Illustration of Gorbachev by Rebecca Clarke

Who was the first president of the Soviet Union? The last?

The answer is Mikhail Gorbachev, who climbed to the top of the Kremlin leadership in 1985, threw open its windows to the world in glasnost, reconstructed its foundations in perestroika and finally brought it to ruin in 1991. The question we were all asking as the USSR collapsed haunts us still: How did that happen? 

William Taubman’s richly rewarding Mikhail Gorbachev: His Life and Times is a history of a tumultuous era and a biography of a fascinating statesman. As a biographer, Taubman’s technique is to ask a lot of questions, and his rhetorical style of incessant interrogation is evidence of admirable humility and curiosity. Taubman wants to know everything about Gorbachev but has to accept that perhaps, like Russia, Gorbachev cannot be understood by the mind alone.

The book’s first question is its theme: “How did Gorbachev become Gorbachev?” 

During a triumphant Western trip in 1987, the Soviet leader insisted, “I am just like other people. I am a normal person.” How did a mere person become the historical personage remembered for negotiating peace in the Cold War, the ban—almost!—of nuclear weapons everywhere and the end of Communism?

William Taubman, Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus; photo by Michele Stapleton
William Taubman, Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus. Photo by Michele Stapleton

In answering that question, a dedicated historical materialist might note the role of agricultural production—grains and other foodstuffs. Working summers with his father on their collective wheat farm in the Caucasus, Gorbachev at 17 earned an Order of the Red Banner of Labor. It was signed by Joseph Stalin himself. Proudly wearing his medal, the young communist studied law at Moscow University, where he met philosophy student Raisa Titarenko, who became his wife and indispensable helpmeet. 

Their love story is one reason that Taubman’s biography flows like a novel. The elegant, intelligent “Lady Dignity,” as the Soviet newspaper Izvestia remembered Raisa at her untimely death in 1999, deserves a biography of her own, to judge from this one. With her help, Gorbachev rose to party prominence—and again, a good crop helped. Food shortages plagued the USSR, but in 1978 Gorbachev received another honor, for a triumphant harvest. 

He avoids joining Reagan and Gorbachev in an infinite handshake.

As a young minister in Stavropol, he visited a village with the Dickensian name Bitter Hollow (Gorkaya Balka). Taubman reports Gorbachev’s impression: “low, smoke-belching huts ... desolation and horror, from the fear of being buried alive. ... How is it possible, how can anyone live like that?” Taubman explains Gorbachev’s rise, “despite the most rigorous imaginable arrangement of checks and guarantees designed to guard against someone like him,” as the result not so much of his political skills (which often failed him) as of his dogged belief in his ideals. 

The story is far from simple. Taubman’s research is prodigious, and his 880-page tale is surprisingly suspenseful. (Especially exciting is the 1991 coup d’état attempt.) “Gorbachev is hard to understand,” Gorbachev himself once insisted to Taubman in an interview. Taubman speculates that the leader came to be psychologically dependent on being lionized abroad. This is hard for those of us who still admire Gorbachev to hear.

Taubman avoids the American commonplace of joining Reagan and Gorbachev in an eternal handshake. Reagan has a role, but so do Kohl, Mitterrand and Thatcher. An apt American life to parallel Gorbachev would be not Reagan but Henry Wallace, the progressive farmer and vice president who was a champion of the “common man” and FDR’s New Deal but foundered in his utopian idealism. 

Book cover of Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman
“One thing Gorbachev rejected from the start was any attempt to recast the Soviet system by means of force and violence,” Taubman writes. “This was Gorbachev’s sharpest break of all with tradition.” 

His Life and Times achieves its epic sweep because Taubman skillfully demonstrates how Gorbachev, echoing a famous Marxian dictum, boldly made his own history, but certainly not just as he pleased. Gorbachev inherited the burdens of Soviet and Russian tradition; Taubman’s narrative integrates that nightmare with Gorbachev’s philosophical idealism.

Some of us will always remember the cameo that Gorbachev played in Wim Wenders’ strange film Faraway, So Close! (1993). Out of office, sitting at a desk in a reunited Berlin, already rejected by Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev—a guardian angel looking over his shoulder—recites these lines from the poet Fyodor Tyutchev: “Some say a country can only be forged with blood and steel. We shall try to forge it with love. Then let’s see which lasts longer.”

 Paul Statt is a Philadelphia-based writer.