"Gorbachev: His Life and Times"

September 15, 2017

William Taubman, the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, and Pulitzer Prize Winner, discusses his newly released book, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, with Pavel Machala, the Charles E. Merrill 1908 Professor of Political Science.

Video Transcript

As probably you all know, this person over there doesn't need any introduction. This person over here does need some introduction. I am Bill Taubman's friend. I have been his friend for 40 years. He's the one who hired me, who called, and he first spoke with Susan, when we were in Baltimore and wanted to know how to pronounce my last name. And I said oh, here it goes, my job. So, when I spoke with Bill on the phone I said, well, pronounce it anyway you want.

He wanted to -- he insisted on pronouncing correctly -- so I gave him one of my three correct pronunciations of my last name. He still has it.

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Some of my colleagues are great in one or the other, I mean either, but Bill managed to transcend the boundaries of teaching and research, and managed to do so effortlessly. Those of you who know how Bill writes, you know it's always a pleasure to read his works. I have learned so much from him. I have always been amazed about his wisdom, and more important thing, I always was amazed how patient he is in producing major works.

This first work on Khrushchev was a best-seller, not only in English but in other languages, including Czech. I had to import some copies there. The second book I read, I read three times. First as a draft, which I forgot to finish, so by the time I wanted to finish it, I told Bill, I'm on the way to finishing, he said, don't bother, I have a new draft. So, I read the second draft and finally, just over the last five days, I read this final version, which is just stunning. It's even better than what I thought was the last draft I read. Bill, congratulations.

Thank you.

But more importantly let me quiz you first. You know I'm a stickler and sucker for footnotes or endnotes. Do you know how many endnotes you have in your book? No. Guess. 900? No. 1500? More. 2000? More. 2500? Little bit less. 2300 footnotes. Or Endnotes.


Are you trying to hold down sales? 

I should probably because there are -- well -- how many? Quite Over 80 pages of footnotes or endnotes. So yes, it's heavier as a result of your notes, but it's heavier for purpose. You know those of you, and I'm one of those idiots, those of you who will read and follow the notes, you learn far more because you will see, you will understand the voices, you will understand, imagine those individuals who are making those observations, and so the book begins to be full, at least for me, far more meaningful with those over 2000 endnotes that you did not know that you had.

I'm going to break in with something that Jane, my wife, who taught here for many years, teaching Russian at Amherst... these days we're not doing the Russian translation, but there are two translators in Moscow who are working on it, and they are asking me to give them, insofar as I can, the Russian originals that I translated into English. So that rather than retranslate them back, they can print them. And I unfortunately was not smart enough to save all of those original Russian things. Now it's ok if they're in books because my multiple footnotes, as Pavel says, will take them back to the books where they can find a lot of the original quotes, but a lot of things come out of interviews that I did, mostly with Jane, with Gorbachev himself and a lot of other people, friends, allies, adversaries, relatives, and I have the text of those, but that's not easy. I have to go through all of these texts looking for a line here, a line there, and of course people in an interview are often rambling, and there's a lot of, you know, and this and that, the equivalent of that in Russian, so I have to clean it up in Russian, I think, although this is a philosophical question. Do they get quoted as they said it, or as it would be polished? So, this is just a tangent really having to do with footnotes, and Russian, and problems involved in writing a book like this. Well, another good reason to have endnotes, footnotes, in important books. People can trace the origin. Not only your thoughts, but the original translated text from which you are depending.

Speaking of untranslated text, I know that the book is in the process being translated into Russian as you just reminded us, but therefore Mikhail Gorbachev hasn't read it yet.

I sent him a copy.

In English?

What?

This copy?

Yes. Of course. I sent up a copy, and I heard back from the woman who's the executive director of his foundation, and we dealt with a lot in in working on this, and she said he congratulates you "from the heart," and he looks forward to reading it in Russian once it's translated, and once he does, he looks forward to giving you his "impressions" and that's a nice neutral word. I spend a fair amount of time imagining his "impressions" and what they might be.

Actually, I was going to ask you, what do you think is going to be Gorbachev's response, reaction to your book. Is he going to love it, hate it?

Bill] Neither, I think. I think anybody who's having his or her biography written…just imagine, any of you, somebody comes along to write your biography, and asks you to tell them everything you can and provide them with everything you can, and interviews, your friends and your relatives and all the rest, and you wonder, what is this person writing? What's he going to say, or she say in the end, and probably it's inevitable that it's not exactly what you would wish them to say. So, I think it's inevitable he will be disappointed in some of the things in it. On the other hand, there are people in this room, whom I won't name, who've read it, and think I'm too nice, too soft on him, and then there are people who think I'm too hard on him. So, I have tried to be objective.

Now that word is a tricky word these days. Can anyone be objective? What does it mean? Aren't we all subjective? But as best as I can, as hard as I tried, I tried to tell it objectively, and I hope he appreciates that. I think he will. I think he will. But he'll still have reservations.

