destroyed by the nobility of his ambitions. On the fifth page of the text, Taubman calls Gorbachev “a tragic hero,” and he repeats this encomium in the final sentence of the text.

Born in 1931 in a village in North Caucasus, the young Gorbachev lived through the hardships and injustice of the times, for instance the arrest of both grandfathers and the wartime German occupation. Taubman captures the context in prose mercifully free from jargon. It says something about Soviet Communism that a farm boy like Gorbachev was able to rise to the top. Similarly, it says something about him that he joined the Komsomol, a self-selected elite within the Party, in 1946, when Stalin was preparing one more paranoid purge. Gorbachev played the Kremlin game, Taubman writes, “watching and waiting, listening and learning rather than speaking out, concealing his unorthodox views, cultivating bosses who could move him ahead, getting around those who stood in his way.” By the early age of 54, he had acquired such mastery of these black arts that he was the natural choice to be general secretary. Quite what he understood of democracy and capitalism is unclear. At one of his informal get-togethers with Mrs. Thatcher, for instance, he asked how goods were priced in our economy. Drawing a deep breath, she spoke about costs, labor, overheads, and profit margins, only to hear him say, “But somebody must tell them what to charge.”

Taking office in 1985, Gorbachev had to deal with old-timer colleagues in the ruling Politburo and Central Committee who expected the Soviet future to be like the Soviet past. Strong-willed and energetic, he instead began to find fault with policy and practice in pretty well all fields, internal and external. “Perestroika” (reform) was called for; more than a slogan, the word became a directive for the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s very own marching order. But Communism is absolute, by definition unable to be anything except itself. “You cannot be half pregnant,” as a quip at the time expressed it. Reform introduced confusion, and confusion necessitated more reform, until suddenly the Soviet Union became unrecognizable.

“One thing Gorbachev rejected from the start,” writes Taubman, “was any attempt to recast the system by means of force and violence.” This attribute speaks well for Gorbachev as a human being, and Taubman frequently and rightly praises him for it. However, the decision not to use force in any circumstances committed Gorbachev to break the crucial operating principle of Communism. Fearful of losing control, the Party or ideological secretaries in almost all the Soviet republics and satellites asked Gorbachev for permission to use live ammunition against demonstrators, and were at a total loss when he did not grant it. The KGB did shoot the demonstrators in a few places, for instance in Tbilisi and Riga, but the moment the peoples behind the Iron Curtain realized that they could take to the streets with impunity, the Soviet empire was bound to fall apart, and it did. (Still, even the indulgent Taubman can find no good reason for Gorbachev’s concession of German unification and NATO membership without any reciprocal concession for the Soviet Union.)

Astonishment in the wider world gave way to delight. Whenever Gorbachev traveled to international meetings in Europe or the United States, and even to official ceremonies in some capital city of the Soviet bloc, huge crowds welcomed him with ecstatic chants of “Gorbi!” In 1990, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and his Nobel lecture had a defiant boast aimed at disobliging Russians: “Nothing and no one, no pressure, either from the right or from the left, will make me abandon the positions of perestroika and new thinking. I do not intend to change my views or convictions.”

On the right were the old-timers already planning a coup against him, and on the left was Boris Yeltsin, his nemesis. Wild, coarse, unlettered, often drunk, a bully and an opportunist, Yeltsin in all likelihood understood even less than Gorbachev about democracy. Taubman thinks Yeltsin was motivated by self-pity and can hardly bring himself to say more than that, so disdainful is he of the man. Yeltsin’s move from Communism to Russian nationalism opposed him, personally and politically, to Gorbachev, setting up exactly the condition of schism that Lenin and Stalin had gone to such lengths to make impossible. At the time of the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev, General Pavel Grachev, in command of the tanks, resolved the schism by coming out for Yeltsin. The operating principles of Communism were good for one last gasp. Some five months later, by happy chance on Christmas Day, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and there was no longer a Communist general secretary in the Kremlin.

Why did Gorbachev put an end to the Party-state responsible for his career and reputation as a statesman? Could he really have intended to rid Russia of Communism and then devised this unique implosion from within? He has given a good many written and spoken accounts of his achievement, in versions that are not always compatible but invariably do him honor. To this day, one way or another, he makes sure to claim the high moral ground.

When Gorbachev was in power, I suspected that he was neither sincere nor truthful. Confident that his vaunted perestroika was the usual Soviet smokescreen for some renewed offensive against us or his own people, I expected that one day he would order the KGB to commit a massacre somewhere that would reveal the real motive behind this whole dubious experiment. Rather than abandon the Eastern Europe that the Red Army had conquered at such cost, surely Gorbachev would find excuses to whip up an emergency, closing frontiers and declaring a nuclear alert. Yeltsin, I assumed, would spend years in Siberian Vorkuta or be murdered, like Leon Trotsky and Lavrenti Beria. When none of this happened, I felt obliged to search for an explanation and began the research for my book The Strange Death of the Soviet Union (1995).

Gorbachev was willing to talk to me, I was informed, but the fee payable in advance would be $25,000, so I was never able to question him in person. What I did learn from those who spoke without financial inducement was that Gorbachev really did believe he had only to fine-tune Communism by dispensing with out-of-date stuff like the Party’s operating principles and we would all live happily ever after. Academician Nikolai Petrakov was once Gorbachev’s principal economic adviser, and I never came across a more telling formula than his of Gorbachev’s naïveté. He said, “I draw a parallel with Columbus, who discovered America but, to the end of his days, believed it was India.” The person most likely to believe wholeheartedly in Taubman’s sentimental portrayal of Gorbachev as a tragic hero is Gorbachev himself.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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