The Man Who Lost an Empire – Strobe Talbott, New York Review of Books.
In 1921, the year before he founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Vladimir Lenin challenged his fellow Bolsheviks with a rhetorical question: “Who overtakes whom?” Joseph Stalin preferred a starker version: “Who-whom?” Both saw politics as a deadly competition in which the winner takes all—war by other means.
So does Vladimir Putin. He looks back at the late 1980s and 1990s with bitterness. He sees the tumult of that period not just as the collapse of the Soviet Union and a victory for its enemies in the West but a devastating blow to something far more precious, venerable, and enduring: the Russian state. Under his regime another familiar question looms: “Who is to blame?”
In Putin’s eyes, the heaviest responsibility falls on the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the prime mover of what Putin has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Yet instead of denouncing or punishing Gorbachev, Putin has treated him with thinly disguised condescension. For years Gorbachev traveled abroad to accept honors and honorariums, knowing that, back home, masses of his fellow citizens scorned him. In 1996, he ran in the presidential election and got half a percent of the vote.
Now eighty-six and in shaky health, Gorbachev lives quietly in a dacha outside Moscow—but not silently. Over the course of a decade, he gave eight long interviews to William Taubman, a historian at Amherst College, and his wife Jane, who taught Russian there. The result of Taubman’s research is a masterpiece of narrative scholarship. It is also the first comprehensive biography of this world-historical figure. Other chronicles of Gorbachev’s life and verdicts on his record will follow, but they will be without the trove of personal insights that Taubman has gleaned from his access to Gorbachev himself, his advisers, and other participants in those dramatic years.
Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman.
“GORBACHEV IS HARD TO UNDERSTAND,” he said to me, referring to himself, as he often does, in the third person.
I had begun working on his biography in 2005, and a year later he asked how it was going. “Slowly,” I apologized. “That’s alright,” he said, “Gorbachev is hard to understand.”
He has a sense of humor. And he was correct. The world is deeply divided when it comes to understanding Gorbachev. Many, especially in the West, regard him as the greatest statesman of the second half of the twentieth century.
In Russia, however, he is widely despised by those who blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic crash that accompanied it. Admirers marvel at his vision and his courage. Detractors, including some of his former Kremlin comrades, accuse him of everything from naïveté to treason.
The one thing they all agree upon is that he almost single-handedly changed his country and the world. Before Gorbachev took power in March 1985, the Soviet Union was one of the world’s two superpowers. By 1989 he had transformed the Soviet system. By 1990 he, more than anyone else, had ended the cold war. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving him a president without a country.
He did not act alone. The sad state of the Soviet system in 1985 prompted Gorbachev’s Kremlin colleagues to choose him to embark on reforms, although he ended up going much farther than they intended.
He had liberal Russian allies who welcomed his far-reaching reforms and worked to support them, but then chose Boris Yeltsin to lead them to the promised land. He had hard-line Soviet adversaries who resisted him, covertly at first, then openly and all-out. He had personal rivals, especially Yeltsin, whom he tormented and who tormented him in turn, before ultimately administering the coup de grâce to both Gorbachev and the USSR.
Western leaders doubted Gorbachev, then embraced him, and finally abandoned him, refusing him the economic assistance he desperately needed. And, perhaps most important, he had to deal with Russia herself, with her traditional authoritarian and anti-Western ways: after rejecting both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, she finally embraced Vladimir Putin.
As Communist party general secretary, Gorbachev had the power to change almost everything. Moreover, he was unique among his peers. Other Soviet citizens, some of them in fairly high places, shared his values, but almost none at the very top. The only three Politburo members who backed him almost to the end, Aleksandr Yakovlev, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Vadim Medvedev, were in a position to do so only because Gorbachev appointed them or kept them on.
Longtime British Soviet expert Archie Brown has written, “There is absolutely no reason to suppose that any conceivable alternative to Gorbachev in the mid-1980s would have turned Marxism-Leninism on its head and fundamentally changed both his country and the international system in an attempt to reverse a decline which did not pose an immediate threat either to the [Soviet] system or to him.”
The late Russian scholar Dmitry Furman framed Gorbachev’s uniqueness more broadly: he was “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.” For Gorbachev to have resorted to force and violence to hold on to power would have been “a defeat.” In the light of Gorbachev’s principles, Furman continued, “his final defeat was a victory”—although, one must add, it certainly didn’t feel that way to Gorbachev at the time.
How did Gorbachev become Gorbachev?
How did a peasant boy, whose high-flown tribute to Stalin won a high school prize, turn into the Soviet system’s gravedigger? “God alone knows,” lamented Gorbachev’s longtime prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who eventually turned against him. One of Gorbachev’s close aides, Andrei Grachev, called him “a genetic error of the system.”
Gorbachev described himself as “a product” of that system and its “anti-product.” But how did he turn out to be both? How did he become Communist party boss despite the most rigorous imaginable arrangement of checks and guarantees designed to guard against someone like him ?
How, asks Grachev, did “a not entirely normal country end up with a leader with normal moral reflexes and common sense?”
An American psychiatrist who profiled foreign leaders for the Central Intelligence Agency remained “mystified” as to how such a “rigid system” could produce such an “innovative and creative”leader.
What changes did Gorbachev seek for his country when he took power in 1985? Did he favor merely moderate economic reforms, as he said at the time, only to be radicalized by their lack of results? Or did he seek from the start to liquidate totalitarianism, concealing his aim because it was anathema to the Politburo members who selected him? What inspired him in the end to try to transform Communism in the USSR? What made him think he could transform a dictatorship into a democracy, a command economy into a market economy, a super-centralized unitary state into a genuine Soviet federation, and a cold war into a new world order based on the renunciation of force—all at the same time, and by what he called “evolutionary”means?
What possessed him to think he could overcome Russian political, economic, and social patterns dating back centuries in a few short years: tsarist authoritarianism morphing into Soviet totalitarianism, long stretches of near-slavish obedience to authority punctuated by occasional bursts of bloody rebellion, minimal experience with civic activity, including compromise and consensus, no tradition of democratic self-organization, no real rule of law?
As Gorbachev himself would later say of the Russian mind-set that thwarted him: “Our Russian mentality required that the new life be served up on a silver platter immediately, then and there, without reforming society”?
Did Gorbachev have a plan? What was his strategy for transforming his country and the world? He didn’t have either, critics claim. But no one did, admirers reply; no one could have had a blueprint for transforming his country and the world simultaneously.
Whether or not Gorbachev was a master strategist, wasn’t he a brilliant tactician? How else could he have gotten a Politburo majority opposed to his most radical reforms to approve them? Was he nonetheless “insufficiently decisive and consistent,”as one of his closest aides, Georgy Shakhnazarov, said?
How could he have been, when the risk he ran for six years was sudden ouster and even imprisonment? How did Gorbachev react when many of his own Kremlin comrades turned against him and so many of his own appointees mounted a coup against him in August 1991?
Or was it he who betrayed them, leading them to believe he aimed to modernize the Soviet system, but then contributing to its destruction? Was Gorbachev vengeful and unforgiving? Does that help to explain his fateful inability to get along with Boris Yeltsin? But he forgave or forgot some of his closest aides’ sharp criticism of him and kept them by his side at the foundation he established after losing power in 1991. “I can’t bring myself to take vengeance on anyone,”he said late in life. “I can’t not forgive.”
Given all the obstacles to success, wasn’t Gorbachev a utopian idealist? Not at all, he insisted: “I assure you that starry-eyed dreaminess is not characteristic of Gorbachev.” Yet he himself recalled, “The wise Moses was right to make the Jews roam the desert for forty years . . . to get rid of the legacy of Egyptian slavery.”
As leaders go, especially Soviet leaders, Gorbachev was a remarkably decent man—too decent, many Russians and some Westerners have said, too unwilling to use force when force was needed to save the new democratic Soviet Union he was creating. Why, when his enemies were willing to use force to crush the freedom he had introduced, was he unwilling to use force to save it?
Was he intellectually convinced, after all the blood that had flowed in Russia’s history, especially in the wars and purges of the twentieth century, that more must not be shed? Was it an emotional aversion based on personal exposure to the terrible cost of war and violence?
Gorbachev’s decency showed in his family life. His wife, Raisa, was a woman of intellect and good taste (even though Nancy Reagan didn’t think so). Unlike too many politicians, Gorbachev loved and cherished his wife, and, rare for a Soviet boss, he was a committed and involved father to his daughter, and grandfather to his two granddaughters.
What, then, made him feel, after his wife’s agonizing death from leukemia at the age of sixty-seven, that, as he put it, “I am guilty. I am the one who did her in”?
If Gorbachev was indeed unique, if his actions differed so drastically from what other leaders would have done in his place, then his character is central to explaining his behavior. But his character is hard to define. Was he a great listener, as some say, a basically nonideological man willing to learn from real life? Or was he a man who didn’t know how to stop talking?
Gorbachev was extraordinarily self-confident, and self-woundingly narcissistic, according to Aron Belkin, a leading Soviet psychiatrist who didn’t know Gorbachev personally, but whose diagnosis one of Gorbachev’s closest aides, Anatoly Chernyaev, found credible.
