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.

Her choice of sources, in any case, is extraordinarily promiscuous. Alongside learned references to turgid journals of the Communist party, we read footnotes acknowledging such authorities as The New York Post and a newspaper of a cranky Swedish Communist party splinter group, Norshenflammen, whose correspondent is several times cited as a source on Raisa. In one footnote, meant to validate a misleadingly high figure for the number of Soviet deaths in the Second World War, we discover that the source is that well-known Sovietologist “George Bush…as reported by Jack Nelson and James Gerstenzang in the Los Angeles Times.”

Also questionable is Sheehy’s treatment of Gorbachev’s alleged longtime links with the KGB, although she is right to stress the pervasiveness of that agency in every walk of life.

It is not possible to say for certain that Gorbachev was an informer for the KGB at university. That question must be raised, however, given his accelerated rise in Party positions during the early 1950s: How could he not have agreed to be an informer?

Several pages later, we hear that the Gorbachevs’ wedding was “a surprisingly affluent bash… Assistance may have come from the KGB.” Soon we hear from a researcher at Radio Liberty in Munich:

“The Party [after Beria’s fall as head of the KGB] didn’t want Beria-linked functionaries. That’s why Gorbachev lost his position as Komsomol leader and why he was sent back to Stavropol [after graduating].”

Thereafter the formerly uncertain KGB link takes on a life of its own. He was, quite simply, “a recruiter for the KGB.” The KGB “may have had a hand” in one of his early promotions. And so on. Near the end of the book, we are told by one Tatyana Koryagina, “a respected social economist” and expert on the “shadow economy,” that Gorbachev, as the Party boss for Stavropol Territory, may have had links with the Soviet criminal mafia. Or perhaps he was being framed by his enemies. Or not. It is all grist for the Sheehy rumor-as-history mill.

Certainly the early patronage of Suslov and Yuri Andropov, both locals who had made good, and both with longstanding KGB links, was important to Gorbachev’s rise. Certainly Gorbachev had to pander to the members of the crooked Brezhnevite mafia who often visited the spa towns, like Mineralnye Vody, that were within the territory he was administering as a Party functionary. It is all plausible. Recent events may suggest the renewal of an old alliance with “the committee” as Russians delicately call the dreaded outfit. But Gorbachev’s past links with the KGB remain a matter of conjecture—presented by Sheehy as virtual fact.

Still, despite these shortcomings in scholarship, Sheehy traces Gorbachev’s political acrobatics with some dexterity. She is right that since mid-1989 Gorbachev has been “proselytizing, temporizing and improvising” and that his entire political upbringing, starting as an enthusiastic young disciple of Stalin, has given him a capacity for disguising his motives that has never totally left him.

But the last quarter of the biography—after Gorbachev has persuaded the new, partly popularly elected Congress of People’s Deputies to make him executive president—becomes a breathless and increasingly farfetched attempt to construct out of other writer’s clippings a case to fit her theory that the “chameleon-like” Gorbachev’s has had “at least five lives,” each one giving way to some kind of new persona. True, it is hard to assess how much Gorbachev is a power-monger, how much an idealist. But such a duality of motives characterizes many, perhaps most, great men. Sheehy can be lively and revealing when she describes her own difficulties in trying to deal with ordinary Soviet life; but her theory, developed in her earlier book Passages, that great men pass through a series of virtual character changes, seems, in the case of Gorbachev, unconvincing, if not specious.

Hedrick Smith’s The Russians, published in 1976 after Smith had spent three years as the Moscow correspondent of The New York Times, was a reliable and shrewd compilation of hard-earned fact and anecdote and, until recently, was the best basic guide to how the Russians, and other Soviet people, live. Much of it is still surprisingly valid. The new book is not an attempt to update The Russians. Rather, it offers a workmanlike, occasionally perceptive, survey of the main effects of Gorbachev and perestroika on Soviet society and politics. Most of the time Smith lets the Russians—for he has little to say about people in the other republics—speak for themselves, as many of them presumably did for the cameras of the TV documentary series from which the book partly derives. He reminds himself that in the 1970s he had “come to understand that I could not judge someone by what he said in public.” Yet many of today’s Russians, he convincingly shows, have become as frank and independent in their thoughts as Westerners.

In tracing Gorbachev’s biography Smith competently covers familiar ground. Almost the entire same cast of Privolnoyans and former Moscow University classmates say almost exactly the same things to him as they said to Sheehy. The same central committee “consultant,” the smooth Nikolai Shishlin, “long a hidden reformer within the Central Committee apparatus” (well, there are a lot of them around these days, who were remarkably “well hidden” before), emerges as the man who arranged both authors’ meetings with the mighty. Indeed, Shishlin is Smith’s source for the story of Grandpa Andrei Gorbachev’s arrest, which makes one wonder: Did none of the Privolnoyans on the spot own up?

