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William Taubman and Mikhail Gorbachev conversing over dinner

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer William Taubman, Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at Amherst College, is accustomed to having his books critiqued positively by high-profile reviewers.

His most recent work, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and has been written about extensively by national media outlets. 

The New York Review of Books described it as a “masterpiece of narrative scholarship.” The Washington Post, “superb” and “enlightening.” National Public Radio, “extraordinary” and “gripping.” And The New Yorker, “by far the best” biography of the Soviet leader.

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Mikhail Gorbachev holding a copy of William Taubman's biography of Gorbachev

How former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev would rate the unauthorized biography of himself was a different issue entirely for Taubman. “I treat him as an admirable figure, but I also present criticism of him that is fairly sharp,” Taubman explained. “I was wondering if, given his age and frailty, Gorbachev would accept those views or recoil.”

In early December, Taubman learned what Gorbachev thought.

Taubman and his wife Jane, an emerita Russian professor at Amherst, made a five-day whirlwind trip to Moscow to promote the Russian translation of Gorbachev. They participated in several events related to the book’s publication, including a visit with the former leader.

During the visit, Taubman, who speaks fluent Russian, gave standing-room-only talks about and signed copies of his book at the Memorial Society, a historical and civil rights organization, as well as at the Moscow Non-Fiction Book Fair.

“You would’ve thought it was a Beatles convention or something,” he said about the size of the event. He added that all of the copies of Gorbachev that his publisher brought to the events were sold quickly, and two were even stolen. “When you think about it, having your books stolen is a huge compliment,” he laughed.

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William Taubman and Mikhail Gorbachev shaking hands

Taubman also discussed Gorbachev in hour-long, Russian-language interviews on the programs of two leading radio stations.

But the highlight of the trip was a “lovely” luncheon that the Gorbachev Foundation hosted in honor of the author and the biography’s publication. The 87-year-old former Soviet president left a healthcare facility where he spends much of his time to preside over the celebration.

“I’m told his doctors advised against his leaving, but he insisted on coming,” said Taubman. “I was quite touched by that.”

And Gorbachev’s review of the book? “He said he was halfway through it and was enjoying it.”

Said Taubman, of that important review, in an understatement: “I was quite pleased.”