The Gorbachev Factor

In This Review

The Gorbachev Factor

By Archie Brown
Oxford University Press, 1996
406 pp. $30.00

Brown means to settle -- or at least to say more than anyone until now about -- Gorbachev's precise role in history, from his arrival in power in 1985 to his dramatic exit in 1991. Not only is the author one of Britain's most prominent scholars in Soviet and post-Soviet studies, he has been from the start the keenest and most diligent follower of Gorbachev's years in power. Although he has a biographer's sympathy for his subject, biography is not Brown's purpose. He is focused instead on the hard historical issues surrounding Gorbachev: What did he believe? What did he hope to accomplish? Did he understand the forces he unleashed?

Brown's richly textured answers rest on three well-argued but not universally accepted assumptions: it is nonsense to fault Gorbachev for trying to reform the unreformable rather than striving to create an alternative system when the old guard would have destroyed him in a week had he tried. Second, Gorbachev, for all the surface ambiguity, was by the end a social democrat who no longer embraced Lenin's core ideas. Third, of the four massive transformations he guided (until three of them slipped from his control), of the economic system, the political order, the union, and foreign policy, he deserves to be judged a success with respect to at least two. He did revolutionize Soviet foreign policy, and he pushed the Soviet Union further down the road to democracy than anyone could have dreamed in 1985. That he failed in the other two realms, Brown argues, owed both to the magnitude of the challenges and to his personal weaknesses, including, at key points, his flawed decisions.

Brown makes no attempt to conceal Gorbachev's mistakes, some of them large and tragic, but the weight of the book reminds the reader how thick and perilous were the obstacles to swift and efficient reform and how human it was for even a talented man to misjudge history and misplay his hand -- yet, still, how much unhappier the outcome would almost certainly have been without him.