Mikhail Gorbachev was a decent man—too decent to be the leader of his country, a fact that is more obvious than ever today.
He tried to reform the USSR, eventually to democratize it, but was overwhelmed by the people and forces he freed. More than any other world leader, he helped end the Cold War; but he lived to see it replaced not just by a new one, but by a hot war as well. He went to great lengths to avoid the use of force and violence at home and abroad; his once-removed successor, Vladimir Putin, has relied on repression and violent aggression. Gorbachev was, as the Russian thinker Dmitri Furman wrote, “the only politician in Russian history who, having full power in his hands, voluntarily opted to limit it and even risk losing it, in the name of principled moral values.” For that he has been fiercely mocked by critics, mostly Russian, as naïve and hapless. Yet he goes down in history as an icon in much of the West.
Gorbachev was extraordinarily optimistic and self-assured, perhaps to a fault. How else can we explain his confidence that he could bring freedom to a country that had never known democracy? Even though he grew up under a totalitarian regime that turned citizens against each other, Gorbachev trusted too much in the Soviet peoples’ capacity to govern themselves. He also overestimated his ability to control the Communist hard-liners who mounted an abortive coup against him, and Boris Yeltsin, who ultimately forced him out of power. Unlike many politicians, especially Soviet Russian politicians, he was devoted to his wife and family, but he lived his last years without them. His wife, Raisa, died in 1999; his daughter and two granddaughters choose to live in Germany.
In 1988, my family and I spent five months in Moscow on an academic exchange program. I witnessed Gorbachev’s attempts to make his country and the world a better and more decent place through his programs of perestroika and glasnost. But I started to get to know the man when I met him in 2005, more than a decade after he was forced to resign as the USSR’s first and last president. After that, during many meetings over a period of 14 years, I encountered firsthand some of the qualities that made him both so admirable and so vulnerable. Members of the Amherst community might have seen those qualities themselves if Gorbachev had come to Amherst in May 2015, but that was the Gorbachev visit that didn’t happen, as I’ll recount later.
When I set out to write Gorbachev’s biography, I assumed I’d have to overcome his ingrained suspicion of a Western writer. But by then he had become one of the most unpopular men in Russia, where he received less than 1 percent of the vote as a candidate for president in 1996, so I hoped I might strike him as preferable to a post-Soviet hack. I approached him through his longtime close aide Anatoly Chernyaev, whom I’d come to know at a couple of history conferences, and the late American Russia specialist Stephen F. Cohen, a personal friend of the Gorbachev family. But rather than ask Gorbachev’s permission to undertake his biography (for fear he would say no), I told him I was doing it and requested his cooperation. Hoping to impress him, I sent him a copy of the English version of my biography of Nikita Khrushchev, followed by the Russian translation. But I couldn’t tell whether it had the desired effect, because, as Chernyaev warned me, Gorbachev was chary with praise for others, even close aides who worshiped him. “Solid book,” Gorbachev grunted when I saw him next.
He spoke of himself in the third person: “Gorbachev,” he said cheerfully, “is hard to understand.”
He did agree to cooperate, however, and a year later he approached me and my wife, Jane (now professor emerita of Russian at Amherst), at a Moscow concert held in his honor. Kissing her three times on alternate cheeks with a twinkle in his eye, he pronounced in Old Church Slavonic, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Jane wasn’t quite sure whether the former leader of Godless Communist Russia was teasing her or not.
“How’s the book going?” Gorbachev asked me. “Slowly,” I apologized. “That’s all right,” he said cheerfully. “Gorbachev is hard to understand.” He had a wry sense of humor, but his habit of referring to himself in the third person revealed a robust ego that may have undermined him. At Gorbachev’s 75th birthday party, held at a private banquet hall on the outskirts of Moscow in March 2006—in contrast to Yeltsin’s celebration the same year in Putin’s Kremlin—Gorbachev paused amid a series of fulsome in-person and taped tributes from world leaders to announce proudly that the American author of Khrushchev’s biography was now at work on Gorbachev himself.
