In 2003, William Taubman, the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, published Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, the first comprehensive examination of the titular Soviet Communist leader. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography the next year.
This month, Taubman’s highly anticipated new book, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, hits the shelves. The 852-page biography was more than a decade in the making and is receiving the same kinds of rave reviews that Khrushchev did.
Taubman will discuss the book during an event with colleague Pavel Machala, the Charles E. Merrill 1908 Professor of Political Science, in Cole Assembly Room at 7 p.m. on Sept. 14. The conversation will be followed by a reception and book signing. Staff from Amherst Books will be onsite for book sales.
Taubman’s strategy for researching Gorbachev was similar to the one he used for Khrushchev. He visited places where Mikhail Gorbachev lived at various points in his life, immersed himself in Russian archives and interviewed myriad sources.
“Writing a biography of a former Soviet leader is not just scholarship—it’s a combination of scholarship, detective work and investigative reporting,” Taubman says. “We needed to interview former colleagues, friends, associates and enemies. But first we had to find them, and get them to talk openly, candidly and critically, if that’s what they felt. It was complicated.”
Adding another deep layer Gorbachev is the unprecedented access Taubman and his wife, Jane, Russian professor emeritus and Taubman’s translator, had to the subject of the biography himself. The couple spoke with Gorbachev for many hours during the eight times they interviewed him at his offices in Moscow.
Tabuman weaves his material into an intensely personal portrait that delves into Gorbachev’s peasant upbringing, the dissolution of the USSR, his dream of democratizing Russia through perestroika and glasnost, his complicated relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his long marriage to wife Raisa.
A Washington Post reviewer called the new book “superb” and “enlightening.” An Economist critic characterized it as “comprehensive and immensely readable.” And NPR described it as “extraordinary” and “gripping.”
Right now, Taubman is not viewing Gorbachev as the denouement of his long and distinguished career as a professor and scholar. “One could make the case that it’s time for me to retire not only from Amherst but writing too,” he said. “But I don’t think so. I’ll have a subject. I just don’t know what it is yet.”