Writing a book about Mikhail Gorbachev these days is like trying to do a military history of a battle that has not yet ended. The ultimate outcome will color the analysis of all that has gone before. Victory will make the opening moves look ingenious and courageous; defeat will render them rash or poorly planned. History is a merciless judge.
Furthermore, Gorbachev's tenure as Soviet leader has been a phenomenon of immense complexity, not at all susceptible to the easy caricatures that have been purveyed by some American politicians, commentators and columnists who have seen him as either just like his autocratic predecessors or just like us.
In truth, of course, Gorbachev is no Massachusetts Democrat; he is a veteran Communist Party official with political reflexes very different from ours. Nor is he a dictatorial charlatan; he has opened his society internally and removed its stifling weight from world affairs, most dramatically from Eastern Europe.
As a politician, he has displayed impressive skill in a closed system, and ineptitude as his country has fragmented into more pluralistic politics. He has tolerated criticism and tried to suppress it; he has dispersed power and tried to retain it.
To assess Gorbachev, then, is to accept a formidable task, which is reason enough to admire Robert G. Kaiser's undertaking in "Why Gorbachev Happened." Between the galley proofs and the hardcover, Kaiser changed his subtitle from "The Man and His Revolution" to "His Triumphs and His Failure," an illustration of how hard it is to hit a moving target. A few months ago, Gorbachev's legacy was revolution; today it is failure. It may actually turn out to be both, as Kaiser illustrates in a book that is much subtler and far less predictive than the finality of the word failure suggests.
Indeed, the strength of what Kaiser has done lies partly in his refusal to be categorical or dogmatic about the Soviet leader. The author does declare in his closing chapter, written just after last January's attack by troops on Lithuanian demonstrators in Vilnius, that with the use of force, "the hopeful, high-minded Gorbachev era ended." And he seems to pronounce Gorbachev dead as a liberal reformer, criticizing him as unable to grasp either economic issues or the powerful ethnic and national identities that tear at the fabric of Soviet life.
"The army, the KGB, the police, the still hidden but still powerful military-industrial complex, and remnants of the Party apparatus pushed Gorbachev off course at the very moment when he seemed to be triumphant," Kaiser writes. "The wild, bucking horse he had been riding for seventy months finally threw him."
But throughout his illuminating book, the author wrestles with the contradictions of the man, searching for the roots of Gorbachev's competing impulses of reform and conservatism, those clashing values that coexist, side by side, both in the Soviet leader and in Soviet society as a whole.
Gorbachev the revolutionary and Gorbachev the apparatchik passed the baton back and forth to one another, the author says. "He switched between the two roles as he saw fit. . . . In the first five years these interludes of retrenchment probably smoothed the way for further change. Gorbachev could not have bulled ahead stubbornly without any pause or hesitation."
Kaiser perceptively places the Soviet leader in the context of his society and its history. He sifts the record for telling details of personal biography, noting that both of Gorbachev's grandfathers were arrested under Stalin, and that Gorbachev once described "his boyhood home as a 'plague house' after Grandfather Gopkolo returned . . . a house 'where even relatives and close friends could not visit' for fear of being associated with this 'enemy of the people.' "
Later, in 1956, Gorbachev was in his first year after law school when Nikita Khrushchev shattered the icon of Stalin in his "secret speech" denouncing the dictator's crimes. "There is no record of Gorbachev's reaction to the speech," Kaiser writes, "but his contemporaries who shared that experience are confident of its importance in his life, as in theirs." In a wise observation, the author concludes, "As long as he was dismantling the Stalinist system, Gorbachev was working with the forces of history, not against them."
Kaiser, now deputy managing editor of the Washington Post, approaches Gorbachev with the clear eye of a good reporter and the perspective of 20 years of Soviet-watching, beginning with his assignment as the Post's Moscow correspondent from 1971 to 1974. His book from those years, "Russia: The People and the Power" was a warmly written journey through the human dimensions of Soviet society.