Gorbachev: His Life and Times
by William Taubman (Norton, $40)
Mikhail Gorbachev remains a tragic figure, said Max Boot in The Wall Street Journal. In the decades since 1945, few other people “have had as much success in transforming the world”—or “been as frustrated with the consequences.” During Gorbachev’s six years as leader of the Soviet Union, he managed the superpower’s nearly bloodless transition from a communist totalitarian empire to a fledgling free-market democracy with a chance to be more ally than threat to the West. None of this was foreordained; none of it worked out as Gorbachev had hoped. Political scientist William Taubman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, is “superbly qualified” to explain why Gorbachev even took the risks he did. Taubman’s latest, though “not a thing of literary beauty,” will “undoubtedly stand for years as the definitive account of the Soviet Union’s last ruler.”
Some answers emerge in the book’s por- trayal of Gorbachev’s youth, said The Economist. Born to peasant farmers in 1931, he lost two uncles to famine, and both of his grandfathers were swept into Stalin’s gulags. But he grew up working the land and believing in socialist ideals. Rewarded with a university seat in Moscow, he became close friends with a schoolmate who’d one day draw up 1968’s thwarted Prague Spring reforms. Gorbachev himself quietly nursed a vision of a people-oriented socialist state, and aimed to achieve it through gradual reform when he was appointed Communist Party leader in 1985. His caution vanished a year later, said Michael O’Donnell in The Washington Monthly. Freed by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster to attack the old ways, Gorbachev “removed his hat and began to gallop”—ending the war in Afghanistan, allowing greater freedom of speech, and preparing for open elections.
“It was the reformers who finally did him in,” said Peter Baker in The New York Times. Following the Soviet Union’s breakup, Gorbachev was pushed aside by the more radical Boris Yeltsin, and many Russians blamed Gorbachev for the ensuing hard economic times. When he ran for president in 1996, he tallied a humbling 0.5 percent. Now 86, Gorbachev lives, as he did then, in a dual reality—“admired and feted in Washington, London, and Berlin, reviled and ostracized in Moscow.”