Gorbachev's Memoir: In Need of a Historian
By Mikhail Gorbachev
769 pp., $35
Why is it that politicians' memoirs - no matter the country - so often are stiff, unimaginative, and generally disappointing?
Politicians of course are activists, eager for power and achievement, but unintrospective and uninterested in self-investigation. Just ask a politician to explain his or her motivation for some action. The answers inevitably are embarassingly simplistic or superficial. Over the span of a political career, what matters is winning, achieving, accomplishing - not the personal explanations.
So it is with this huge, overlong, and heavy-handed account by Mikhail Gorbachev of the dismantling of Soviet communism.
Gorbachev of course ranks as a remarkable phenomenon, a visionary who emerged from nowhere - he had reached Moscow only in l978 - and proceeded to rip the Soviet system apart, from its internal structure to its satellite empire. He transformed society by reviving capitalism and presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. And all this in a few years from l985 onward, with no executions and relatively little turmoil, bloodshed, or prison terms.
Though Gorbachev was a true revolutionary, displaying immense confidence and determination, he is no writer. He tells us virtually nothing about why he acted as he did - aside from frequent generalities about the declining economy, the scourge of state-monopolized liquor sales, of the battered environment, of terrible health conditions, etc., etc. And of course the dangers of nuclear war.
But all this was widely known within the Kremlin; the point is that Gorbachev took drastic action, while his colleagues stood pat, defending their personal fiefs.
Hence the paradox: though Gorbachev certainly had a high opinion of himself - and is sharply critical of those outside his inner circle - he treats his most remarkable, even brilliant, actions as commonplace, more or less shrugging them off as obvious and normal.
They were not, of course. It took special qualities to end the war in Afghanistan, yet Gorbachev dismisses it in a single, mildly self-congratulatory paragraph. So it did to press for nuclear disarmament with the United States, but there again is no hint of why he grasped the nettle, though much of his simplification was intended to enhance his image, while lowering that of Reagan.
Gorbachev, ever insistent that he was right, is evasive regarding failure. Consider the Chernobyl disaster, where Gorbachev puts the best possible face on events - despite obvious errors by Moscow.
No less two-dimensional is his treatment of the various political personages, both Soviet and foreign, whom he knew. There are no descriptions, no sense of life. There are three exceptions: Mrs. Thatcher, the Iron Lady, who left a powerful impression; Boris Yeltsin, about whom Gorbachev is harsh, spiteful and dismissive; and General Secretary Andropov, with whom he was friendly.
As the boss atop the pyramid, the general secretary was supposed - in theory - to synthesize these individual interests and provide unified direction for the whole. That role ended with Khrushchev's downfall in l964. Thereafter, an aging oligarchy reigned, with various roles neatly parceled out: defense to Ustinov, foreign affairs to Gromyko, ideology to Suslov, and so on.
Careerism prevailed, with the energies of younger subordinates devoted to behaving prudently, covering their flanks, forming alliances and coveting fame and power: the national interest was entirely ignored.
* Leonard Bushkoff reviews history books for the Monitor.