Heretic in the Kremlin

By Dusko Doder and Louise Branson

Viking. 450 pp. $24.95

EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP, history suggests, has a short shelf life. Distinctive individuals do make a difference: There are "windows of opportunity" during which imaginative leadership, if exercised with skill, can control events. But these moments tend not to last long: Lenin had five years between the Bolshevik seizure of power and the stroke that debilitated him; opponents of the New Deal took about the same length of time to neutralize Roosevelt's leadership; Churchill's authority held up only while World War II was going on; Lyndon Johnson's lasted only until the Vietnam War eroded it. Ronald Reagan was decisive during his first term, but little more than a shadow during his second. And even Margaret Thatcher -- surely one of the most durable leaders of modern times -- is at last showing signs of fading.

Future historians will almost certainly rank Mikhail Sergevich Gorbachev as the most important -- and most interesting -- political leader in the last quarter of this century. Certainly when Gorbachev first visited Washington in December 1987, he was the acknowledged leader of a global superpower: a man who exuded self-confidence in everything he did, whether it was concluding an INF treaty with Reagan, dangling visions of joint ventures before entranced businessmen, impressing intellectuals by showing that he had read -- or at least been briefed on -- their books, or jumping out of his limousine to greet astonished Washingtonians on the street.

But Gorbachev concludes his second Washington visit this week with his power severely diminished, and his prestige heading rapidly in the same direction. The Soviet Union has lost control over Central and Eastern Europe; NATO, for the first time in its history, is on the verge of attaining conventional force superiority. Germany is reunifying, and Moscow is powerless to prevent, or even retard, the process. Perestroika has effected no noticeable improvement in the lives of Soviet citizens; indeed conditions have worsened under Gorbachev's rule. And secessionist pressures within the U.S.S.R. now threaten the very existence of that state as we have known it; a once self-confident Gorbachev has come across, in his handling the Lithuanian situation, as both heavy-handed and ham-fisted -- a dangerous combination, for any leader.

This new biography by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, until recently Moscow correspondents for The Washington Post and the Sunday Times of London, respectively, raises the possibility that Gorbachev to many be falling victim to the short shelf life syndrome. Relying on a combination of published materials, interview, and background information, Doder and Branson have pieced together an account of the Soviet president's life that is as clear on the weaknesses of his leadership as on its strengths. The weaknesses, they suggest, are gaining the upper hand.

One weakness they cite is that chronic affliction of liberal reformers: an excessive faith in the goodness of human nature and in the rationality of the human mind. "Positive, optimistic, and constructive energy was the source of his strength," Doder and Branson tell us in describing Gorbachev's preparatory years in Stavropol, but these characteristics "led him to ignore human weaknesses -- prejudice, vanity, fear, acts of spite and treachery, in particular the obstructive tactics of ill-disposed officials, which cumulatively could block any policy." Gorbachev appears to have believed -- somewhat naively -- that simply calling attention to problems with honesty and candor would be enough to solve them. "When I get in front of that warm and charming man who wants so much to do something for this country," they quote one discouraged Soviet official as saying, "I have no heart to tell him that we can't succeed."

A second weakness Doder and Branson identify is an authoritarian streak in Gorbachev that co-exists easily alongside his commitment to democratic procedures. The Soviet leader, they show, has accumulated power for the purpose of devolving it: but as Andrei Sakharov was pointing out just before his death, it is not at all clear that the second objective will follow straightforwardly from the first. Gorbachev has in effect ordered his people to embrace democracy, thus placing himself squarely within the tradition of other "tsar-liberators" in Russian history whose reforms -- because they lacked spontaneity -- did not last. It was a telling moment last February when, after the most vigorous debate, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union voted to abolish its monopoly on power with only a single dissenting ballot cast.

Doder and Branson are careful to couple these criticisms with an appreciation of Gorbachev's awesome skills at political maneuvering and his ability -- at least until recently -- to link such tactics with long-term strategic objectives. But like many other observers, they see him as increasingly responding to rather than shaping events: The Gorbachev who used the Chernobyl disaster to legitimize glasnost, who turned Mathias Rust's unexpected landing in Red Square into an excuse to purge a Brezhnev-era defense establishment, now seems to have lost his ability to transform reveres into triumphs.

It is true that Gorbachev welcomed -- and in some cases even encouraged -- the overthrow of troglodyte dictatorships in Central and Eastern Europe last year, but he apparently failed to anticipate that the result would be the collapse of communism in that part of the world, the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the reunification of Germany. He allowed dissent to flourish within the Soviet Union itself, but clearly did not foresee that by doing so he would unleash nationalist and even secessionist demands as well. Since Doder and Branson finished their book, Gorbachev has backed away from efforts to shift to a market economy by dramatizing the failures of communism at home; he has also reacted to the unique experience of having May Day crowds jeer him while atop Lenin's tomb by allowing legislation to be introduced that will make it a crime to "slander" the leader of the Soviet state.

The Doder-Branson biography offers little guidance as to whether Gorbachev can meet the most severe of all leadership tests, which is to reverse declining fortunes once decline has begun to set in. The Soviet leader has surprised us more than once by pulling rabbits out of hats at the last possible moment, and he may again. But this book is a sobering reminder that the hat is getting no deeper, that the rabbits are beginning to look sickly and that the audience -- which is, after all, the Soviet people -- is beginning to tire of the act.

John Lewis Gaddis is professor of history and director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University. His most recent book is a new edition of "Russia, the Soviet Union, and the United States: An Interpretive History."