The two men have shown little fondness for each other. But their lives have intertwined and their odd relationship has shaped the destiny of a declining superpower—and the world. It was Mikhail Gorbachev who made Boris Yeltsin possible. In his efforts to modernize the Soviet Union’s beleaguered economy, Gorbachev unleashed liberal forces that shook the foundations of society. Yeltsin was one of those forces. And the maverick Russian leader has strained at the limits of democratization, pressing the Soviet president towards ever more rapid change. But the old guard resisted, and when hard-liners staged a coup last week, it was Yeltsin who helped rescue his rival from the fires of conservative rage. As the flames subsided, it was the image of a besieged Yeltsin, standing on top of a tank and exhorting the nation to defend democracy, that seemed likely to endure. “The fantastic element in this whole putsch,” said Helmut Hubei, an analyst at the Bonn-based German Society for Foreign Policy, “is that the leaders didn’t understand their enemy was Yeltsin, not Gorbachev.”
Even as Gorbachev regained his position in the Kremlin, Western and Soviet analysts predicted that he will be a diminished leader—and that Yeltsin will emerge as the real power in the U.S.S.R. A meeting of the Russian parliament that Gorbachev attended last Friday dramatically underscored that view. Millions of TV viewers watched as raucous Russian deputies repeatedly interrupted the Soviet president’s 90-minute speech and thundered a standing ovation only once: when he praised Yeltsin’s role in facing down the coup-makers. Then, with Gorbachev still standing at the rostrum, Yeltsin brandished a piece of paper. “On a lighter note,” Yeltsin suggested, “shall we now sign a decree suspending the activities of the Russian Communist party?” Gorbachev stammered: “Boris Nikolayevich, Boris Nikolayevich. . . . Not all members of the Russian Communist party took part in the plot.” With a flourish, Yeltsin signed the decree anyway.
Hero: The next day, Gorbachev himself resigned as leader of the party, and may have recaptured the political momentum. It was another stunning act in six remarkable years as Soviet leader. In that time, he has abandoned Marxist-Leninist tenets, liberated the media and freed political prisoners. He also withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan and allowed Eastern Europe to escape the Kremlin’s control, almost single-handedly ending the Cold War. In the process, he became a hero in the West, winning the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.
But those achievements were a direct assault on the power and prestige of members of the Communist bureaucracy. And, claiming that he was hamstrung by hard-line opposition, Gorbachev took only tentative steps to reform the staggering Soviet economy. As a result, the Soviet standard of living—and with it Gorbachev’s popularity—went into free-fall. Late last week, