Hello, and welcome to The Eurasian Enigma, the podcast of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. I'm Cris Martin and today I have the pleasure of talking with Dr. William Taubman, the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at Amherst College, and author of a new biography on Mikhail Gorbachev. Thanks so much for being with us today, Bill.
I'm glad to be here.
So, your new biography of Gorbachev comes out this month, but you're no stranger to the format, as you have written a previous very well-known and award-winning biography of another Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. What is it about the format of the biography that appeals to you, in terms of the storytelling, and what do you think that format tells a reader that maybe a national history or a more periodic history, like a history of the Cold War, might obscure?
I have to say that I found biography late in my career. I never set out to be a biographer. I set out to write about Russia, or the Soviet Union. In fact, when I started working on Khrushchev, I had no notion it would turn into a biography, but as I wrote about him I decided he was more interesting than, let's say, Soviet-American relations in his period, which is what I started to write about, and I've come to believe that biography is not only fun for me to write—I hope for people to read—but it is a wonderful window onto the study of not only the person you're writing about, but the larger society that this person is in.
I think that both Khrushchev and Gorbachev turned out to be particularly perfect subjects for biography—says he modestly—because they were not only leaders of a country, but they were leaders of a totalitarian or post-totalitarian country in which the leader had an unusual amount of power, more than leaders have in democratic countries, because there are fewer constraints on them. And furthermore, both these leaders, Khrushchev and then Gorbachev, acted uniquely, which is to say idiosyncratically, which is to say they did things that other leaders in their position would not have done. And that is an invitation to a scholar or a writer to try to understand their character, because if what you can say is they did more or less what others would have done in their spot, like Brezhnev, for example, then you can explain a lot of what they did by referring to the values that they share with others. But when they do things differently, then you have a clue that they might be acting in response to internal forces and drives, even compulsions. So that way biography becomes, as I said, not only biography, but a window onto a wider world.
So, unlike your biography of Khrushchev, Gorbachev was alive—and still is, of course, alive—while you were writing this biography. So, obviously you had access to his own memoirs, but how did the fact that you were able to interview Gorbachev—I think you indicated that you had interviewed him maybe about eight times in preparation—how did that impact your process, and did it any way feel either liberating or constraining to be dealing with a subject of your book who was alive?
To be able to interview the man I was writing about, Gorbachev, was a wonderful thing. I and my wife, Professor Jane Taubman at Amherst College, did indeed interview him eight times, and we learned a tremendous amount. I learned things I didn't even expect to learn. I heard him say things that I was surprised he was willing to say, and putting what he said together with what other people said, and what memoirs of other people said, and documents and all the other things that one would study, I think I got a picture of him that was more rounded in some ways than I did of Khrushchev.
I would say also this: while we're talking about writing about a living leader versus a man who was dead, that was interesting, because I think both had advantages and disadvantages. In the case of Khrushchev, it was harder to find people who were still alive, but when I did, they were willing to talk, in part because Khrushchev was gone. They didn't have to worry about what he might think of what they said, whereas in Gorbachev's case I encountered people who were, I think, looking over their shoulder at what Gorbachev might say. I'll give you an example. Vadim Bakatin was the Minister of Interior under Gorbachev, and actually briefly the head of the KGB. I called him up on the phone, and speaking Russian, I asked him, I said, "I'm an American professor writing a biography of Gorbachev. I'm wondering whether you would have the time and interest to talk to me?" and he said in Russian, "I have the time, but not the interest." And I think he was thinking, and this is just my guess, but my guess is that maybe he had come to be more critical of Gorbachev in retrospect than he was at the time, but they had been friends and colleagues, and he might have imagined it would be inappropriate to criticize him later for what he had praised at the time. This is just my guess, and if this is true, I respect him for that, but at any rate, I never got to talk to him.
You know, I couldn't help but feel when I was reading—particularly about Gorbachev's early life, which I didn't know very much about—that his story comes off sounding a little bit "American dream-ish." He's born into a poor family of farmers in a village that's 1,200 kilometers south of Moscow, and he has a strong family connection, he works hard, he gets an education, he comes up through the rank and file system of the USSR at the time, serving in the Komsomol in Stavropol, again another small city in Russia, then eventually, of course, rises up and up until he becomes the Premier of the USSR, and I wondered if there was something unique about the system itself? In the U.S. we pride ourselves on the idea that you can be anything, but in the USSR was there something about the system, the fact that it was theoretically based on equality, on equal shares, that allowed Gorbachev to have this rise?
What I'm tempted to say, by way of being self-critical of myself, is that it's always possible that I read the American dream into his story, but I don't think so. I mean, I would imagine I would consider that possibility, but then I would reject it, because you're quite right: the Soviet Union, like the United States, was based on a notion of a dream, which is that the oppressed of the earth would rise up and become the governors of their own fate. They even had a kind of affirmative action system in which children of proletarian families, and to a lesser extent peasant families, were encouraged to aspire and to rise, and they even gave them favored access to universities like Moscow University, where Gorbachev became a student.
