Big Man Walking

Neal Ascherson

  • Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman
    Simon and Schuster, 880 pp, £25.00, September, ISBN 978 1 4711 4796 8

It was the spring of 1990, and the train from Warsaw to Vilnius had crossed the frontier. The carriage had been lifted off European rails onto the broad-gauge Russian chassis, and the fresh green forests of what was still Soviet Lithuania were flowing past the windows. I had not been in the Soviet Union for a few years – not since the advent of Gorbachev and perestroika. Behind lay Poland in crazy convulsions of freedom and inflation, where a return first-class ticket to Vilnius with sleeper cost less than a double espresso in the Holiday Inn.

There was a crowd round the iron stove at the end of the corridor. A dozen passengers pressed about the young uniformed conductress who normally gave out glasses of tea. But they were not there for the stove or the tea. Her radio was on, full blast, and they were listening to a voice.

It was saying, loudly and confidently: ‘Kto za?’ (Who’s in favour?) Then it counted and read out a number. Then it asked: ‘Kto protiv?’ (Who’s against?) And again a number. And then: ‘The motion is passed’ or ‘The motion is rejected.’ The Congress of People’s Deputies, the new parliament of the Soviet Union, was in session and we were hearing its elected members voting freely, unpredictably, without fear. The voice – strong, lively – belonged to the man in the chair, Mikhail Gorbachev.

I remember leaning back against the window, my heart suddenly too big for my chest. So it was real. So this democracy was actually taking place, at the core of the empire, and a whole planet – rusted to its axis for generations – was beginning to rotate again.

Anything could happen now. But what actually happened was that the stove burst, flooding the corridor with boiling water and smoking cinders. As the attendant kneeled to dab at the floor with a towel, an older train-woman in a gaudier uniform stamped in and screamed abuse at her until she began to cry. One Russian tradition – keeping order by humiliation – was still in place here.

Gorbachev grew up and was formed among those traditions, in their Soviet mutation. He came to detest them, the dialectic of bullying and toadying, the rule that an opponent must be left not just defeated but destroyed, abject and whining for forgiveness. He detested those habits, and yet they were the style, the instinct, of the party he never quite ceased to love, and sometimes he found himself using those habits himself. More often, he restrained himself, leaving enemies injured but not terminated. Those enemies, when they got over their astonishment, never forgave him for showing such ‘weakness’. Neither did his friends.

It took William Taubman almost twenty years to complete his wonderful Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. This Gorbachev biography took a mere 11. And yet it is in some ways an even more heavyweight product. The research is vast; the tracking down of published and unpublished sources is tireless. The willingness of sometimes reluctant individuals to talk – family, old staffers, half-forgotten comrades from the early days – represents many triumphs of tact and patience. Much of this success, as Taubman takes care to point out, comes from the decision of Anatoly Chernyaev – one of Gorbachev’s most loyal and yet most critical aides, whose diary often shows Boswellian sharpness about his boss – to put all his influence and contacts behind the biography project. So much so that I would expect neo-Stalinists in Russia today to dismiss the whole book as ‘Chernyaev’s slant’ on the perestroika years. There may be something in that. But then, as slants go, it would be hard to imagine a more vivid and intelligent one.

And the big man himself helped. ‘Gorbachev is hard to understand,’ he said to Taubman at the outset. Two reflections can follow those words. One is about the problem of doing a ‘definitive’ biography of a man still alive. But admitting, as Taubman repeatedly does, that some Gorbachev decisions remain too ‘hard to understand’ lets a biographer off any final – impudent – verdict on a whole life. The other reflection is that the man joins a worrying category: public figures who talk about themselves in the third person. (I grew anxious about one of my own heroes when he started saying: ‘Jimmy Reid would never agree to this or that.’ And why is it men, almost never women, who do this?) Gorbachev has – or had then – a hot affection for the public image that walked at the head of his procession.

