When Mikhail Gorbachev took charge of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985, his country encompassed more territory, stood up a larger army, and deployed more nuclear weapons than any other on earth. These measurements by which we normally gauge power had not changed by Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down; nor by the summer of 1990, when Gorbachev accepted a reunified Germany in NATO; nor even by Dec. 25, 1991, when he proclaimed the end of the Soviet Union. They did not seem to matter to Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who was determined to revitalize communism and put an end to the Cold War, yet had no clear plan for how to use the resources at his disposal to do so. Because no country dared attack the Soviet Union, he was certain that his country could afford to take risks to usher in a better future for the region and the world.
“Gorbachev is hard to understand,” as he himself acknowledged to biographer William Taubman, whose 2003 Khrushchev: The Man and His Era won a Pulitzer Prize. Taubman’s latest book, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, may well deserve that same distinction. It is a masterful work that clearly illuminates the motivations and actions of the most consequential former statesman alive. Among Gorbachev’s standout characteristics were maturity, temperance, imagination, self-confidence, self-discipline, good humor, and warmth. “As leaders go, especially Soviet leaders,” Taubman writes in the introduction, “Gorbachev was a remarkably decent man — too decent, many Russians and some Westerners have said, too unwilling to use force when force was needed to save the new democratic Soviet Union he was creating.” Taubman asks, “Why, when his enemies were willing to use force to crush the freedom he had introduced, was he unwilling to use force to save it?” He continues:
Was [Gorbachev] intellectually convinced, after all the blood that had flowed in Russia’s history, especially in the wars and purges of the twentieth century, that more must not be shed? Was it an emotional aversion based on personal exposure to the terrible cost of war and violence?
The answer to both questions is a clear “yes,” and Gorbachev acted according to these deeply held beliefs. Yet, at the same time, he was making it up as he went along, adapting his philosophy to what he saw as he experienced the Soviet Union and the world through the eyes of a newly elevated leader.
Following his elevation from regional party boss in Stavropol to Central Committee secretary in Moscow in 1978, Gorbachev surrounded himself with talented, like-minded advisors. His relationships with the members of his inner circle were intense. The diaries of his national security advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, traverse a wide range of human emotions when it comes to his boss, even though he stuck with Gorbachev — unlike Alexander Yakovlev, perhaps the chief architect of the policies of perestroika and glasnost, whose frustration with Gorbachev spurred his departure from the Politburo in July 1990. In December of that year, at the height of the Persian Gulf crisis, foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze also resigned, before returning to the job briefly in November 1991, around the same time Yakovlev reentered the leader’s orbit. These three men huddled with Gorbachev on the evening of Dec. 21, 1991, as he prepared his farewell speech. Absent was the late Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, who had led Soviet arms control delegations during the crucial five-year period from the October 1986 Reykjavik meeting to the July 1991 Moscow Summit — where Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush signed START I — yet had taken his own life in the days following the August 1991 attempted coup in which he participated. (A particularly haunting chapter in Svetlana Alexievich’s masterpiece, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, is “On the Lonely Red Marshal And Three Days of Forgotten Revolution.”)
As Taubman demonstrates, however, Gorbachev’s only truly indispensable advisor was his wife, Raisa. When he returned to Moscow from his dacha in Crimea after the August 1991 coup attempt collapsed, the logical next step would have been to head downtown to rally his supporters. Gorbachev did not. He was far more concerned about Raisa, who remained traumatized from the family’s house arrest. Here is a moment where Gorbachev’s decency prevailed over considerations of power. Taubman depicts Raisa not only as the love of Gorbachev’s life but also as a professional partner. At Moscow State University, he writes of her earlier years, “students studied the great philosophers in textbooks, outlines, and carefully selected translations.”
But Raisa insisted on trying to read Hegel, Fichte, and Kant in the original German, and recruited Mikhail to help her. Raisa tried to read Western political theorists in primary sources – Thomas Jefferson, for example, whose vow of ‘“eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man’ made a great impression on Gorbachev.”
Teaching at the medical institute in Stavropol, Taubman recounts, Raisa lectured on Hegel, Kant, Lenin, and philosophical trends in other countries, among other weighty topics. Wherever they went, Misha and Raya were a team. When they traveled to France in 1977, it “shook [their] a priori belief in the superiority of socialist over bourgeois democracy.” There had been no tradition of a public first lady in post-tsarist Russia, prior to Raisa’s fulfilling this role; nor has there been one since. Taubman quotes her as saying, “Lysistrata . . . is needed in every home. And in every family as a means of preserving it. Because devastating wars can break out in families. But Lysistrata is herself in need of protection and help.”
Gorbachev valued his wife’s counsel as he attempted to withdraw from Afghanistan while reinvigorating Soviet life at home — beginning with an ill-fated anti-alcoholism campaign in 1985. “We can’t go on like this,” he confided in her that March. From their travels to Western Europe, they grasped how people in industrialized societies ought to be living in the 1980s. Few Soviet citizens shared such experiences or expected much accountability from their leaders. There was no popular clamor for reform in the Soviet Union — notwithstanding demographic changes within a multiethnic empire embroiled in an unwinnable economic competition with the United States and bogged down in a hopeless war in Afghanistan. When economic reforms failed to yield clear and immediate results, Gorbachev doubled down on political reforms. He launched Glasnost (or, “giving voice”) in 1987. In 1989, he presided over televised sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies, where he argued with elected member and nuclear scientist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov, whose internal exile Gorbachev had lifted a few years earlier.
