This month, Russia marks the centenary of the October Revolution, which led to 74 years of Communist rule and a Soviet empire. So it's timely that William Taubman has just released his new biography, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, a compelling look at the last leader of the Soviet Union.
In power from 1985 to 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev set out to reform his country but presided over the collapse of the Soviet empire — in the process ending the Cold War.
Taubman, a U.S. historian who previously wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, has said that "Gorbachev changed his country and changed the world."
Now 86, Gorbachev still lives in Moscow and has coincidentally just released his own memoir, entitled I Remain an Optimist. But this once-powerful Soviet reformer is now marginalized in the autocratic Russia of Vladimir Putin.
Taubman's book on Gorbachev is a reminder of a more idealistic era in the 1980s, when a self-confident, young leader of the Communist Party decided to launch reforms that would help his country throw off the weight of its Stalinist past and move into the 20th century.
Taubman, who speaks fluent Russian, interviewed Gorbachev eight times, conducting the interviews in tandem with his wife, Jane, a retired Russian-language professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where the Taubmans taught for decades.
Gorbachev "was informal, warm, natural, with a sense of humour," said Taubman. "He didn't ask to see the questions and did not ask to have his interpreter there."
Taubman said Gorbachev hasn't read the book yet, but the former leader thanked him "from his heart" for writing it — and told him he'd get back to him with his "impressions."
Taubman recently spoke wth CBC News by phone about Gorbachev and the process of capturing his story.
This book seems to fill a gap, in that there are very few Gorbachev biographies in Russia written by someone other than Gorbachev himself. Why is that?
I fear that the absence of a full, comprehensive biography written in Russia reflects that degree to which Gorbachev remains so controversial in his own country. The fact that so many Russians remain deeply divided between those who admire him and those who despise him has probably discouraged those who have thought to write an objective biography.
Why do you think he's more admired in the West and even Eastern Europe today than in Russia?
Westerners revere Gorbachev's great achievements — ending totalitarianism, laying the groundwork for democracy by introducing mostly free elections, a functioning parliament and free speech, and ending the Cold War — and the vision and courage it took to bring them about. Even Russians who can appreciate those achievements in theory can't get over the fact that they were accompanied by a devastating economic and social crash, the collapse of the Soviet state, the loss of the Soviet empire and the demotion of the USSR from a seeming superpower to a basketcase of a country.
How important was Gorbachev's character in propelling the reforms of the 1980s?
After centuries of authoritarianism under tsars and decades of totalitarianism under commissars, the people of the Soviet Union were in no condition to democratize their own country. A saying that I often heard in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, which reflected that fact, was that "it will take a Stalin to de-Stalinize the USSR." In other words … reform would have to come from above.
As it happened, the reformer who carried out those reforms … turned out to be a genuinely decent man — too decent, it turned out, to control the forces he had unleashed in a country all too accustomed to the use of force and violence in politics.
Gorbachev lived through collectivization. His grandfathers were imprisoned in the Stalinist purges. He experienced the horrors of the Second World War. How did these traumas shape him?
Gorbachev grew up in terrible times that could not but leave an imprint on his way of thinking. But instead of becoming inured to force and violence, he rebelled against them, becoming that rare political leader who actually practised a rule that too many politicians only preach: that is, that force and violence should be used only with extreme reluctance and in the last resort.
He visited Canada in 1982 and toured farms in Ontario and Alberta, famously telling the Russian ambassador to Canada that they had to reform the Soviet system. When did he come around to reforms?
Gorbachev's reformist views evolved slowly over the course of his life. The night that his maternal grandfather returned, miraculously, from prison in the late 1930s and recounted to his horrified family how he had been tortured undoubtedly shocked his young grandson. By the time he attended Moscow State University [from 1950 to 1955], he was already telling his best friend ... that collectivization of Soviet agriculture had been achieved by brute force. And as he climbed the Communist party ladder in Stavropol, he encountered endless evidence of the stifling over-centralization of the Soviet system.
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By the time he became Soviet leader in 1985, he was determined to reform that system, but it was only when his early economic reforms seemed to be blocked by party and state obstructionists that he decided to embark on full democratization.
Many Soviet citizens thought Gorbachev wasn't reforming quickly enough in the 1980s, that he was vain, too much a man of his system and postured a lot for the West. To what degree was he a protagonist of change or simply reacting to it?
Like most politicians, Gorbachev was vain, and he did like the sound of his own voice. He also, understandably, came to prefer the way he was lionized in the West to the increasingly fierce criticism he encountered in the USSR. These patterns didn't help him at home, but the charges that he didn't carry out reforms quickly enough, and that he was too much a man of the system, seemed unfounded to me. If he had broken with Communist Party hardliners, as some of his closest associates (like Aleksander Yakovlev and Anatoly Chernyaev) urged him to do, the coup that his opponents attempted against him in August 1991 might have come much sooner and more successfully. And if Gorbachev, who transformed the system, was "a man too much of the system," then I'd like to meet someone from the leadership who was actually opposed to it.
Gorbachev has long been compared to Boris Yeltsin, who succeeded him. How do they compare as leaders and visionaries?
Ironically, Gorbachev was more adept at manoeuvering in the old system he transformed than at playing the new game of democratic, electoral politics that he introduced. Yeltsin, on the other hand, proved more effective as a populist politician. Yeltsin was a very difficult man, almost impossible for Gorbachev to get along with. But Gorbachev contributed to creating an arch enemy by the way he humiliated Yeltsin, who eventually took revenge by humiliating Gorbachev in turn. Had they found a way to co-operate, they could have constituted a mighty alliance. Instead, their mutual hatred contributed to the collapse of the USSR that so many of their countrymen and countrywomen now regret.
Talk about Gorbachev's attitude toward Putin.
Gorbachev supported Putin's candidacy for Russian president in 2000 but opposed his re-election in 2012. He has, indeed, been extremely critical of Putin's authoritarian rule, at one point equating Putin's political party, United Russia, with the Soviet Communist Party under Leonid Brezhnev. Early during Putin's presidency, Gorbachev declared that Russia needed "a certain dose of authoritarianism" to rebuild the Russian state after the chaos of the Yeltsin years, but later, the man who tried to democratize the USSR in a few short years warned it could take "decades" to democratize Russia — perhaps even "the whole 21st century."
What do you make of Putin's comments about Gorbachev — for example, that he needlessly allowed the dissolution of the USSR?
Putin's comment — that Soviet reformers like Gorbachev should have modernized the Soviet economy by democratic means but not have allowed the collapse of the Soviet Union — sounds easy, but as Gorbachev discovered, it wasn't, particularly without violence, which Gorbachev was determined to avoid.
In this centenary year, what is Gorbachev's legacy?
Gorbachev was exceptional, both as a Russian leader and as a world statesman. As the late Russian scholar Dmitry Furman put it, Gorbachev was "the only politician in Russian history who, having full power in his hands, opted voluntarily to limit it and even risk losing it, in the name of principled moral values." And Gorbachev's vision of a post-Cold War world based as far as possible on the renunciation of force and violence was equally idealistic. Under Putin, Russia has, alas, reverted to its traditional authoritarian, anti-Western norm.