Not many people change the world. Fewer still are thanked for it. Adolf Hitler changed the world on 22 June 1941: by invading the Soviet Union, he delivered ‘Hitler’s Europe’, the divided continent we lived in until 1989. We were not grateful for that. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev changed the world, as so many adoring millions saw it at the time, by ending the threat of their extermination by nuclear war and by allowing Europe’s ‘captive nations’ to liberate themselves. But then, a Samson already blinded by his enemies, he brought down the gigantic temple of the Soviet Union on his own head, and his own power perished with it.

He was born in 1931 in the village of Privolnoe, not far from Stavropol in the far south of Russia. His parents were peasants. He worked hard in the fields as a barefoot teenager and drove a combine harvester with his father, Sergei, winning a Red Banner of Labour award and developing the heavy muscles which his future wife, Raisa, would admire. These were origins shared by a striking number of Soviet leaders in his generation: village boys who knew about hunger and poverty and how their parents forgot them with vodka. Unlike the old Bolshevik elite, many of whom had been urban intellectuals, they were ‘Stalin’s children’ in the sense that Soviet education rescued them from ignorance (Gorbachev’s mother was illiterate), taught them loyalty to the ‘building of socialism’ and offered them careers.

The family was lucky, as luck went in those times. Two uncles and an aunt died in the famines around the time of his birth. Both his grandfathers were arrested and sent to the Gulag during the purges of the late 1930s, but both were eventually released. The Germans occupied the village, but retreated again after only a few months. When the next famine came, his mother packed Sergei’s suit and two pairs of boots and walked to the Kuban region, where she traded them for a sack of corn. Against the odds, his beloved father returned wounded but alive from the front, muttering to his son: ‘We fought until we ran out of fight. That’s how you must live.’

Mikhail Sergeyevich went to school at 14, a clever boy who soon showed a talent for acting and a bossy taste for leadership. He discovered books and let Pushkin, Belinsky, Gogol and above all Lermontov blow his adolescent mind, while winning approval in the Komsomol youth movement. A girlfriend remembered that ‘he was too energetic, too serious, so organised’. The Red Banner award contributed to his ascent, and so did the fact that, as combine drivers, he and his father were classed as ‘workers’ at the local machine tractor station. Aged 19 and already a candidate member of the Communist Party, he was accepted into Moscow University and – coming from a village with no electricity, radio or telephone – encountered a great city for the first time.

He also encountered young people as talkative and politically excitable as he was. Two of them, both fellow students, changed his life. Zdenĕk Mlynář, then a fiercely dedicated young Stalinist who was increasingly shocked by the hypocritical realities of Soviet life, came from Czechoslovakia. The other person was Raisa Maksimovna Titarenko. A philosophy student one year ahead of Gorbachev, Raisa also came from a poor, scarred background: a kulak grandfather who vanished into the Gulag, a childhood spent in boxcars and temporary shacks as the family moved back and forth across the Soviet Union with her father, a railway worker.

There was a long, fearfully earnest courtship. Raisa was ‘a prestige object’, as Mlynář put it: ‘each word was a labour to which she had to give perfect birth.’ She was always held to be the firmer character of the pair, insistent on giving her opinion on everything with pedantic accuracy (Nancy Reagan, thirty years later, couldn’t stand being constantly corrected by her). Taubman makes clear that the combination of her outspokenness and her unshakeable loyalty held her husband together through terrible times, when without her he might have surrendered to his enemies. In return, Gorbachev became – it’s the right word, in that Russia – notorious for treating his wife well. It made his in-laws wonder if he might be a Jew.

They finally married in September 1953. Stalin had died in March, and already there was hope of a more open future. People began to talk. Mlynář heard the apparently dumb students around him suddenly relating their memories of purges, famines, the mass murder of the kulaks. Gorbachev, whose essay entitled ‘Stalin Is Our Wartime Glory, Stalin Gives Flight to Our Youth’ had been held up as a model by the university, went to see the dictator’s embalmed corpse. ‘I searched his face for any sign of greatness but something disturbed me, evoking mixed feelings.’

