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Gorbachev — the Soviet Union’s bane or unsuccessful hope? (Book Review)

By Vikas Datta 

Title: Gorbachev: His Life and Times ; Author: William J. Taubman; Publisher: Simon & Schuster: Pages: 880; Price: Rs 799

A hundred years ago, Communism triumphed in Russia and the Soviet Union soon came into being — and it is already over a quarter of a century (on this day in 1991) since its collapse. Which of its leaders was responsible? Lenin, for laying faulty foundations? Stalin, for his excesses — while making it a super power? Khrushchev, for his impetuous decisions? Brezhnev, for stagnation? Or Gorbachev with his unsuccessful reforms?

As the last leader of the Soviet Union — after the brief stints of Andropov (who sought to start addressing the problems) and Chernenko — Mikhail Gorbachev still attracts the maximum praise — and blame — for his actions and their results. How justified is it?

What could he have done, done differently, or not done? Should he acted more firmly against the hardliners, backed the liberals more strongly, including not having that famous falling-out with Boris Yeltsin that made the latter an implacable enemy?

“The world is deeply divided when it comes to understanding Gorbachev. Many, especially in the West, regard him as the greatest statesman of the second half of the twentieth century. In Russia, however, he is widely despised by those who blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic crash that accompanied it,” writes Taubman, the Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Amherst College and a Slavic studies and Cold War history expert.

It is indeed hard to figure out and Gorbachev, who is still around, knows this well. “Gorbachev is hard to understand,” the veteran leader, who refers to himself in the third person (like Julius Caesar and Charles De Gaulle, among others), told him.

But more than the question of responsibility, Gorbachev’s tenure also raises questions about his personal, political and ideological development, and why he thought and acted the way he did. And this is what Taubman, who has a Pulitzer-winning biography of Khrushchev to his credit, attempts to do in this magisterial work which draws on extensive access to Gorbachev as well as his close aides of the “Perestroika” era to address this point.

There have been books on Gorbachev before — right from the time he became the General Secretary. Dusko Doder’s “Shadows and Whispers” chronicles the era from Brezhnev’s last years to Gorbachev’s ascension. Then a plethora on the Soviet Union’s end, from David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb” to Conor O’ Cleary’s “Moscow, December 25, 1991” to Serhii Plokhy’s “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union” bring some focus on his background and rise.

But this goes much ahead in taking the entire eventful spectrum of Gorbachev’s life, right from his birth and circumstances to his time in the top post and the challenges he faced in power — till the one that proved impossible to surmount.

Most of all, Taubman seeks to answer how Gorbachev became the Gorbachev we know. “How did a peasant boy, whose high-flown tribute to Stalin won a high school prize, turn into the Soviet system’s gravedigger?… How did he become a communist despite the most rigorous imaginable arrangement of checks and guarantees designed to guard against someone like him?”

His most detailed but readable account of Gorbachev’s childhood, his education locally and in Moscow — which is especially illuminating — his rise up the party ladder, the circumstances of his getting the top post, and so on (in juxtaposition against the current political climate) offers some compelling answers to these questions.

Alongside, there are telling bits of information – Gorbachev’s romances, clashes with teachers, time in the prestigious Moscow State University, as a young regional Communist Party leader. While most happenings of his stint in power are known (the crucial Yeltsin episode is dealt in full), there are smaller but no less significant events – say, the aftermath of a German amateur pilot landing his microlight craft near the Red Square – that are dealt with.

And finally, it takes in Gorbachev’s post-Soviet life, especially his relations with his successors Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.

Apart from being a most comprehensive biography, its real worth is in showing how even a system of conformity — bolstered by repression — can still throw up leaders with creativity, common sense, and morals.

This is Gorbachev’s real and abiding legacy.

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