But if narcissism is a spectrum at the “healthiest end” of which are “egotism” and “extreme self-confidence,” is that so unusual among political leaders?
Whatever term one uses, Gorbachev was extraordinarily sure of himself. But when asked what characteristic he found most off-putting in another person to whom he has just been introduced, Gorbachev answered, “Self-confidence.” And what in general irritated him most in other people? “Haughtiness.”
Did he feel threatened by other self-assured men? Or did he see himself in others and not like what he saw?
Aleksandr Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s closest collaborator in the Soviet leadership, but somewhat estranged from him in later years, thought Gorbachev found himself hard to understand. Yakovlev felt at times that Gorbachev “was afraid to look into himself, afraid to communicate candidly with himself, afraid to learn something he did not know and did not want to know.” According to Yakovlev, Gorbachev “always needed a response, praise, support, sympathy, and understanding, which served as fuel for his vanity and self-esteem, as well as for his creative acts.”
If so, how did Gorbachev react when, within sight of the mountaintop, he had to watch so much of his grand vision evaporate around him? Was he in fact a truly great leader? Or was he a tragic hero brought low in part by his own shortcomings, but even more by the unyielding forces he faced?
CHILDHOOD, BOYHOOD, AND YOUTH
MIKHAIL GORBACHEV WAS BORN on March 2, 1931, in the village of Privolnoe, some ninety miles north of the Russian city of Stavropol in the North Caucasus.
His parents named him Viktor, possibly a prudent way of honoring the coming “victory” of the first five-year plan that Stalin predicted. But his mother and grandmother insisted on a secret baptism, during which his paternal grandfather christened him Mikhail, a name with more biblical connotations.
The port-wine-colored birthmark on his head, which according to Russian folklore is a sign of the devil, apparently didn’t faze his parents or grandparents. Privolnoe could be translated roughly as “free and easy,” but in his childhood it was neither.
In Privolnoe, as in the rest of the Soviet Union, land was being collectivized in 1931, a violent process that took the lives of millions of peasants. During the terrible famine of 1932–1933, two of Gorbachev’s uncles and one aunt perished. Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s swept up both of Gorbachev’s grandfathers: his mother’s father arrested in 1934, his other grandfather in 1937.
Then on June 22, 1941, the Nazis invaded the USSR, occupying Gorbachev’s village for four and half months in 1942.
Famine struck again in 1944 and 1946. And following the war, when the Soviet people hoped for a better life at long last, Stalin cracked down again, forcing them to sacrifice once more for the glorious future that Communism promised but never delivered.
A more horrible time would be hard to imagine. Living through it clearly influenced Gorbachev’s later views—on Stalinism and the need to condemn it, on force and violence and the obligation to avoid their use.
But there is another side to the story. Throughout the horrors, the regime insisted that Soviet schoolchildren ritually “thank Comrade Stalin” for their “happy childhood.” And, to a surprising degree, Gorbachev’s childhood actually was happy. That had something to do with his naturally sunny, optimistic temperament. But it also reflected silver linings that miraculously appeared in the dark clouds over his head. How horrible could collectivization be if one of his grandfathers, who particularly doted on him, chaired a collective farm? Both grandfathers survived the Gulag and were soon released.
Just when the Nazis seemed about to seize the Gorbachev family as relatives of a Communist collective farm chairman, the Germans were forced to retreat from Privolnoe. His father, whom Gorbachev dearly loved, was reported killed in the war, but the report was mistaken: Sergei Gorbachev somehow survived four years at the front and returned home in triumph.
After the war, in addition to doing well in school and becoming a Komsomol (Young Communist League) activist, Gorbachev won one of the USSR’s highest medals, the Red Labor Banner, for helping his combine-driver father break harvesting records.
Psychologists report that when personal misfortunes and tragedies-in-the-making manage to have happy endings, whether by chance or owing to the efforts of their potential victims, the latter are likely to end up more confident and optimistic, less susceptible to depression.
Moreover, it wasn’t just that the worst didn’t happen to Mikhail Gorbachev, but that much of what happened was nearly ideal.
His father, Sergei Gorbachev, was apparently a wonderful man, adored by Mikhail and respected by his fellow villagers. In his youth, Gorbachev recalled, he not only had “filial feelings” for his father but was “closely attached” to him. True, they never put their feelings for each other into words: “they were just there.”
Gorbachev’s maternal grandfather, Pantelei Gopkalo, treated him with “tenderness.” Tenderness is not a feeling that Russian men frequently admit having. But there were also tensions in the extended family. His paternal grandfather, Andrei Gorbachev, was “very authoritarian,” Mikhail Gorbachev remembers. Andrei and Gorbachev’s father, Sergei, grew estranged, even coming to blows on at least one occasion. But Grandfather Andrei, too, had a soft spot in his heart for his grandson, as did both of Gorbachev’s grandmothers.
Gorbachev’s mother, Maria, could be cold and punitive: she had resisted being married to her husband, and she disciplined her son with a belt until he was thirteen. The family tensions took a toll on Mikhail; as he grew up, and even after he matured, he seemed to have a special need for the kind of attention and respect that he thought he deserved.
His parents were poor, but worked hard and well and trained him to do likewise.
To survive the war Gorbachev had to leave childhood behind when he was barely into his teens. After the war, he became a star pupil and exemplary citizen in school. And to top it all off, he won that medal for harvesting grain.
By 1950, when Gorbachev left Privolnoe to attend Moscow State University, he was strong, independent-minded and self-confident to the point of arrogance. Gorbachev summarized his own outlook this way: “We were poor, practically beggars, but in general I felt wonderful.”
THE PREHISTORY OF THE STAVROPOL area where Gorbachev was raised can be traced from the first millennium B.C., when various tribes entered the northwest Caucasus region. Stavropol itself was created in 1777 as a military base and proclaimed a city in 1785.
At its center was one of several fortresses built along a line from Azov to Mozdok by Prince Grigory Potemkin (of Potemkin village fame), at the bidding of his lover, Empress Catherine the Great, to defend the southern border of the Russian Empire.
Cossacks settled the area, eventually joined by serfs fleeing oppressive landowners, then by other peasants sent into forced exile. In the second part of the nineteenth century, Gorbachev’s paternal ancestors migrated from Voronezh in southern Russia, his mother’s from Chernigov in northern Ukraine.
The southern periphery of the empire, Gorbachev notes, had a “turbulent character” to it: leaders of two peasant rebellions, Stepan Razin and Yemiliyan Pugachev, came from nearby, as did Yermak, the sixteenth-century Cossack leader and explorer of Siberia. “Apparently,” he continues with pride, this spirit “ got into the blood of those who lived here, and got transmitted as a legacy from generation to generation.”
It was in this same fertile region that the conservative anti-Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918.
The village of Privolnoe itself, in the far northwest corner of the Stavropol region, close to its borders with Rostov and Krasnodar provinces, was founded in 1861. To get there nowadays, one drives northwest from Stavropol past fields of wheat and sunflowers. The entrance to the village boasts a large, multicolored sign proclaiming, “Welcome to Privolnoe!” From the village square, a road, at first asphalt, then dirt, winds a mile or so to a wide, open spot where the earth rises slowly up from the Yegorlyk River.
In the 1930s the town’s population was almost equally divided between Russians and Ukrainians. Back toward the village center, ethnic Russians lived on one side of the river, with people of Ukrainian origin on the other. The land where the Gorbachevs settled, dropping down to the river, is now uninhabited.
Equally empty, except for scrub grasses and bushes, is the terrain stretching up toward the steppe. Only a couple of outbuildings are visible on the horizon. The rest of Privolnoe, with its wooden houses and large church, to whose construction the former president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, made a substantial contribution, isn’t visible either.
It was here, at what was then the very edge of the village, that Gorbachev’s great-grandfather, Moisei Gorbachev, built a hut for his wife and three sons, Aleksei, Grigory, and Andrei. Many years later, after Mikhail grew up, the Gorbachev family abandoned this frequently flooded plain and moved closer to the village.
As a child, all he could see beyond their hut, located about two hundred yards up from the river, was the Russian version of an American prairie: “steppe, steppe, and more steppe.”
In Moisei Gorbachev’s time, the extended family, all eighteen of them, crowded together in one large hut with several chambers; other relatives lived nearby. Later, the three sons built huts for themselves, and Gorbachev’s recently married grandparents, Andrei and Stepanida, set up life on their own. Gorbachev’s father, Sergei, was born here in 1909.
By all accounts, Grandfather Andrei, who fought in World War I on the western front, was tough and stubborn. “He didn’t spare himself or others,” his grandson remembers. “Everything had to be in order.” “He was “stern and merciless.” “Stingy,” says another source. “Sullen and irascible, although strong and strong-willed,” add others.
Yet the old man who intimidated so many softened at the sight of his grandson. “He would invite me to follow him around, tell me stories, feed me, and insist I eat.” Stepanida was “good and caring” and a particularly good “friend” to her grandson, he recalls.
In this, too, he was “lucky.” Andrei and Stepanida had six children, but only two boys, so the peasant commune, which counted only males when allotting land, assigned them too little. As a result, says Gorbachev, all members of the family, including the smallest, had to work “day and night.”
They managed to lift the family from poverty, becoming what were called “middle peasants.” But to provide dowries for the daughters, grain and livestock had to be sold.
