Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Part I
There is no other history more interesting than that of the
Russian people. So with the recent falloff in diplomatic relations
between Russia and the U.S., I thought I''d begin by reviewing
the rise and fall of both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, in my usual
"Cliff Notes" format.
Mikhail Gorbachev was a classic Communist apparatchik. Born
in 1931, Gorby rose through the ranks to become Secretary of
Agriculture and then the youngest man on the ruling Soviet
Politboro. He was a great butt-kisser, as he cultivated the
patronage of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov in his rise to
Brezhnev, who was the effective ruler of the Soviet Union from
1964-1982, died in November of 1982. His successor was a head
of the KGB and suppressor of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956,
Yuri Andropov. Little was known of Andropov in the West,
except he was seen to be a bad person. [Actually, Yuri is a very
complex character and will be the source of a future article].
Unfortunately, he was in ill health and he died less than 15
months after taking over. Before he died, however, he made it
known that he wanted Gorbachev to be his successor.
It''s now February of 1984 and the doddering old fools on the
Politboro weren''t ready to have some 53-year old run the country
so they opted one more time for a fellow who looked DOA
(dead-on-arrival), Konstantin Chernenko. This guy was truly
pitiful. Fortunately, he lasted only until March of 1985, at which
time Gorbachev had built up a group of supporters who selected
him as the next General Secretary of the Communist Party, the
position from which all power emanated.
Gorby had observed over the years how the Soviet Union was
sliding into the abyss so he immediately launched a revolutionary
reform program centered around two key principles,
"perestroika" (reconstruction and reform) and "glasnost"
(publicity and openness). [One of his first steps was to have
himself elected President of the Supreme Soviet, a fateful
mistake, as he was elected not through a popular election and
thus his future opponents were able to say he lacked legitimacy].
Gorby immediately set out to charm the world and assure
everyone that the Soviet Union was no longer a menace to world
peace. His foreign policy accomplishments were considerable.
Britain''s Margaret Thatcher had first met Mikhail in 1984 when
it was apparent that he might be Russia''s next ruler after
Chernenko''s pulse stopped. She was so taken by him that she
declared him to be a man with whom "we can do business."
Thatcher''s impression was extremely important as President
Reagan sized up the new leader in 1985.
Reagan described the Soviet Union at that time as an "evil
empire." And few could argue with him. But Reagan had an
open mind and the 1st Reagan-Gorbachev summit was held in
Geneva, November of 1985. The two seemed to get along very
well and hope ruled. Arms control was a major topic as
Gorbachev knew that a continuing arms race with the U.S. was
bankrupting his country.
The 2nd summit was held in October of ''86 in Rekyavik and it
was almost an unmitigated disaster. Both leaders were set to
totally eliminate all long-range weapons but Reagan refused to
give in over his Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI, or "Star Wars."
The ending was a desultory one.
The 3rd summit in Washington, December of ''87, was much
better, even glorious, as the two sides agreed to eliminate a
whole category of nukes - land-based intermediate and short-
range missiles. The 4th and final Reagan-Grobachev summit was
held in Moscow, May of ''88. It was here that real progress was
made on what would become the first START Treaty to begin to
eliminate long-range weapons (signed by President Bush in July
Relations between the U.S. and U.S.S.R had never been better.
In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1991 Moscow
joined the U.N. coalition during the Gulf War. Thatcher was right,
this was a man the West could do business with.
