• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Mystery Man

The Man Who Changed The World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev

by Gail Sheehy
HarperCollins, 401 pp., $22.95

The New Russians

by Hedrick Smith
Random House, 621 pp., $24.95

For all the millions of words consigned to the unwrapping of the Gorbachev enigma, the real man remains a riddle. Indeed, over the past six months—since the two books under review went to press—his performance may have become even more baffling, as the once universally hailed democratic savior of the East is observed creeping back into the clammy embrace of the Army, the KGB, and the Party apparatus.

Both Hedrick Smith and Gail Sheehy rightly imply that, whatever the immediate future of the Soviet Union, there can be little doubt now that Gorbachev deserves to be seen as one of the great leaders of the century, although perhaps a transitional one. The transition for which he has been the catalyst, and maybe even the prime mover, is so momentous that the entire world must forever be in his debt. Even if the hard right—we must, it seems, accept the strange convention whereby the antidemocratic centralizers are referred to as right-wing and free-market democrats left-wing—now takes back the reins of power, with or without Gorbachev as the titular leader of a withering state, the forces of freedom already released are so great that a return to the status quo seems inconceivable. Even if a period of repression comes, it would probably be only the prelude, lasting not more than a few years, to a more thorough-going revolution which would lead to the social and political arrangements to which the former East European satellites of the Soviet Union now aspire. Whether he meant the consequences or not, Gorbachev is, as Sheehy’s title claims, “The Man Who Changed The World.”

The question we have all found extraordinarily hard to answer is not so much what Gorbachev has done as what he meant, and still means, to do. Is he merely a brilliant improviser, flying by the seat of his pants but with no clear vision of where he wants Russia or the Soviet Union to go? Or has he a master plan which, for tactical reasons, he can confide to nobody, knowing that he has to please a variety of conflicting interests in order to survive? Has he secretly left Marxism-Leninsim behind although he has never publicly disavowed it? Or is he still a conspiratorial Leninist for whom perestroika is much the same as the New Economic Policy—an unleashing of entrepreneurial initiative to be closely watched by a Communist party still dictating an overall central plan? Does he believe the Russian empire can and should be held together by force? Or is his brutality toward the Baltic states a tactical ruse for slowing down, to make more orderly, the process of imperial dismemberment which he knows to be inevitable? Or is he a Russian nationalist for whom the final loss of empire, already humiliating in Eastern Europe, is too shameful to contemplate?

Does he believe, paradoxically, that democracy in the Soviet Union is so frail that a benevolent despot—namely, himself—is justified in overseeing its survival by curtailing freedom, to preserve a necessary modicum of order? Or will he, in the end, prove democratic enough to allow the Communist party—and himself—to be swept away in a popular ballot, if that is what the people want? Or was he never a true democrat at all, just a charming and slippery Party pragmatist who believed that the moribund state of the Soviet Union needed an injection of energizing debate within an enduring framework of Party control? Could the fall of Gorbachev save the future for democracy or would it precipitate something worse? Has he been corrupted into believing he is indispensable? Should we want him to bow out now, or not?

Both Gail Sheehy and Hedrick Smith set out to address these riddles and ambiguities and to explain how Gorbachev has fostered a completely new Soviet Union. They are both, maybe rightly, loath to predict the future.

Sheehy’s book is an elaboration of a remarkable article published in the February 1990 issue of the magazine Vanity Fair, in which she managed to pull off an enjoyable scoop by becoming the first American writer to describe Gorbachev’s tiny native mudlaned village of Privolnoye in the rolling nowhereland of the remote southern Russian steppes, not far from the Caucasus Mountains. Hedrick Smith, with a television crew in tow, may have beaten Sheehy to the village, but the results of his travels were not offered to the public, on Boston’s WGBH-TV, until later. I, and many others, were forbidden to go there, though the provincial city of Stavropol, where Gorbachev clambered rapidly up the Party tree for some two decades before he was propelled to high office in Moscow in 1978, has long been “open.” It is quite easy for a resourceful journalist to witness the still primitive conditions of rural life nearby, in villages just like the one where Gorbachev, amid terror and famine, was raised. But Sheehy, to give her her due, saw the real thing and published it first.

Speaking to anyone in or around Privolnoye who would talk about Gorbachev, she vividly pieced together a picture—admittedly, much of it speculative but generally plausible—of a childhood and youth that went beyond what most Westerners, and certainly nearly all Russians, then knew about Gorbachev. She described the grimness of his childhood in a region where up to a third of the peasantry may have perished in the terror and famine of 1932–1933, the backwardness of the place, as well as the strain of Cossack independence that is still to be observed among those southern freebooters’ descendants—Gorbachev included—who were never serfs. She discovered that one grandparent had been sent to the gulag, but survived, under Stalin. “The shame,” Sheehy wrote, “had to have seeped through to the sensitive boy, but it would be years before he could breathe a word of the family secret.”

In addition, tracking down some of Gorbachev’s Moscow University classmates, also undetected by the rest of us, she presented a plausible if overblown thesis that Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, has influenced his political, cultural, and emotional development and crucially helped his rise to the top. Especially in view of the continuing horror of Soviet bureaucracy, logistics, and secrecy (even today, no foreign journalist may travel more than twenty-five miles from the Kremlin without permission, except to the monastery of Zagorsk; and there are still no public telephone directories), Sheehy produced a fascinating piece of impressionistic, foot-in-the-door, journalism, evidently buttressed by a small army of assiduous researchers, translators, and high-powered analysts, whose insights were well processed into her computer.