What rescued the family was a huge garden plot where Grandfather Andrei managed to grow almost everything his family needed. “It was such a stupendous garden,” his grandson remembered. “It stretched all the way down to the river. Grandfather grafted apple trees so that you could see various kinds, red and green. It was beautiful, tremendous. But it was dangerous to run off down there. Grandfather was a hard man, very hard.”
Grandfather Andrei was also hard on Communism. Asked whether Andrei ever joined the Communist party, an uncle of Gorbachev’s on his mother’s side laughed and answered, “No, not for anything.” Andrei refused to join a collective farm and got away with it, at least for a while. He remained an individual peasant proprietor, obliged to raise a prescribed amount of grain and sell a portion of it to the state, but not allowed to own property.
When famine struck, leaving the family to eat anything that was edible and some things that weren’t, Andrei fed them frogs; Gorbachev’s first memory, he recalled, was watching them boil in a big cauldron until their white stomachs rose to the surface. He didn’t remember whether he ate them or not, but he remembered all too well when he and his youngest uncle, who was only five years older than he, “ate the seeds that were supposed to be planted.”
In 1934 Andrei was arrested for “not fulfilling the plan [for sowing] when there was nothing to fulfill it with,” says his grandson. Sent to a forced labor camp near Irkutsk in Siberia, where prisoners cut and hauled lumber, Andrei managed to earn four work commendations.
He was released early and returned to Privolnoe (where he hung his four camp medals next to religious icons on the wall) more sullen than ever, but with no choice but to join the kolkhoz (collective farm). For the next seventeen years, he was in charge of a pig farm within the kolkhoz, which he turned into one of the best in the region. “So you see,” Gorbachev said in an interview, “wherever they put him, he worked hard and forced others to, as well.” The lesson was not lost on his grandson.
Gorbachev’s other grandfather, Pantelei Gopkalo, was the antipode, politically and psychologically, of Andrei Gorbachev. Grandfather Pantelei welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution. “It was Soviet power that saved us, that gave us land,” said Gopkalo, who came from a dirt-poor peasant family and had slogged through the First World War on the Turkish front.
Repeated over and over in the Gopkalo family, these words made a big impression on his grandson. So did the fact that after raising himself from a “poor” to a “middle” peasant, Gopkalo helped organize a new peasant commune in the 1920s, where he worked along with his wife, Vasilisa (also of Ukrainian origin), and their daughter, Maria, Mikhail Gorbachev’s mother-to-be.
In 1928, Pantelei Gopkalo joined the Communist party. Not long after that, he helped organize the first collective farm in Privolnoe in 1929. When young Mikhail asked his grandmother what that involved, “she laughed and said, ‘All night your grandfather organized people, gathered them together, and the next morning, they all ran away.’ ” Or as she put it more grimly to her grandson on a later occasion, which Gorbachev recalled at a Politburo meeting in October 1987: “What enmity collectivization created! Brother against brother, son against father, through whole families it rolled. The quotas came down from above—so many kulaks to evict, whether they actually were kulaks or not.” So-called kulaks (the Russian word literally means “fist”) were supposedly “rich” peasants; in fact, most were small proprietors who by dint of hard work and enterprise had managed to raise their status slightly above that of “middle” peasants.
Gopkalo’s son, also named Sergei, helped in the effort to “smash the bloodsuckers.” “I was in a Komsomol cell,” Gorbachev’s maternal uncle continued. “We went homestead by homestead, driving out those who were pointed out to us. We cleaned them out. I was sorry for them.
The head of my squad was always drunk. In one hut, he told me to crawl up in the loft and pull everything out. I took a quick look and shouted, ‘Nothing there.’‘ Crawl out,’ he said, ‘I’ll take a look myself.’ And though he was so soused he could barely see, he noticed several sheepskin coats. Boy, did I get it after that.”
“Dekulakization,” like so much else in the Soviet Union, was supposed to proceed according to a plan, complete with monthly targets. Families were stripped of their property and herded into exile, some dumped in the barren steppe of the northeastern Stavropol region, others crammed into cattle cars in which many perished, heading much farther east. Just what role Pantelei Gopkalo played in all this is not known, but he obviously pleased his bosses, who assigned him to head a kolkhoz named “Red October.”
Whatever his role in the brutal collectivization process, Pantelei Gopkalo seems to have been a decent chairman once the kolkhoz was established. A Stavropol journalist, who much later interviewed collective farmers about him, reported positive recollections from almost everyone.
By 1937, Pantelei had become head of the regional land department. “But he was still one of us,” Gorbachev adds. “He was such an interesting person with so much authority, he talked quietly and slowly.”
Gorbachev’s grandfathers provided two models of authority: Andrei’s rough, independent, and authoritarian, Pantelei’s, as least as far as his grandson encountered it, milder, more considerate, and sympathetic to collectivized agriculture.
For several years beginning when he was three years old, Gorbachev lived with his maternal grandparents, rather than his parents, on their collective farm some twelve miles from Privolnoe.
He would run along behind his grandfather’s long, deep, open wagon, Gorbachev recalled. “I had almost complete freedom with them, and they loved me wholeheartedly. I felt as if I were the most important person in their family. No matter how much they tried to leave me with my parents, even if just for a short while, they didn’t succeed. Not only was I satisfied with the arrangement, my father and mother were, too. . . .” “That way they were free.”
In a time of famine, it made sense for Gorbachev’s parents, who had barely turned twenty when he was born, to leave him with his doting and relatively well-off grandparents, themselves still young. (His grandmother Vasilisa was only thirty-eight.)
But was he really so satisfied with this arrangement, and if so, what did that mean? Once, when his grandfather tried to take him back to his parents in a horse-drawn wagon, Gorbachev jumped out and dashed back a mile or so until Gopkalo caught up with him and took him back to the kolkhoz.
Granted, he felt he was the most important thing in his grandparents’ lives: Vasilisa often repeated that he was her favorite grandson. But what about in his parents’?
GORBACHEV’S FATHER HAD ONLY four years of formal education, although he later received tutelage in the Bolsheviks’“ literacy campaign” and training as a tractor driver/mechanic. According to his son, Sergei Gorbachev was “a simple village man, but endowed by nature with such a good mind, so much intelligence, inquisitiveness, humanity, and many other good qualities. All this set him apart from his fellow villagers, but they regarded him with respect and trust: he was someone they could ‘count on.’ ”
Gorbachev’s testimony is supported by others. Sergei Gorbachev “was a wise man,” recalled a contemporary, “modest but extremely hard-working. . . . People loved him. He was always calm, a good man. People went to him for advice. He didn’t say much, but he weighed every word. He didn’t like speechifying.”
According to a Komsomol colleague of Mikhail’s, the elder Gorbachev “never raised his voice, was levelheaded, orderly, and decent.”
Raisa Gorbachev remembered, “Mikhail Sergeyevich and his father were very much alike. They were friends. Sergei Andreyevich never got a systematic education, but he had a natural cultivation, a sort of nobility, a certain breadth of interests.”
Given these qualities, so at odds with those of Grandfather Andrei, it’s not surprising that the two didn’t get along. Nor did it help that Sergei chose to follow his father-in-law, rather than his father, by joining a collective farm. While Sergei and Maria were still living in Andrei Gorbachev’s household, the grain was stored in the yard, where it was divided among members of the family. Once when Sergei was at work in the fields, his father grabbed some of that grain for himself and hid it in the attic. When Sergei climbed a ladder to search for grain under the roof, his father tackled him. At twenty-three, Sergei was strong enough to wrestle his father to the ground, but in the process broke his arm.
Sergei tried to keep the episode secret. In the end they divided the grain, “but the episode certainly complicated relations between them,” Gorbachev recalled. Asked whether relations between his two grandfathers remained strained, Gorbachev at first said, “No, they were normal,” but then added, “Of course, Andrei was jealous of Pantelei.” Gorbachev’s father, Sergei Gorbachev.
Pantelei’s daughter, Maria Gopkalo, born in 1911, was seventeen when she married Sergei Gorbachev in 1928; her husband was nineteen. “She was a beautiful woman,” Mikhail Gorbachev recalled, but she was also “tough and strong-minded.” Others agree that Maria, who was and remained illiterate, was a “powerful woman, direct, with a sharp tongue and a hard character.” Fellow villagers considered her coarse in comparison with her husband. Gorbachev doesn’t disagree: “It was as if my father and Pantelei had somehow come out of the intelligentsia; they resembled each other in that, and in their manner of treating others.
My mother was completely different.” Gorbachev revealed in an interview that his mother had not wanted to marry his father at all. At age seventeen, she would have had a choice of other suitors, especially if she was so beautiful. As for Sergei, he “loved my mother deeply. Later in life, whenever he came to visit us in Stavropol, he always went to a store to buy a present for Maria before he returned. Wherever he went, he always brought her presents.”
Asked whether she ever came to love her husband, Gorbachev paused. “Later, I think, when they had a family, when they had children.” Yet in sharp contrast to most Russian peasant women of that time, who bore many children, Maria had her second and only other child, Gorbachev’s brother, Aleksandr, in 1947, when Mikhail was sixteen years old. “After the war,” Gorbachev added, “all the women fell in love with their husbands who somehow managed to return alive.”
