Robert Service at Literary Review:
It is one of the paradoxes of Soviet history that Mikhail Gorbachev, who did more than any other Kremlin leader to show his ‘personal’ side to a watching world, has eluded his biographers. Nobody before William Taubman has achieved an in-depth psychological portrait. Political accounts have been two a penny; economic and ideological studies have come at a discount. But what made Gorbachev tick, as a man and a leader, has always been hooded in speculation. Taubman has dedicated a dozen years to gathering first-hand evidence from the man himself. This cannot have been an easy task. When I met Gorbachev in the early 1990s I ruined my brief chance of getting him to open up by mentioning that I was doing research on Lenin. Gorbachev instantly closed down what he sensed might be an indelicate conversation. Taubman, by contrast, has gained Gorbachev’s full cooperation, even though the man himself warned him, ‘Gorbachev is hard to understand.’
Leaders who speak of themselves in the third person often turn out to be egotists of the first degree. Julius Caesar exhibited this linguistic trick to rhapsodise about his war against the Gauls. Leon Trotsky found that it enabled him to commandeer the historical spotlight without committing the sin of direct self-eulogy. But neither Caesar nor Trotsky presented himself as an enigma. Perhaps it is Gorbachev’s way of consoling himself in old age, living as he does in a Russia that seems unimpressed with the freedoms that he provided and has unhappy memories of the economic collapse over which he presided. While Germans continue to fete him as the statesman who reunited their nation, Russians cannot forget the mess that he left behind when the USSR fell apart in 1991.