When Mikhail Gorbachev was studying law at Moscow State University, he encountered an ignoble professor whose idea of lecturing was to read aloud from Stalin's Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. So he dropped him an anonymous note: "This is a university, and they admit people who graduated from 10 years of schooling, that is, people who can read by themselves."
When the professor read it aloud and said that the "hero" behind it had no respect for Marxism-Leninism, Gorbachev – a self-styled Leninist then and for years to come – identified himself. His protest could have meant the end of his education, but he also had Soviet identity politics to back him up. His humble origins in the Russian south (where his father was a combine driver and his mother an illiterate collective-farm worker), along with his record as a village communist youth leader and winner of the prestigious Red Labour Banner for harvesting work, caused the Moscow party authorities to bury the matter.
Heroic portrayals of Gorbachev are, of course, the norm in the West. William Taubman, who interviewed Gorbachev and many of his allies, critics and interlocutors for this epic biography, is ultimately an admirer. But he never fails to illustrate the compromises to which Gorbachev subjected himself. Gorbachev was by no means the most forward-thinking of his university comrades. Whereas his friend Zdenek Mlynar, a Czechoslovak communist, went on to help found the 1968 Prague movement for "socialism with a human face," Gorbachev ended up, in his role as party chief in the southern city of Stavropol, denouncing the Prague Spring and endorsing Leonid Brezhnev's military intervention against it.
In Taubman's telling, the spectre of Prague haunted much of Gorbachev's life. Just a year before tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, he and Mlynar had gone hiking together and Mlynar had shared his vision of a reformed communism. "In your country, all that might be possible," Gorbachev told him, "but in our country it simply could not be done." But was that true? Change had come from within the party before. In 1956, General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Stalin's legacy in his "secret speech," bringing about a cultural and political "thaw," that eventually cost him his post. When Gorbachev travelled to Italy in 1971, he saw that local communists – such as the Czechs and Slovaks – valued critical discussion of Soviet communism. Was the Soviet Union to be an outlier?
For years, Gorbachev, like most party men, lived a double life. His conscience troubled him as he participated in the post-'68 "tightening of the screws in the ideological sphere." He worked his way up in careerist fashion, carefully cultivating Brezhnev's trust and throwing a more principled socialist reformist under the bus from time to time. He also developed a career-defining friendship with KGB head Yuri Andropov, who positioned him to seize the role of general secretary in 1985. (Andropov, a scourge of dissidents known for dispatching skeptics of the state to mental hospitals, also lived a double life; when the two men went hiking together, he would bring along recordings of non-conformist singer-songwriters such as Vladimir Vysotsky.)
Gorbachev's foreign missions as a Soviet official enlarged the dilemma of his dual persona. Visiting Canada in 1983 as Moscow central committee secretary in charge of agriculture, he found a future collaborator in Alexander Yakovlev, a disaffected, U.S.-educated international-relations specialist sticking out a posting as Soviet ambassador ("It was as if [our] conversations sketched the contours of the reforms to come in the USSR," Yakovlev later said). Visiting London in 1984, Gorbachev impressed Margaret Thatcher. There, again, was the subversive influence of Mlynar, who had told the Russia scholar Archie Brown – an adviser to Thatcher – that Gorbachev was "open-minded, intelligent and anti-Stalinist." Thatcher passed the word on to Ronald Reagan.
When Gorbachev became general secretary the following year, he plunged almost immediately into a two-headed role. At home, he launched an ill-fated anti-alcohol campaign that hurt the economy and annoyed Soviet citizens. He also began perestroika, or "restructuring," an ambitious reform program that would eventually lead to zero-gravity democratization. Abroad, he won adulation as a peacemaker willing to negotiate an end to the decades-long nuclear-arms race with the U.S., and even to seek, along with Reagan, the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. Attending arms-control summits in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow, Gorbachev courted a jolly audience of smiling Western statesmen, international media and the occasional movie star.
If much of what Gorbachev offered the West was sweet, back home he was pushing bitter truths and hard demands. Following the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl (an example, he acknowledged, of "stunning irresponsibility"), he rolled out his sweeping program of glasnost, or "openness." Glasnost focused first on party, state and social organizations, but soon led to a flowering of literary publishing – banned books such as Mikhail Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog appeared for the first time – as well as a gutter press. It also entailed the first thorough reckoning with Stalin's murderous legacy. These were inspiring times for restive liberals, but nothing compensated for the failures of perestroika, which made the Soviet Union a harder place to live.
The Czechoslovak model of "socialism with a human face," Gorbachev later confessed in his memoirs, was the plan he had had in mind for the Soviet Union all along. "What was 1968 in the light of 1987-1988?" he wrote. "It was when we should have begun perestroika, 20 years ago." But since Brezhnev had forbidden that experiment, whatever potential it had was untested. And while a parody of it played out in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries more or less dodged Gorbachev's sixties nostalgia, experiencing instead his benign neglect, which left their not-so-humane socialist leaders hissing like vampires in the early dawn.
The conflict Gorbachev set up between an ill-defined reformist socialism – characterized by a contradictory attempt to operate a Communist Party-led democracy – and those who wanted to go on reading from a Stalinist script left him with few admirers at home. Liberals and dissidents found him absurd, hypocritical and authoritarian. The party old guard despised him for spitting on their glories and creating instability, and a group of them tried and failed to overthrow him in a 1991 coup. Boris Yeltsin, a former party man turned vulgar populist, allowed the final breakup of the union over Gorbachev's objections, but most Russians saw Gorbachev as the man who kicked the legs out from under it.
Today, many Russians assume that Westerners approve of Gorbachev because he made their country weak, polarized and chaotic. But even if Gorbachev was vain and approval-seeking, three of his achievements were extraordinary: the treaties on nuclear de-escalation that made the world safer; the liberation of Eastern Europe; and the lasting effects of glasnost. While he didn't manage to wipe out the Stalinist legacy entirely (and even flirted with keeping a few dark Stalin-era secrets), Stalin's contemporary admirers now have Gorbachev's legacy to contend with. Taubman sees in Gorbachev a tragic hero, but his astounding synthesis of interviews, archival sources, memoirs and press reports presents an all-too-human story, which you can read for yourself.
Roland Elliott Brown is a Canadian writer who lives in London. He has written for The Guardian, The Spectator and Foreign Policy.