The article’s metamorphosis into a book is less happy. For a start, Sheehy’s scant knowledge of Soviet society or Russian history may have added to the fun of the Vanity Fair piece—in which the dogged, wily ingénue pursues the most glamorous and imposing political figure in the world—but it becomes a severe liability in the book, which is littered with slips, misspellings, and oversimplifications. Most comical, perhaps, is her reference to Catherine the Great’s favorite, Grigori Potemkin, as an “architect”—the designer, presumably, of those charming, state-of-the-art riverine villages built to fool the empress into believing that her subjects lived in paradise. Among several misleading clichés about Russian history we find: “The Russian peasant moved from czarist serfdom to enforced collectivization with barely time to learn the difference.” Apparently the intervening seven decades between the emancipation of the serfs and Stalin’s terror-famine did not count, while the Tatar yoke (1240–1380) lasted “five hundred years.”

For all her flair in finding people to interview and luring them into spilling a bean or two, it is not surprising that Sheehy’s limited Russian and her consequent need to rely on sources in the Party and in the Soviet press as well as her own interpreters and translators may occasionally have led her astray. Take one disturbing little oddity. In the Vanity Fair article we learn that Gorbachev’s maternal grandfather, who had become founding chairman of the village’s farm after collectivization, had been “arrested and deported in 1937.” Yet, by the time the article had been turned into a book, an unexplained switch took place. The maternal grandfather, we are now told, was the driving influence on Gorbachev’s career; and, through his (surmised) Party connections to such unsalubrious southern bigwigs as Mikhail Suslov, he gave the boy his first big chance to move upward—to Moscow University, for example. No mention of arrest. The gulag victim, we learn in the book, was not Gorbachev’s mother’s father but his paternal grandfather. Given the stress Sheehy lays on the psychological effects of Gorbachev’s childhood and youth, one wonders about her earlier misidentification.

Another, more reliable, analyst of Gorbachev, Michel Tatu, tells us that Raisa’s father, too, was dispatched for some years to the gulag, but that does not seem to have been picked up by Sheehy’s researchers. 1 Relentless as Sheehy is in laying her subjects on the psychiatrist’s couch, such muddles and omissions are troubling, to say the least. And as the information about Gorbachev’s village background almost all appears to have come from one day’s grilling of interviewees, one wonders how reliable the translation was on other occasions.

Indeed, much of Sheehy’s information and speculation needs to be taken with some skepticism. For a start, the old-timers from Privolnoye, the teachers from the nearby town where Gorbachev went to high school, and the former Moscow University classmates would certainly all have been primed in what to say before such interviews. His mother, it seems, could not be persuaded to chat. Nor, of course, could Gorbachev or his wife.2 The most talkative of the sources, both in the Gorbachev homeland and from his student days, were, one suspects, Party members and hacks—a retired state prosecutor, an old district Party boss, a senior newspaper editor, a TV news producer, the head of an academic institute, and so on—who would know, as all such Russians do, precisely what a foreigner should hear (and not hear) about their esteemed leader. The most garrulous of Sheehy’s informants, in fact, is Gorbachev’s first girlfriend—a remarkable gossip, it would seem, who certainly provides many new details with a ring of authenticity. Nadezhda Mikhailova, the former paramour, while still admiring Gorbachev, recalls intriguing flashes of vanity and careerist ambition. She says he was bitterly disappointed when he failed to become an assistant prosecutor in Moscow after graduating and was instead sent back to the sticks. She also remembers him smugly noting that “Brezhnev likes me. Better than the others.”

Some of the secondary and tertiary sources, fastidiously acknowledged in the footnotes, are no less worrisome, because Sheehy repeatedly culls often unverifiable reports and conjecture from the books of others (with attribution) and grafts them onto her own thesis as fact. In the first half of the book, there are, for instance, no fewer than twenty-four references to details, often anecdotal, in the biography of Gorbachev by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson.3 Take one example: Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev’s alleged trip around France in a hired Renault in 1966. Doder and Branson offer no source for this interesting episode from Gorbachev’s early life, although the ability to travel abroad unchaperoned was then almost unheard of, even for Party functionaries. Doder and Branson’s account echoes that in Mikhail S. Gorbachev: An intimate Biography, by a group of Time magazine reporters,4 who in turn cite a brief exchange between Le Monde‘s Michel Tatu and Gorbachev in Paris in 1985. All fine, but by that time it has reached Sheehy fourth-hand, and the facts of Gorbachev’s tour of France remain murky.

  1. 1

    Michel Tatu, L’URSS va-t-elle changer? (Le Centurion/Le Monde, 1987).

  2. 2

    We are told that Raisa Gorbacheva has “never consented to an interview.” Perhaps not, in the formal sense. But she chatted amiably with me for nearly an hour while we toured Hemingway’s house in Cuba during Gorbachev’s visit there in 1989.

  3. 3

    Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin (Viking, 1990), a lively mix of Kremlinology and street wisdom.

  4. 4

    Mikhail S. Gorbachev: An Intimate Biography, by the editors of Time magazine, published by Time Inc., in 1988: a competent round-up of most of what was known at the time.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print