After university, he returned to Stavropol and, as a full party member, began to make a career in the local Komsomol. Stavropol’s apparatchiks resented his college education, and were suspicious of Raisa’s intellect (she eventually found work in the philosophy department of the Stavropol Agricultural Institute). Here, for nearly twenty years, Gorbachev became both spectator and actor in the slow pantomime of Soviet provincial life: the corruption, the envious intrigues, the helpless squalor of villages, the tribal feasts of food and vodka that local bosses were expected to lay on.

In 1956, Khrushchev launched serious ‘de-Stalinisation’ with his famous denunciation of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress. The speech electrified the outside world, but went down badly in places like Stavropol. The local party accepted the new line, as they had to, but were unable to understand it. A district secretary told Gorbachev: ‘I’ll be frank with you … the people just refuse to accept the condemnation of the personality cult.’ Many peasants were dismayed by the condemnation of the rural Terror; for them, the purge had ‘liquidated’ the hated collective farm bosses who had seized their land in the first place. When men came to remove the statue of Stalin in Stavropol, a crowd tried to stop them.

By now, Gorbachev was committed to ‘reform’, setting up independent discussion groups in the region. His main task, he thought as he slowly rose through the party apparatus, was to find new local leaders who could at least make the existing system work. Fyodor Kulakov, Stavropol’s first secretary, made an unsuccessful pass at Raisa, but he appreciated her husband’s energy and steadily promoted Gorbachev.

In 1964, Khrushchev was deposed and de-Stalinisation went into reverse. But daring things were being plotted in Czechoslovakia, and in 1967 their old friend Mlynář came to stay with the Gorbachevs in Stavropol. Mlynář had by now become a bold advocate of what, under Alexander Dubček, would be named ‘socialism with a human face’. He had been in Moscow pleading for understanding of the coming changes, and Gorbachev listened, fascinated, to the plans for democratisation. But he said to Mlynář: ‘In your country all that might be possible, but in our country it simply could not be done.’ As Taubman comments, this was ‘a view that he would later change’. But when Leonid Brezhnev ordered the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Gorbachev chaired a meeting that ‘fully and entirely approve[d] the decisive and timely measures’. Earlier, he had signed party appeals for the Soviet Union to ‘come to the defence of socialism in Czechoslovakia’. He felt uneasy about this. But if he had rebelled at this point, his ability to work for change and reform would have ended: the classic moral dilemma in a decaying totalitarian state. He kept his radical views private, and in 1970 was made first secretary in Stavropol and then an ex officio member of the Central Committee.

In the stagnant Brezhnev years, those views developed further. He had supposed that the ‘weakness of the cadres’ was the Soviet problem: the backwardness and incompetence of party and state bureaucracy. Now he began to see that the fault was far larger: the root of evil was the maniacal centralisation of every decision down to the smallest detail – precisely what democratisation and market reforms in the economy had tried to correct during the Prague Spring. More than a year after the invasion, Gorbachev went to Czechoslovakia as part of a delegation. He was not allowed to meet Mlynář, now in disgrace, but he saw the open hatred in workers’ faces when they recognised Soviet visitors.

He still kept his feelings to himself. In charge of his region, he repeated obsequious praises of Brezhnev, allowed the repression of a local writer who had published views much like his own and acquired medals for his work on ‘the Great Stavropol Canal’. Privately, he was reading books of heretical Marxism: the works of Roger Garaudy and Gramsci, among others. In public he was ‘mouthing the party line while inwardly recoiling from much of it’.

