Today, Jeremi and Zachary discuss the significance and legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev and his political career with professor, author, and political scientist Dr. William Taubman.
Zachary reads his poem, “What Mikhail Thought of.”
This episode of This is Democracy was mixed and mastered by Morgan Honaker.
- William TaubmanAuthor and Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at Amherst College
- Jeremi SuriProfessor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
This is democracy, a podcast about the people of the United States, a podcast about citizenship, about engaging with politics and the world around you. A podcast about educating yourself on today’s important issues and how to have a voice in what happens next. Welcome to our new episode of this is democracy.
Today. We have the great opportunity to talk, uh, about one of the most important figures, uh, of the last century we call goov, who just, uh, recently passed away. And we’re fortunate to have as our guest today, uh, William Tobin, who is the foremost bio. Of Mical Gobi off. He’s also the foremost biographer of Nik Koff.
Uh, he has, uh, done more than any other historian. I know, to really unpack the history of Soviet leadership and the personalities at the top of the Soviet union, uh, who in many ways, um, influenced all elements of world politics over the last 50 to 75 years. Uh, William Toman. Bertran Snell professor of political science emeritus at Amherst college.
And, uh, as I said, he has written, uh, Pulitzer prize, winning biography of, uh, Nikita Koff, a fantastic biography of, uh, Meka Gober, which was published in 2017, which I think is even better than the Koff book, uh, and, uh, written about Stalin’s foreign policy and various other issues. He’s also, uh, a good friend and it’s a, it’s a real pleasure to have him on bill.
Thank you for joining us. Glad to be there. Before we turn to our discussion, uh, with bill Toman, uh, we have, of course our poem from Mr. Zachary Siri, uh, this week’s poem was, was pretty inspirational is Zachary. I think so. Yeah, let’s hear it. What Miha thought of, uh, I wonder what Mihail thought of when he drifted off to sleep.
If there was any space for doubt or fear or questions for the deep void of infamy in his own town, they will probably spit on his bones and yet the ghost of his courage roams or, and bomb shelters that were never supposed to be. I wonder what Miha imagined would meet him on the other side. Can you still believe in history when you have ended it?
Could he possibly be staring in the eyes of a cold stone faced lemon looming over the stucco ceilings? Like a scarecrow? Or did he carry with him when his feet touched down on a floating cloud of paradise as a sort of housewarming gift? My father’s memory of how his motorcade looked with its dark limousines on Lexington avenue in 1988, between the cheering crowds.
I do not know when I was born, he was already a pizza hut commercial, or perhaps a Cassandra. And we thought of him with quaint smile as if at all were inevitable as if the past would always stay dead. I do not know. But sleep well, Miha you have earned it because you gave us freedom. Even when you didn’t know it, because you felt the promise, fever, dream, perhaps of a future where your grandchildren would never have to look the cold scattered bodies in their bloodied faces on the icy ground, because you were brave enough to have shot yourself in the foot.
So we could all sleep well at night. No bombs fell then. And in our wildest dreams, we could sometimes imagine that the walls fell like dominoes in their place. Zachary I’m. So moved by your poem. What is it about? My poem is really about the, the hope that Mihael go Petro embodied and, and still embodies, uh, in the minds of, of so many around the world.
Uh, but especially here in the United States, um, But also the ways in which his legacy, um, has, has been tarnished in, in recent months, um, by the war in Ukraine and, and the ways in which the, the fight that in many ways he, uh, willingly or unwillingly begun, uh, still needs to be fought today. Yeah. Uh, bill, what made Meka Gober chef stand out from other Soviet leaders?
Why, why do we think of him differently? I’m tempted to say, what did not make him stand out from other, I mean, everything is the answer, almost everything. Uh, I guess the thing that was similar to other Soviet leaders was his ability to climb the greasy pole, the latter of the communist party apparatus and end up as the boss, the leader of the Soviet union.
And in that process, he showed an ability. Uh, maneuver within the bureaucracy to engage in ruthless Kremlin infighting to in the end, perform the miracle of getting communist hardliners to briefly, unfortunately vote themselves out of power and turn over power to broader masses of people who were given a right to vote freely.
