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Gorbachev: His Life and Times Hardcover – Illustrated, September 5, 2017
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A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
The definitive biography of the transformational world leader by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Khrushchev.
When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, the USSR was one of the world’s two superpowers. By 1989, his liberal policies of perestroika and glasnost had permanently transformed Soviet Communism, and had made enemies of radicals on the right and left. By 1990 he, more than anyone else, had ended the Cold War, and in 1991, after barely escaping from a coup attempt, he unintentionally presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union he had tried to save. In the first comprehensive biography of the final Soviet leader, William Taubman shows how a peasant boy became the Soviet system’s gravedigger, how he clambered to the top of a system designed to keep people like him down, how he found common ground with America’s arch-conservative president Ronald Reagan, and how he permitted the USSR and its East European empire to break apart without using force to preserve them. Throughout, Taubman portrays the many sides of Gorbachev’s unique character that, by Gorbachev’s own admission, make him “difficult to understand.” Was he in fact a truly great leader, or was he brought low in the end by his own shortcomings, as well as by the unyielding forces he faced?
Drawing on interviews with Gorbachev himself, transcripts and documents from the Russian archives, and interviews with Kremlin aides and adversaries, as well as foreign leaders, Taubman’s intensely personal portrait extends to Gorbachev’s remarkable marriage to a woman he deeply loved, and to the family that they raised together. Nuanced and poignant, yet unsparing and honest, this sweeping account has all the amplitude of a great Russian novel.90 illustrations
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― Peter Baker, New York Times Book Review
"A meticulously researched, clear-eyed volume that will undoubtedly stand for years as the definitive account of the Soviet Union's last ruler."
― Max Boot, Wall Street Journal
"Essential reading for the 21st century."
― Radhika Jones, New York Times
"Superb....enlightening....with great skill [Taubman] lays bare the evolution that was so important to [Gorbachev’s] later actions."
― David E. Hoffman, The Washington Post
"Magisterial....William Taubman has written a fascinating, perceptive, and compelling account of the life of a brilliant, driven, but flawed leader."
― Nick Burns, Boston Globe
"A superbly researched story of a politician of such decency as to seem, in our more pessimistic, darker moment, almost beyond imagining."
― The New Yorker
"William Taubman's extraordinary new biography, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, is fly-on-the-wall history….A riveting page-turner….his book is anything but a solemn academic tome. It's gripping."
― Mark Katkov, NPR
"Sympathetic in his judgments yet clear-eyed in his criticisms, Taubman has rendered Gorbachev in a vast and complex portrait that will be the standard for years to come."
― Michael O'Donnell, Washington Monthly
"[Taubman] applies a Tolstoyan lens to Russia’s recent history and displays particular sensitivity in his assessment of a life that would prove richer than politics."
― The Economist
"This will be one of the two or three best books of the year, compulsively readable, fun, and informative all at once."
― Tyler Cowan
"[A] deeply penetrating history and engrossing psychological study....Taubman draws on a wide range of sources and interviews...to render every major development of the former Soviet leader’s six-year tenure with depth and completeness."
― Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs
"Nobody before Taubman has achieved an in-depth psychological portrait…this monumental biography will become the standard personal portrait. Taubman has charmed more out of [Gorbachev] than any of his subordinates ever managed to."
― Robert Service, Literary Review
"William Taubman has now done for Gorbachev what he had previously done for Khrushchev, giving us the full life deeply grounded in the Soviet and Russian archives, here with the added benefit of Gorbachev’s complete cooperation. Perhaps a hundred years from now, when our perspective on Russia’s role in the world has further clarified, another biography will be needed. For now, however, Gorbachev is the closest thing to the final word that history allows."
― Joseph Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
"This is a meticulously researched, carefully nuanced, and immensely readable biography of a remarkable, but insufficiently understood, twentieth-century political leader. Taubman’s book is destined to remain the fullest and most authoritative life of Gorbachev for years to come."
― Archie Brown, author of The Myth of the Strong Leader and The Rise and Fall of Communism
"Comprehensive, judicious, utterly absorbing, William Taubman’s Gorbachev: His Life and Times gives us rare insight into the man who changed his country and world politics. A model of careful research and compelling narrative skill, this biography is destined to become a modern classic."
