In 1985, the Politburo selected Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist party, making him leader of the Soviet Union. It didn’t take long for Gorbachev to start uttering words like glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”). Over the next six years, the Berlin Wall fell, the Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe were overthrown, and the Soviet Union was replaced by the Russian Federation. Who was this man who set in motion the end of the Cold War? That’s the question at the heart of William Taubman’s Gorbachev: His Life and Times (W.W. Norton, 2017). Taubman, professor emeritus at Amherst College, wrote the first scholarly biography of Gorbachev with the support of an NEH fellowship. He is also the author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (W.W. Norton, 2003), which received the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for biography and was also supported by an NEH fellowship. In an interview with Meredith Hindley of Humanities, Taubman talks about the challenges of biography and what made Gorbachev a complicated subject.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: You’ve written extensively about Soviet history, including biographies of Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev. How and when did your fascination with the USSR begin?
WILLIAM TAUBMAN: It began when I was a kid in the 1950s. I was a news junkie and followed Cold War developments with fascination, especially relations between Eisenhower and Khrushchev and Kennedy and Khrushchev. Who knew that I would eventually write Khrushchev’s biography? My mother’s family had immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1905, and although she had rejected Russian in her effort to become a “real American,” her parents spoke Russian and talked a lot about the USSR, so I think that, too, must have motivated me. One other formative factor: I knew that the Soviet Union identified itself as a Marxist state that was building a glorious future, but that, under Stalin, it had turned into a killing ground. I wanted to try to figure out why and how that had happened.
HINDLEY: What drew you to write about Gorbachev?
TAUBMAN: Khrushchev was a reformer who tried to de-Stalinize the USSR and reduce Cold War tensions. But he retreated from his own reforms, and then they were mostly reversed after his fall from power in October 1964. Gorbachev, having become Soviet leader in March 1985, picked up where Khrushchev had left off, but his effort to reform his country went much further and faster than Khrushchev’s, and under Gorbachev, the Cold War actually ended. In that sense, writing Gorbachev’s biography was a logical next step for me. I should add that I prefer writing about people with whom I can sympathize rather than unmitigated dictators.
HINDLEY: You had a number of opportunities to interview Gorbachev for the book. How did the man in person differ from the man you read about in the historical record?
TAUBMAN: My wife, Jane (professor emerita of Russian at Amherst), and I interviewed Gorbachev eight times for nearly two hours each time. He struck us both as a remarkably normal man—natural, informal, warm, and with a sparkling sense of humor. All these qualities come across in the historical record as well, but so do other qualities required of a political leader, especially in the USSR: ambition, ego, cold calculation. All in all, I’d say Gorbachev was an unusually decent man—particularly compared with other Russian leaders past and present. That decency helps explain both his efforts to improve the lives of his people and also, I fear, his fall from power in a country whose citizens crave strong, tough leaders and are prone to take decency as weakness.
HINDLEY: Are there particular challenges in writing about the personal sides of high-ranking Soviet officials?
TAUBMAN: Yes, indeed. Soviet leaders went out of their way to keep their private lives private. Soviet “first ladies” were conspicuous by their absence from the limelight. Gorbachev was more open than his predecessors, and his wife, Raisa, the first wife of a leader to play the role of modern first lady, was much more visible than others. When we interviewed Gorbachev, I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t insist on our submitting questions in writing beforehand, or on having his own interpreter present during the interview. (My wife and I are fluent in Russian.) In addition, he helped by connecting us with several of his aides, with former colleagues in Stavropol, where he began his career as a party apparatchik, and with university classmates.
HINDLEY: You traveled to places that were important to key moments in Gorbachev’s life. How did those visits inform your writing?
TAUBMAN: Traveling to Gorbachev’s native village of Privolnoe and the city of Stavropol was invaluable. In addition, I had spent the academic year 1965–1966 as an exchange student in Moscow State University’s law school, from which Gorbachev graduated ten years before that. The interviews we had with Gorbachev’s friends, former colleagues, and old adversaries in these places revealed strikingly contradictory views of him, which I had to try to reconcile or, in some cases, could not reconcile. Our firsthand views of his village and the places where he lived and worked in Stavropol disclosed how humble his beginnings were.