So I think it was real. But I'll tell you something else that is related to writing about a person like this: I came to the conclusion, after talking to him, and examining his life and career, that he had a kind of Horatio Alger rise from rags, not to riches, but from rags to power. I was saying as much as I drafted that first chapter, but after I had said that in my own words, I suddenly came upon him saying, "We were dirt poor, but I felt wonderful," talking about his childhood, and I think that was the case.
You also referenced the line, which I thought was great, "A tsar must act like a tsar, and that I don't know how to do." Can you talk a little bit more about his character, and how you saw that playing out in his actions, particularly in his leadership?
He was a remarkably self-confident person, to a fault, even, and I think in retrospect he admits this was a fault. He was optimistic, he trusted people—a very, very interesting element of character for someone who grew up in the 1930s in the Soviet Union and saw several of his relatives starve as a result of the famine. Saw both his grandfathers arrested in the purges, although they were both released. He lived in a village that the Nazis occupied for three months. After the war when Stalin clamped down again and there was another famine as the war ended. To emerge from all of this optimistic, trusting in people, confident, is quite a miracle, and it must owe in large part to his genes, to his character, although I also believe it was encouraged by his father—who seems to have been a wonderful man, didn't try to dominate him, encouraged him, loved him without saying it, because Russian men, especially, I think, it that era, in those villages, didn't go around saying "I love you" to their children—and a wonderful set of grandparents.
To think as he did, that he could democratize the Soviet Union in a few short years, to believe that he might also be able to create a market economy out of a command economy, to believe all of these things took a tremendous amount of optimism, but it's more than that, because to do these things he tried to bring together the hard-line communists and the radical democrats. To believe that he could do that required the same personality features. So these features of character and personality, which we've talked about, are not only central to understanding what he aspired to do, they're also central to understanding why he failed, in the end, to succeed in what he was doing.
Well, that's an excellent way to go into my next question, which is that there's a different understanding of Gorbachev from a Western perspective and from a Russian perspective, and for those Westerners, Americans in particular, who are not familiar with the Russian side of the story, they're often surprised by the fact that Gorbachev is not respected at home in Russia by the majority of people. In the West, obviously, we have very much a conception of him as a liberator, as the man who helped bring down the Berlin Wall, who helped end the Cold War, and who brought democracy to Russia.
And, of course, to the Russian perspective they see that, but what they see is as revoking their great power status and leading to the collapse of the USSR, which was a leading nation, and then they also associate him with some of the terrible things that happened in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin's leadership, but that they think were a direct result of the fact that the USSR collapsed at all. How do you think those things can be reconciled? And if you're giving an assessment of Gorbachev, the man and his leadership, his tenure, what is the grade that he gets in his role?
The situation you describe is, I think, sad, very sad. I can understand why we admire him in the West. I admire him, and I'm not ashamed to show that in the book, but I also see how the Russians, or many of them—and that's important to say: many of them, not all of them—many Russians can feel that things turned sour, badly so, under him and afterwards. There was an economic crash. I was there often in the late 80s and 90s, and we had dear, dear friends—intellectuals, writers—who were a little unrealistic about the world, and they used to talk proudly of how they had saved 35,000 rubles, with which they said they could anytime they wanted buy a new car, and by the time, well at some point in the 90s, as a result of the rampant inflation, their 35,000 rubles were worth what had been before 35 rubles, and they were lucky if they could buy a loaf of bread. So people suffered. There was unemployment in effect, there was inflation.
I remember the sorry sight of streets in Moscow with old people standing elbow to elbow for blocks holding out in their hands the one or two valuable items from their homes, which they were desperately trying to sell for a pittance to people who walked by, so they could buy food and live. So you can see for that reason, as well as because, as you said, they lost a country, the Soviet Union, they lost an empire and there are other reasons why they turned against Gorbachev at the time. It goes back to something you said earlier, quoting Gorbachev, saying, "You have to be a tsar and that I cannot be." Gorbachev was not a tsar. Gorbachev was a man with a basically democratic mentality, and the Russians, again not all Russians, but too many Russians, are used to strong-hand leadership. Tough leadership. Gorbachev didn't want to use force.
So among all the other things for which many Russians despise Gorbachev, one of them is that he was too democratic, he was too soft. I came across people who said, "He was willing to change his mind, he was too soft." Willing to change his mind. He was willing to listen to people, that's how soft he was. So things that we would consider virtues, or at least some of us would, or at least some of us would until quite recently in this country, too many Russians considered vices.
One episode that was sort of new to me was the idea that the coup that happened in August 1991, that maybe somehow Gorbachev himself was involved, or had an understanding that something was happening, was going to happen, and that maybe he tried to use that to his advantage, to try and get more support from Soviet citizens. Where do you fall down on that idea?
My advice to you would be to forget it, now that you've heard it, because I think it's damn wrong. The main reason I have for not believing that is actually personal again. He was a loving husband to his wife and a devoted father and grandfather, and his wife, during that coup, had a stroke, a mini-stroke from which she in effect never really fully recovered. So the thought that Gorbachev would be involved in setting up that kind of situation just seems to me impossible. That's not the man that I think I came to know both personally and as a biographer.