― Jack F. Matlock, Jr., author of Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended
"I have had the privilege of knowing many of the great men and women who brought momentous change to the last part of the twentieth century. My friend Mikhail Gorbachev was outstanding among them. So this biography, especially with its attention to his early formative years, is a great addition to our understanding of a key historical period."
― George P. Shultz
"William Taubman has written a remarkable book. He has, at once, captured the complexity of the man, while making Gorbachev’s times―both frightening and hopeful―come alive. The history of the USSR and the world would have been far different if Mikhail Gorbachev had not come to power."
― Susan Eisenhower
"A rich and revealing portrait and a thoroughly engrossing read, Taubman’s penetrating examination of Gorbachev’s rise and fall undermines the argument that Russia can be ruled only by dictators and autocrats--while also exposing how steeply the odds are stacked against any efforts at real reform."
― John Beyrle, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, 2008-2011
"Remarkably, the two most memorable leaders of the Soviet Union in the last half of its existence now have the same superb biographer. William Taubman's Gorbachev, like his Khrushchev, is an extraordinary achievement, full of new information, filled with shrewd judgments, a two-in-a-row triumph in the writing of great lives."
― John Lewis Gaddis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of George F. Kennan: An American Life
"William Taubman’s biography of Mikhail Gorbachev is a much needed, uniquely sourced account of the life, work, and times of the man who critically shaped a peaceful end to the Cold War and great Soviet experiment. Based on a unique blend of archival sources, personal memoirs, and a not-to-be-repeated set of interviews with key actors, Taubman’s superbly written portrait will become the essential and standard work on his subject and a primary source for any future historians of this period."
― James F. Collins, Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, 1997-2001
About the Author
- Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition (September 5, 2017)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 880 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0393647013
- ISBN-13 : 978-0393647013
- Item Weight : 2.65 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.5 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #231,689 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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Gorbachev rose up the party ranks until he was elected chairman of the Politburo in 1985. He saw the death of Soviet Communism. His problems were unable to be solved including the rise of nationalistic and ethnic groups, the devastation in failed harvests and the devastating war in Afghanistan, Soviet production in consumer goods lagged far behind the West. The Berlin Wall fell in 19889 as Germany was reunited, He now His democratic policies of glasnost and restructuring the Soviet state failed to catch hold,. He had powerful opponents including his archenemy Boris Yeltsin,. Gorbachev did well in his summit meeting with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H,.W, Bush. He is an intellectual and well educated as was his late wife Raisa.. He is a fascinating statesman who worked hard for peace and sought to improve the living standards of his huge nation which was already in unstoppable decline.
Dr. William Taubman, the distinguished author of Khrushchev and an emeritus professor at Amherst College has written a long and detailed biographt iof Gorbachev which should become standard in Gorbachev studies. Very well researched, written, illustrated and well worth your time. Recommended with highest praise!
Mr. Taubman clearly explains why the dual shock therapy of “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” that Mr. Gorbachev administered to the former Soviet Union led to 1) the temporary democratization of what is today authoritarian, anti-Western Russia, 2) the economic ruin of many of his fellow citizens, 3) the end of the cold war, 4) the reunification of Germany, and 5) the mostly peaceful disintegration of the former Soviet Union. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Gorbachev has been widely lionized in the West while widely despised in Russia.
Furthermore, Mr. Taubman shows with much dexterity the lack of long-term vision of Western leaders, especially the American political elite in the late 1980s and 1990s. The U.S. political leadership displayed the same short-termism that Wall Street has displayed to this day in offering negligible economic assistance to both the fast-declining Soviet Union and Russia. Winston Churchill wrote on that subject: “The politician thinks about the next election – the statesman thinks about the next generation.” Like well-known Western invaders, these smug Western political leaders have grossly underestimated the resilience of the Russian people. Russia, the successor to the Soviet Union, is again a formidable world power despite its well-known weaknesses.
In summary, Mr. Taubman makes a compelling argumentation that Mr. Gorbachev was exceptional as both a Soviet ruler and world statesman.
En resumen un balance ecuánime, interesante y completo del personaje histórico más influyente de fines del siglo XX.
