Gorbachev lived then, as now, in a dual reality — admired and feted in Washington, London and Berlin, reviled and ostracized in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok. William Taubman grapples with this dichotomy in his masterly new biography, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, which will surely stand as the definitive English-language chronicle of this most intriguing figure for many years to come. Taubman, whose brilliant 2003 biography of Nikita S. Khrushchev won the Pulitzer Prize, delivers another richly layered portrait of a Russian leader determined to reform a thoroughly corrupt and dysfunctional society, only to be swept away by forces he could not control ... What emerges is the portrait of a leader who is vain, impatient and at times petulant, but also wise and thoughtful, a complicated man for a complicated time.
...[an] extraordinary new biography ... His admiration and even affection for Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, are clear. That might call into question the impartiality of a lesser biographer. But Taubman makes a convincing case that Gorbachev's profound 'decency' — the word appears throughout the book — is fundamental to understanding him ... It's a big book and the subject is Russia, enough to intimidate many readers. Taubman understands this. One of his gifts is an 11-page 'Cast of Characters,' listing all those inscrutable Russian names with a brief explanation of who is who. And though Taubman is an accomplished scholar, his book is anything but a solemn academic tome. It's gripping.
Taubman offers hard-won glimpses into the heart of a dreamer sharing a body with the mind of a cagey political operative. With insights comparable to those that won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Khrushchev, Taubman here limns the difficulties Gorbachev confronted as he pursued perestroika and glasnost against resistance from hard-liners ready to drive him from office (perhaps into prison), even as liberal activists censured him for stalling. Though Gorbachev reshaped the world, Taubman does not ignore the Soviet leader’s ultimate failure as the liberalization process slipped out of his control and finally broke down in ways since exploited by the reactionary Vladimir Putin. Despite Putin’s retrenchment, Taubman still recognizes in Gorbachev one of the modern era’s greatest benefactors. A masterful portrait, convincing and complete.
William Taubman has written a fascinating, perceptive, and compelling account of the life of a brilliant, driven, but flawed leader who remains to this day, in the Amherst College professor’s eyes, a ‘tragic hero’ … Gorbachev chronicles a life and career, at once, improbable and extraordinarily dramatic … Gorbachev may one day be rehabilitated in the judgment of his fellow Russians. A decade or more from now, Putin and his Soviet-trained generation of leaders will also pass from power. Perhaps then, Taubman concludes in this magisterial book, a younger generation might begin to appreciate anew the extraordinary optimism, hope, and courage that Gorbachev brought to the Kremlin three decades ago when he changed the world for the better.
[Taubman] delivers a meticulously researched, clear-eyed volume that will undoubtedly stand for years as the definitive account of the Soviet Union’s last ruler. His biography is not a thing of literary beauty, but it is reliable and judicious, admiring but never hagiographical ... Mr. Taubman is persuasive in calling him 'a tragic hero who deserves our understanding and admiration,' even if it is a judgment that few of his countrymen share.
How did Putin rise to the top, and whom did he push aside? Between Stalin and Putin there were several chiefs, but probably the most significant is the man who is the subject of Gorbachev … William Taubman in his detailed but vivid biography demonstrates how a man who appeared to be reticent, even shy, was in fact an industrious, sometimes manipulative striver after power.
With a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Nikita Khrushchev to his credit, Taubman is well-positioned to undertake the challenge, and he does so in a clear, direct style. Gorbachev’s cooperation no doubt helped, but cooperation doesn’t necessarily produce sympathy in this evenhanded work ... The narrative is enhanced by a vivid cast of characters, including Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, and ally-turned-rival Boris Yeltsin, not to mention jousting foes such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Rarely seen photos made available by the Gorbachev Foundation add to the experience of reading this important book.
...a superb biography ... [Taubman] devotes a full third of this work to Gorbachev’s early years, and with great skill lays bare the evolution that was so important to his later actions ... In his superb summary, Taubman asserts, 'The Soviet Union fell apart when Gorbachev weakened the state in an attempt to strengthen the individual.' Gorbachev’s accomplishments and his struggle are not appreciated today in Russia or the former Soviet republics. But someday, perhaps, a statue will be built to honor a country bumpkin who rose to the moment in history, and shoved totalitarianism into the grave.
In his thorough and highly readable new biography of Gorbachev, William Taubman does not dwell on the 1996 campaign. It strays perhaps too far from his central tale, which is of Gorbachev’s courageous and historic ending of the Cold War ... Reading Taubman, one gets the sense that Gorbachev was not an accident. True, he was only able to become general secretary because he had powerful patrons; but it was also the case that, once in power, he was able to find within the Communist Party a significant group of like-minded reformers ... From Taubman, one learns that Gorbachev, once at the top, was uncertain about what to do ... Taubman unfortunately devotes almost no attention to the economic challenges that Gorbachev faced, apparently assuming they are self-evident.
What made Gorbachev Gorbachev? ... These are the questions William Taubman, an American political scientist, sets out to answer in his comprehensive and immensely readable account of Mr Gorbachev’s life ... Yet, revealing as the book is about Mr Gorbachev’s ability to overcome ideological dogmas that required squaring up to the West, it is equally revealing about how Western leaders were unable or unwilling to believe him ... Mr Taubman argues that those in power in the West lacked the vision and will to extend a Marshall-type plan to Mr Gorbachev’s Soviet Union (and later to Yeltsin’s Russia) ... Mr Gorbachev’s life—almost uniquely among Soviet leaders—did not end in office, and neither does Mr Taubman’s biography.
In this combination of deeply penetrating history and engrossing psychological study, Taubman draws on a wide range of sources and interviews (including seven with his main subject) to render every major development of the former Soviet leader’s six-year tenure with depth and completeness ...spans Mikhail Gorbachev’s entire life, up to the present day, which finds him despairing over the direction that Russia has taken under President Vladimir Putin ...book grants the reader behind-the-scenes access to Politburo meetings, Gorbachev’s private conversations with aides, and his give-and-takes with foreign leaders.
...the author casts as defining characteristics of his protagonist in this comprehensive, humanizing portrait of a leader caught between political forces ... book spends substantial real estate, as many biographies do, delving into the formative years that shaped the leader the world would later know ...Taubman highlights the man’s innate charm, self-esteem, and optimistic worldview, without which his career would not have been possible. Taubman — pulling from interviews, diaries, and memoirs from Gorbachev and his contemporaries — walks readers through the experiences that sparked Gorbachev’s political tenets...Taubman is able to keep this hefty biography accessible and engaging is an accomplishment unto itself; while the sheer bulk of this tome will dissuade some readers, those who tackle it will be glad they did.
[Taubman] is perfectly qualified to delve into the political psyche of Mikhail Gorbachev, who had everything to do with ending the Cold War and managed to emerge—rather miraculously unscathed—from the layers of Soviet intrigue. The author delivers a series of intriguing questions to drive his page-turning, chronological narrative ... An engaging, poignant portrayal of one of the most significant of Russian leaders.
Relying on transcripts of Politburo meetings, Taubman writes energetically of Kremlin hard-liners’ attempts to derail the reformer as he coped with rising regional nationalism, economic collapse, and other disasters ... Taubman suggests that Gorbachev might have Westernized Russia had the West given enough support at critical moments. Such conclusions require scrutiny, but do not detract from this definitive volume.