A veteran Western ambassador who represented his country in Moscow under Gorbachev later insisted to me, “Gorbachev is not hard to understand.” Perhaps not to him, but I spent more than a decade trying to do so—particularly, to figure out what made him think he could democratize Russia and end the Cold War.
During the spring of 2007, Jane and I spent several months living in Moscow. After requesting a series of formal interviews with Gorbachev, we were granted “at least one.” With the prospect of further conversations depending on how the first one went, I deployed two tactics. One was to preface every question I asked with a reference to something he had previously said or written—to show I’d done my homework and to discourage him from simply repeating himself. Second, I began by asking about his grandparents, on the theory that by the end of a couple of hours my garrulous interviewee would have barely finished recounting his childhood and would welcome more conversations so he could talk about his accomplishments during his years in power.
These tactics worked. Jane and I had seven more long interviews. We expected Gorbachev to demand that we submit our questions in writing before the interviews, but he never did. We expected him to have his own interpreter present (though Jane and I are fluent in Russian), but he didn’t. He was candid throughout our conversations. I was shocked when he volunteered the story about how his mother often whipped him with a belt until, at age 13, he grabbed it, tore it from her, and said, “That’s it! No more!” At which point she burst into tears, because, he added, “I was the last thing she could control and now that was gone.”
During a later interview, I was surprised when Gorbachev said he didn’t tell his wife he was about to become Soviet leader until the night before he was anointed. Was that because she would fear that he wouldn’t get the nod, I asked, or that he would? The latter, he admitted. “Do we really need this?” she asked him that night—an early sign that the strain on her, as Gorbachev’s great project floundered, would be even greater than on him. He seemed to enjoy the fact that Jane and I worked together; still in love with Raisa, he always respected women, unlike most of Russia’s leaders, particularly the current one.
Gorbachev was warm, natural and informal during our interview sessions—and funny, as well. When we mentioned that our daughter and son-in-law were coming to Moscow to visit us, he grinned and asked, like a true politician, “Would they like to have their picture taken with me?” When our daughter Phoebe asked to take a solo picture, he posed with a copy of his memoirs and read out a passage describing his grandfather’s garden: an apple tree, a pear tree and a tree whose Russian name I didn’t understand. I turned to Jane for rescue, but she didn’t know the fruit either. Whereupon Gorbachev, his eyes twinkling again, pointed an accusing finger at Jane, and said with a big grin, “And you call yourself a Russian teacher?” We later figured out it was a cherry plum.
I was teaching a seminar that semester in which students were reading my nearly final biography.
The rest of our interviews, in 2007 and in later years up to 2016, lasted about two hours each. We weren’t always sure when they would occur. Often his office would summon us suddenly and we would rush across Moscow to his office, where he would greet us with warm, strong hugs. In the beginning, the Gorbachev Foundation occupied most of its office building on Leningradsky Prospekt, financed in part by CNN founder Ted Turner, but with one floor rented out to a bank to buttress the foundation’s budget. By 2016, with that budget reduced because the visibly aging Gorbachev could no longer continue his lucrative overseas lectures, the space devoted to the foundation was also shrinking drastically. Still, Gorbachev facilitated our 2007 meetings with current and former aides in Moscow and in Stavropol, the southern city where he climbed the ladder of the party apparatus, and our visit to Privolnoye, the village where he was born. We also found other ways to meet his former rivals and adversaries.
Throughout most of the three decades after his forced retirement in December 1991, Gorbachev was much in demand around the world as a speaker and lecturer. I heard he had received large honoraria to recall his years in power, to comment on current events, and to derive lessons for the future of his country and of world politics. I had attended several of these events, in places like Washington, D.C.; Cambridge, England; and Turin, Italy, and had thought of trying to arrange an appearance in Amherst. At one point, I tentatively broached the idea to then-President Tony Marx, who reacted enthusiastically, even imagining how we could find College lodging for Gorbachev for a couple of days so I could work with him on the biography. But I didn’t press the issue, lest it look as if I were trying to ingratiate myself with Gorbachev by getting the College to pay big bucks for his lecture fee and travel expenses.
