In 1996, in what as of this writing remains the last competitive presidential election in Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev decided to throw his hat in the ring. Boris Yeltsin was then in his fifth year in office, and the fledgling Russian Federation had descended into chaos. Yeltsin’s privatization reforms had led to widespread misery; he had shelled his own Parliament and launched a brutal war on Chechnya. Having started both the initial democratization and the economic reforms of which Yeltsin was at once the beneficiary and gravedigger, Gorbachev thought he could do better. And perhaps Russians might want him to return? After all, he had lost his presidency in a nontraditional manner—the country of which he was president had ceased to exist.
Plus, Gorbachev hated Yeltsin. The two were near contemporaries. They both had come from humble backgrounds and had risen through the party apparatus to the upper ranks of the Soviet system, only to find that they doubted the system could continue. Beyond these similarities, however, the two were polar opposites. Gorbachev was studious, calculating, and a talker; Yeltsin worked by instinct and was master of the grand gesture. Gorbachev had sought to reform the Soviet Union gradually, thereby saving socialism from itself; Yeltsin’s drive for power and reckless style of governance had destroyed socialism, the Soviet Union, and possibly even Russian sovereignty. Gorbachev’s hope was that his milder social-democratic vision might finally get a fair hearing.
It did not. Gorbachev was mocked and ridiculed everywhere he went. His old high school wouldn’t let him address its students. Some of this activity was encouraged by Yeltsin; some of it was spontaneous. In Omsk, a 29-year-old unemployed man dashed past Gorbachev’s bodyguards and slapped the former leader of the Soviet empire in the face. In the end, thanks possibly to some creative vote-counting, and definitely to hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal campaign funds from the oligarchs, an ailing Yeltsin was elected to a second term. Gorbachev received less than 1 percent of the vote.
In his thorough and highly readable new biography of Gorbachev, William Taubman does not dwell on the 1996 campaign. It strays perhaps too far from his central tale, which is of Gorbachev’s courageous and historic ending of the Cold War. But the story of the election does comport with another theme of Taubman’s book and Gorbachev’s life: the fact that the man who is lionized in the West as one of the great statesmen of the 20th century is treated at home with contempt. For Westerners, Gorbachev brought a period of peace, calm, and prosperity; for Russians, he surrendered the empire without a fight.
Mikhail Gorbachev was born in 1931 in a village in the southern Russian region of Stavropol. His parents and grandparents were farmers, which in that era put them in the very crosshairs of Soviet power. One grandfather, who was relatively successful, was opposed to communism and refused to join a collective farm; the other, who was much poorer, helped start one of them. In the end, both were arrested: the anticommunist grandfather in 1934, for withholding grain from the regime, and the communist grandfather in 1937, during Stalin’s purges of Soviet officials.