And, um, and a genuine parliament rather than a rubber stamp Supreme Soviet. So those are some of the ways in which he was similar, but if he played that old game, as we might call it, it turned out he played it in order to invent and to create, and to try to implement a new game, which was, uh, a democratic Soviet union with a parliament with free elections, with freedom of speech.
And although that was that in a way and still can inspire us and should, and, and will, it also has to be admitted that he didn’t play that new game as well as he played the old game. That is to say the people and forces that he freed from the old totalitarian restraints ended up overwhelming him and leading him to, uh, leave office.
As the Soviet union itself collapsed, which was also not something he had intended at all. And, and bill, why do you think he was motivated, uh, to, to be a reformer? This is one of the most compelling parts of your book. What, what drove him in this way? Well, that’s where I think biography comes in. That is to say the whole story of the whole life, because you can analyze his speeches to, uh, To describe his ideals and you can show him trying to implement them, but where did this man come up with?
All of this born in 1931, growing up under Stalinism, graduating from Moscow university in 1955, only two years after Stalin died. I think you have to go partly to his childhood and to his, uh, parents. Particularly his father who seems to have been by all accounts, a particularly wonderful open-minded man.
Uh, you also have to go back to, I guess, his genes in the midst of this horrible period of late Stalinism, this boy grows up to be a happy, confident, optimistic young man. Uh, and that optimism looms very large later, because without that. You would never undertake the gargantuan task of reforming this country.
Uh, then he goes to Moscow university, which is filled with smart. Uh, many of them idealistic students like him and they be later become some of his closest allies and supporters. um, and he marries a woman who is somewhat even, or is even more radical in some of her and dreams than he is. So you put together all of these things along with a little Jefferson that he read while he was at Moscow university.
And pardon that’s our puppy. , that’s fine. Anyway, you put all of this together and you get Goma. a and, and bill, what was he trying to do? Because he remained, uh, to the end, right? A, a, a communist, right? What, what was he trying to do? What were his reforms about? Well, you know, I think you have to admit that communism itself has an idealistic strand.
I mean, to be sure Stalin inherited the power that. Uh, collected for the BICS in 1917 and afterwards, and used it to commit to commit mass murder, but the idealistic strand, which was there in Marx and much less so in Lennon, but in a lot of communists, I’ve gotten to know in the Soviet union over the years was this notion that they were building a better and potentially even perfect society in which people would be truly.
not only politically, but economically through the, uh, production of abundance, which would mean that they would not be grubbing after their daily bread. Uh, so in that sense, he got a lot of this from communism. There were, there were others like him at various points in the Soviet, his in Soviet history, but they were either repressed or overwhelmed or ignored by the hardheaded.
Coldblood. BOL Shavis like Stalin himself. And if, if Gobi chop saw these problems so acutely, um, how was he able to, to climb that greasy pole and make it to the top of a, of a system that even if he could see its promise, uh, he, he also saw as incredibly broken. Well, for one thing, the leaders of that system, both at the very top and at middle levels through which he climbed toward the top appreciated hard work.
Uh, I think they even admired idealism because they knew too many people were cynical and later many of them, the leaders became cynical themselves. So they appreciated his hard work and they appreciated his idealism and they thought that he would not take it to extremes. They, they observed his behavior and he was cautious.
He kept. Some of his ideals to himself. He didn’t, he and his wife did not welcome strangers into their household. They shared a lot of their thinking with their daughter, their only child, but they, they clearly taught her to keep her mouth shut when she was circulating more widely. So, uh, on dropoff who Yu dropoff the, uh, powerful secret police chief who later became briefly BNAs success.
Before he died. And before on quickly died and thought made Gobi chuff into his protege. He was Gobi Trust’s patron. And I think he saw all of these characteristics, hard work idealism, caution, uh, meticulousness plus Gober ch was a cany operator. I discovered stories, for example, how goov would, uh, would report to the top things that he had supposedly accomplished, uh, in his local area, which he had not and, and, and, and the people around him began to see that not only was he an admirable model in many ways, But he was also a tricky manipulator.
Right. He knew how to play the game as yes, he did, as you would say. So, so bill, you not only have written about goof, you live through this, uh, a as, as did I, as a, as a, a high school student, actually, uh, you live through this as a scholar or someone who was visiting, uh, the Soviet union. Um, what was it like in the go of years?