Top reviews from other countries
The first overriding impression is that Gorbachev is -- and was as he conducted affairs while General Secretary of the CPSU and later President of the Soviet Union -- a good man. He loved his wife and family; he renounced all violence, including in many situations where states much less authoritarian than the Soviet Union might have sanctioned it. The second: as a product of the Soviet Union, and with no grounding in or knowledge of economics or free markets, Gorbachev was utterly unqualified and unprepared to implement economic change that would improve life for citizens and thereby avoid causing the country's collapse. Deng Xiaoping of China called Gorbachev an 'idiot' for 'putting the cart before the horse' i.e. implementing political reforms before the economic improvements that might have instilled patience in a repressed population. Anyway, he did the political loosening first, and the rest is history.
The whole book is good; some parts are wonderful. In particular, see the chapter 'Summits Galore' - an account of Gorbachev's zenith managing Soviet foreign policy from the Reykjavik summit in October 1986 to his great speech before the United Nations in December 1988. The factual history is familiar and well recounted. Where Mr Taubman triumphs is with expression of background detail, atmosphere and interpersonal relationships between the main protagonists. It's delicious and absorbing; see as an example how Nancy Reagan and Raisa Maksimovna Gorbacheva (didn't) get on.
In the end, it's sadness. An increasingly desperate Gorbachev, his power slipping away, seeks US and Western assistance. Realpolitik drives the US and the Europeans to 'bank' Gorbachev's concessions while giving away very little. If they had helped more, and if the August 1991 coup had thereby been avoided, and if the Novo Ogarevo Union Treaty had been signed on August 20, 1991 (when the coup had in fact supervened), we might now be living in a different world -- one including the Union of Sovereign States.
The poisonous relationship with Boris Yeltsin -- a blind-spot where Gorbachev's good judgement repeatedly failed him -- is illuminated. Gorbachev's work with that other titan, Shevardnadze, is referred to only slightly, almost in passing. Perhaps this is because the main focus of the book is Soviet domestic, rather than international, affairs.
Finally, from 1992, Gorbachev is out of power. He tries, with partial success to remain relevant, both in Russia and internationally. He is inexcusably hounded by the Yeltsin government while being partially rehabilitated by that of Putin. The tale of Gorbachev's marriage, and of his final years with his great love Raisa, is at once uplifting and heartbreaking.
This will stand for a long time as the definitive biography of a great and flawed man. It should be widely read.
Gorbachev: His Life and Times (1/9/22-13/9/22)
This is the second mammoth biography by this author of a Soviet leader I have read, after his even bigger tome on Khrushchev in 2007. Gorbachev of course has a massive claim to be one of the most significant statesmen of the second half of the 20th century, and is widely regarded as such certainly in western Europe and north America, though largely not in his own country. He was "the only politician in Russian history who, having full power in his hands, voluntarily opted to limit it and even risk losing it, in the name of principled moral values". This would in most countries endear him to many people, though not in Russia, which has never been able to develop a democratic tradition, where there is a many centuries long tradition of a preference for authoritarian rule by one man (or very occasionally woman, in the 18th century anyway).
This exhaustively well researched biography traces his early life in a peasant farming family in southern Russia and the formative influences of his father and maternal grandfather in particular, his going to Moscow University to study law, meeting his wife Raisa, and his early climbing up the party hierarchy, to reach the Politburo in 1979-80 before the age of 50, by some distance its younger member. Most of this long book understandably deals with the six years of his leadership from 1985-91, first as general secretary of the Communist Party and latterly also as President of the USSR, when the country started to break up under the influence of the numerous internal and external pressures, the economy declining further and further, even while his democratic reforms (glasnost) gave his fellow countrymen a freedom they had literally never experienced before and which many of them, to some extent, did not know how to use and did not thank him for.
Only the last of 19 chapters deals with the quarter century (and more) of his post Soviet life, his international efforts to promote his ideals, and the tragic relatively early death of his beloved Raisa from leukemia in 1999. The author concludes that "despite his flaws and his failure to achieve all his noble aims, he was a tragic hero who deserves our understanding and admiration", and I agree with this conclusion as, I suspect, would most readers. His recent death, which prompted my reading of this book, will, I feel, compel others to evaluate his life's work in a largely positive way.
My only minor criticism of this book would be the extensive quotes from so many observers, so that the descriptions of some meetings/summits feel almost as long in the reading as the events themselves.
An absolute stalwart in the decisive days leading to the end of the iron curtain.
If you’re new to the subject, this is a great place to start.