Smith trots steadily, if unspectacularly, through the beginnings of perestroika, its origins in the need to rescue the depressed economy, the emergence of glasnost and its chief publicists, (Vitali Korotich, Yevgeni Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, et al.), the attempts to purge the nation of the lingering poison of Stalinism, the dawning realization by the Party apparatus that, with the help of the reformist press, the people were suddenly itching to do away with the entire rotten system.

The book works better as soon as Smith goes off the beaten track. In his convincing picture of the huge obstacles to economic reform, he interviews farmers and Party bosses in Yaroslavl, industrialists in smelly Sverdlovsk, would-be capitalists in Moscow and elsewhere. He well describes—perhaps slightly exaggerates—the “culture of envy,” by which he means widespread resentment and jealousy of those who try to better themselves, and the aversion to risk-taking that afflict many Russians. He sounds doubtful that economic recovery will come soon—or even within a generation.

As with many other contemporary surveys of the USSR, Smith’s account of nationalism, based on a cursory voyage to Lithuania, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, is less satisfactory, a reminder that it is practically impossible these days for Moscow-based journalists to cover the far-flung empire together with the Kremlin and the economy. Just to cover the Ukraine (the key piece in the nationalist jigsaw puzzle) now requires a fulltime correspondent in Kiev, who must travel constantly to Lvov, Donetsk, and Kharkov. Yet Smith omits the Ukraine altogether. His overall conclusions underestimate the determination of most non-Russians to break away from Moscow’s control. “It is conceivable” he argues,

that Gorbachev could get away with a partial, peaceful dissolution [of empire] and still keep the bulk of what is now known as the Soviet Union [including most of Ukraine, Central Asia, and Armenia] intact, though with power decentralized.

But it is precisely Gorbachev’s current refusal to accept the breakaway of the republics, including the Russian Federation itself, from Kremlin control that is contributing to the economic chaos and political paralysis. Only real decolonization, it seems clear, can break the impasse.

Smith’s view of Russian nationalism, on the other hand, is sharper, and he had revealing interviews with such literary exponents of nationalism as Vladimir Soloukhin. But Smith wrongly lumps Solzhenitsyn, whom he obviously dislikes, with such extremist and sometimes anti-Semitic exponents of Russian nationalism as Valentin Rasputin, and he allows Soloukhin to make the assertion, uncontested but untrue, that Solzhenitsyn is a monarchist. Though he remains in exile in Vermont, Solzhenitsyn’s latest thinking and potentially powerful influence on the new Russia should be a part of any survey of current Soviet affairs.5

Smith also well describes many Russians’ fear of freedom which “arises from the fact that Russians sense that they are all anarchists in their souls…. Political tolerance is not a Russian trait.” But I suspect he exaggerates popular support for bringing back an “iron hand” to restore stability to the union. In fact, in one of his most interesting chapters he describes how the new non-Communist soviets are already circumventing the centrally planned economy to create an alternative, largely barter, economy with other democratically controlled cities and republics of the Union.

Some of Smith’s most revealing and hopeful interviews are with Sergei Stankevich, the new deputy mayor of Moscow, and Anatoli Sobchak, the mayor of Leningrad, younger men with liberal ideas who would, I think, with Boris Yeltsin at the helm, lead a new coalition of democratic groups to victory in a multiparty election if Gorbachev were to allow one to take place. Smith does not have much that is fresh to say about Yeltsin (Sheehy, incidentally, virtually caricatures him), and his hopes for an alliance between Gorbachev and Yeltsin as the only way forward were dashed after the book was completed. They have now been made obsolete by Yeltsin’s televised demand on February 19 for Gorbachev’s resignation.

There are some odd omissions. Smith almost entirely ignores Gorbachev’s foreign policy, allotting only one paragraph in 621 pages to his decision to let Eastern Europe go free. More importantly, he omits any real discussion of the place of the Red Army or the KGB in the new Russia. These, indeed, are the two most difficult and least well covered subjects in today’s Soviet Union, but they are perhaps the most important. The army, contrary to most reports, is not monolithic. Many of the colonels and majors, not to mention the younger officers and conscripts, strongly support an anti-Communist democratic pluralism, though most of the generals seem determined to roll back democracy. They and the KGB have been moving ominously back into positions of power as Gorbachev shifts to the right.