In accordance with peasant tradition, Maria and Sergei Gorbachev began their married life in his father’s house. It was a long adobe-walled hut stretching from east to west with a straw-thatched roof. Describing it in a 2007 interview, Gorbachev scribbled a picture on a piece of notepaper: “This first chamber, on the left, was the clean part, presentable,” its earthen floor partly covered with carpet runners woven by women in the family. “For receiving guests?” he was asked. “No, no. What do you mean, guests? I remember it well. My grandparents’ bed was here. And in the corner, a huge iconostasis consisting of ten to twelve gilded icons. The icon lamp was next to it.”(In the home of Grandfather Pantelei, he being a collective farm chairman, the iconostasis was occupied by portraits of Lenin and Stalin.)
Through the door was another room with a huge stove, on which the women baked bread, and a smaller stove, on which they prepared everything else. Children slept on top of the big stove. In the corner by the wall stood a dining table and a bench. Another corner of this room was partitioned off for Gorbachev’s parents so they could have a slice of privacy when they were first married. There was no bath, he added. They bathed in water heated in a tub.
The next chamber, on the other side of a little vestibule, was the place where farming equipment—harnesses, whips, and the like—and grain were stored. Above was a loft where Gorbachev used to clamber up, “a cozy spot where I sometimes fell asleep.” Here he once found a sack full of thick wads of paper, full of old tsarist currency. “They were useless, but Grandfather Andrei thought, ‘maybe someday . . .’ ”
On at least one occasion, Mikhail slept next to a recently born calf, with a goose sitting on her eggs not far away.
Another door led to a room where livestock were kept. The only heat in the whole complex was from the stove, plus that generated by the animals and by the people who lived there. “I remember it all well,” Gorbachev recalled. “As a little boy, I climbed all over everything.”
Prompted by crowded conditions and tensions between generations, Gorbachev’s parents set up their own household. Pantelei built a hut for his daughter and son-in-law not far from Grandfather Andrei’s, and arranged for Sergei Gorbachev to receive training as a tractor and combine driver.
Meanwhile, famine struck, taking the lives, according to Mikhail Gorbachev, of “between a third and a half of the villagers. Whole families perished, so that long before the war itself, half-destroyed huts, abandoned by their owners, stood out like orphans in the village.”
Next came Grandfather Andrei’s arrest in 1934. Grandmother Stepanida was left with two younger children, so Gorbachev’s father had to care for everyone. Andrei’s arrest marked his family as one that “nobody needed,” and the family’s location at the edge of the village intensified their isolation.
But Andrei soon returned, and Grandfather Pantelei helped his son-in-law land a job at the local Machine Tractor Station (MTS). In contrast to collective farms, a state-owned MTS was a “higher form of property,” with its employees classified as proletarians rather than peasants. Sergei would have higher status and more pay than his peasant relatives, on top of which he was soon breaking records for the harvest and being hailed in the district newspaper.
IN 1937 PANTELEI WAS promoted to the district procurement office that oversaw deliveries of grain and other crops. That same year he was arrested during the Great Purge. “Quotas” sent down from Moscow determined the minimum number to be detained. Chided later for exceeding his quota, a police official in a neighboring district replied, “But others were arresting so many. What am I, worse than they are?”
Pantelei was an inviting target for those who envied his authority, or had suffered from his use of it. One of the terrible ironies of Stalin’s purges was that they were genuinely popular among peasants who hated the local officials who had collectivized them.
In standard Stalinist fashion, Pantelei was seized in the middle of the night. His wife, Vasilisa, moved to Privolnoe to live with Gorbachev’s parents. “I remember,” he recalled, “how after his arrest, our neighbors began to avoid our home, as if it were plague-stricken, how only at night and in secret someone close to us would drop by for a moment. Even kids who lived in the vicinity would avoid contact with me. All this stunned me, and it has remained in my memory for my whole life.”
Pantelei was in prison for fourteen months. Sentenced to death, he survived when the regional procurator reduced the charge from the capital crime of heading an “underground right-Trotskyite counterrevolutionary organization” to the lesser “malfeasance in office,” and he was released in December 1938 to return to Privolnoe. That same winter evening, Gorbachev remembered, his closest relatives sat around the rough-hewn table in his parents’ hut while Pantelei, weeping, recounted what had been done to him.
“The interrogator blinded him with a bright lamp, broke his arms pressing him against the door, and beat him brutally. When these ‘standard’ tortures didn’t work, they thought up new ones: they wrapped grandfather tightly in a wet sheepskin coat and placed him on a hot stove. Pantelei Efimovich endured that and a lot more.”
Pantelei was an entirely “different” man on his return from prison. He never talked about his ordeal again, nor did anyone else in the family. But the fact that he recounted it even once was rare, and it had a searing effect on his grandson. Most survivors of the terror never recounted the details of their ordeal at all, so their families preserved a more favorable view of the regime, a view that later turned sharply negative when the truth was finally revealed by Nikita Khrushchev in his 1956 “secret speech” denouncing Stalin.
In that sense, Gorbachev had a more balanced view all along, even though his grandfather, despite his ordeal, seemed to remain a believer: “Stalin doesn’t know what the organs of the NKVD are up to,” he said.
The Gorbachev family’s silence didn’t mean they were trying to forget; they were afraid to remember. And Gorbachev, too, remained silent. Even after he became a high party official in Stavropol, even when he was a member of the party Central Committee, even after he became party general secretary and then president of the USSR, even after he fiercely condemned Stalin and Stalinism, Gorbachev never asked to see the records of Pantelei’s arrest and interrogation until the August 1991 coup nearly drove him from power.
During the 1960s and 1970s, when Brezhnev’s regime was partly rehabilitating Stalin after Khrushchev’s attacks on him, it would have been risky for Gorbachev to do so. But even after he himself was the nation’s leading de-Stalinizer?
“I couldn’t cross some sort of psychological barrier,” Gorbachev recalled.
BY 1941 LIFE WAS improving in Privolnoe. Shoes, cotton cloth, salt, herring, matches, soap, and kerosene had reappeared in the stores. The collective farm had actually begun to pay its farmers in long-promised grain. Grandfather Pantelei replaced his hut’s straw roof with tile. Gramophones appeared for sale. Very occasionally silent movies from portable projectors were shown in the village. “The height of bliss for us children,” Gorbachev recalled, “would be ice cream which appeared from somewhere now and then. And on summer Sundays, families picnicked in the forests, where men sang languid Russian and Ukrainian folk songs, drank vodka and sometimes squared off in fights. Little boys kicked balls around, while women gossiped and kept track of their men-folk.”
Before dawn on Sunday, June 22, 1941, the Germans attacked the USSR. At noon that day, villagers in Privolnoe gathered in front of a radio loudspeaker (the only one in town) in the central square and listened, hardly breathing, to the official announcement. “It might seem an exaggeration,” Gorbachev continued, “but I remember everything about the war. I’ve forgotten much that I had to live through after the war, but the images and events of wartime are engraved in my memory forever. When the war began I was ten years old.”
First of all, he remembered his father’s departure for the front. When the first call-ups came, delivered in the evening by men on horseback from the district draft board, Sergei Gorbachev got a brief deferment until the harvest was gathered. Then one August morning, the family crowded into a cart and headed for the district center, Molotovskoye (later Krasnogvardeisk), twelve miles away. There the square was filled with other families, the sobbing of women, children, and old people “blending into a heart-rending wail of sorrow.” Gorbachev’s father bought him ice cream for the last time (which young Mikhail downed in one gulp on a blisteringly hot day), and a balalaika as a keepsake, onto which Gorbachev carved the date, August 3, 1941.
With all able-bodied men gone, only women and children, the sick, and old men remained in Privolnoe. The first winter came early and hit hard. A fierce blizzard blanketed the village on October 8, covering everything with snowdrifts. For the time being, there was enough to eat, although not for the livestock, and little or nothing with which to heat the huts. It took all the women, working together, to clear the road and haul in hay. Once, Maria Gorbachev and several others failed to return from road clearing for three days. They had been arrested and imprisoned for loading hay from state-owned haystacks onto their sledges, but, as the wives of soldiers serving at the front and with children to feed at home, they were released.
Boys like Gorbachev had to do the work of their absent fathers, “moving from childhood,” Gorbachev recalled, “to adulthood, right then and there.” When spring came, he took care of the garden that fed the family. Arising before dawn, his mother would start digging and weeding, then turn the work over to him when she left to work in the kolkhoz fields. His main job was to haul hay for the family cow and fuel for the stove. Since forests were scarce on the steppe, villagers used compressed cow dung for baking bread and cooking, and pricker bushes to heat the hut.
Gorbachev worked alone, “but once in a while, forgetting about everything on earth, bewitched by a winter blizzard, or by the leaves whispering in the garden during the summertime, I’d find myself transported to some faraway place, unreal but greatly desired, the kingdom of dreams of a child’s fantasies.”
Was Gorbachev dreaming of anything like the brilliant future that awaited him? “I wasn’t dreaming of anything in particular,” he replied in an interview, “just of being someplace far away from where I was.”
He may have been trying to sound modest. He later told another friend, “For some reason I believed that an entirely different future awaited me.”
