Top critical review
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Interesting, challenging, frustrating
on 25 April 2001
In this work Gorbachev seeks to explain the reasons for the situation the USSR found itself in prior to his arrival in power. From there he goes on to detail what he was trying to achieve with his policies of 'Perestroika' and 'Glasnost' and where he feels these were held back.
As with almost all political autobiographies, a certain proportion of the contents are devoted to justifying decisions, opinions and actions of the author. Nevertheless you emerge with the feeling that Gorbachev was that rarest of political species: a true visionary.
In fact you share with him his frustrations as time and again his attempts to move the monolithic Soviet state forward are slowed and even halted by people clinging to the power they had felt was theirs by right.
Later of course Boris Yeltsin (portrayed here very much as an opportunist with a desire for power) and his followers sought to undermine Gorbachev's reforms for the very different reason that they were not moving swiftly enough.
At the end you are left in no doubt of the sincerity with which Gorbachev loves his country and is pained to think of the troubles it has endured. You are also left with the impression that Gorbachev was a man who arrived at the right time and created the platform from which many people regained their freedom and found a place in the world.
For this history will, I believe, judge him to have been a shining light in an otherwise darkened room.
The problem I had with the book was very much one of comprehending what was happening and therefore sustaining interest. Yes the story of Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR in the latter part of the 20th century is an interesting one, but what I found particularly hard going was the referrals to the various committees, plenums, soviets, and officials involved in running things. At the risk of over-simplifying the complexity of political systems, it seemed to me that one of the biggest difficulties the Soviet Union had in making any kind of progress lay in the incredible levels of bureaucracy with which it organised everything.
The number of times that a committee was formed, or a new department, function, or official role created is almost beyond belief. I found it very hard to work out who was who, what they were meant to be doing and how the whole structure fitted together.
Although this information may be valuable in understanding the USSR and Mikhail Gorbachev it also made the book rather heavy going and not able to sustain my interest for long periods of time.
At the end of the day there is a decision to make if you are thinking of buying this book. You need to weigh up whether the undoubted insight that is provided is worth wading through the rest for. In the end I finished the book, so I guess my own answer would be yes.