Let me make a prediction. He will love your book. Just remember, just before we came to this hall, you wondered how many people will come. I said we're full. It's full.

That's not going to predict his reaction. In fact, Pavel, your being from Czechoslovakia originally, puts you geographically and even politically, within what used to be called the Soviet camp, although you never were entirely...ok but, and I don't want to say Russians are different, because there is no such thing really as national character anyway, but Gorbachev, in his own country has been subject to slings and arrows without end, both while he was in power and ever since. He is despised by probably, although I haven't measured it, the great majority or majority of his own people. It's so bad that his daughter, to whom he is devoted, as he was to his wife, and relied on both of them while his wife was alive and then on his daughter, well after Raisa died. She actually spends most of her time now in Germany partly because of medical issues involving her husband but partly because she I believe couldn't take it anymore. So for a man who's had that much insult and enmity, I think he probably wants and needs, praise, and I praise him, a lot, but maybe not enough.

Well, I hope that you will judge. I do think that you praise him, that you put in a very balanced and very profound way. That's why I love your book so much. It shows depiction of a world historical figure. You call him a tragic hero, and I and you end, actually, the book, the last sentence in your book refers to Gorbachev as a tragic hero who deserves our understanding and admiration. This is a profound and powerful statement with which you finish.

But I know, since we just had dinner together, that you have doubts about the word "tragic." I disputed -- Bill and I had, he began our conversation two hours ago at Formosa, and we...

It's amazing we have anything left to say.

Well we do have plenty to say. I have quite a few questions for you. And I wanted, I was a little bit uncomfortable with that last sentence because I thought it was unnecessarily modest, describing not Gorbachev sufficiently, deeply, because the rest of the book such as that Gorby tried impossible and fail at I think...

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Bill, you know very well that I don't normally read biographies. I am NOT into personalities and psychology of individual statesmen, politicians. I like to think in larger categories like mode of production, ruling classes...

Mode of production. I've heard that before.

Class interest, and other similar terms for which I don't need to know the individuals, even amazingly important historical figures, because I often see them as a vehicle of the historical forces, a reflection of the times that, for which, to which they were suited to be key actors. But I always admired your ability to convince me that I'm wrong about under estimating individuals in
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it's interesting because in one of your concluding chapters, either you or someone else asked Gorbachev whether he's happy, and he says that he is happy, and you wonder whether he is telling you the truth, or if he's telling the truth, how can a tragic hero be happy after the tragedy. But based on what you just said, I wonder whether it doesn't make perfect sense for someone who had such sense confidence about himself, as you described, in youth, childhood youth, as a young [indistinct] and then member of the political elites of the Soviet state. Whether it's not normal for someone who continued to exude optimism, would continue to exude optimism even after he failed in impossible.

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Interesting that you say so because just few days ago you wrote a little piece published in Washington Post titled "Why Gorbachev Likes Putin More than You Might Expect," and I when I read that article I said: did I forget what Bill said in the first draft? Is this a departure from what you devoted your time to, and then when I read the book and came to the concluding two chapters, I realized that you are saying the same thing about Putin that you already say in this article published few days ago in Washington Post, that Putin actually, that Gorbachev actually has high esteem of Putin. You quote someone referring...you refer to an article in which Gorbachev is being quoted as saying that Putin belongs in to three of the most important statesmen of this current era, one of them being Ronald Reagan, Margot Thatcher, and Vladimir Putin. And so, I wonder whether actually, if you forgive me, whether actually this view that Gorbachev holds of Putin, doesn't also suggest that Gorbachev himself has reason to be happy and optimistic because despite the fact that he himself personal failed, his story goes on, and Putin represents merely a slower version of the march of Russian history towards democracy and decency that Gorbachev himself hope...

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I don't think so. 

But I don't think that's quite the same thing as saying that he has decided that things have worked out well after all.

No, I don't mean to say that, but I'm just using your words. Somewhere in the concluding chapters your choice quote Gorbachev saying that there is glasnost in Putin's Russia, that glasnost is not dead and Putin, and Gorbachev didn't suggest that compared to the period of Brezhnev era, there is more freedom in Russia and therefore we measured by these larger historical yardsticks. For Gorbachev, Putin doesn't represent disaster that follows his demise as leader of the Soviet Union, but use the term that I like to use when I have no idea what else I'm saying, dialectical continuity.

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of Germany and its, and Gorbachev's acquiescence in its being a member of NATO. The West didn't expect that to happen. They were stunned at when Gorbachev agreed to all of this. Gorbachev thought he had a promise from James Baker the Secretary of State that if he agreed, NATO would not expand one inch to the East, and as we all know it expanded thousands of miles, all the way to the to the Baltic borders of Russia. Maybe that's not thousands, certainly hundreds, and potentially into Ukraine and Georgia which we talked about doing although it hasn't happened. So, all of this has made Gorbachev angry in retrospect and that anger is probably fueled in part by his sense that he was taken for a ride and he allowed himself to be taken from a ride. So that's his anger and it may very well account for some of his feeling that if Putin is giving the West a hard time, the bastards deserve it.