It’s hard to convey, I think to students, uh, now what a difference, uh, how the world seemed to change so quickly with goof. C can you convey some of that to us? I made my first visit to the Soviet union in the summer of 1964. On an AC on a Russian language study tour. I spent a year at Moscow university from in 65, 66 in the same law school that goof had graduated from a decade before then.
And on over the years, I went back many times, but then beginning in 85, it began to change. And in 1980, My family. And I spent five months in Moscow on the academic exchange and we kept being bold over by things that we hadn’t expected to see, see, or hear, which were happening before our eyes. For example, there was a movie that came out in 1988 made by a Georgian film director whose name I have forgotten, although my wife who was over here can, who made the.
The Georgian film that we’re both old enough Abu AB Abu Abu Lai. It was a film about a, uh, a kind of dictator who looked a lot like Stalin and also resembled Hitler to some extent he was Georgian. However, and, and the film, uh, Sort of revealed him to be what he was, that kind of a dictator. And when that film came out in 1988, I think it was, if not 87, we couldn’t believe that it had been allowed to see the light of day.
I mean, it was the kind of film that never would’ve been released. It would’ve been to use the Soviet cliche term shelved. That is if it had made at all, it would then be kept under guard for the rest of its life. And this was because it was so critical of solid. Yes. But there it was, we couldn’t believe it.
And a lot of the Russians too, whom we were friendly with at that time said they couldn’t believe it either. It was a kind of symbol that something very basic was changing before our eyes. And there were many other examples of things that couldn’t be said that were suddenly said. So Sen’s Gulag was suddenly being published.
Mm-hmm uh, Stalin was being criticized by Gorbachov himself going far beyond what KCHE did in 1956, when he gave a secret speech to bunking Stalin. I mean, it was a new world. But even then some of our very closest friends with whom we shared these insights, when I called them on the phone, I remember one time I called somebody on the phone and he said, uh, I asked his impression of something that, uh, uh, of a sort of revolutionary development like this.
And he said in Russian,
this we don’t talk about on this. Right. And, and why do you think bill that, um, Gobi off was, was so, um, uh, extraordinarily well received in the west. I remember I’ve been talking to people about this. I remember being in New York city when he visited in December, 1988 for this extraordinary speech at the United nations, uh, where he discussed how the Soviet union was going to U unilaterally.
Uh, reduce its forces in Europe and, and he was treated like a rockstar in New York. Why do you think that. Well, first of all, the speech itself, if you go back and read that speech, not only did he say he was going to reduce forces unilaterally, but he said in almost so many words that he believed in the consent of the govern.
Yes. And that was a clear signal that east Europe was, uh, if not immediately then eventually going to be. Well, maybe not liberated, but certainly eased up on and, and even released. Uh, well, I guess what I’m saying is that the west as a whole and its political leaders reacted in, in a large way, as I re I and my wife and our family reacted in Moscow on, in 88.
Goof was saying and doing things they couldn’t imagine. I remember, uh, reading the transcripts of the REIC summit in 86, uh, where goof and Reagan came within an inch. Of agreeing to abolish nuclear weapons. And I remember coming upon, uh, things that Paul NITSA, who was the hard line negotiator that Reagan had chosen to, among others to work with him in negotiating with Gobi jaw and NITSA said something like, I can’t believe it.
I’ve never heard this kind of thing. Mm-hmm from these rough Russians, these Soviets. Yeah. So if Gobi patrol was such a, such a hero in the west, or at least such, such an important figure, someone viewed on with, uh, admiration, uh, how, how can we explain or, or seek to understand how he’s viewed in Russia today, but also, uh, at the time in the early nineties, late 1980s, The first thing you have to say is that until 1990 Gora Cho was viewed with great admiration and delight in the Soviet union itself.
Of course, there were people who were scared of what he was doing. There were colleagues in the poll bureau who thought he was going too far, but it was only in the second half of 1990. That Goro ceased to be the most popular. Politician in Russia and was superseded by Boris Yeltsin who eventually replaced him when the Soviet union collapsed.
So, uh, what that tells you is that a lot of Russians hoped and prayed, or didn’t, maybe didn’t pray that Gober tr would be successful in carrying out the reforms. Which were no longer reforms, actually, they became radical steps by 1988 that he had begun. But also by, by 1989, by 1990, the economic situation had drastically worsened.
