Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Gorbachev: The Life and Times of Cold Rivers

That is the new biography by William Taubmann, who won a Pulitzer for his Khruschev book.  At first I didn’t want to read it, feeling I was already too familiar with the topic, but it was a fascinating treatment throughout, with many revelations.  It is perhaps the best overall treatment of how the Soviet Union collapsed, and the parts on Gorbachev’s early career provide a superior look at how Soviet bureaucracy and the Communist Party actually functioned.

Here is one bit:
In retrospect, his best chance to prevent Communism from collapsing, taking with it the whole Soviet alliance system in Europe, would have been to encourage reformers like himself to take command of their countries with the support of their people.  Instead, he gave every appearance in his public meetings with the old guard [Honecker, Husák, Zhivkov] of backing them…
One of the best parts of the book is when Taubmann shows how Gorbachev’s treatment of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict reflected both Gorby’s strengths and weaknesses early on.
Here is another bit:
“She [Raisa Gorbachev] displayed an extraordinary knowledge of British history and philosophy,” then British ambassador to Moscow Bryan Cartledge remembered.  “When she came across a portrait of David Hume, she knew all about him.”
Mrs. Thatcher was stunned, and later Nancy Reagan was envious and tried to keep up.  As for Ronald Reagan, to prepare for his meetings with Gorbachev, for a while he was receiving several two-hour tutoring sessions a week from Russian historians and other experts.
Perhaps the most startling part of the book is when the reader learns that even during the height of the Eastern Europe crisis, foreign policy received no more than five or six percent of the time of Gorbachev and the Politburo; the focus instead was on domestic issues and reforms.
Strongly recommended, this will be one of the two or three best books of the year, compulsively readable, fun, and informative all at once.  Here is a rave New York Times review.  You can order it here

People tend to retrofit their memories to comport with the most helpful telling of a story. Perhaps I’m prone to the same revisionism. But as I remember it, everything having to do with politics pre-9/11 would instantaneously become frivolous once the Twin Towers came down. The day after 9/11, and many days after that, I was unable to commute into my office in Manhattan. The local train station was littered with the cars of those who I assumed would never come home. So I sat in front of my TV staring at cable news most hours of the coming days. For those few weeks, I don’t remember anyone ever using the event to bludgeon their political opponents.
There were a few — I remember immediately after 9/11. National Review Online quoting the zaniest takes in an briefly recurring series collating the worst of what veteran TV writer Evan Sayet dubbed “the 9/12 Democrats” in his famous 2007 Heritage Foundation speech: those who believed that America deserved everything it got, and then some. But for many on the right, there really was a belief that the culture had significantly changed as a result of 9/11. In retrospect, the far left had simply gone to ground temporarily, and what followed, as Charles Krauthammer dubbed it mid-election year in 2004, was “the Pressure Cooker Theory” in action:
The loathing goes far beyond the politicians. Liberals as a body have gone quite around the twist. I count one all-star rock tour, three movies, four current theatrical productions and five bestsellers (a full one-third of the New York Times list) variously devoted to ridiculing, denigrating, attacking and devaluing this president, this presidency and all who might, God knows why, support it.
How to explain? With apologies to Dr. Freud, I propose the Pressure Cooker Theory of Hydraulic Release.
The hostility, resentment, envy and disdain, all superheated in Florida, were not permitted their natural discharge. Came Sept. 11 and a lid was forced down. How can you seek revenge for a stolen election by a nitwit usurper when all of a sudden we are at war and the people, bless them, are rallying around the flag and hailing the commander in chief? With Bush riding high in the polls, with flags flying from pickup trucks (many of the flags, according to Howard Dean, Confederate), the president was untouchable.
The Democrats fell unnaturally silent. For two long, agonizing years, they had to stifle and suppress. It was the most serious case of repression since Freud’s Anna O. went limp. The forced deference nearly killed them. And then, providentially, they were saved. The clouds parted and bad news rained down like manna: WMDs, Abu Ghraib, Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neill, Joe Wilson and, most important, continued fighting in Iraq.
With the president stripped of his halo, his ratings went down. The spell was broken. He was finally, once again, human and vulnerable. With immense relief, the critics let loose.
And they haven’t stopped since. Which is why, as Harsanyi  concludes today, “here’s a depressing thought on the anniversary of 9/11: What if those two or three weeks of harmony 16 years ago will be the last we experience for a very long time?”
But then, in retrospect, they really weren’t a period of harmony, so much as the left reevaluating tactics and reloading for the next phase of their culture war, which looks to be near-eternal these days