By Chet Yarbrough
Gorbachev (His Life and Times)
By: William Taubman
Narrated by Henry Strozier
Having reviewed the first two books of the planned Stalin trilogy by Stephen Kotkin, it seems wise to review William Taubman’s “Gorbachev”. Kotkin’s analysis suggests Stalin was a pragmatic autocrat who systematically eliminated potential adversaries who might challenge his leadership. In contrast, Taubman’s Gorbachev is characterized as a democratic rather than autocratic leader. This is not to say Gorbachev is less strong willed than an autocrat, but Taubman suggests he chooses to listen to both equals and subordinates before deciding and acting. Kotkin shows Stalin keeps his own counsel before deciding and acts as his paranoid behavior demands. Gorbachev is a politician, not a dictator.
Mikhail Gorbachev (Pres. of the Soviet Union 1990-1991, General Secy. of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1985l-1991.)
Through force of intellect, ambition, and persuasion Gorbachev tries and fails to reify Leninist socialism. Gorbachev’s ambition is to turn an increasingly dysfunctional Russian autocracy to democratic socialism. Democratic socialism would theoretically provide Russian citizens a voice in control of their fate.
Gorbachev is not alone in believing Stalin abandoned Leninist idealism by instituting a government of the one in control of the many. Many historians note Lenin did not want Stalin to succeed him as the leader of the revolution.
Kotkin suggests Lenin views Stalin as a soldier who enforces discipline but fails to understand the importance of creating a platform for power to the people.
The sad consequence of Stalinist history is that it reinforces kleptocracy, “a society or system ruled by people who use their power to steal their country’s resources”.
Taubman shows Gorbachev understood Stalinism from personal life experience. Taubman explains how Gorbachev comes from humble surroundings in a farming village in Russia. Gorbachev sees firsthand how the idea of collective farming decreases, rather than increases productivity. The bureaucratization of collective farming has the same impact in communist Russia as it did in communist China. Leaders in charge of collective farms distort production quotas to make themselves look good to superiors. The result is either lower productivity, or worse, the famines of 1920s and 30s in Russia and the 1950s in China. (This is not to say famines do not occur in democracies, but the cause of famine is not bureaucratic lying but nature, or something beyond human control.)
Gorbachev loved his father and adored his grandfather. Both parents were great influences on Gorbachev’s belief in hard work and education. Gorbachev’s mother is the disciplinarian in the family. She rules the young Gorbachev with a belt until he is old enough to say, “no more”. “Tough love” from Gorbachev’s mother, in Taubman’s telling, instills respect for women. Taubman suggests Gorbachev’s choice of a wife is based on belief in equal partnership to help him achieve life’s evolving goals.
Taubman suggests Raisa, Gorbachev’s wife, is an equal partner in his decisions in life and in governing the Soviet Union.
A reader/listener is only halfway through the book at this point. The last half of this 32-hour narration deals with Gorbachev’s failure as the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union.