*Gorbachev: His Life and Times*

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.


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