By Chet Yarbrough
Gorbachev (His Life and Times)
By: William Taubman
Narrated by Henry Strozier
The length of William Taubman’s audiobook requires a Gorbachev II review. The first review addresses Gorbachev’s personal life. The second reflects on Gorbachev’s political life. Gorbachev’s life is suffused with great accomplishment and tragic failure.
Georgy Malenkov replaces Joseph Stalin after his death in 1953. Malenkov is believed to be a reformist who plans to reduce military spending and Stalinist suppression.
However, within weeks, Malenkov is pushed aside by Nikita Khrushchev who takes supreme power within two years of Stalin’s death. Surprisingly, Khrushchev becomes something of a reformist himself.
Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971, First Secy. of the Communist Party 1953-1964)
Stalin’s autocratic, paranoid leadership is semi-privately exposed by Khrushchev in a speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Khruschev’s vilification of Stalinist suppression, imprisonment, and murder eventually become known to the world.
The overriding concern of Russian leaders is to maintain suzerainty over Baltic nations and satellite territories in the face of ethnic and economic diversity. Taubman notes older Russian leaders tend toward autocratic dictate to maintain political control. The younger and more politically astute lean toward confederation of adjacent soviet republics and East Berlin with the U.S.S.R. as an umbrella organization. Gorbachev is in the “politically astute” group.
There is no question of Gorbachev’s success in democratizing U.S.S.R.’ citizens.
However, in that democratization, the drive for independence becomes paramount to the satellite countries. German reunification, and the breakaway of Baltic nations from the U.S.S.R. is inevitable. Freedom, based on ethnic and cultural identity, surmount all efforts by Gorbachev to reinstate U.S.S.R. suzerainty. Only by force could the U.S.S.R. prevail over state and territorial independence. Taubman notes force is not within Gorbachev’s nature as a leader.
Gorbachev’s immense success is liberating millions of former U.S.S.R. citizens. With liberation, former citizens of the U.S.S.R. return to govern as citizens of their own countries. This at a time of Reagan’s conservative government in the United States, and European distrust of U.S.S.R. militarization. Taubman shows Gorbachev becomes an international hero based on his personality and persuasive power. He is greeted as the great liberator of the twentieth century even though his primary objective is to retain those countries seeking freedom within the U.S.S.R.
Gorbachev raised the bar for nuclear disarmament by cultivating American and European participation in the reduction of nuclear weapons.
Taubman explains Gorbachev is a tragic hero because momentum-of-change is halted by a cult of personality, compounded by economic insecurity. Gorbachev is replaced by acting President, Alexander Rutskoy, after the 1993 constitutional crises. Rutskoy is replaced by a second acting President, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Boris Yeltsin succeeds Chernomyrdin as President in an overlapping term.
The Russian economy falters in its transition from communism to democratic socialism. Russian history of “rule-of-one” reasserts itself with the rise of an incompetent President (Boris Yeltsin) and an autocratic but effective leader, Vladimir Putin. Taubman suggests and infers Gorbachev’s success, and world history in general, are two steps forward with one step backward. Based on historical precedent of “one-man-rule” (dating back to czarist Russia) Taubman’s inference seems spot-on.
Gorbachev flipped a switch that released the power of democracy but failed to provide adequate economic infrastructure to assure U.S.S.R. survival. Taubman optimistically infers economic infrastructure of eastern bloc countries will improve overtime, even with autocratic leadership by people like Vladimir Putin.
The growth of democracy has always been messy, but it moves forward in the face of temporary setbacks. Spheres of influence will always be in play. It seems a matter of time for another Gorbachev to make two more steps forward with a repeat of the next leader’s “one-step-backward”. Taubman reminds readers of America’s trial in the civil war. Slavery is abolished but institutional racism remains a work in progress. The risk is that the world destroys itself before freedom and economic security become real for all.