Learning from biographies: 'Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev
Jimmy Carter’s autobiographic “Faith: A Journey for All” and William Taubman’s biography “Gorbachev: His Life and Times” are new releases available at the Daniel Island branch of the Berkeley County Library. I enjoy reading biographic materials of historical figures – they provide understanding of both the person and the period and offer lessons we can apply to present day circumstances. Both books are well-written and both deliver lessons to apply to current affairs.
FAITH: A JOURNEY FOR ALL
“Faith: A Journey for All” is former President Jimmy Carter’s 30th book. “Faith” gives the reader insight into Carter’s faith journey and also includes interspersed stories from his youth, family, marriage, naval career, and post-presidential life, as well as stories from his political years as governor of Georgia and as the thirty-ninth president of the United States.
I picked up the book because I was drawn to and interested in reading about Carter’s faith and how it impacted his decision making. In addition to being autobiographical, the book is also instructive. He describes different meaning of faith, how to live it, and how to face and overcome doubt. He concludes the book by sharing his understanding of what challenges faith and the country face going forward.
One story that particularly stands out, and which Carter describes as his most “substantial contribution to the worldwide Christian Church” as president, involved his 1978 secret meetings with China’s Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping that resulted in diplomatic recognition between the United States and communist China. In appreciation of Carter’s efforts and after the agreements were concluded, Deng asked him what he could do for him. Carter’s request was three-fold: let the Chinese people worship freely, let them own Bibles and let Christian missionaries return to China. Deng granted two of the requests, denying only the return of missionaries. Carter noted that when he visited China in 1981, “there was a new law that guaranteed freedom of worship, Bibles were plentiful, and overcrowded Christian churches were thriving.” As of 2010, Carter reports, there were more than 58 million Protestants worshipping in China.
GORBACHEV: HIS LIFE AND TIMES
Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Taubman thoroughly and entertainingly covers Gorbachev’s life, from his childhood as a peasant during World War Two, through his rise in the ranks of the Soviet Communist Party to the Politburo, to his eventual selection as leader of the Soviet Union, and through the end of his leadership and the Soviet Union to present day.
The early years and his rise through the party ranks reveal how his ideas of bringing change to the Soviet Union evolved from a stalwart supporter of Stalin in his youth to an understanding that democratic principles needed to be injected into the authoritarian regime in order for the citizenship and economy to thrive.
Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. At the time, I was a Russian Studies and Political Science major and traveled to the former Soviet Union during the winter of 1986-87 and witnessed his policies of glasnost and perestroika first hand. Just four short years later, I listened to the radio in amazement as news that the Soviet Union, the world’s second super power, had collapsed. Taubman puts the soviet experience and the end of a great power in perspective as it relates to Gorbachev’s policies. He also conveys the many sides of Gorbachev’s unique character, including his love affair with his wife.
Taubman emphasizes that Gorbachev did not seek out to be the “gravedigger of Communism.” Rather, Gorbachev’s experiences as a rising star in the old order of Soviet leadership (he befriended Andropov and to a lesser extent Brezhnev) influenced him to seek to democratize social society while building up the state.
Taubman’s comprehensive biography of the leader, which includes interviews with Gorbachev, his friends and contemporaries, as well as materials from the Russian archives, helps us understand how Gorbachev “permitted the USSR and its Eastern European empire to break apart without using force to preserve them.”
“Gorbachev: His Life and Times” is a dense and heavy read at 852 pages. “Faith: A Journey for All” was a quick and easy read at 179 pages. Both books were especially interesting reads as they relate to figures and historical events that occurred within many of our lifetimes. Both leaders are still living and their stories continue.