When letters arrived from Gorbachev’s father, his illiterate mother would dictate a reply to her son, or he would write back himself. Gorbachev’s father subscribed to the Communist party newspaper, Pravda. Now, when it arrived, it was Mikhail who read it, first by himself, then, while sitting atop a huge stove, to the women who gathered at someone’s hut in the evening to be together and hear the latest news.
One day, a booklet arrived tucked into a copy of Pravda, recounting the heroic and widely reported story of a young partisan girl, Zoya Kozmodemianskaya, who was hanged by the Nazis. He read it aloud to everyone who had assembled. “They were stunned by the Germans’ cruelty, and the courage of the young Communist girl.”
For a long time, the news Gorbachev read to his neighbors wasn’t good. Before 1941, he and other boys had often played “war” in the gardens behind their huts, marching around, “storming” empty, run-down huts that had been abandoned in the famine of 1932, “shooting” each other, and singing rousing patriotic songs. They assumed the Germans would “get it in the mouth” if they invaded.
All too soon, though, the enemy was at the gates of Moscow and near Rostov-on-Don, about 215 miles from Stavropol. By the summer of 1942, refugees were shuffling through Privolnoe, lugging rucksacks and kit bags, pushing baby carriages or handcarts, trading their goods for food, driving cows, horses, and sheep ahead of them. Pantelei and Vasilisa, fearing what the Germans would do to a collective farm chairman, fled to parts unknown. Local authorities emptied fuel tanks into the Yegorlyk River, and burned fields that had not yet been harvested.
On July 27, Soviet troops who had abandoned Rostov straggled through Privolnoe, heading east, looking grim and exhausted, their faces marked, Gorbachev recalled, by “sorrow and guilt.”
Bomb blasts, the rumble of heavy weaponry, the sound of shooting drew closer, and then, suddenly—two days of silence. On the third day, Germans roared into the village on motorcycles, followed by infantry troops. When the Nazis first appeared, Misha Gorbachev and two of his cousins stood watching. “Let’s run,” one cousin shouted, but Gorbachev says he stopped him: “Stop! We’re not afraid of them!” he remembers saying.
At least one German soldier seemed friendly, showing the boys photos of his children. Others seized everything they needed: cattle, pigs, chicken, grain. Finding Gorbachev and his friends hiding in a well, the Germans forced them to haul water. “We had to serve them,” Gorbachev insists. “We had no choice.” Soon most of the Germans moved on to Molotovskoye, leaving Red Army deserters, theoretically assigned to police Privolnoe, to run amok—drinking, thieving, raping. Gorbachev’s mother and grandmother tried not to show their fear.
Vasilisa had returned when the Germans got to Stavropol. (Pantelei managed to sneak away through cornfields and gullies.) Soon she was arrested by policemen, who ransacked the Gorbachev homestead. “Mother did not flinch,” Gorbachev recalls. “Her courage reflected not only her character—she was a strong woman—but her despair at not knowing how all this would end. ”Some villagers had threatened her, saying, “Just you wait. . . . You’re not living under the Reds anymore.”
The Gorbachevs heard rumors of mass executions in neighboring towns and of a massacre of Communists supposedly planned for January 26, 1943. So Maria and Grandfather Andrei decided to hide Mikhail on Andrei’s farm several miles from Privolnoe. Late one night, Gorbachev and his mother set out but got lost in the dark, finding the farm only when, in the midst of a violent storm, flashes of lightning illuminated their way. But on January 21, Soviet troops liberated Privolnoe.
During the occupation, the Germans drafted an old man, known to villagers as Grandpa Savka, to serve as the village elder. According to Gorbachev, Savka resisted the assignment until neighbors convinced him it would be better if one of their own represented them to the occupation forces. “Everyone knew that he had done everything he could to protect people from harm,” and some even dared to say so when Savka was later arrested by the Soviets and sentenced to ten years for “betraying the Motherland.”
On top of what had been done to his grandfathers, this was another early sign to Misha Gorbachev of Soviet injustice. Not that a twelve-year-old could fully understand that, but he knew that Grandpa Savka was taken away, and later learned that he died in prison as an “enemy of the people.”
The German retreat left Privolnoe in ruins without machinery, kolkhoz livestock, or seeds. When spring came, cows belonging to individual peasants pulled the plows. “I can still see the scene,” Gorbachev continued, “the women in tears, the melancholy eyes of the cows.” Except that since cows were all they had to feed their families, the women sometimes pulled the plows themselves.
The harvest that fall was minuscule, yet it was requisitioned by the state, leaving the peasants almost nothing to eat. Famine struck again that winter and spring. Gorbachev survived only when his mother and a few other women hitched two surviving bulls to a cart and set off for the Kuban region. She had taken two pairs of her husband’s calf leather boots, and a suit he had never worn, intending to trade them for corn. She left her son at home, although his aunt Sanya spent the night in the hut. “Mother took the last corn we had and measured out a cupful for me for each day,” Gorbachev remembered. “I made groats and cooked kasha. A week went by, then two, and mother didn’t return. Only on the fifteenth day did she arrive with a sack of corn, thirty-two kilos. That was our salvation.”
Fifteen days was a long time for a twelve-year-old to be left mostly alone in the midst of war, with no guarantee that either of his parents would ever return. It was a longer time still until goods were delivered to Privolnoe. Meanwhile, Gorbachev recalled, we had “no clothes, no shoes, no salt, no soap, no kerosene for the lamps, no matches.” Villagers mended their footwear and clothing, and when these disintegrated, grew hemp to be made into shirts (“which felt as if they were made from wood”), made outer garments out of wool, boots out of hides soaked in petroleum, fire by striking flint and kindling ash-impregnated cotton, and “matches” with TNT from antitank bombs.
“We had to learn everything from scratch,”Gorbachev remembered with pride, and “I learned it to perfection. I found an old handle, adapted it, attached it to the axle of a piece of machinery, and turned it into a device for planting corn seed. . . . Just imagine, beginning when I was thirteen, it was my job to stack hay for our cow, scythe down the bushes that we used for fuel, and stack them. The work broadened my shoulders. It was tough physical work.”
Coping with the trials of wartime strengthened Gorbachev’s self-confidence and self-esteem. A pivotal event in his relationship with his mother occurred in 1944. Gorbachev was thirteen when “she picked up a belt and raised it, threatening to whip me again. I grabbed it, tore it from her, and said, ‘That’s it! No more!’ She burst into tears—because I was the last object she could control, and now that was gone.”
Usually, fathers did the beating in peasant households. To be whipped by his mother when he was thirteen and doing the work of his absent father was devastating.
Had his mother always been responsible for disciplining him? “She wasn’t responsible for anything,” he answered grimly. Rather, when he misbehaved, she would threaten to tell his father when he got home. “But father and I had a special relationship.” And Gorbachev’s mother resented that, too. “She never could forgive me for the way I defended my father. ‘Your father is your favorite,’ she would say to me. I’d say, ‘You’re my favorite, too, but you haven’t noticed that I’ve grown up.’ ”
He and his mother had to “settle things between us,” he says, “and we began to do so pretty quickly.” Nearly seventy years later, recalling how his mother had always been beside him during the war, he insisted, “I loved my mother. As did my father—until he died. She was a beautiful woman, very strong, and businesslike. Father was proud of her; he forgave her swagger, and helped her in everything. And that set a good example for me and my brother.”
But it wasn’t an easy example to follow.
When Gorbachev was promoted to Moscow in 1978, he asked Raisa Gudarenko, the young female party boss of a district near Privolnoe, to look after his aging mother. According to Gudarenko, Maria Gorbachev was physically strong (having once, when no longer young, actually thatched her family hut’s roof), “extremely direct” about what she liked and didn’t like, and “outwardly severe.” Gorbachev’s mother was a stickler for order: everything in her house had to be just right. When guests came she herself “covered the table” with food and drink, even when others could have done so for her. She refused to have domestic help and washed her own clothes. Although her home had a modern bathroom, she insisted on using the outhouse to save scarce water for other villagers.
Whatever Gorbachev thought of his mother, he chose a wife who resembled her in her perfectionism.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1944, Gorbachev and his mother received a letter from the front containing Sergei Gorbachev’s documents and family photos, informing them that he had “died the death of the brave” in the Carpathian Mountains. “The family wept for three days,” Gorbachev recalled, “and then—received a letter from Father himself, saying he was alive and well.” Both letters were dated August 27. Had he written his before falling in battle? Four days later another letter from him arrived, proving he had survived. Gorbachev wrote back to his father, complaining about those who misinformed the family. “No, son, you’re unjustly blaming the soldiers,” Sergei Gorbachev replied. “Anything can happen at the front.” Gorbachev was upset at having been reprimanded by his father, but learned another lesson from his fair-mindedness.
The war ended for Sergei Gorbachev in late 1944 when he was seriously wounded by a bomb blast that lodged a large shrapnel fragment in his leg. “He could have been killed dozens of times,” Gorbachev marvels. He had received a Medal of Valor for crossing the Dnieper River under relentless bombardment, and two Orders of the Red Star.
