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A Visionary Who Put an Era Out of Its Misery

Memoirs by Mikhail Gorbachev

Most correspondents who arrived in Moscow after the Soviet Union fell apart, myself included, admit at least to occasional pangs of envy. Those colleagues who were here before us witnessed a remarkable human achievement: they watched as a provincial man came to Moscow, gained control of the Kremlin, opened the darkest corners of Russian society, stopped the cold war and changed the world.

His countrymen have shown that it is nonetheless simple to dislike Mikhail S. Gorbachev. They are repulsed by his pomposity, and somewhat unfairly, they blame him for all they have lost. It is, after all, never easy to warm to a man who frequently and without irony compares his sufferings to those of Jesus. One can argue about what degree of direct credit Mr. Gorbachev deserves for ending the nuclear arms race or for bringing down the Berlin wall. It can credibly be suggested that Russia itself, pinned mercilessly beneath the staggering burdens of Bolshevism, could not have moved in any other direction and that Mr. Gorbachev just happened to be there when the society began to collapse.

But he was there, and it is hard to imagine that history won't reward him handsomely for his role. Mr. Gorbachev believed that he could change the world, and if these ''Memoirs'' show anything, they show that he did. They are often poorly written and always self-serving. He rarely accepts blame, rarely reveals anything touching or poignant about himself or his times. If there is a road to Damascus, he never mentions it.

The figures around him — enemies like Boris Yeltsin, allies like George Bush — are never more than cardboard cutouts. Even the secular saint of modern Russia, Andrei D. Sakharov, is portrayed essentially as a petty whiner who wasn't grateful enough for the freedoms Mr. Gorbachev returned to him. But from his radical attempts as a young Communist bureaucrat to revitalize the harvest in his native region to the day when he peacefully — and with much grace and benevolence — resigned as President and ended the history of the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev's achievements are really hard to dispute. ''I do not necessarily justify all my decisions or actions,'' he says in a note ''To the Reader.'' ''Neither do I shrink from the responsibility for the reforms which I began, for I still firmly believe they were vital for my country with beneficial effects for the rest of the world.''

It is hard to argue with that assessment. Reading the book, we watch as this single man rips through the dead wood of aged Soviet bureaucracy, returns forbidden music, art and literature to the nation, decides to cut his nuclear arsenal in half. He had the rare genius to admit publicly that his society was dying, even if he was never finally willing or able to apply a useful cure. It is a shame that Mr. Gorbachev is simply unable to write with the same power with which he led.

His book is a list of accomplishments — rarely an explanation of his choices. There have always been acute questions surrounding his motivations. Few are answered here. How did the idealistic farm boy from Stavropol who wrote his final school essay examination on the subject, ''Stalin, Our Combat Glory — Stalin, the Elation of Our Youth,'' become the visionary capable of airing the great evil of the Soviet state? Where did the boy who watched his rural village and most of its inhabitants destroyed by Germans during World War II get the courage to offer the world the end of nuclear escalation? We don't know. Why was he able to remain so unquestioningly close to Yuri Andropov, who in addition to serving as General Secretary of the Communist Party, ran the K.G.B. for many years? Mr. Andropov was a man who had a deep personal knowledge of the horrors of Stalinism, but if you believe Mr. Gorbachev, it was not a subject they ever discussed.

''I was profoundly affected by Yuri Vladimirovich's death,'' Mr. Gorbachev writes in the memoirs about his mentor. ''Among the leaders of the country, there was no one else with whom I had such close and old ties, and to whom I owed so much. . . . It was not that he fully opened up to me, sharing his innermost feelings. Some of the hidden recesses in his life remained inaccessible — maybe because he himself was not too happy about their existence.''

Perhaps that is the case with Mr. Gorbachev as well. As a student at Moscow University in the early 1950's, during the last dark days of Stalin, Mr. Gorbachev managed to flourish. Where did he really stand on the new freedoms in Prague in 1968 before they were crushed? Again, we just don't know. Even though he was finally part of the inner circle of Kremlin leaders when the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan, there aren't three sentences in this long book about why the invasion took place, who supported it, who opposed it, and what Mr. Gorbachev thought about it.

On the subject of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, which some historians say did as much to speed the dissolution of the Soviet empire as anything, Mr. Gorbachev simply lies. ''I absolutely reject the accusation that the Soviet leadership intentionally held back the truth about Chernobyl,'' he writes, even though thousands of children were permitted to swim near Kiev, down river from the lethal plant, a week after the accident.

In 1991, when Soviet soldiers stormed a television tower in Vilnius, Lithuania, and many people died, there was a shock that has not completely subsided. Mr. Gorbachev, as always blaming the Lithuanian leader instead of his own men, says even today that he has no idea how that happened or who gave the order.

The book makes clear what many critics have often said: Mr. Gorbachev's flaws are almost as noticeable as his glories. The last leader of the Soviet Union could never really let go of the idea that the union made sense. He could never get up in front of his countrymen and tell them the Communist Party was an endless lie.

But how much should a man be required to accomplish in a single lifetime? Even during last year's presidential race, when he received fewer votes than a well-known weight lifter, he often made more sense than any other candidate, including the man who won. Candor would have helped this book a lot. But maybe we should just be thankful that Mikhail Gorbachev was put on earth to write it.

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