Book Habit Blog - Gorbachev: His Life and Times

by  William Taubman

Taubman, a noted Russian expert, is emeritus Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, and Pulitzer Prize winner for an earlier biography of Nikita Khrushchev.  

You might tackle this biography of Gorbachev solely because it is a story of a political leader in mortal combat with a massive bureaucracy, but there are so many other good reasons for reading Bill Taubman’s book.  Gorbachev changed his country and world politics.  He understood that the Soviet system had failed and needed radical transformation.  His efforts (greater transparency, reorganization of the economy, and, remarkably, democratization) produced only mixed results, but included the dissolution of the USSR.

In Taubman’s words, “the Soviet Union fell apart when Gorbachev weakened the state to strengthen the individual.  Putin strengthened the Russian state by curtailing individual freedoms.”

The biography represents ten years of focused research into previously unexplored documents, including countless interviews with global leaders and many of the “Soviet Deep State” players listed in an exhaustive, 11-page “Cast of Characters.”   

The book is wholly accessible to the non-specialist, intelligent reader.  The account of the unfolding coup in early-1991 reads like a mystery thriller.  Leaders succeed and fail, and this biography tells of a leader who failed, despite the amplitude of his character, the loftiness of his ideals, and the bravery of his moral leadership.   

The book’s greatest strength is its penetrating exposition of the Communist Russian core; its major weakness is Taubman’s failure to more fully describe the daily agony of citizens’ lives in the USSR, which fueled their near-irreversible disillusionment and led them somehow to view Gorbachev as the malign agent of destruction, instead of as the revitalizing force in a malignant economic system, which caused their despair.    

On balance, read this book and go where few intrepid outsiders have ventured previously. 

--Jim Scott