One day in 1945, someone ran up to Misha and cried, “Your father is coming.” “At first I didn’t believe it, but then I saw him. We walked toward each other. He looked at me. What we were feeling is hard to describe. He grabbed me and embraced me. He saw that I was wearing a rough shirt made out of hemp, and rough, wool pants, homemade, too. I was barefoot, but I was healthy. I stood there. He looked at me again and said something that I’ve remembered my whole life: ‘We fought until we ran out of fight,’ he said. ‘That’s how you must live.’ ”
Sergei Gorbachev never got over what he had seen and experienced in the war—and neither did his son. Both then and especially later, when father and son worked together for long hours in the fields, Sergei recounted the horrible first months of the war, when Red Army soldiers had to fight without rifles, or two men would share one rifle, or they would grab rifles from fallen comrades and fight on. He described fellow soldiers being mowed down by machine guns. He recalled hand-to-hand combat so brutal and bloody that it took him hours afterward to pull himself together: “It was either you or him; you hit, you struck, you shot, like a beast.”
Gorbachev’s father fought at Kursk (the biggest tank battle in history), and helped liberate Kiev and Kharkov. One time, when Sergei Gorbachev’s group of sappers failed to blow up a key bridge, they were threatened with execution by their own officers.
Mikhail Gorbachev himself experienced war’s horrors close up. Late in the winter of 1943, when he and some friends were searching for abandoned German weapons in a remote stretch of forest, they stumbled upon the remains of Red Army soldiers, which he observed closely and describes movingly: “decaying corpses, partly devoured by animals, skulls in rusted helmets, bleached bones, rifles protruding from the sleeves of the rotting jackets. . . . There they lay, in the thick mud of trenches and craters, unburied, staring at us out of black, gaping eye-sockets.”
Do such experiences help explain Gorbachev’s extraordinary reluctance, once he became supreme Soviet leader, to use force and violence to preserve the Soviet empire? Perhaps because that reluctance, so admired in the West, is as strongly condemned in Russia, he declined in an interview to answer the question.
GORBACHEV WAS FOURTEEN YEARS OLD when the war ended. During the war, the Privolnoe village school closed for two years, reopening in the fall of 1944. By then, Gorbachev had no particular desire to study. “After all I had lived through, it didn’t seem like a serious undertaking. Not to mention that I had nothing to wear to school.” When his parents and maternal grandfather heard this, Gorbachev recalled, they were appalled and “surrounded me as if I were a wolf.” “Sell everything we have,” Sergei Gorbachev wrote to his wife from the front, “clothes and shoes, and buy books. Mikhail must study.” “Take my boots,” Grandfather Pantelei added. “But I have no coat,” his grandson objected. “Wear my coat,” Pantelei replied. “You’ve got to study, Mishka. That’s what it takes to become a real person. Study well!”
Gorbachev went off to the school, one and a half miles from his hut, in clothes too big for him. But he had “fallen behind.” “I arrived, I sat there, I listened, I understood nothing. I didn’t stay, I went home, I threw away the only book I had, and announced to my mother that I wasn’t going back.” His strong-minded mother burst into tears when he told her, but then left with possessions that she traded for pile of books with which she returned that evening. Gorbachev insisted he wouldn’t go back. But “then I began to glance through them, to read, and got carried away.
Mother lay down to sleep, but I kept reading [particularly a Russian language textbook]. Something must have happened in my head that night because in the morning I got up and went to school. By the end of the year, I had earned a certificate of merit, and from then on I got ‘distinction.’ ”
What happened that night was a revealing turning point. For a moment, a sharp shadow of fear—of failure and humiliation—fell across Gorbachev’s growing self-confidence. But then his so often harsh mother again showed her love. After that, Gorbachev began to identify success in life with reading and thinking, and also with leading his peers. “From my earliest days,” he later would say, “I liked to be a leader among my peers—that was my nature.”
But first he, his fellow pupils, and their teachers had to make the schools usable. They had only a few textbooks, maps, and visual aids and some chalk. “The rest we had to prepare with our own hands.”
Instead of a notebook, he wrote in the margins of his father’s tractor instruction manual. Students made their own ink. They pitched in to feed weak and emaciated horses so they could haul fuel to heat the classrooms. Gorbachev helped mount an evening of amateur entertainment that raised 1,385 rubles, which purchased ten pairs of shoes and four sets of underwear for the pupils even poorer than he was.
In 1946, while still attending Privolnoe’s small primary school, he joined the Komsomol. In the much bigger high school (located in the district center, with around a thousand students), he became the Komsomol leader, organizing his fellow students in a variety of “political” activities: an evening discussion of “The Ulianov [Lenin’s real name] Family”; a “political information session” on events overseas; a debate about a novel, much favored by Stalin, by Viktor Nekrasov, titled In the Trenches of Stalingrad; putting out a magazine called “The Little Dawn”; preparing an article, “Let’s Talk about Our Study Schedule,” for the “Young Stalinist” wall newspaper.
Gorbachev was a star in school, but not quite beloved by all. “From childhood on,” he later confessed, “I wanted to amaze everyone.” Or as he put it on another occasion, “I got used to lording it over people; I always wanted to develop myself.” When it came time to elect a Komsomol leader, seven groups of students from seven nearby villages each nominated one candidate. As Gorbachev sat down after speaking, someone pulled away his chair and he collapsed on the floor. Did that mean some of his peers weren’t as eager to be led by him as he was eager to lead them? “Actually,” he joked to an American student audience sixty-five years later, “that helped me get elected.”
Soon, he was appointed to the Komsomol committee for the whole district.
Gorbachev read everything he could get his hands on. He spent three days in a hayloft reading Thomas Mayne Reid’s The Headless Horseman. Reid (1818–1883) was an Irish American author whose adventure tales about the American West were a staple among Soviet adolescents. Inspired by his stories, they played cowboys and Indians, except that in the USSR the Indians were the “good guys.”
Over the next few years, Gorbachev graduated to higher culture; he found in a meager school library a one-volume collection of the work of Vissarion Belinsky, the radical philosopher and literary critic of the first half of the nineteenth century. A bitter foe of the tsarist regime, a firebrand of the Westernizing intelligentsia, who proclaimed himself a socialist as early as 1841, the extraordinarily intense Belinsky was both a revelation and an inspiration to Gorbachev. The book “became my bible. I was carried away by it. I read and reread it, and carried it with me everywhere.”
When he wrote his memoirs in the early 1990s, Gorbachev still had the copy presented to him in 1950 as the first boy from his village to study at Moscow University: “I have the book in my hand right now. What interested me, what I paid special attention to, were the critic’s philosophical pronouncements.”
From Belinsky, Gorbachev moved on to Pushkin, Gogol, and especially Lermontov. That early nineteenth-century poet of the Caucasus died young in a duel in Piatigorsk, approximately 120 miles from Privolnoe. Lermontov’s romanticism captivated him; “I knew not only his short poems but his long ones by heart.” Next, he was fascinated by Mayakovsky—more poetry full of romantic love, erotic longing, and rebelliousness. “What struck me then, and still strikes me now, was how these young writers managed to lift themselves to a level where they made philosophical generalizations. That was a gift of God!”
Initially attracted to writers’ philosophical reflections, later, as Soviet leader, he aspired to approximate that intellectual level himself. First, however, came ninth grade. He attended the high school in Molotovskoye, the district center twelve miles down the road from Privolnoe. Nowadays that distance is traveled quickly by car, on a good highway, which, in the summertime, runs between broad, green fields, where acres of tall yellow sunflowers stretch almost to the horizon. Back in 1948, Gorbachev and his classmates from Privolnoe covered the dirt road on foot in a little less than two hours, heading home after classes ended on Saturday afternoon, trudging back toward evening on Sunday. Once in a while they hitched a ride on an oxcart transporting milk to a cheese factory in Molotovskoye, but often they bushwhacked through fields and gullies, even in the dead of winter.
At home they got provisions for the coming week (lard, pork, bread, and sweets), and their mothers did their laundry. During the week Gorbachev and two other boys from Privolnoe lived in a room in town. He was now, as he later put it, “a fully independent person.” No one “monitored my studies.” How could they, since his parents and other relatives were minimally literate? “My parents considered that I was enough of an adult to take care of myself, without their goading and urging. Only once was I able to persuade my father to come to school for a parents’ meeting. But when I was old enough to start attending parties and hanging around with kids, my father once said to my mother, ‘It seems Mikhail has started coming home late. Say something to him.’ ”
The school, housed in a former tsarist era gymnaziium still in use decades later, and now bearing a plaque near the entrance saying, “The First President of the USSR Studied Here,” is a large two-story building with classrooms on either side of a long corridor leading to an iron staircase decorated with intricate metal ornamentation. In 2005 teachers showed guests a classroom with rows of wooden desks facing a blackboard, pointing out the one at which Misha Gorbachev sat. (As far as could be determined, he did not carve his initials into it.)
According to a classmate, “We were all getting educated, but Gorbachev was a particularly avid student with a huge appetite for knowledge. After school we would all study. Then we would meet and walk back to school, which was a sort of second home to us. Or we would go to a movie. If we encountered a teacher, it was considered improper to disturb them, but, and I’ll never forget this, he would go up to a mathematics teacher and explain there was something he hadn’t understood in class. Then he would sit next to her for ten or fifteen minutes before the film started, and she would explain.”