Uh, people had hoped he would be able to cure that instead. They found themselves lining up again for food at long, long lines at stores. And, um, The, the, the situation, uh, in the, in the, even in the streets in the sense that national nationalities, non Russians and the republics began agitating for more autonomy and then ultimately independence and sovereignty in the Baltics in Georgia.
Uh, in, in nor the go Karbach, which is an Armenian enclave of AAI, John and people, the Russians were, were, and force was used. In some cases, goov tried to avoid the use of force, but in some cases to repress them, people began to worry about stability, which had always meant a lot to Russians. They began to worry about disorder.
Best pad is the Russian word. They had always valued order. And so they began turning against GOBA tr and some of his virtues began to seem to them to be shortcomings. For example, after Brene, who could barely speak, he was so old and ill goof was a marvelously articulate and eloquent speaker. but he talked a lot and he talked in fact too much.
And by 19 90, 91, people began to treat him and to refer to him as a kind of the Russian word is BTO. Somebody who talks too much. Right. Uh, so his virtues began to seem defects. In the eyes of many Russians, a and bill. Did he see what came of the former Soviet union after its collapsed? Did, did he see that as, as a failure of his hopes?
How, how did he understand? Uh, the 20, 30 years he lived after his time and power? That’s a very good question, Jeremy, because I think he struggled. With that question. He struggled to understand what happened. He struggled to understand his own contribution to it. Like almost any human being. He was reluctant to decide he was a failure or that he had caused the troubles that got worse, even worse under yen who carried out shock economic shock therapy, which made the economy even.
Worse off. Uh, I think he struggled with that. I remember talking to him and, and about the question, whether he had moved too fast to change the Soviet union or too slowly. And at the time he felt he had moved too slowly, but later in later years, he would say he had moved too fast and he would even go so far to say that it would take decades.
to democratize Russia and that it might even take the whole 21st century, but you know, it was hard for him to admit this. Uh, there was a wonderful documentary film made very late in his life, maybe three, two or three years ago, three or four years ago by two Russians. One was a filmmaker named vial Mansky.
The other was a playwright named Alexander Gil. and the film is called in English. Gober off dot , which is a play on the, I guess, what would be a, um, uh, um, an E address, email address mm-hmm or website, but it was really about. What the film showed in long interviews, goof was already weak and frail, but his mind was clear.
And what he was doing was trying to come to some kind of judgment of what he had ultimately accomplished and not accomplished and why. And the, one of the ironies in the film was that as he spoke, as he was interviewed by these two, uh, Russian. A television was playing in the background. You couldn’t hear it, but it was showing the, the picture and the picture was Putin addressing somebody or not, or, or a, a parliament or something.
So the comment was that even as Gobi off wrestled with what he had done and not done, the man who was on television commanding this, the stage was put. Well, and I, I think that begs the natural question. Uh, bill, what do you think Gobi CHOP’s legacy is, especially at a moment now where we’re, um, witnessing one of the most brutal and, uh, dictatorial wars we’ve seen, uh, any country fight in Europe.
Uh, really since world war II, uh, led by Gobi CHOP’s successor. Well, you know, if even in the last 24 hours, since we learned that Gobi off had died, I’ve been struck by how many of the tributes are all tribute. Uh, people are, this is in the west. Of course people are well justly inspired by what he had tried to do.
Um, and what to emphasize the positive. On the other hand, I have heard talking to Russians whom I greatly. Intellectuals professors, some of whom have fled to the west both before the Ukrainian war began. And even more now I’ve heard, uh, judgements, which are mostly negative. And I guess my own judgment is that it w that corporate CHOP’s legacy is both the inspiration that he provides to try to create a better country.
And a better world and to take the chances of doing it in a big way, even when there is the possibility of failure, uh, and on the other hand, The failure to succeed in everything he wanted to accomplish, which underlines just how hard it is to change countries for the better and to change the world. So that is what I see as his legacy.
It’s a combination of, of the inspiration that he inspires by what he attempted and the caution, uh, that he is is, is created by how it turned. That makes a lot of sense. Our, our, our last question bill, um, is the question we often ask, uh, week after week with, with different scholars and policy, uh, experts and others on our show.