HINDLEY: You note that “Gorbachev made it to the top by seeming to be an ideal product of the Soviet system.” What qualities did Gorbachev have that allowed him to succeed?
TAUBMAN: The Communists used to talk a lot about “the new Soviet man”—by which they meant people who were idealistic, honest, unselfish, and incorruptible. In the course of my nearly 30 trips to the Soviet Union and Russia over 53 years, I’ve learned that such ideal products are, to put it gently, relatively rare. But Gorbachev came close to that ideal. When asked their opinion of him, almost all his former colleagues in Stavropol described him as “erudite.” They raved about the way he treated his wife—in sharp contrast to the way so many Soviet (and Russian) functionaries have treated women.
HINDLEY: Gorbachev hid from his fellow party members his desire “to give Communism a human face.” Why would other party members find that idea threatening?
TAUBMAN: Giving Communism a “human face” was the aim of the Czechoslovak reformers who initiated the Prague Spring in 1968. That meant offering unprecedented political freedoms and economic reforms. But Moscow, interpreting those changes as a mortal threat to Communist rule in Czechoslovakia and to the country’s membership in the Warsaw Pact (the East bloc counterpart to NATO), sent in tanks and troops to crush the Prague Spring. That’s why Gorbachev had to conceal his hope to eventually introduce similar changes in the USSR itself.
HINDLEY: I was struck by the close relationship between Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa. There was so much love between them. What role did she play in his rise to the top?
TAUBMAN: Gorbachev described her to us as a “maximalist,” meaning, I take it, that she had strong views and didn’t like to compromise. He said he started out as a “maximalist,” too, but, as a politician, he learned to compromise. I got the impression from Gorbachev aides whom we interviewed that she had more “backbone” than he did, but those aides were divided as to whether he took her advice too much or too little. With her higher education, sophistication, sense of style, and good looks, she took the world by storm when they traveled abroad. But many of her own countrymen and countrywomen (especially the latter, I fear) resented what they regarded as her all-too-visible role. And the further irony is that, temperamentally, Raisa wasn’t suited for that role: She was sensitive, vulnerable, and too easily wounded by all the slings and arrows directed at her husband as his reforms failed and his country began to collapse.
HINDLEY: Gorbachev was a man who was curious about the world. He gobbled up books and new ideas. Where did that hunger come from?
TAUBMAN: Partly from his genes, I suppose. His father, though minimally educated, was full of questions about his country and the world. Mikhail Gorbachev greatly enjoyed reading, did extremely well in his provincial high school, and was the first Soviet leader since Lenin to obtain a university education.
HINDLEY: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Gorbachev?
TAUBMAN: I was struck by how often he made mistakes that undermined his own cause. Given all the incredible pressures on him at home and abroad, such errors were inevitable, but, as a biographer who came to identify with him and root for him, I was shocked when I found him to be too confident for his own good, too prone to think he could democratize a country that had never really known democracy, too sure he could control rivals and adversaries on both the left and right who eventually did him in.
HINDLEY: What was the thing you wished you didn’t know?
TAUBMAN: As someone who shared many of Gorbachev’s ideals, and wished him success in democratizing his country, I was disheartened to see how many times he got in his own way.
HINDLEY: Gorbachev told you in one of your interviews that “Gorbachev is hard to understand.” What do you wish people understood better about him?
TAUBMAN: I don’t think my book includes any “smoking guns” that suddenly solve puzzles about Gorbachev that have eluded us until now. Rather, it’s the accretion of details about his personal and political life over the decades (he turned 87 in March) that I hope adds up to a picture of a real person with all his complexities, contradictions, and quirks.
HINDLEY: Biographers often talk about living with their subjects. Who was better company: Khrushchev or Gorbachev?
TAUBMAN: Of course, I never met Khrushchev in the flesh. But I don’t think I would have felt as comfortable with him as I did with Gorbachev. Khrushchev was impulsive, explosive, spontaneous, and self-revelatory. It was as if he wore the emotions he was feeling on his sleeve. That made him a wonderfully colorful character to write about. Gorbachev was more restrained, self-contained (at least in public) with a character harder to decode. The fact that he was more of a mystery made writing his life more of a challenge and therefore, in some ways, more satisfying. And he was certainly interesting to talk to.