The Man Who Lost an Empire

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

In 1921, the year before he founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Vladimir Lenin challenged his fellow Bolsheviks with a rhetorical question: “Who overtakes whom?” Joseph Stalin preferred a starker version: “Who-whom?” Both saw politics as a deadly competition in which the winner takes all—war by other means.

So does Vladimir Putin. He looks back at the late 1980s and 1990s with bitterness. He sees the tumult of that period not just as the collapse of the Soviet Union and a victory for its enemies in the West but a devastating blow to something far more precious, venerable, and enduring: the Russian state. Under his regime another familiar question looms: “Who is to blame?”

In Putin’s eyes, the heaviest responsibility falls on the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the prime mover of what Putin has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Yet instead of denouncing or punishing Gorbachev, Putin has treated him with thinly disguised condescension. For years Gorbachev traveled abroad to accept honors and honorariums, knowing that, back home, masses of his fellow citizens scorned him. In 1996, he ran in the presidential election and got half a percent of the vote.

Now eighty-six and in shaky health, Gorbachev lives quietly in a dacha outside Moscow—but not silently. Over the course of a decade, he gave eight long interviews to William Taubman, a historian at Amherst College, and his wife Jane, who taught Russian there. The result of Taubman’s research is a masterpiece of narrative scholarship. It is also the first comprehensive biography of this world-historical figure. Other chronicles of Gorbachev’s life and verdicts on his record will follow, but they will be without the trove of personal insights that Taubman has gleaned from his access to Gorbachev himself, his advisers, and other participants in those dramatic years.

Taubman notes that his subject’s birth in a peasant village in the North Caucasus coincided, both in time and place, with the rise of Stalinism—and that his family both resisted that phenomenon and suffered from it. Gorbachev’s grandmothers and mother insisted that he be secretly baptized when he was born in 1931, in defiance of the draconian suppression of religion that had accompanied communization. He would never know two of his uncles and one aunt who perished in the famine of those years, and both of his grandfathers were sent to the Gulag during Stalin’s Great Terror.

The book also contains a love story. Gorbachev met Raisa Titarenko at Moscow State University. Their romance was enhanced and sustained by her intelligence, strong will, firm convictions, and dedication to her ambitious and extroverted husband. She sacrificed what could have been a successful career as a sociologist in order to help her husband and protect him from his enemies, but also from his tendency to let his loquaciousness, charm, and self-confidence trip him up. No one influenced…

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