In the spring of 2015, however, an unexpected development changed my mind. Gorbachev’s lecture agent in the United States apparently contacted student leaders at a variety of American universities, including at Amherst, asking whether they might be interested in inviting him to their campuses. By that time, I had heard that Gorbachev had been ill, but when I learned about his lecture agent’s inquiry, I couldn’t resist. For one thing, I was teaching a seminar that semester built around a case study of Gorbachev, in which students were reading a nearly final version of my biography. With the semester scheduled to end about when Gorbachev would arrive in the States, I imagined a never-to-be-equaled teaching moment when he would walk into my classroom and begin conversing with students who had spent weeks scrutinizing his life and career.
I contacted College leaders. Pete Mackey, then head of communications, began to explore possibilities. It turned out Gorbachev’s fee would be quite large—how large, Pete was kind enough not to tell me. But, so as not to bankrupt College lecture funds, he and his colleagues in the advancement office managed to raise the required sum from two generous alumni, both of whom had majored in Russian.
“Amherst College will welcome former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to LeFrak Gymnasium on Monday, May 4, at 7:30, for a special conversation with renowned scholar William Taubman, Bertrand Snell Professor of Political
Science.” So began the College press release dated March 13, 2015. The announcement continued: “Seating will be free and open to the public, except for seats that will be reserved for Amherst College students, faculty and staff until 7:15 p.m., after which all seats will be released on a first-come, first-served basis.”
My phone began ringing nonstop. Relatives, friends, neighbors and others I hadn’t seen or heard from for years, even decades, wanted to know whether I could wrangle seats for them.
But Gorbachev’s condition had worsened, and three days after the press release went up, the College issued the following statement: “Due to unforeseen circumstances, Mr. Gorbachev’s visit to the United States has been canceled. As such, this event will not happen as planned.” His health would not allow him to travel. As his longtime aide and English interpreter Pavel Palazhchenko later put it to me: “It’s a good thing his Amherst visit was canceled. If not, the College might have had to pay for a coffin for his return trip.”
By the time my book, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, was published in Russian translation in 2018, he had grown still more frail. Although my approach is generally admiring, it is sufficiently critical that I worried it would wound him in his debilitated state. So when Jane and I were back in Moscow for the Russian translation’s “presentation,” as the Russians call it, we were surprised to be invited to a small luncheon at his foundation in our honor. The foundation’s executive director told us Gorbachev was determined to come, although he had been in the Kremlin hospital and was deeply embarrassed to be seen in a wheelchair. He entered the room unsteadily pushing a walker, but greeted us again with powerful hugs. Among the few other guests were a filmmaker, Vitaly Mansky, and a playwright, Aleksandr Gelman, who were making a documentary about Gorbachev, eventually called Gorbachev. Heaven. The film shows him living in a comfortable dacha. With a chef, waitresses and chauffeurs/bodyguards, Gorbachev’s home at first looks indeed like “heaven.” But in fact, he lived alone, without his family, and the film shows him agonizing about his own career, proud of what he had done but debating with himself about the outcome of it all—underlined by the recurrent image on the television screen behind him of Vladimir Putin delivering a speech.
I imagined a never-to-be equaled teaching moment when he would walk into my classroom at Amherst.
While we were at the luncheon at the Gorbachev Foundation, its executive director whispered to me that Gorbachev had read the Russian translation and liked my book. I felt half embarrassed to be praised by its subject—as if, in return for his help, I had sacrificed my objectivity in order to please him—but pleased because the man I had struggled to understand thought I had succeeded.
In 2019, early on the morning of my birthday, the phone woke us in our Amherst home. The Gorbachev Foundation was calling. After a pause, I heard a familiar voice. “Bill, how ya doin’?” Gorbachev said, using the intimate second-person singular that he had employed not only with relatives and friends, but with most of his subjects. “When are you coming back to Moscow? And by the way, how’s the book selling?”
William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at Amherst. His book Gorbachev: His Life and Times (2017, W.W. Norton) is considered the definitive biography of the Soviet leader and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. His 2003 biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
This article is adapted from Politico LLC and is reprinted by permission. ©Politico LLC
Illustration by Anthony Russo