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.
“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.