Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer William Taubman is accustomed to having his books critiqued positively by high-profile reviewers.
His most recent work, 2017’s Gorbachev: His Life and Times, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. The New York Review of Books described it as a “masterpiece of narrative scholarship.” The Washington Post, “superb” and “enlightening.” National Public Radio, “extraordinary” and “gripping.” And The New Yorker, “by far the best” biography of the Soviet leader.
How former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev would rate the unauthorized biography was another question entirely. “I treat him as an admirable figure, but I also present criticism of him that is fairly sharp,” says Taubman, the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus. “I was wondering if, given his age and frailty, Gorbachev would accept those views or recoil.”
In December, Taubman found out.
He and his wife, Jane, an emerita Russian professor who helped research and edit the book, made a five-day whirlwind trip to Moscow to promote the Russian translation of Gorbachev. They took part in several events related to the book’s publication, including a visit with the former leader. Taubman speaks fluent Russian. He gave standing-room-only talks about his book and signed copies of it at the Memorial Society, a historical and civil rights organization, and at the Moscow Non-Fiction Book Fair.
I treat him as an admirable figure, but I also present criticism of him that is fairly sharp,” says Taubman. “I was wondering if Gorbachev would accept those views or recoil.”
“You would’ve thought it was a Beatles convention or something,” he says about the size of the crowds. Every copy of Gorbachev that his publisher brought to the events sold quickly, and two were even stolen. “When you think about it, having your books stolen is a huge compliment,” he laughs. Taubman also discussed Gorbachev in hour-long, Russian-language interviews on two major radio stations.
But the highlight of the trip was a “lovely” luncheon that The Gorbachev Foundation hosted in honor of the author and the biography’s publication. Gorbachev himself, now 87, left a healthcare facility where he spends much of his time to preside over the celebration.
“I’m told his doctors advised against his leaving, but he insisted on coming,” says Taubman. “I was quite touched by that.”
Gorbachev’s review of the book? “He said he was halfway through it and enjoying it.”
Says Taubman of that important review, in an understatement: “I was quite pleased.”