The decisive turn in his career came in the late 1970s, when he became the protégé of Yuri Andropov, the elderly head of the KGB. Andropov was well aware that the Soviet system was seizing up: he and Gorbachev could agree on that. But he suffered from a ‘Hungarian complex’: the conviction that reform from below would inevitably burst out of control, as – in his view – it had done in Czechoslovakia. Asked about human rights, as defined in the Helsinki Accords which he had somehow persuaded Brezhnev to sign, Andropov remarked that ‘in 15 to 20 years, we will be able to allow ourselves what the West allows itself now, freedom of opinion and information, diversity in society and in art. But only in 15 to 20 years, after we’re able to raise the population’s living standards.’

*

Every so often Taubman’s book halts, and unleashes a jostling, barking pack of questions. Most have real bite. Why did Gorbachev do this, why didn’t he do that, when a different decision might have avoided a defeat or hastened progress? But the question raised by Andropov is one of the biggest, and now overshadows all reflections on Gorbachev’s six years in power. Deng Xiaoping in China was to share broadly the same priorities as Andropov: let us first build an economy that works, enriching both state and people – and only then turn towards political transformation (some day, if we feel it’s safe). So why did Gorbachev do the opposite after he reached the leadership in 1985? No perestroika without glasnost: he was convinced that free, uncensored discussion was the precondition for breaking down massive resistance to economic reform, not the outcome. And China was not Russia: the Chinese Communist Party could call on traditions of obedience and discipline that were already disintegrating in the USSR after Stalin.

Three funerals later, an anxious and geriatric Politburo chose Gorbachev as first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Brezhnev had died in 1982, Andropov in 1984 and Konstantin Chernenko in 1985. Russians were at first delighted with the new man: he was only in his fifties, he sparkled with energy and humour, he dived cheerfully into crowds. Raisa and he had already begun to travel: first to Italy and then to London, where he and Margaret Thatcher had famously hit it off (‘We can do business together’). But in Moscow he began his changes only slowly, uncertainly.

Another rush of Taubman questions: why didn’t he launch a crash programme for consumer goods, why didn’t he go straight into economic reform, why didn’t he privatise agriculture? Instead, he went back to reading Lenin to discover where the Soviet system had gone wrong (revisionist communists all over Europe were doing the same), and decreed an anti-alcohol campaign that ended in painful failure. His grand plan for ‘accelerating’ industry, rather than introducing market forces, slowly fizzled out in a welter of shortages and official lies. Gorbachev hurled himself about the land, urging managers to adjust their minds to new thoughts. ‘Can’t you see that socialism itself is in danger?’

Then, on 26 April 1986, the number four reactor at Chernobyl exploded. An eruption of lies and evasions followed the poison cloud spreading over Europe, ‘rampant incompetence, cover-ups at all levels, and self-destructive secrecy at the top’. Gorbachev said nothing for weeks until his outburst to the Politburo: the industry was ‘dominated by servility, bootlicking, cliquishness and persecution of those who think differently’. Chernobyl had ‘really opened my eyes’, he said later. From now on, no scheme for transforming Soviet reality was too revolutionary or wild for him to discuss with his growing team of supporters.

But talk was not the same as deed. ‘Exceptionally daring in words and how he evaluates the situation, but cautious in action’, Chernyaev noted. Later that year, his adviser Aleksandr Yakovlev wrote an astonishing memorandum proposing that the party abandon its sacred ‘leading role’ and divide into two competing movements: ‘socialist’ and ‘national-democratic’. Yakovlev also suggested workers’ control in industry and a genuinely independent judiciary. Stalin would have had him shot for it. Now Gorbachev merely commented: ‘Too early, too soon.’

Talks with the Americans about disarmament began within months of his accession. Geneva, where Reagan and he achieved little but discovered that they liked working together, was the first of the summits. The series ran on through Reykjavik (the total renunciation of nuclear weapons missed by a hair’s breadth), Washington, Moscow, New York and finally Moscow again in July 1991, where the Start Treaty reducing strategic nuclear weapons was signed by George H.W. Bush – only weeks before the putsch which effectively brought Gorbachev down. Taubman details every move, and reveals the intricate weaving of preparations between these summits. Occasionally he overdoes it. His account of the Washington meeting in December 1987, for instance, runs into pages of guest lists, of suits, dresses and jewellery worn at each function.

