Big Bones, Big Future

Mammoth skeletons in the Beneski Museum

Professor Rick Griffiths ruminates on the history significance of Amhert's selection of the mamoth at its mascot.

Nyet So Fast


“I wanted to find out how he became the grave digger of the Soviet system,” said William Taubman, author of the newly released Gorbachev: His Life and Times. “And what leapt out was his confidence—or perhaps overconfidence—in doing what in retrospect looks to many people as impossible.”


This was one of many provocative comments made on Sept. 14 in Cole Assembly room as Taubman, Amherst’s Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, jousted with his friend Pavel Machala, the Charles E. Merrill 1908 Professor of Political Science.


Their interaction was both thoughtful and playful. Before a packed house, they explored the seismic impact of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet president who oversaw both the beginning of perestroika and the beginning of the end of the USSR. (Watch the full discussion on video.)


When Machala opened by revealing there were around 2,300 footnotes in the book, Taubman quipped, “Are you trying to hold down sales?” Not likely, given that The New York Times called Gorbachev “masterly” and The Washington Post deemed it “superb.” Taubman’s previous book, 2003’s Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Machala went on to inquire what the USSR’s first and only president, now 86 and frail, thought of his biography. Taubman and his wife, Jane Taubman, professor of Russian, emerita, interviewed the former leader at length over the span of a decade. Citing Gorbachev’s response in Russian and English, Taubman said, “He congratulated me ‘from the heart’ and said he will give his ‘impressions’ after he reads the Russian translation. It’s probably inevitable that he will be disappointed. Some say I was too nice to him, others that I was too hard.”


Taubman has sympathy for the man: “In his own country, Gorbachev was subject to the slings and arrows while in power, and ever since, he’s been despised. He was the leader of the post-totalitarian system and had tremendous power in 1985 to do good or evil. What he chooses to do is unique, and very few in the elite would try to do what he did.” He added, almost wistfully, “In Gorbachev, everything became almost possible.”


Taubman’s essential point was that Gorbachev’s timeline for turning a totalitarian state into a democracy—some five years—was far too ambitious. He tried to bring along communist hardliners “by hook or by crook,” thinking they’d never pull off a coup against him. “He overestimates his ability to handle them and to handle Yeltsin,” Taubman said, referring to Boris Yeltsin, the mercurial leader who succeeded Gorbachev.

Ironically, it was Gorbachev’s lack of earlier, smaller failures that contributed to his later, larger failure. “I do not consider myself a psychobiographer,” said Taubman, but he conceded that he felt more equipped to probe Gorbachev’s character after co-teaching a course on political psychology with Professor of Psychology Amy Demorest.


“He grows up kind of a golden boy in the Soviet Union,” explained Taubman. “He’s a terrific student. All the girls like him, all the teachers. He breaks records at the harvest with a combine. He goes to university from Stavropol and is greeted as a country bumpkin, but becomes an intellectual. He becomes the most popular leader in the Soviet Union—until it falls apart. From the beginning, until the moment he crashes and burns, he has nothing but success.”


The event in Cole also featured spirited give-and-takes about the Western powers’ attitude toward the Russian innovator, the rising Communist who pushed his country toward a liberal democratic model. But “Gorbachev’s way of wanting to be part of the West was rejected by the West,” lamented Taubman.


It looked as if an American-Russian rapprochement would hold, he explained: In 1988, Reagan embraced his superpower counterpart, sidelining his hoary “evil empire” rhetoric. Then Vice President George W. Bush, as he ran for president, reassured Gorbachev that he would build on Reagan’s welcome. But after Bush gained the Oval Office, he listened too much to those in his circle, including Dick Cheney, Brent Scowcroft and Robert Gates.


“The people around Bush think Gorbachev is a smiley-face communist,” Taubman told the audience. “He sounds nice but is not to be trusted. I argue in the book that they should have known that Gorbachev was the real thing. He’s leaving Afghanistan, reducing troop levels in Europe.” Later, Gorbachev acquiesced to a reunified Germany joining NATO, thinking the West would, as a concession to Soviet interests, refrain from pushing further eastward. “Nonetheless, they stiff Gorbachev.”


Taubman elaborated: “In 1991 and 1992, Bush came around. They met many times, and Bush endorsed warmly what Gorbachev was doing. But Gorbachev was really hoping for a Marshall Plan, and Bush was the one who kiboshed it, and Gorbachev did not get the money he wanted. All of this made Gorbachev angry in retrospect. He was ruled by the sense he was taken for a ride—and that he let himself be taken for a ride.”


The event included questions from the crowd and a book-signing afterward in Converse Hall. Meanwhile, Machala wondered aloud if Gorbachev was a tragic hero. “If you try to achieve the impossible and fail, that’s not tragic,” Taubman answered. “But part of Gorbachev’s failure was the result of his own flaws. In that sense, he is a tragic figure.”