Amherst Magazine

Work in Progress

By Emily Gold Boutilier 

After spending 20 years on his book Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, which won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize, William Taubman, the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, had to decide what—if any—major work to tackle next. The Khrushchev project had been “frustrating and maddening,” he says, “but, ultimately, very satisfying.” So he decided to write another biography—on another Soviet leader.

Mikhail Gorbachev with professors Jane and William Taubman
Mikhail Gorbachev (left) talked for
more than eight hours with professors
Jane and William Taubman. 


For three years, Taubman has been working on a biography of Mikhail Gorbachev. He’s pored over documents. He’s corresponded with President George H. W. Bush and interviewed other primary sources. But the most exciting moment came last year, when Taubman flew to Russia to interview his subject. Taubman traveled with his wife, Professor of Russian Jane Taubman. She helped with the interviews, which were conducted in Russian without an interpreter.

It’s not often that two professors have the opportunity to sit alone in a room with a former head of state. Over five sessions, the Taubmans spent more than eight hours with Gorbachev, who talked about everything from his grandparents to his time in power. The political science professor prefaced many of his questions with quotes from Gorbachev’s memoirs, as a way, Taubman says, “of encouraging him to go beyond what he has already written or said.”

The central question, according to Taubman, is how Gorbachev became the man who, in effect, destroyed Communism in the Soviet Union. “I’m trying to really understand him as a person and to understand how his character shaped his behavior.”

Photo courtesy of William Taubman