When she died in 1999 of leukemia, he actually said in an interview, "I'm the one who did it. I did her in." What he meant was that she was not cut out by character for the life that he insisted she lead. She wanted him to retire, or at least she wanted him to consider retiring. And once she was really sick, she said, "If only we could go home, and retire to a cottage by the sea." Well, even after he was ousted, he insisted on remaining a political person. He ran for President of Russia in 1996. He campaigned up and down and she insisted on going with him.
I'd like to know what you think understanding about Gorbachev helps us to understand Russia today.
I think there is a link between Vladimir Putin's popularity and the fact that he has, in effect, made the main planks of his political platform, at home and abroad, the reversal of what Gorbachev tried to do. I mean, Gorbachev tried to democratize Russia, tried to bring about free speech and greater freedoms for the individual. Putin has been cracking down. Gorbachev had an image, which was probably unrealistic, that he could not only end the Cold War, but he could finally transcend the divide between East and West in Europe. And Putin has presided, not alone, with a little help from the West itself, in fomenting a new Cold War. So almost everything Putin's done is the reverse of what Gorbachev did, and that helps to account for his popularity because Gorbachev has remained so unpopular.
In terms of personality, would you argue that their personalities are almost diametrically opposed from each other?
In many ways they are. Gorbachev was very vocal. He talked too much, frankly. He was trying to explain to his people what he was doing and why, and believing that they would understand and support him. Putin, on the other hand, is more Machiavellian. He keeps his mouth shut, except when it's useful to speak. He's learned Machiavelli's maxim, which is it's better to be feared than to be loved. Gorbachev wanted to be loved.
You can see a lot of that in the way that Gorbachev did court the West, because he did get so much positive feedback for his work in the West that it was easy for him to look there for that source of affection. But we also know from the book that Gorbachev has often supported Vladimir Putin. Do you think, in a way, that is Gorbachev reconciling with his own...I don't know if "faults" is the right word—where he should have been different, and what he sees were Putin's strengths might be making up for a weakness of his?
I struggle to understand the degree to which Gorbachev has supported Putin, and I would say this, first of all: Gorbachev understood that by the time Putin took over in 2000 after nearly 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union under his own rule, Gorbachev believed that at that point, Russia needed a certain amount of authoritarianism. In fact, he said that, but he accompanied that by saying that he believed that Putin was basically a democrat, and that in due course, sooner rather than later, Putin would return to some of the democratic features that he and Yeltsin had tried to foster. I think in that sense he misjudged Putin. Gorbachev opposed Putin's reelection in 2012.
So he's been very critical, Gorbachev has been very critical of Putin, but as late as April 2017, when asked by a German newspaper, "Do you still trust Putin?" he said, "Yes, I still do." Then there's foreign affairs. I think Gorbachev—I know Gorbachev feels, in retrospect, that he was betrayed by the West, that the West did not give him the kind of economic Marshall Plan that he needed at the end. Then there was Germany, and NATO. Gorbachev, as we all know, accepted the reunification of Germany, he accepted a reunified Germany's membership in NATO, but he thought he had a promise from Secretary of State James Baker that NATO would not expand one inch to the east. But Gorbachev believed he had a promise, and what happened? NATO expanded.
I imagine that Gorbachev feels that when it comes to dealing with the West, some of Putin's toughness in response to the expansion of NATO may not be an entirely bad thing.
Including his annexation of Crimea.
Well, Gorbachev has praised the fact that Crimea is now part of Russia, citing the overwhelming vote by Crimeans in favor of joining Russia. Of course, we know that that vote was carried out under, in the presence of, Russian forces, but it's probably true they would've voted that way.
So my last question is: in the very first question we talked about your conversations with Gorbachev himself, and you've said that some things that he said surprised you. Would you care to share a couple of things that either caught you by surprise, or might be interesting for our listeners to know?
Well, in the first chapter of my book, I talk about Gorbachev's relations with his parents, and as I said earlier, his father seems to have been a wonderful father. His mother, not quite so. I think she loved him in her own way, and she certainly protected him during the war when his father was off at the front, and if he survived it's largely owing to her, and he knows that, but she was the disciplinarian of the family. Until he turned 13, she was the one who picked up the belt and whipped him. And he talked about how at that point, when he was 13 years old, the war was already on, he grabbed her arm and said, "Never again," and how she wept, and I asked him why she wept and he said, "Because she no longer had anybody she could control."
I wondered whether the way his mother treated him didn't help produce a kind of need to be number one, to be the top man, to be loved in a way that she perhaps didn't. But when I talked about this with my wife especially, she said, "Don't attribute too much to that." And when I talked about this with other people, they said, "Peasant children were whipped all the time by their fathers, perhaps by their mothers." You know, if all of them were whipped when they misbehaved, how can you possibly ascribe all of this significance to this one scene? So I don't. Except as an amateur psychologist, but I must say I didn't expect him to tell me that.
Yeah. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Thank you. I enjoyed it a lot.