Interview with William Taubman, author of Pushkin Prize 2018 shortlisted book 'Gorbachev'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

What inspired you to study the Soviet Union?                

Growing up in the 1950s, I was a news junkie interested in the Cold War. I remember seeing Khrushchev riding through Central Park in a limousine in 1959. My mother’s parents came from the Black Sea and spoke Russian. Pretty early on, I began puzzling over how a movement that had begun with a vision of heaven on earth (namely Marxism) could end up with a Stalininst killing field. I wanted to figure that out, so I began majoring at college in Russian history, and eventually made that question a main theme of my course on Soviet politics. 

Why pick Gorbachev for a biography?

Looking back, it seems a very logical choice after my book on Khrushchev. Gorbachev picked up the banner of reform. But actually, it took a night train ride from Moscow to Saratov for a conference in 2004 to convince me opt for Gorbachev. On train with me and my wife  with was a Russian émigré historian, Svetlana Savranskaya, who had read my Khrushchev biography and spent the whole night trying to convince me that Gorbachev was the book I should write. In the US, several biographies of him were written when he was in power but nobody had approached it since. In a way it’s easier to understand why so few biographies of him exist in Russia, because he’s such a controversial figure that anyone who contemplates it is drawn into a polemic--so the serious scholars have stayed away.

What surprising insights did you have during your research?

When he was climbing the ladder in Stavropol and at first in Moscow, my impression from the archives and reading his speeches was that he was a good listener who measured his words. Once he got to the top, especially once things began to go badly, he got more long-winded, and that became a weakness. But my wife (who taught Russian language and literature at Amherst College) and I interviewed him eight times for two hours each. The surprise was how informal, warm, natural and humorous he was. I expected he’d want to see questions in advance, or have his own interpreter, but he didn’t. It was also surprising how often he unintentionally undercut his own cause as Soviet leader. The whole project was arguably doomed from the start given the raw material of Russia he was working with, trying to democratise in a few short years a country that had never really known democracy. But he sometimes sabotaged himself by being overconfident that he could control the hardliners and Yeltsin.

Why did he never feel able to criticise Lenin?

This remains something of a puzzle to me. By 1990-91, Gorbachev had in effect become a kind of social democrat, but he continued to insist he was loyal to Lenin. I think it was partly political, because by reiterating his fealty to Lenin he could try to appeal to the communist hardliners. It was also psychologically important to him to feel that he, like Lenin, was forging a new path, adapting to realities and undertaking reforms (as Lenin did toward the very end of this life) to save the revolution.

Did he have blood on his hands?

Compared with Khrushchev, who said he had blood up to his elbows, Gorbachev compromised along the way and kept his mouth shut. During the Prague Spring in 1968, he gave speeches condemning liberalisation and justifying the Soviet intervention. He condemned a former colleague of his wife’s at the local institute in Stavropol. But you could see he was trying to be as gentle as was possible under those conditions and he kept up good relations with him even after he was banished. He voted “yes” during the repressions under Andropov when he was asked, but he wasn’t consulted on the invasion of Afghanistan.  

How do you explain his relationship with Putin?

It’s surprisingly mixed. Putin has essentially reversed almost all Gorbachev’s reforms: the parliament has been tamed, votes if not rigged at least prefabricated by denying opposition voices, the press muzzled. A new cold war has begun. You might have expected Gorbachev to be unrelentingly critical. In fact he has been from time to time quite positive on Putin, for example, approving the annexation of Crimea and not condemning the war in Ukraine.  The two men are surprisingly close on foreign affairs. Gorbachev doesn’t like the new Cold War that Putin has fomented (with a little help from American leaders), but he’s been very fierce in his criticisms of the US after 1991. I think he feels betrayed by the US and other western powers whom he thought had assured him in 1990 that either NATO would not expand or at least be radically modified and become non-military.

Is Putin a product of Gorbachev?

Putin certainly isn’t following marching orders from Gorbachev, but he is reacting to what he sees as Gorbachev’s legacy. He has reversed much of what Gorbachev attempted to create. You have to add Yeltsin to the pick. The state began to wither away until Putin began to put it back together again. In Putin’s mind, Gorbachev bears a great deal of the blame, and he set out to rectify what he thinks Gorbachev began.

How will Russia judge him in the future?

It depends on whether and when Russia moves back on a path towards some sort of liberal democracy. If that happens – which I don’t expect will happen soon – I think Russians will look back on Gorbachev as the man who opened the door. But if - as is quite possible - Russia remains on an authoritarian trajectory, I’m afraid Gorbachev may seem to the people to be the one who took the wrong turn.

What is your own assessment of Gorbachev?

He is a tragic hero. He laid the groundwork for freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union, organised the first free elections, which have not equalled since. Glasnost became virtually free speech. He replaced a rubber stamp parliament with a genuine one. Even more than any of the other leaders including Reagan, Gorbachev ended the Cold War. It he had not been in power, the Soviet leadership would have continued it. But his is a tragic history: he failed to achieve what he wanted to achieve. It was more a Shakespearian than Greek tragedy: the fault was partly his own, although the basic problem was not he, it was Russia itself.

Do you have a new book project?

I’m afraid I’ve run out of Russian leaders. There are so many good books on Lenin and Stalin. Brezhnev does not excite me. I’m trying to think about projects that might go beyond Russia.