- - Tuesday, January 23, 2018



By William Taubman

Norton, $39.95, 853 pages

In the first sentence of William Taubman’s splendid biography, “Gorbachev: His Life and Times,” Mikhail Gorbachev speaks in the third person to say of himself, “Gorbachev is hard to understand.”

Indeed he is. Mr. Gorbachev fought his way to the top of one of the more vicious regimes in history, imbued in the legacies of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, dominant among the tyrants who governed the Soviet Union beginning in 1917.

Then Mr. Gorbachev startled his nation — and the rest of the world, for that matter — by becoming what Mr. Taubman calls “the gravedigger of Communism.”

First fell the ideology, and then the Soviet Union itself. His reforms gave the Russian people unprecedented freedom of speech and thought — concepts decried by the most prominent of his successors, Vladimir Putin, who bemoans Russia’s fall from the ranks of world powers. Mr. Putin has reversed many Gorbachev reforms.

So, why Gorbachev? What motivated him to shake off the chains of decades of dictatorship?

The overriding factor, according to Mr. Tautman, is that Mr. Gorbachev had the human decency lacking in his predecessors. He had the insight — and the fortitude — to recognize that Communism was a failed system, economically and politically.

Nikita Khrushchev knocked down one prop with a 1966 speech in which he denounced the murderous regime of Stalin. Yet Khrushchev — whose own hands were coated with blood — stopped short of criticizing the Soviet system itself. Mr. Gorbachev proved a far braver man.

Mr. Gorbachev was born in 1931 into a farm family that had grim experiences under Stalin. An uncle and two aunts starved to death in the induced famine of the era; both grandfathers vanished into the Gulag.

At Moscow State University — “the Harvard of the USSR” — Mr. Gorbachev acquired both an education and a wife, Raisa Titarenko, a sociology student whose dedication was of inestimable value as he climbed through the Soviet bureaucracy.

Admitted to the Communist Party at age 21, Mr. Gorbachev’s first assignment was as a procurator in Stavropol, responsible for rehabilitating victims of Stalin’s repression.

Next, as party chief in Stavropol, Mr. Gorbachev had responsibility for monitoring “state security agencies” — i.e. the KGB — giving him a first-hand look at the intrinsic evils of the system. More importantly, the position exposed him to the inefficiencies of the Soviet economy, and especially in the rich farming in his area.

His eyes opened further when he and Raisa visited Italy and other European countries. They saw that Western ways of life were far superior to the USSR. He realized that he and other citizens had “the usual collections of ideological prejudices zealously banged into our heads by Agitprop.”

Promoted to Moscow in 1978 as a member of the party council, Mr. Gorbachev became a protege of Yuri Andropov, who headed Soviet intelligence for 15 years.

The alliance proved fruitful. Andropov became party leader in 1982; he turned out to be one of three ailing men who ruled until 1985. Mr. Gorbachev won the leadership with only token opposition.

Once he had his chance to slough off communist misrule. He moved with caution, being careful to profess loyalty to the communist tenets laid down by Lenin.

For example, in theory, the party welcomed “criticism and self-self criticism.” But it was quick to punish those “who practiced the wrong kind.” Mr. Gorbachev proclaimed a policy of “glastnost” (the Russian word for “voice”) which offered true freedom of speech.

Mr. Taubman notes that Mr. Gorbachev moved cautiously because he “had doubts about whether Soviet citizens were ready for more democracy ” Doubt ingrained during Stalin’s tyranny made them ultra-cautious.

An early bold step was to reduce the party’s supervision of the economy. Persons responsible for the economy — industries as well as agriculture — should be “answerable to the people.” He moved toward a system of tolerably free elections.

But most importantly for the future, Mr. Gorbachev presided over a Warsaw Pact summit in 1989 that guaranteed individual states in the USSR the right “to arrive at [their] own political position, strategy and tactics without interference from an outside force.”

Hard-liners headed by Boris Yeltsin, head of the Moscow party, revolted, briefly held Mr. Gorbachev hostage in his vacation villa, and forced him to yield power.

Nonetheless, the USSR dissolved into the “Commonwealth of Independent States.” The communist banner over the Kremlin was replaced by a czarist-era Russian flag. Mr. Gorbachev was permitted a quiet retirement (he gave Mr. Taubman hours of interviews for the biography).

Today’s question: Will Russia’s brief brush with relative freedom survive the harsh rule now of Vladimir Putin? Mr. Taubman’s book, while a complicated read, is a fine guide for the curious.

Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide