Imagine yourself 15 years from now, standing in a public square, admiring a majestic marble statue of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the greatest statesman of the last half of the previous century. You might be in Berlin or Prague, Paris, or even Washington, but chances are you won’t be in Moscow or Petrograd (formerly Leningrad). In his own country, Gorbachev is increasingly dismissed as indecisive, henpecked, irrelevant, and, worse yet, a Communist. Gail Sheehy’s thoroughly researched, poorly written biography, The Man Who Changed the World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, is the story of a ”man who changed the world and lost his country.”
In the 1970s Gorbachev went on several junkets to Western Europe and liked what he saw, especially West Germany, which he described as ”rich and nice and civilized.” By the early ’80s he was ready to concede that by contrast the Soviet Union was a corrupt and inert mess (a mess Sheehy conveys through numerous anecdotes — ”Yes, of course, we are deformed,” her Russian friends tell her).
When he came to power in 1985, he decided that a few incentives — a little free speech here, some profit motive there — would arouse the Soviet masses from their sodden and cynical slumber and redeem their socialist souls. The masses showed their gratitude by pulling the country out from under him. The economy slid backward, democracy lurched forward, the Party went to pieces, and Gorbachev is now suspended in mid-air — an absolute dictator still dictating, with almost no one listening.
Nobody expected Gorbachev to dismantle the Soviet system and empire, least of all Gorbachev. Yet Sheehy shows how well qualified he was to back into this spectacular, epoch-ending job. He was an outsider who became a consummate but never comfortable insider. His ancestors were fiercely independent cossacks. One grandfather was arrested by Stalin’s secret police; the other saved himself by organizing the collectivization of his village. Gorbachev rose above his obscure and politically ambiguous background with iron self-discipline and a gift for being ingratiating to the right people — especially, Sheehy thinks, the KGB.
Unlike other ambitious Soviet bureaucrats, he memorized poetry and read Solzhenitsyn. He apparently wanted to fuse his own austere ideal of Communist dedication with the civilized amenities and efficiencies he found on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Sheehy calls him the last ”romantic” Communist. This may be right in every sense. She has tracked down a girlfriend from his Moscow State University days who helped gentrify the raw young provincial, introducing him to museums and concerts. Indeed, throughout his career the eternal feminine — later represented by his wife, Raisa, and Maggie Thatcher — has seemed to draw him onward and upward.
Sheehy, best known for her pop-psychology primer Passages, has imposed a pattern of consecutive reborn Gorbachevs on her book; this gives him only three lives fewer than a cat. She lapses often into the ogling journalese of Vanity Fair (”this wonder man”), which commissioned the article that spawned this book. But she has left no stony Soviet citizen unturned in her effort to piece together Gorbachev’s well-hidden life. He emerges as enigmatically brilliant, heroic, perhaps tragic — and well worth a statue, or a more solid and monumental biography than this one. B