Uh, what, from this history, what, from this extensive work you’ve done as the, is really the foremost, uh, scholar of go chop, certainly the foremost scholar of corporate chop in the United. What are lessons for students today, students who are interested in, in making the world a better place who wanna reform our society and wanna reform international politics?
What lessons would you take from, from your scholarship? Well, I fir I guess the first lesson that is, is that it is worth studying. A man like Goroff and his, what he tried to accomplish and where he fell short and why? One of the things I’ve learned, and maybe this is my bias, because I’ve turned in my old age into a biographer after starting life as a political scientist.
Uh, um, one of the things I’ve learned is how important. Certain leaders can be. And I think it’s not accidental. Another Soviet phrase that both of the, both the Soviet leaders I’ve written biographies of cruise, chuff and goof were decisive and that their decisive actions were reflected. The fact that they were unique, that is in the.
They did what others would not have done in their place. Mm-hmm in K chef’s case. It was I’ll give you one good example and one awful example, a good example was denouncing Stalin, which I think nobody else would’ve done with a possible exception of. Police chief Barry, who was totally cynical. And the other thing that K Jeff did that, I think none of his colleagues would’ve done was to send missiles to Cuba.
Right? None of them wanted to do that, but he didn’t really ask them. So he was unique and Gobi, Jeff was unique in the sense that he went much farther than almost any of his colleagues wanted to go. There were two, three or three who stayed with him to the end, but they were only in a position to do so because he either put.
In power alongside him or kept them there. So it, what I’m saying is leaders can be decisive and their decisive impact on the events can reflect their uniqueness. Now, this doesn’t mean that the rest of us should just sit on our haunches and watch they do, especially in a democracy where we are invited to take part and certainly must do so.
But I guess one thing I’ve learned. Is how important certain leaders can be for good or ill when they fit, when they have the power, as goof did to make great changes and they have the uniqueness to try to make changes that nobody else would. It, it’s such a powerful point, bill. Uh, I, I hear you saying that, um, who we choose as leaders, uh, when we’re fortunate enough to live in a society where we get to have some choice, it’s an absolutely crucial decision and, and who, who steps forward?
I mean, the. These, these issues matter enormously. And perhaps we don’t take them seriously enough. Perhaps we choose based on, on the wrong attributes, not on the attributes you’ve studied on, but I’ll even, I’ll give you an example without naming names. Mm-hmm but I’ll ask your listeners. Can you think of a recent American president who has an, has had an important impact on his society and who.
Did things in office, which few, if any other people would’ve done, because he had a certain kind of personality. Hand hand. Right? Right. Zachary. Before we close, I, I wanna give you a chance, you, in your poem, you’re so eloquently, uh, have the refrain, uh, but sleep well, Mackay, you have earned it. Uh, what did you mean by that?
And, and, and do you connecting that to what bill has shared with us? Do you, do you see. Meka Gobi shop’s legacy is one that’s useful and inspirational for young people like yourself. I think so. Um, for me, what has struck me about the past few days is, is that I, that, um, it’s hard for someone who was born long after the, uh, collapse of the Soviet union to, to understand what the world was like, uh, before 1991.
And I think what Gobi cha shows us is that, um, The world that we live in, uh, can change very quickly. Uh, and, and sometimes it, it does depend on, on individuals and the decisions they make. Um, and I think he also shows that you have to, you have to, you have to infiltrate the system before you can change it, too.
Right? The long March through the institutions, uh, bill Taman. Thank you so much for joining us. Uh, today your insights have, have inspired and enlightened us. Um, thank you, bill. Well, Jeremy, I’d like to say that you are the kind of questioner who brings out interesting answers. I’ve been interviewed, uh, in the last 24 hours.
I don’t know how many times 30 or 40 times, but, uh, and this, I think was, I feel as if was the most successful because, uh, How good you were at, uh, posing questions? Well, the, the secret bill is having, uh, great guests and having a great partner in Zachary here. Zachary. Thank you for your moving poem and thank you.
Most of all, to our loyal listeners for joining us for this week of this is democracy.
This podcast is produced by the liberal arts its development studio and the college of liberal arts at the university of Texas at Austin. The music in this episode was written and recorded by Harris co Dini. Stay tuned for a new episode every week. You can find this is democracy on apple podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
See you next time.