Others turned to Gorbachev to resolve disputes and referee fights. He himself didn’t like to fight, they recall—not that he was afraid; it just went against his grain—but he could stand up for himself. A relative his age remembered punching Gorbachev and another kid, “just making mischief. I was a little older than Mikhail, who was the same age as my brother. I pounded them both, but when they got older they grabbed me, piled on, and wrestled me to the ground.”
Gorbachev seemed a natural leader. “He was a great organizer,” his high school classmate remembered. “People liked and trusted him. He was honest and fair, he worked hard, and he knew how to make friends.” Five decades later, Gorbachev commented, “I’ve been used to being a leader since I was a kid. That was an ambition I always wanted to realize.”
He organized sports and social activities. He led the morning gym class, shouting into a big megaphone, “Ready, class! One, two, three, four! One, two, three, four!”
“Mikhail loved weight lifting,” recalled his classmate. “We would lift thirty-two kilograms [70.5 pounds] 60 or 70 times, first jerk them up, then push, then press.”
But most of all, he loved acting. The school’s drama group was so popular that members couldn’t just join but had to be selected. The group’s adviser was a beloved literature teacher, Yulia Sumtsova; members often gathered at her home (where some who lived far away resided), both to rehearse and to study. They made their own costumes out of material provided by their mothers (mostly cheesecloth, his classmate recalls, since “there was nothing else”) and cadged props, including a carpet someone’s father had brought from Germany as war booty. Gorbachev became the group’s leading man.
What attracted him to acting, he says, was “the wish to socialize with my peers, but also the desire to express myself, to get to know what I didn’t know.”
It didn’t hurt that Yulia Karagodina, a girl in whom he had more than a passing interest, was his leading lady. Together they starred in Ostrovsky’s Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) and Lermontov’s Masquerade. The setting for high school performances, including Pushkin’s Rusalka and several Chekhov plays, was not a stage but the end of the school corridor next to the iron staircase. Adults attended and the troupe even took the show on the road, performing in villages throughout the district, charging admission, with the proceeds going to buy shoes for classmates who had none to wear to school.
Gorbachev reports that he and his fellow players never asked themselves whether the shows they wanted to mount were doable. “We performed the work of all sorts of playwrights. You can imagine how some of it turned out, but we weren’t embarrassed. . . .” A traveling theater group from Stavropol came by to take a look. After Gorbachev and his colleagues staged Masquerade, the professional actors “praised us and made at least one comment that I still remember: They told us not to grab each other by the sleeve . . . during the clash between Arbenin and Zvezdich. They said that in high society sharp arguments were carried out somewhat differently.”
Gorbachev’s impish sense of humor is visible in that recollection. So are the pride and relish with which he remembers performing. “The truth is, he was a very good actor,” recalled Karagodina. There was a time when he even talked with me . . . about trying for a theatrical institute.”
BEGINNING IN 1946, Gorbachev spent five summers in a row helping his father operate a mammoth combine harvester. From the end of June until the end of August, they worked away from home. Even when rains interrupted the harvesting, they remained in the field, taking care of the machinery. “Father and I had many discussions during these ‘idle’ days. We talked about a great variety of topics—work and life alike. Our simple father-son relationship developed into a bond between two people who shared a common cause and a common job. Father treated me with respect, and we became true friends.”
The two of them worked twenty hours a day until two or three in the morning. Rushing to gather the crop in dry weather, they labored without a break, each replacing the other at the wheel of the giant machine while it was still moving. “It was hotter than hell,” Gorbachev remembered. “There was dust everywhere, the unceasing din of the machinery. If you looked at us, all you could see were eyes and teeth: the rest of our faces were caked with dirt and fuel oil. There were times, after fifteen to twenty hours at work, when I fell asleep at the wheel. The first year my nose often bled. . . .”
The work paid relatively well, both in money and in kind, but even a combine driver’s family depended on an individual garden plot to feed itself. And every household was overwhelmed with taxes and other obligations. Whether or not they kept cattle, peasants owed the state 120 liters of milk, plus butter and meat. They had to pay taxes on fruit trees whether or not they bore fruit, Gorbachev remembered, “so peasants cut down their orchards. There was no escape: Peasants weren’t issued passports. . . . How did this differ from serfdom?”
Reflections like these probably came later. So did the revealing dilemma Gorbachev faced when giving fulsome speeches on agricultural policy: “It wasn’t easy for me to refrain from extremely negative evaluations since I knew what peasant life was like.”
At the time, however, he felt himself gaining strength and confidence. He lost at least ten pounds every summer, but “I was getting stronger.” Yulia Karagodina remembered his face in those days. “It was scorched by the sun. His hands were covered with bubbly, bloody calluses.” “I was even proud of those calluses,” Gorbachev adds.
His father taught him so well that “in a year or two I could fix any part of the machine. I was particularly proud of my ability to detect a problem in the machinery immediately, just from the sound of it, and equally proud that I could clamber up on it from any direction, even where the reel was revolving and the cutters were gnashing their teeth.”
This passage to manhood was marked by another rite. When the first postwar harvest was over in 1946, the men in Sergei Gorbachev’s brigade, most of them former frontline soldiers, decided to “wash it down” and insisted that young Mikhail, who was fifteen, do the same. “Go ahead, have a drink!” they shouted. “It’s time for you to become a real man.” Gorbachev looked at his father, who laughed. When Gorbachev was handed a mug, he thought it was full of vodka, but in fact it contained pure alcohol. For that there was a drill: First exhale, then gulp it down, then quickly down a mug of cold water. But Gorbachev just drank it straight. “What a state I was in! The men roared with laughter, my father most of all.”
The year 1946 was a lean one, with famine in many regions. The Soviet grain harvest was down to 39.6 million tons, from 95.7 in 1940. Stavropol was spared the worst, and refugees poured in from other provinces hoping to trade their possessions for grain. In 1947, another dry year, the yield was better (65.9 million tons) but far from enough. The spring of 1948 brought dust storms, but then rains that promised a good harvest. Sensing the chance to break harvest records, earning glory as well as bonuses for everyone involved, local authorities prepared their team for battle: two powerful “Stalinist 6”combines manned by the best drivers in the district, Sergei Gorbachev and his son, and Yakov Yakovenko and his; two potent S-80 tractors driven by another war veteran and a reliable party member; a truck to deliver fuel to the fields; two more party members to off-load grain from the combine, and another vehicle to haul it away. Combines and tractors were equipped with lamps for night harvesting.
“Comrade Gorbachev Is Ready to Harvest”blared the June 20, 1948, edition of the district newspaper, Road of Ilich. As of July 25, 1948, Sergei Gorbachev’s combine was in the lead, with 870 hectares harvested. Several days later they were still ahead, with 1,239.96 Meanwhile, the USSR Supreme Soviet’s Presidium had decreed that a combine driver who harvested 8,000 centners of grain (a centner being one-tenth of a ton) would be awarded the Order of Lenin. Sergei Gorbachev and his son harvested 8,888.
According to a Gorbachev classmate, the authorities planned to reward only the father, but he asked them to share the honor with his son. At first they refused, saying that an Order of Lenin could not be divided. At his father’s suggestion, however, at age seventeen, Mikhail Gorbachev received one of the USSR’s highest honors, the coveted Order of the Red Banner of Labor, signed by Joseph Stalin himself, while Sergei received the Order of Lenin. When the award was announced that fall, the students in Gorbachev’s school assembled to congratulate him. “It was the first time this sort of thing had happened to me. . . . I was embarrassed, but, of course, I was glad.”
Yulia Karagodina kept a newspaper clipping quoting his speech: “All our happiness, all our future, depends on labor, the most important factor moving socialist society forward. From the bottom of my heart, I thank the Bolshevik party, the Leninist Komsomol, and my teachers, for teaching me love for socialist labor, steadfastness, and staying power.” It is entirely possible, Karagodina added in 1991, “that he actually said those words. . . . We didn’t know any other style of communication, and that way seemed natural to us.”Yulia was in the tenth grade, Gorbachev in the ninth. “Strong, stocky, and determined,” in her words,
“Gorbachev had a remarkable talent for subjecting everyone to his will.” She recalled his correcting teachers in history class, and once when he was angry at a teacher he said, “ ‘Do you want to keep your teaching certificate?’ He was the sort who felt he was right and could prove it to anyone.” One day at Sumtsova’s house, where Karagodina was studying, he dropped by to ask her for help with a mathematical theorem. Math was her strong suit, while Gorbachev preferred literature and history. As she started to explain the theorem, he glanced around and noticed an empty space in the page she was editing for the school wall newspaper. “You mean you still haven’t finished it?” he chided her. “It’s supposed to be up tomorrow. Make sure you get it done before then!” Yulia remembered thinking to herself, “So now he’s going to be my boss, too,” and decided “to do absolutely nothing” in response. Two days later, at a meeting of the Komsomol committee, he reprimanded her in front of everyone. “I turned red as a crab,” she recalled. “He was shouting a bit, disciplining me.”
“I felt terribly hurt. I’m walking away from school, about to cry, when Mikhail comes running up, and asks me to go to a movie with him that same day.” Members of the drama group often watched movies together, sometimes the same one over and over, while Sumtsova tutored them on acting. But Karagodina was now even more offended: How could Mikhail ask her to the movies when he’d just hurt her that way? “My dear,” Gorbachev replied, “these things have nothing to do with one another.”
