*Gorbachev: His Life and Times*

by on September 12, 2017 at 12:48 am in Books, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new biography by William Taubmann, who won a Pulitzer for his Khruschev book.  At first I didn’t want to read it, feeling I was already too familiar with the topic, but it was a fascinating treatment throughout, with many revelations.  It is perhaps the best overall treatment of how the Soviet Union collapsed, and the parts on Gorbachev’s early career provide a superior look at how Soviet bureaucracy and the Communist Party actually functioned.

Here is one bit:

In retrospect, his best chance to prevent Communism from collapsing, taking with it the whole Soviet alliance system in Europe, would have been to encourage reformers like himself to take command of their countries with the support of their people.  Instead, he gave every appearance in his public meetings with the old guard [Honecker, Husák, Zhivkov] of backing them…

One of the best parts of the book is when Taubmann shows how Gorbachev’s treatment of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict reflected both Gorby’s strengths and weaknesses early on.

Here is another bit:

“She [Raisa Gorbachev] displayed an extraordinary knowledge of British history and philosophy,” then British ambassador to Moscow Bryan Cartledge remembered.  “When she came across a portrait of David Hume, she knew all about him.”

Mrs. Thatcher was stunned, and later Nancy Reagan was envious and tried to keep up.  As for Ronald Reagan, to prepare for his meetings with Gorbachev, for a while he was receiving several two-hour tutoring sessions a week from Russian historians and other experts.

Perhaps the most startling part of the book is when the reader learns that even during the height of the Eastern Europe crisis, foreign policy received no more than five or six percent of the time of Gorbachev and the Politburo; the focus instead was on domestic issues and reforms.

Strongly recommended, this will be one of the two or three best books of the year, compulsively readable, fun, and informative all at once.  Here is a rave New York Times review.  You can order it here.

1 stephan September 12, 2017 at 1:02 am

It also got a pretty good review from the Economist. I got it on Kindle 4 days ago ($19.24). Another advantage of the digital format is there is no tax added. I better start reading it now !

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2 Art Deco September 12, 2017 at 7:26 am

“She [Raisa Gorbachev] displayed an extraordinary knowledge of British history and philosophy,” then British ambassador to Moscow Bryan Cartledge remembered. “When she came across a portrait of David Hume, she knew all about him.”

She was a philosophy professor. That she was familiar with philosophers is not surprising.

and later Nancy Reagan was envious and tried to keep up.

With table talk about academic philosophy? Not buying. At the time, the newspaper accounts had it that Mrs. Reagan simply didn’t care for Mrs. Gorbachev, finding her pretentious (“Who does that dame think she is?”). Mrs. Reagan was intelligent in a generic sort of way (although addled by superstition), but she was not someone with intellectual interests at all. She had a circle of friends, but her default setting was to regard other women suspiciously.

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3 Sam Haysom September 12, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Exactly I don’t have much respect for the First Lady but the idea that she was envious of Mrs. Gorbachev is laughable.

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4 Thor September 12, 2017 at 10:24 pm

Well, Nancy could be a Humean skeptic about Communism and Raisa could be a Humean skeptic about astrology. Presto! They could get along.

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5 Matt September 12, 2017 at 8:55 am

Raisa Gorbachev had been a professor and was an academic. Not all Soviet academics were very broad or deep, of course, but many of them were very cultured and learned. This ought not surprise. (For such people, knowing who Hume is is no achievement, of course.) No doubt Nancy Reagan would find anyone like that pretentious. (Who knows that Thatcher expected. She was herself a technically trained person, but perhaps not so well versed in culture.)

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6 Art Deco September 12, 2017 at 9:29 am

No, you find a person like that pretentious according to how and when they deploy their erudition. Tatyana Tostoya claimed (in book reviews) that Mrs. Gorbachev was an abrasive woman in public places and that ordinary Russians generally couldn’t stand her. (Who knows whether that’s true or not or whether what applies in public applies in private conversation – Tolstoya’s assessment of RG had a certain amount of mean-girl meow-meow about it).

Of course, Mrs. Reagan wasn’t the most charitable audience and Mrs. G might have failed no matter what she did.

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7 Ray Lopez September 12, 2017 at 9:50 am

My intuition tells me people are giving Gorbachev too much credit for controlling the USSR. The USSR was always so big, like China, that local politics mattered a lot, and the central authorities were agents of terror and control, but they could not dictate everything, as the ethnic conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis showed. Also probably Gorbachev himself did not realize how much “glasnost” and “peristroka” would break up the Soviet Union, as he was warned would happen, says one story, by one of his economists.

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8 Tom Warner September 12, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Looks interesting and worth checking out. It’s hard to judge from the NYT review as the reviewer is so clearly out of his depth. The dissolution of the USSR and communism is a very poorly understood topic, differently but equally badly outside and inside Russia. So I’ll be very pleasantly surprised if this breaks the trend.

The main thing that gets missed is the rise of the criminal bosses and financially powerful red directors under Gorbachev. Perestroika and the kooperative and joint venture allowed them to legalize embezzled and extorted incomes. That mass diversion of income from the state and state enterprises was what really drove the economic unraveling, which in turn contributed to the global drop in commodity prices in a kind of spiral.

He’ll get extra points if he covers Gorbachev’s seedy role in the privatization to his cronies of the Guinea bauxite mine.

Yeltsin is also misunderstood. The mafia was already hugely powerful by the time he took over, He created new oligarchs to weaken them.

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9 Zach September 12, 2017 at 4:34 pm

I liked his Kruschev book, and the disintegration of the Eastern Block is a fascinating subject that hasn’t been treated very well.

One of the better ways to gain some insight into the last days of the Soviet Union is to read about the histories of some of the oligarchs during the Soviet era. One of them got his big start managing the fresh vegetable warehouses in Moscow — said warehouses being chaotically mismanaged during the Brezhnev era.

In my opinion, the book that needs to be written is a first class biography of Brezhnev. Not because he’s so very interesting, but because he reflects the transition from the revolutionary / post revolutionary era of Lenin / Stalin / Kruschev to the stagnation era of later leaders.

There’s a very distinct inflection point in the history of Eastern Europe where people stopped believing in the system, and there’s a lack of good books in the West that explore the phenomenon.

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10 Catinca September 12, 2017 at 4:55 pm

You mention this will be “one of the two or three best books of the year”. Which others make your list so far in 2017?

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11 Widmerpool September 12, 2017 at 6:23 pm

This may indeed be a good book, but while Tyler may not be the best person to judge. Pretty much every time he comments on Russia he demonstrates he has no idea what he is talking about, seen here again where he believes himself to be over familiar with the subject, but then surprised that domestic reform was vastly more important to Gorbachev than foreign policy, something that would surprise no one with even superficial knowledge of the subject.

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