Nearly 30 years ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev faced political upheaval after the firing of Boris Yeltsin, the Moscow Communist Party leader. Among several Kremlinologists The Washington Post interviewed, only one believed that Gorbachev was in jeopardy.
Marshall Goldman, a Wellesley College professor, predicted that Gorbachev would be out of a job in two to three years, and he wasn’t off by much. The Post article was published on Nov. 22, 1987, and Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Dr. Goldman, who was the Kathryn W. Davis professor of Russian economics emeritus at Wellesley and had been a senior scholar at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, died Aug. 2 in his Cambridge home of complications from dementia. He was 87.
A scholar who specialized in the Soviet Union’s economy, Dr. Goldman wrote more than a dozen books and enlivened his precise academic studies with insights from his travels to Moscow. In his 1987 book “Gorbachev’s Challenge: Economic Reform in the Age of High Technology,” he examined topics such as the growth of the country’s gross national product and the yields of grain harvests, and he also deftly illuminated Gorbachev’s standing among ordinary citizens by recounting jokes they told about their leader’s attempts to curb alcoholism through policies that resulted in block-long lines to buy vodka:
“After two hours in line, one drunk says to the other, ‘Enough of this. I’m going down to the Kremlin and punch Gorbachev.’ Two hours later, he returns. His friend, who is still in line, asks, ‘Well, what happened?’ ‘Nothing, the line was too long!’ ”
That humor, bleak and wry, “suggests a grudging respect for Gorbachev’s power,” Dr. Goldman wrote. “This sense of power makes Gorbachev’s quest for economic reform all the more fascinating. If he cannot succeed, who can?”
Because conducting research inside the Soviet Union during the Cold War was difficult and sometimes impossible, Dr. Goldman’s travels took him around the world. He visited Africa and South Asia during the 1960s while gathering material for his 1967 book “Soviet Foreign Aid.” He also was among the early scholars who warned about Soviet environmental abuses, which he detailed in his 1972 book “The Spoils of Progress.”
Dr. Goldman’s 1983 book “USSR in Crisis” was “a timely, balanced, and thoughtful analysis of the weakening economic system on which sits the Soviet system,” Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wrote in a review for the Globe. “It can profitably be read by the generalist. It might also find its way to an audience in the Soviet Union. For Goldman points to a most interesting, even challenging, question before the Soviet leaders: Is their position more endangered by reforming — or not reforming?”
David Warsh, a former Globe economics reporter and columnist, wrote in 1997 just before “Gorbachev’s Challenge” was published: “Though it won’t be in the stores until next month, the book is already being passed from hand to hand by students of the Soviet Union. Pitched midway between scholarship and journalism, it is easy to read, but it is also deeply knowledgeable about the Soviet and Chinese institutional landscapes — and the American system as well.”
Whether writing about the Soviet Union or speaking about Russian leaders to classes and organizations, Dr. Goldman had a conversational style that was brisk and engaging.
“When the best map of Moscow is the one prepared by the CIA, you know the city you are visiting is different from those normally frequented by American tourists and sports fans,” he wrote in a 1979 Globe essay that included tips for how to sightsee — and survive — in Russia’s capital city.
The older of two siblings, Marshall Irwin Goldman grew up in Eglin, Ill., the son of Sam and Bella Goldman, who ran a family business. “His parents, while good people, were not interested in the larger world,” Dr. Goldman’s daughter Avra of Cambridge said.
Dr. Goldman set his sights far beyond his Midwest upbringing. He worked for the family business during summers and then went to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1952. At Harvard University, he did graduate work in Russian studies and economics, receiving a master’s in 1956 and a doctorate in 1961. While there, he became interested in comparative economic systems, and particularly the Soviet economy, which became his focus as a professor and writer.
While doing graduate work, he was drafted into the Army and taught at Fort Hood in Texas. Afterward, he joined the Wellesley faculty in 1958. Dr. Goldman taught there for more than four decades and, with his family, endowed a professorship in economics in his name. “You just couldn’t ask for brighter students,” he said of the college in 2012 when Kristin Butcher was appointed Wellesley’s first Goldman professor.
In 1953, he married Merle Rosenblatt, whom he met while visiting friends at the University of Wisconsin, where she was taking summer classes. Merle Goldman is a professor emerita of Chinese history at Boston University, and their specialties sent the couple on many trips to other countries. He could speak Russian, she could speak Chinese, and they shared a common philosophy, at least when it came to raising their two daughters and two sons. “We don’t argue about the children,” she told the Globe in 1988 for an article about their popularity in academic circles. “We argue about the significance of Confucius.”
Dr. Goldman was a past president of the Hillel Council of New England and a founding board member of Century Bank. He also served on boards or took leadership roles in organizations such as Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and Boston Baroque. And along with teaching at Wellesley, he devoted considerable time to the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, where he had been associate director. “My heart is in both places, my heart is in a lot of places,” he quipped to the Globe in 1983, “but my paycheck comes from Wellesley.”
A service has been held for Dr. Goldman, who in addition to his wife and daughter Avra leaves his daughter Karla of Ann Arbor, Mich.; two sons, Ethan of West Hartford, Conn., and Seth of Chevy Chase, Md.; his sister, Rhoda Frank of Chicago; and 12 grandchildren.
“He was just a wonderful father, and fun — lots of fun,” Avra said. “He and my mother taught us to care about life beyond ourselves. They just wanted us to see the bigger world. He was always interested in the bigger world, and he was from a small world.”
Avra added that her father “was such a promoter of women’s education and rights. My mother would not have been so successful, no question, without his complete support and pride. My sister and I, too.”
In the preface to “Gorbachev’s Challenge,” Dr. Goldman acknowledged his wife’s key contributions, in training her editing eyes on his work, noting that she “went over the manuscript in an attempt to spare me needless embarrassment. Despite her best efforts, and this represented the most energetic editing work ever, there certainly will be criticism. But thanks to Merle, there will be less.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.