But as usual Taubman asks good questions. The domestic reason Gorbachev went into this mutual disarmament process is clear: he wanted to shift resources from the military into the civilian sector. At the outset, in 1986, he told Soviet diplomats that the Americans were attempting to block that shift, by forcing the USSR to keep up its level of defence spending. But why, then, did Reagan and Bush negotiate for arms reduction? Taubman’s answer is that American motives were mixed. While Reagan and to a lesser extent Bush were genuine in their interest in disarmament, and – as time passed – were concerned to help Gorbachev stay in power, hawks in Washington still hoped to see the USSR bankrupted by military costs and argued that success for Gorbachev’s policies would give Soviet communism a new lease of life. The hawks lost that argument, but they seem to be the victors in the subsequent mythology. Most Americans, apparently, now believe that the Soviet Union collapsed because it couldn’t keep up with the cost of Western war technology: a nonsense Taubman’s book should help to dispel.

For his part, Gorbachev was accused by hardliners at home of conceding far too much to the Americans, selling out the very security of the Soviet Union. By early 1987, he was fighting for reform every inch of the way against entrenched ‘conservatives’ on one flank and impatient radicals on the other. Many ‘leading comrades’ in the Politburo and the Central Committee backed his proposals in public, as party discipline required, but ‘sabotaged him in silence’. Boris Yeltsin, brought from his Siberian fiefdom into the Central Committee, began his long, wild series of attacks on Gorbachev.

Taubman’s account of these spectacular public quarrels is at once fascinating and shocking. Yeltsin several times disrupted Central Committee sessions, complaining that reform was moving too slowly and that perestroika had done nothing for the Russian people; he accused Gorbachev of nursing his own ‘cult of personality’. In return, Gorbachev twice released the ‘loyal delegates’ to behave in the sinister way that was still their gut instinct: obediently taking turns to pile murderous abuse on Yeltsin for disloyalty to the party line. They reverted to a pack of Stalinist hyenas, while Yeltsin reverted to an abject Stalinist victim confessing his sins and begging for forgiveness. And Gorbachev? He certainly didn’t want to revert to anything. He ignored those who assumed that Yeltsin would be sent into exile, and he sought repeatedly to rebuild some relationship between them. And yet the way he handled this and other challenges shows that, in the end, he remained a party man. He could contemplate transforming the Communist Party, abolishing its ‘leading role’, opening it to inner democracy and even to multi-party competition. But mentally he never quite emerged from the party box, as Yeltsin eventually did.

Fatally, Gorbachev never realised, or admitted to himself, that the party couldn’t be his instrument to carry through change. By the 1980s, it was simply too late. The gigantic structure had become so rotten and demoralised that attempts to infuse it with democracy only hastened its death. And Gorbachev could find no other instrument. As Taubman puts it, ‘by gutting the party’s ability to run the country, he was undermining his own power.’

*

Taubman’s account of Gorbachev’s career reveals another truth, one which a European must find difficult to digest. Mikhail Sergeyevich (‘Gorby! Gorby!’) is thought of as the liberator of the ‘captive nations’ in the ‘socialist camp’. That’s true, but mostly in a negative way. In reality, Gorbachev didn’t much care what happened to the Warsaw Pact nations, as long as events there didn’t get in his way in Washington and Moscow. Arguing with Mrs Thatcher, swapping ideas with Andrei Sakharov or with heretical Italian communists – that was fun. Remaining patient with stupid old dinosaurs like Erich Honecker or evil goblins like Ceaușescu was a penance. Gorbachev seems to have regarded the ‘fraternal ruling parties’ as, on balance, a liability holding the Soviet Union back on its progress towards modernisation.