But Gorbachev''s foreign policy legacy, almost right from the
start, was overshadowed by problems on the domestic front. It
was difficult for the West to understand this. The international
media loved Gorby (and Raisa, his wife) and he could do no
wrong. What they failed to understand was that Gorbachev was
still an unreconstructed Communist at heart and this was to prove
During the first 4 years of perestroika, the Soviet economy was
stagnant. Inflation did remain low until 1989 when signs of a
systemic breakdown became increasingly frequent. But for all of
the new "openness" the Soviet people saw little, if any,
improvement in their lives. By mid-1990, over 1,000 basic
consumer goods were rarely available in state shops. "Queing
up" (waiting in line) became the national past-time. Rationing of
most goods was widespread. Troops were sent out to help with
the harvest because of incredibly inefficient farming methods
So why couldn''t Gorbachev have the same sort of success that he
had on the foreign policy stage? At the National Party
Conference in June of 1988, Gorbachev was given a clear choice:
Either advance and transform perestroika into a ''genuinely
popular democratic revolution, go all the way and afford society
total freedom,'' or pull back, remain a communist reformer, and
stay within the well-known milieu of the bureaucracy. The
choice was between genuine or controlled democracy.
Gorbachev was a very stubborn politician. He couldn''t
understand that his beloved communist party was history.
Whereas reformers like Boris Yeltsin, ex-Communists, were
emerging on the scene with radical reform ideas, Gorbachev
thought if he could tweak things here or there, economic success
would follow. He kept calling for reform and renewal of the
party, but on the other hand he revived Lenin''s slogan of "all
power to the soviets."
In November of 1988 the Supreme Soviet established a new
institution, the Congress of People''s Deputies (CPD) which in
turn was to elect a new U.S.S.R Supreme Soviet. In March of
1989 the first elections were held, over 80% of the candidates
were Communist Party members. But prominent radicals such as
Andrei Sakharov and Roy Medvedev were elected. This was a
watershed event. Boris Yeltsin (who had been appointed to the
Central Committee in July of 1985 and later that year was named
first party secretary of Moscow) won a land slide victory in
Moscow. Yeltsin had a popular base of support (remember,
Gorby didn''t have this) and Boris promised to free Moscow from
the ''mafia of bureaucrats.'' Gorbachev had failed to support
Yeltsin which led to the two falling out. Yeltsin was then elected
to the Supreme Soviet, giving him a national platform for the
first time, which he used to promote the Russian Federation and
to attack party privilege, the failings of perestroika, the need for
market-oriented reforms and Gorbachev himself. While Gorby
was elected head of state of the CPD, Yeltsin became a
counterweight and began to speak of forming a loose
confederation of independent states.
In 1990, Gorbachev was elected head of state by the CPD. In
June of ''90, Yeltsin''s Russian Republic declared that laws
passed by its legislature could override those of the Soviet
Union. Lithuania unilaterally declared its independence from the
Soviet Union. Gorbachev cracked down, refusing to give up the
primacy of the Communist Party. The crackdown on nationalist
movements led to the resignation of Edouard Shevardnadze, his
popular foreign minister. The West was beginning to see another
side of Gorby. The man who had real vision on the international
scene certainly was lacking in it domestically. In December of
''90, Shevardnadze gave an impassioned speech warning of a
return to dictatorship.
Yeltsin was now a liberal reformer and harbored grave doubts
that the Soviet Union would survive. When reactionary
Communists attempted to unseat Yeltsin as chairman of the
Russian Parliament, he received a show of support from several
hundred thousand Mosovites.
In January of 1991, Gorbachev approved an attempt to overthrow
the democratically elected government of Lithuania, the clumsy
plot failed miserably costing 13 lives. The next month Yeltsin
called for Gorby to resign in a nationally televised speech.
Gorby responded by ordering Soviet troops to surround the
Kremlin in a show of force against the more liberal Yeltsin.
By April, Gorbachev''s retrenchment had ended. He abandoned
his commitment to preserving the Soviet Union at all costs and
accepted the idea of autonomy for the republics. In June, Yeltsin
was elected President of the "Russian Federation." The
Communists now had little support. Gorby tried to hang on and
announced a new Communist Party platform, which eliminated
Marxism and Leninism in favor of "humane and democratic
socialism." He just didn''t get it. Then he went on vacation.
[Next Thursday, the attempted coup (parts are hilarious) and
Yeltsin''s shining moment].