The pace of reform alienated erstwhile supporters in the Central Committee — too fast for Yegor Ligachev; too slow for Boris Yeltsin. Yet it was very deliberate. “One thing Gorbachev rejected from the start was any attempt to recast the Soviet system by means of force and violence,” as Taubman puts it. “Whatever changes he introduced had to be ‘gradual,’ [Gorbachev] wrote later, since ‘revolutionism leads to chaos, destruction and often to a new kind of unfreedom.’” Taubman’s next line is crucial for Gorbachev’s placement in history:
This was Gorbachev’s sharpest break of all with tradition – not only with the Bolsheviks’ bloody way of doing things but with other Russians’ belief, both before 1917 and after 1991, that glorious ends justify the most repugnant means. His great insight was to realize that means that don’t prefigure admirable ends will all too often compromise and contaminate those ends.
From the moment he became general secretary, Gorbachev attempted to adapt communism to make the Soviet system work. This led him to jettison the mantra of “international class conflict,” aspire to eliminate nuclear weapons, accept political experimentation in Poland and Hungary, and tolerate outright anti-government protest movements in East Germany and elsewhere. Lech Wałęsa and other heroes of the end of the Cold War put their lives on the line. For Gorbachev, it was only ever his political career. Still, the fall of the Berlin Wall and revolutions of 1989 to 1990 would not have occurred without him.
The strategic arms balance between the superpowers during Gorbachev’s time in Moscow is a topic Taubman might have explored further. He does not really grapple with the stark contrast between Gorbachev’s disdain for nuclear weapons on the one hand, and the intense Soviet nuclear buildup on the other. The buildup continued after March 1985, and included deployment of the SS-24 and SS-25 rail and road-based ICBMs as well as other systems that David Hoffman covers so chillingly in his 2009 book The Dead Hand. In November 1987, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates cited the “continuing extraordinary scope and sweep of Soviet military modernization and weapons research and development.” Gates had reason to be cautious, but he also failed to recognize that Gorbachev did not seem to care how many and which versions of the SS-18 his country possessed. In April of that year, the Russian leader’s nonchalant attitude about nuclear theology — which had only intensified following the catastrophe at Chernobyl the previous year — led him to include the SS-23 missile in a prospective treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces. While hardliners in the Soviet military never forgave Gorbachev for this concession and others that followed, they often targeted their criticism at Shevardnadze, a complicated and confounding person who shows up in Taubman’s book less than I expected.
Upon his departure in December 1990, Shevardnadze warned of a coming dictatorship. Although these fears were exaggerated, Gorbachev did act much more aggressively toward the Soviet Union’s breakup than he did when Eastern Europe first jettisoned communism in 1989–1990. Following Lithuania’s declaration of independence in March 1990, Gorbachev imposed an economic blockade; on Jan. 13,1991, fifteen Lithuanians died when Soviet troops stormed the main television tower in Vilnius. “Hard evidence concerning Gorbachev’s responsibility [for the ‘January Events’] is lacking,” Taubman writes. “And testimony from those in a position to know (or perhaps not to know, but willing to say anyway) is contradictory.” Disinclined toward violence, tolerant of German and Polish nationalism, Gorbachev nevertheless regarded Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — which Stalin had forcibly annexed during World War II — as part of a post-Soviet union. Disunion, he anticipated, would usher in even more violence — something the world watched play out in former Yugoslavia a few years later. “Yes, absolutely,” the union between Russia and its neighbors could have been preserved, he wrote in one of several book-length reflections on this period, had not the August 1991 coup disrupted his momentum toward producing a new union treaty.
Gorbachev’s defenses of his actions and insistence on a lost alternative to the Commonwealth of Independent States have not rehabilitated his stature among his countrymen. They do not change the overall narrative about his time in the Kremlin: Perestroika wrought the tumultuous 1990s, and left Russia, for all its land and weapons, a superpower no longer. “Over half of all Russians now believe Leonid Brezhnev was their best leader in the 20th century, followed by Lenin and Stalin,” Odd Arne Westad writes in a recent New York Times article. “Gorbachev is at the bottom of the list.” In a poll limited to those four options, I suspect, most Americans would likely put Gorbachev at the top. Even the most fervent proponents of the “Reagan Victory School” when it comes to the end of the Cold War will acknowledge that Gorbachev proved to be a highly constructive figure. This variance is worthy of reflection as Americans and Russians attempt to redefine their relationship a generation after the heady times of seemingly unlimited possibilities that Taubman recounts.
In moments of great despair, he reminds us, the life and times of Gorbachev can offer sublime hope. “One day in 1945, someone ran up to [the teenaged] Misha and cried, ‘Your father is coming,’” Taubman writes in an early chapter. He goes on to quote Gorbachev’s recollection of how World War II, in which over twenty million Soviet soldiers and civilians were killed, ended for him personally:
At first I didn’t believe it, but then I saw him. We walked toward each other. He looked at me. What we were feeling is hard to describe. He grabbed me and embraced me. He saw that I was wearing a rough shirt made of hemp, and rough, wool pants, homemade, too. I was barefoot, but I was healthy. I stood there. He looked at me again and said something that I’ve remembered my whole life: “We fought until we ran out of fight,” he said. “That’s how you must live.”
James Graham Wilson is a historian at the U.S. Department of State and the author of The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War. He is the editor of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1981–1988, Volume III, Soviet Union, January 1981–January 1983 and Foreign Relations of the United States, 1981–1988, Volume VI, Soviet Union, October 1986–1989. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.