William Taubman on “Gorbachev: His Life and Times”

September 12, 2017

William Taubman, the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, and Pulitzer Prize Winner, discusses his newly released book, Gorbachev: His Life and Times.

* The views and opinions expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Amherst College.


He destroyed totalitarianism in Russia. He transformed communism in Russia. He gave the Russian people, for almost the first time in their history, freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience. Gorbachev changed his country and the world. Along with Reagan and Bush, and others, he ended the Cold War which had posed the threat of nuclear annihilation to the world. Many would say — I would say - perhaps the most important political leader of the second half of the 20th century.

Writing a biography of a former Soviet leader is not just scholarship, it's a kind of combination of scholarship detective work, and investigative reporting. And it's certainly complicated to interview former colleagues, friends, associates, enemies. But we then had to find these people, and we had to get them to talk, and we had to get them to talk openly, candidly, critically, if that's the way they felt. But you have to convince them that you, as an American, know the language well enough to understand them, not only understand the words they're saying but the context in which they're saying it.

We had eight interviews with him between 2007 and 2016. In 2007, when we had several interviews, together with my wife, professor Jane Taubman. We spent five months in Moscow, and it took a while to get the first interview. We had to wait to be told okay, you can have a second interview. And sometimes that we would get the call in the morning and we'd have to rush across town. I expected that he would demand to see, in advance, the questions I was going to ask him. He didn’t. I expected that he would insist on his official interpreter being present so as to make sure we understood him and got everything right. He did not. He came across as a kind of a natural, naturally informal, warm, pleasant. We liked him as a person.

It took me 15 or 20 years to write the Khrushchev book, in part because there wasn't easy access while the Soviet
Union was still going strong. Eleven years to work on this book. This becomes a quest, a cause, and so you persevere. And if you get to the end, as I was fortunate enough to do, and if it turns out well, you have a wonderful feeling of satisfaction.