Smith seems to me too sanguine about Gorbachev’s chances of survival. He modestly confesses that his “opinions of Gorbachev have changed several times,” an admission most reporters who have studied him would also make. But to have seen the Yeltsin-Gorbachev alliance as “potentially the central symbol of the next phase of perestroika” may have led him somewhat prematurely to conclude that “the odds of Gorbachev’s surviving” until 1995, the end of his allotted presidential term, “seemed strong, certainly better than 50–50.” Other Gorbo-optimists, such as the Duke University professor Jerry Hough,6 argue that, with the KGB and Army backing him (or, if you like, holding him hostage) and many Russians wanting a firm, authoritarian government to take hold, Gorbachev faces no real challenge. Those in Russia, and outside, who approve of the new Gorbachev as an economically reformist, benevolent dictator (at best, in Stankevich’s words, “a democratic autocrat”) cite Chile and South Korea as models he might follow.

But deeper flaws in Gorbachev’s temperament are now strangling him. One is his apparently deep-seated inability to acknowledge the depth of non-Russian nationalist sentiment. Second, he seems genuinely to shrink from acknowledging that private property, a free market (not a “socialist free market”), and the ability of one person to hire (“exploit”) another are preconditions of prosperity, not to mention liberty. Gorbachev’s failure to adopt Shatalin’s plan for a free market this autumn, his vindictive treatment of the Baltic states, the promotion of KGB-linked people into the inner circle of government, and above all the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze amid warnings of dictatorship, suggest that this time, after his present lunge to the right, it will be difficult for Gorbachev to veer back to the center, as has been his custom (“two steps forward, one step back,” Lenin-style).

To claim that Gorbachev is unchallenged also ignores the ability of people to strike, to foment discontent in the streets, above all to encourage the republics and non-Communist soviets to ignore commands from the Kremlin while obeying the laws of their own republic. Already this “war of laws” is producing a kind of legislative paralysis and has hastened the economy’s downward spiral. Just as in Poland a decade ago, the economy is unlikely to be rescued by a military crackdown. Those now hemming Gorbachev in on the right have not the faintest idea how to make an economy work.

The ultimate weakness in Gorbachev’s position is that he lacks any popular mandate; in fact recent polls suggest he has a less than 20 percent approval rating, with the Party’s rating going down to about 8 percent. His power, which has been constitutionally based since last year on a far from overwhelming vote (59 percent) in a far from representative Congress of People’s Deputies, originally derived from the split vote of a dozen elderly members of the Communist party Politburo in 1985.

As in Eastern Europe, economic perestroika requires unpleasant decisions which people these days will accept only from a legitimate government. Gorbachev’s power, in the end, is illegitimate—and people know it. There is still a chance that popular pressure and perhaps a sense of shame or conscience or honor on the part of Gorbachev himself will prod him soon into holding a multiparty general election (not constitutionally required until 1994) to the Congress of People’s Deputies, most of whose members’ election in 1989 was rigged. If the March 17 referendum on the preservation of the union gives Gorbachev a slap in the face, the likelihood of a proper true election increases.

During the past two years, he seems to have realized that true democracy would mean his own, and the Party’s, political demise. In what seems a desperate effort to hang on, he has been sucked back to what remains of the old apparatus, fortified by the Army and KGB. All this, however, does not mean Gorbachev has gone through dramatic psychological upheavals, as Sheehy implies. It could simply mean that he is a remarkably adaptable politician who plausibly believes that to hold on to power is the basis of all politics. The real Gorbachev remains indecipherable. As Smith writes, he “began perestroika with a general sense of direction, and then zigzagged his way through history; he had no master plan…. Gorbachev’s genius is not strategy but improvisation…. His skill is not so much in imposing his will on history as in discerning its flow, guiding it when he can, more often riding the tide.”

Except for Khrushchev, whose memoirs are far from honest, Soviet leaders have not been in the habit of giving frank accounts of their own lives. Perhaps that, too, may change. For a convincing portrait of the real Gorbachev, or at least a full apologia pro vita mea, I suspect we must await his own memoirs—once he is honorably retired and beyond the grasp of Party editors. Even today, the inner workings of political life are out of bounds for the Soviet press: Shevardnadze’s resignation in early December has still not been discussed in any of the main newspapers. Aleksandr Yakovlev, Shevardnadze, perhaps even the reactionary Yegor Ligachev (excerpts from whose autobiography have already begun to appear) could tell us much about Gorbachev in their own recollections. And if Raisa one day has the chance to take “her turn,” then we might know what he has really been thinking.

March 14, 1991

This Issue

April 11, 1991