On that note… [laughter]

[Gestures to the audience for questions.]

I'm from China, and it's really interesting to hear about the Russian side of things.  My friends and I we came here half an hour early to hear you talk. So, my question is, I've always wondered how essential is Gorbachev's role in dismantling Soviet Union, and if had never come into power, would there just be another idealist like him to replace him? How inevitable? And also, I guess a related issue, do you know how he felt about the alternative path China has taken.

How central was Gorbachev to what happened and if he hadn't been the Soviet leader where would the Soviet Union be today, or would there be a Soviet Union and what would it be like right? This is another one of these counterfactual questions or calling forth speculation as to what would have happened. I think most people who look at it most experts, quote/unquote, believe that if he hadn't tried to carry out the radical reforms that he did the Soviet Union could have lasted for another 10, 15, 20, who knows, 25 years. It would have probably looked more or less like the Brezhnev years which in retrospect a lot of Russians think was, if not a golden age, then at least a better time than Gorbachev brought them, where Yeltsin brought them. But I think most people will also think, well I shouldn't say, a lot of people would also think that at some point the Soviet Union would have crashed and it would have crashed differently from the way it did under Gorbachev. It would have crashed more like Yugoslavia with a kind of all-out, no-holds-barred war between Russia and Ukraine, for example, resembling the Serbs and the [indistinct]. It might have looked like Romania where in the end you know they hung Ceaușescu and his wife and there was a kind of bloodbath. So that's the way the speculation goes. Who knows, but he certainly was crucial because if he hadn't been there and they tried to get rid of him in 1991, they would have had, they would have turned back the clock to where it was when he came in with moderate changes. Now the second question was what does Gorbachev think of the Chinese? I haven't talked to him about that recently. I know he was, as you may remember, in Beijing at the time of Tiananmen Square and he was horrified, although he didn't say so publicly, and I think the spectacle of what happened there while he was in the city, the crushing of that demonstration, and of the Chinese democratic movement, encouraged him to accept without attempting to crush the democratic movement in Eastern Europe which was occurring at about the same time 1989, so it had that immediate effect. But I don't know exactly what he would say today about the Chinese. Any other questions. Yes. (Audience member] How different was it writing about a living figure than writing about Khrushchev?

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and I got some nice cookies and tea out of it as well. Yes.

Hi. You were raising the question about readiness for democracy especially in the context of Russia. And you said that it might take the entire 21st century. My boyfriend, who's Russian, and I speak about that a lot, and we sort of have the hypothesis that what makes a country ready for democracy is essentially a level of grassroots involvement, so things like, in America, that people, you know sit, on the school boards and that in schools, you have student governments and all of those kind of things, that almost get people in the habit of, you know, thinking democratically, and that then build the foundation for democracy. But I was wondering what your thoughts are like what are the missing pieces that make Russia ready for democracy and when or how we might achieve that.

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Michael Claire, yes?

First thanks for your comments as an American citizen about not burning bridges to Moscow and Putin at this time when there's so much at stake, so I want to thank you for that. My question is this: did Gorbachev tell you anything about Afghanistan that his experience about Afghanistan especially now when the U.S. is going back even deeper into Afghanistan. What were his lessons?

I didn't talk to, we didn't talk, Jane and I, to him about Afghanistan that much in part because it was so clear in the documents I looked at. I mean I read notes of Politburo meetings in which they talked about Afghanistan, and they said pretty early on this is no good, this is a bad mistake. We've got to get out. I even learned from somebody who's close to Gorbachev that he had a kind of to-do list when he came in in March 85 and the first item on the top of the to-do list was exit Afghanistan. Of course, it gets complicated because they stay, they don't get fully out until 1989, and it's that whole process of saying, of realizing you need to get out, but not getting out quickly enough, is very reminiscent of Vietnam. A lot of people died in the intervening years especially Afghans but a lot of Russian soldiers as well. We got to know a leading general in the Soviet military who'd been very active in Afghanistan and we saw a lot of him in the early 2000s, and he was preaching to everybody he could get to listen that the United States was making the same mistake in Afghanistan that the Russians had made, the Soviets had made, and you can certainly make the case that it's still going on today which is not to say that if we got out everything would be terrific, but what happens in these cases is you get you get sucked in, you go in, you stay in, and you can't get out.

Bill, since I read your book very carefully, on page 376 and 77 there's an interesting discussion that you are offering that takes place in support for it Bureau and every political merit member for the recognizes how hopeless the Soviet situation Afghanistan is and for the very similar reasons that both Obama and Trump insists that they have to stay despite the fact that it's hopeless, we still continue to be there.  So, page 376 - 377.

Last question.

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Ok. Well, thank you guys for coming. [applause]