The so-called Brezhnev Doctrine – that all socialist countries must intervene when ‘socialism’ in one of them is in peril – had effectively been shelved long before Gorbachev became Soviet leader. The Politburo minutes for 1980-81 show that in late 1981, at the height of the Solidarity crisis in Poland, the Soviet Union told General Jaruzelski that Soviet troops would on no account be sent into the country, and that if Jaruzelski’s planned imposition of martial law went wrong, he would not be rescued. (So much, incidentally, for Jaruzelski’s defence that he declared martial law only to avert a Soviet intervention.)

Ordinary people in East-Central Europe watched perestroika and glasnost with rising excitement. So did many younger activists in their ruling communist parties. All the more striking, then, that Gorbachev never seriously tried to persuade their leaders to imitate his Soviet experiments. While crowds outside chanted his name, he merely told their rulers: ‘It’s your business.’ Taubman tries to guess what was in his mind then: ‘Even if, as is likely, he neither foresaw nor wished the collapse of East European communism, what he was counting on to avoid it was utopian – the triumph of perestroika in Eastern Europe without his intervening directly to promote that outcome.’

In his great speech to the UN General Assembly in December 1988, Gorbachev announced enormous unilateral cuts to Soviet conventional forces in Europe, and said that a society’s ‘freedom of choice’ should be respected without exceptions. The frightful suspicion that Soviet power might no longer stand between them and their angry populations began to seep into the skulls of the smarter East European leaders: others, as in East Germany, still dismissed that as unthinkable. Dissidents and ordinary people calculated that there was now a fair chance – no better than that, yet – that Soviet tanks would not invade if they took matters into their own hands. The outcome was the multiple liberations of 1989.

Gorbachev clearly hoped that the overthrow of Communism would be followed by some form of democratic socialism. But when that looked increasingly unlikely, he didn’t panic. He simply didn’t care enough about that part of the world. One of his finest legacies was that he precisely didn’t bring about revolutions in East-Central Europe. By standing aside, he allowed a generation of Poles and Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Germans to create the nourishing myth that their freedom had been won by their own courage on the street. When they woke Gorbachev one November morning to tell him that East Germany had opened the Wall, he merely said: ‘They did the right thing.’

He was preoccupied with struggles nearer home. The Soviet Union itself was cracking up. Ukrainians were talking about independence; the Baltics – especially Lithuania – were openly defying central control; special forces had murdered twenty Georgian demonstrators in Tbilisi in April 1989. Most ominous of all, the Russian Republic – egged on by Boris Yeltsin – demanded and won its own Communist Party in June 1990. The media used their freedom under glasnost to attack Gorbachev on both fronts: either for throwing away all that had been won by the sacrifices of the Soviet people, or for hesitating to smash down the bastions of the Soviet system itself. For a silent but increasingly hate-filled majority in the party’s guiding bodies, the familiar world was ending. For the Russian people, especially, chaos and shortages were becoming reasons to turn against Gorbachev, whose popularity rapidly shrank in the course of 1990.

Unable to muster reliable backing in the party, he cut back its responsibilities and transferred his own power base to new parliamentary institutions. The Congress of Peoples’ Deputies appointed him president. But the manoeuvre only deepened his political isolation. The 1990 May Day parade degenerated into noisy protests under his nose. Yeltsin’s popularity meanwhile soared. In July he stormed out of the Soviet Communist Party, announcing that from now on he answered only to the Russian people. When Gorbachev backed away from the ambitious ‘500 Days’ plan for conversion to a market economy, drawn up by his brightest advisers, Yeltsin said that he had missed his ‘last chance for a civilised transition to a new order’.

