Reading Gorbachev

Over the last couple of weeks, I have read William Taubman’s Gorbachev, the first full-scale, authoritative biography of the last leader of the Soviet Union.

This is not meant to be a full scale review, but rather a first set of impressions as I continue to mull it over.

I’m struck, in brief, by two themes that set the tenor for the book, especially the decisive second part covering the key years of Gorbachev’s leadership, that is the four years from some time in 1987 onward to August 1991.

First, Taubman portrays Gorbachev, not unlike Nikita Khrushchev in the scholar’s earlier Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, as a sort of tragic figure. Gorbachev appears as a human—i.e. flawed—but admirable figure, doing his best to make the system live up to a version of its ideals. Taubman’s Gorbachev takes on an almost Shakespearean air. He constantly struggles not only against those around him, but against himself, battling circumstances and striving to live up to his own impossibly high standards.

This leads to the second key point, a sense of inevitability that the biography takes on. The momentum of this inevitability, moreover, seems to gather, even as we see Gorbachev succeed in extraordinary ways. From a stand-still in March 1985, he fostered democracy and openness in a country then and historically short on both. And yet we know that the economic reforms are what are to fall short, leading to popular dissatisfaction and state dissolution. I recognize that some exciting new books have or are soon to come out on these subjects: more fun reading for me! And that there is much work that remains to be done to uncover that story, but I think the telling of the trial and error of economic reform is crucial.

In the end, I wonder to what degree the dissolving of the Soviet Union through the mechanisms created by glasnost was not the inevitable outcome that so many scholars and observers presume. Reform was bound to be difficult and painful, but a Gorbachev as comfortable with sweeping economic reform as with sweeping geopolitical reconfigurations might have at least achieved some improvements to buffer the turbulence of the age.

Could, perhaps, a rising standard of living have curbed some of the rising frustration and anger in some regions—perhaps not, for example, the Baltics—and given Gorbachev more time?

Indeed, even as awful as economic conditions were in 1991, some kind of Union remained at least reasonably popular up until the eve of the August coup.

In short, I curious to see the direction of the discussion on the end as we move forward, further from the time in question, and we see that the hopes of transition, capitalism, and democracy remain at best partially realized. Taubman’s book seems a valuable contribution to that conversation, but is far from the last word.