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…

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