He was right about that. There was a smell of burning in the Moscow air, and in December 1990 Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian leader who had become Gorbachev’s foreign minister, suddenly resigned. ‘A dictatorship is coming. I declare this with total responsibility. No one knows what kind of dictatorship it will be.’ Gorbachev, who had been given no warning of this speech, played it calmly. To the horror of his democratic supporters, he was now deliberately tilting policy and appointments towards the hardline faction in the party. This was part of a ‘zigzag’ strategy designed to reassure each hostile camp in turn, but nobody was reassured and both sides were further antagonised. He made Gennady Yanayev his vice president and left Vladimir Kriuchkov in charge of the KGB. A few months later, in August 1991, both men took leading parts in the failed putsch against him.

With Gorbachev acting simultaneously on three separate stages – the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and global peacemaking – there is a fair amount of ‘meanwhile’ in this book. Taubman has to break off one narrative to go back and catch up on another, and the order of events can get muddling. In 1990, while establishing the presidency and fending off Yeltsin, Gorbachev was also coping with the enormous new question of Germany’s future. The West, including Chancellor Kohl, assumed that he would oppose German reunification, but he accepted it. Then they thought that he would probably refuse to allow a united Germany to remain in Nato, and would certainly veto the extension of Nato into what had been East Germany. But in May he came to Washington and suddenly agreed with Bush that ‘united Germany … would decide on its own which alliance she would be a member of.’ The Americans couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Gorbachev’s own staff were thunderstruck.

Why did Gorbachev not drive a much harder bargain over Germany, when he clearly had the chance? Taubman isn’t the only one to ask that question. The moment was so dramatic and desperate that if Gorbachev had asked for German neutrality as the price for recognising German unity, there was at least a possibility that the West might have agreed. He says now that his own respect for democracy made him leave these decisions to the German people. But Taubman speculates, without providing much evidence, that Gorbachev may have shared old Anglo-French anxieties about a huge German state unrestrained by membership of any pact, which could lean on its neighbours and blackmail the rest of Europe.

Whatever his motives, Gorbachev’s reluctance to put up a fight over Germany had enormous consequences. Some were domestic: in abandoning the Soviet foothold in Germany, won at the price of such bloodshed, was he not betraying all that the Soviet people had gained in the Great Patriotic War? As one of many abusive letters to him put it, ‘Mr General Secretary: congratulations on receiving the imperialists’ prize for ruining the USSR, selling out Eastern Europe, destroying the Red Army, handing over all our resources to the United States and the mass media to the Zionists.’

The other consequences are still with us. Though Taubman doesn’t put it like this, the West took Gorbachev’s co-operation for weakness. He expected an economic and financial reward for his concessions: it didn’t come. Crucially, in February 1990, James Baker, the US secretary of state, and Chancellor Kohl assured Gorbachev that Nato wouldn’t expand eastwards, certainly not towards the Soviet frontiers. But Gorbachev failed to make them write it down and Bush later told Kohl that he and Baker had gone too far. ‘To hell with that! We prevailed. They didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.’ A few years later, by 2004, all the ex-Warsaw Pact nations, including the Baltic republics and Poland, had been brought into Nato. After their triumphant experience with Gorbachev, Western leaders reckoned that they could get away with it. But the ‘broken promise’ grievance smoulders under Putin’s European policy to this day. Most Russians, whatever their view of Putin’s autocracy, still look on Nato’s surge up to their borders as the treacherous breach of an international agreement.

*

The coup took place on 18 August 1991. Gorbachev, Raisa and their family were in their Crimean villa when it was surrounded by armed men. Announcing that the president had been taken ill, the plotters proclaimed that they had taken control of the Soviet Union as a State Committee on Emergency Rule. Taubman’s wonderfully cinematic narrative gives us every detail of what took place and how the Gorbachevs reacted: Mikhail Sergeyevich furious, contemptuous and unyielding, Raisa so appalled that she suffered a minor stroke. Suddenly they were back in Russian history, where anything could happen. How could they be sure that men with guns wouldn’t force their way in and treat them and their children as Nicholas II and his children had been treated 73 years before?