The school director admired Gorbachev. According to a classmate, she told Mikhail, “A great future awaits you. Once you leave here you can choose your place. With that medal, any university will accept you.”
Perhaps that’s why, when she wanted to criticize Mikhail and Yulia for “spending so much time together so that classmates, looking at you, get the idea that they don’t have to concentrate on their studies,” she reprimanded her, not him. Karagodina obediently replied that she would see less of Gorbachev. When he learned that, he marched straight into the director’s office. The director, reports Yulia, emerged “red-faced and agitated,” followed by a smiling Mikhail. “What did you say to her?” Yulia asked. “Oh, nothing much. I just said, I’m a model student, and so is Yulia. I’m active in social service, and so is she. The fact that we are friends doesn’t interfere with anyone. Let them model themselves on us.” Naturally, according to Yulia’s account, the director couldn’t object.
Gorbachev had extremely high standards for everyone. “I felt I was really not good enough for him,” Yulia recalled, “or we really didn’t fit. He was too energetic, too serious, so organized. And he was smarter than I was. He was the center of attention.” For a while “it was love, yes it was, for both of us,” but they never said things like “I love you” to each other, and at times he played at it. Once during a rehearsal of The Snow Maiden, when Yulia’s character said, “Dear Czar, ask me a hundred times if I love him, and I will answer a hundred times that I do,” Gorbachev leaned over, with the school director sitting nearby in the audience, and whispered in her ear, “Is it true?” “My God,” Yulia remembers, “I was shaken. I could hardly go on with my monologue. Everyone was asking what happened, and there was Gorbachev off to the side, smiling.”
When she graduated a year before Gorbachev, Karagodina left for Moscow to enroll in a teacher training program. But with the dormitory full and nowhere to live, she soon returned home. “How could you not stand up for yourself and your plans?” he demanded. “You should have lain down in the door to the rector’s office and not left until you were given a room in the dorm.” “That’s the sort of thing he could have done,” Karagodina remarked many years later. “But not I.”
Instead, she found a job teaching in a village school near Molotovskoye. Gorbachev visited her, she adds, but “things didn’t work out, he could never make up his mind to pursue me. We never talked about love, and didn’t make plans for the future. I guess we just didn’t suit each other. He respected people who were strong-willed and determined. It’s probably not accidental—I read it somewhere—that he jokingly referred to Raisa Maksimovna [Gorbachev’s wife] as ‘my general.’ As for me, I didn’t accept his maximalism.”
If by “maximalism” she meant Gorbachev was determined to achieve what seemed impossible, she was right. When Karagodina was in her third year at a college in Krasnodar, she got a postcard from Mikhail. He closed with the Latin words Dum spiro spero. Her girlfriend from the Baltics translated: “While I breathe, I hope.” This could have been his motto when his dream of transforming the USSR came crashing down around him. In a postcard back, Karagodina’s answer to Gorbachev constituted a warning to the man who tried to change the world: “Breathe, but don’t hope for too much!”
MOSCOW STATE UNIVERSITY 1950–1955
“WHAT YOU DO WHEN YOU finish school is up to you. If you like, we can work together. If you want to continue your studies, I’ll help you as much as I can. But this is a serious question, and only you can decide for yourself.” An unusual peasant patriarch, Sergei Gorbachev didn’t try to dictate to his son. But Mikhail knew his father’s and grandfather’s real feelings.
Neither of them had much education, and they could feel how much they had missed. Gorbachev had no doubt about what he wanted to do: “I wanted to keep studying.” Many of his peers felt the same way.
The Soviet Union was rebuilding. It needed engineers, agronomists, doctors, teachers, and other professionals to replace those lost in both the war and the purges that preceded it. “Even the weakest students” sought out places where the entrance exams “weren’t particularly demanding,” Gorbachev admits. As for himself, he was “a particularly prideful, ambitious [ambitsioznyi] fellow. Why? Nature, I guess. Why do five to seven percent of people born in the world turn out to be capable of running their own business, whereas the rest become hired hands? It’s a question of character.” In Russian, the word ambitsioznyi is not a positive term, usually translated as “arrogant” rather than “ambitious.”
In 1950 it was clear to Gorbachev what an ambitsioznyi country boy should do next—“apply to nothing less than the most important university of all, Moscow State University.” MGU was to the USSR what Harvard is to the United States—except that in the Soviet Union there was almost nothing else, no Yale, Princeton, or Stanford, no Ivy League, no equally distinguished state universities, no elite liberal arts colleges.
Moscow the city was itself unique: Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles all rolled into one, the seat of government, industry, culture, even the film industry: the place to shine if you wanted to rise. To be sure, the Soviet Union had its own version of “affirmative action”: students like Gorbachev of working-class origin enjoyed special favor in university admission. Although he was from a peasant family, his father’s job as a combine driver lifted him to “most-favored” proletarian status. And his Order of the Red Labor Banner certainly wouldn’t hurt; in fact, in the end he was admitted without having to take the required entrance examination.
Half a year before he finished school in Stavropol, Gorbachev wrote for information about MGU’s programs. In return, he received a booklet listing all its faculties (departments), along with admissions requirements. In high school he had liked a variety of subjects: physics and mathematics as well as history and literature. So, in addition to MGU, he considered applying to several other institutions specializing in engineering, energy, and economics. Gorbachev’s local draft board informed him he would be called up unless he enrolled in a military academy like the Baku Naval School, to which they urged him to apply. “I liked that idea,” he recalled, “you know, young men like ships and uniforms. But something stopped me; I don’t know what. I’d like to know. I was ready to serve, but then they told me I could be deferred if I enrolled in either a law school or a transport institute.”
At one point Gorbachev focused on the Institute of Railroad Transportation, in nearby Rostov, then briefly pondered a career as a diplomat. Finally, he sent off his application to MGU’s law school, which in the Soviet (and now Russian) system is an undergraduate course of study.
The study of law in a country without the rule of law did not enjoy great intellectual prestige, but Gorbachev couldn’t know that. Although he was “impressed by the role of judges and prosecutors,” he had, he admits, but a “foggy notion” of law and jurisprudence. Perhaps that’s why MGU didn’t initially respond to his application. At first he went off to his job on the combine. But after a while he left his father in the steppe (with his permission, of course), hitched a ride to the nearest town, and dispatched a telegram with a prepaid reply, reminding the university of his existence. “Admitted with dormitory accommodation included,” read the notice he miraculously received three days later, brought to him in the fields by a postman. He attributed the miracle less to the medal he had been awarded at graduation (silver rather than gold because he had received a grade of 4 rather than 5 in German) and more to his Red Labor Banner and his worker-peasant background. But the main thing was he got in—“got in without taking an exam, without an interview, without anything. No one asked me a thing!
Well, in my opinion, I deserved to be admitted. I was someone you could count on, and that’s how it turned out at the university.”
For the rest of the summer, he continued working on the combine with his father. But the work no longer felt hard. “I was overflowing with joy. My head kept ringing with the words, ‘I am a student at Moscow University.’ ”
Gorbachev understates his efforts to gain admission. During June 1950, at the very time MGU was deciding whether or not to admit him, he managed to become a candidate member of the party, a credential that certainly enhanced his case. Gorbachev’s application for party membership, handwritten on June 5, 1950, declares, “I would consider it a high honor to be a member of the highly advanced, genuinely revolutionary Communist party of Bolsheviks. I promise to be faithful to the great cause of Lenin and Stalin, to devote my entire life to the party’s struggle for Communism.” In a supporting letter, his school principal described him as “one of our school’s best students,” “sensitive and responsive to his comrades,” “morally steady and ideologically firm.” Another recommendation reveals that even in the Russian provinces in 1950, when it came to university admission, it helped to be an athlete: the school’s physical education teacher reported that Mikhail assisted him for the last two years.
The district Komsomol committee, of which Gorbachev was a member, confirmed that he was “politically literate,” i.e., that he “understands the policy of the party of Lenin-Stalin correctly.” It also provided an assurance even more important during the last years of Stalinism—that although Gorbachev had lived in Privolnoe under Nazi occupation when he was twelve years old, “there is no kompromat [compromising material] concerning him.”
Gorbachev had never seen a train until he was thirteen. He first traveled to Stavropol at seventeen, and had never been outside the province. Now, at nineteen, accompanied by his father, with a battered old suitcase in which his mother had packed the few clothes he had, plus food to sustain him on the trip, he arrived at the Tikhoretsky Station, some thirty-two miles from Privolnoe. Grandfather Pantelei, who bid farewell as Gorbachev and his father clambered aboard the truck taking them to the station, “was very emotional; he was very happy for me, but sad to see me go. He had tears in his eyes. It was very sad.”
Gorbachev’s father was so emotional that he stayed on board until the train started moving, then jumped off, and forgot to give his son his train ticket. The conductor might have thrown Gorbachev off the train if the rest of the passengers in the lowest-class car hadn’t come to his aid: “What are you doing?” they yelled at the conductor. “His father fought at the front. Did you see all the medals he’s wearing?” The conductor retreated—on the condition that Gorbachev buy another ticket (which he could barely afford) at the next station.
Gorbachev: His Life and Times
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