Why did the coup fail? Taubman’s account confirms the incredible bungling of the plotters, who almost from the outset seemed terrified by their own audacity. But they had a chance. I was there, and saw how – outside Moscow and Leningrad – ordinary people and local apparatchiks instantly accepted that the perestroika holiday was over: it was back to censorship, silence and the ‘normal’ post-Stalinist grind. A friend of mine said afterwards: ‘A handful of good, brave people saved Russia.’ I like to believe that she was right. The plotters’ worst and ultimately suicidal error was failing to arrest Yeltsin. But before he even arrived at the National Parliament building, mounted a tank and famously roared defiance, ‘good, brave people’ were already barricading the building. A line of women linked hands across the Kalinin Bridge, proposing to stop the tanks of the Taman armoured division. ‘We are mothers!’

Away in Leningrad, the mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, was doing the same as Yeltsin. But before those two took charge, there was a moment – perhaps 36 hours – when the conspiracy controlled the army and murderous ‘special forces’ and could easily have drowned opposition in blood before it had time to spread. They faltered while the ‘handful’ became a human sea, then they collapsed. Several plotters flew to Crimea to whine for Gorbachev’s pardon, but Yeltsin’s men were soon on their way in their own plane to free Gorbachev and arrest them.

From the moment of the coup’s failure, Yeltsin and his team were effectively running not only Russia but all that was left of the Soviet Union. It took Gorbachev a long time to realise it. Taubman inserts a startling ‘why’ here. Why didn’t he drive straight to the National Parliament from the plane bringing him back from Crimea, to greet the ecstatic crowds awaiting him there and restore his authority? The answer seems to be simply that he was worried about Raisa’s health and wanted to take her home. But his time was over anyway. He sacked the plotters and three of them killed themselves for shame. But only two days after his return, Gorbachev was jeered as he addressed the Russian supreme court. And when he claimed that the Soviet cabinet had resisted the coup, Yeltsin thrust in his face a paper showing that almost all of his ministers had gone along with it.

He spent the next months negotiating towards a new ‘union treaty’, granting the Soviet republics wide autonomy. But Ukraine refused to take part, heading for full independence, and in November Yeltsin suddenly vetoed any Russian participation in the treaty. A few weeks later, he went behind Gorbachev’s back and – at a secret meeting in a Belorussian forest – set up the Commonwealth of Independent States with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine. The Soviet Union was over. So was Gorbachev’s power. He made his televised resignation speech in the Kremlin on 25 December 1991. Yeltsin switched off his own screen halfway through, and sent two colonels to take the ‘nuclear briefcase’ from Gorbachev and bring it to his own office.

Taubman sometimes quotes too many overlapping sources (his Khrushchev benefited from the relative scarcity of material), but the final sections, recounting the first decades after Gorbachev’s retirement, are wise and clear. The story of Raisa’s illness and her death from leukaemia in 1999, taken mostly from her husband’s unsparing memoir, reveals her courage and his own combination of warmth and hardiness in the worst moments. After his fall, he set up the Gorbachev Foundation and settled down to comment on world politics and – increasingly – to imply harsh verdicts on Yeltsin. Abroad, he was still a hero, almost a saviour. In Russia, he found it hard to accept how unpopular and then irrelevant he had become. ‘His overconfidence in himself and his cause,’ Taubman writes, ‘gave him the courage to reach so high that he overreached … When the results clashed with his idealised self-image as a great statesman, he too often reacted by denying reality.’ In 1996, he ran for president but came in seventh, with 0.5 per cent of the vote.

Not much of his dream is left. A democratic Russia as a partner in a ‘common European home’ reaching to the Atlantic? According to a friend of his, Gorbachev now grants that it may take a hundred years for democracy to take hold in his country. But he is proud that he was the one who opened the way. The great Russian intellectual Dmitry Furman called him ‘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’.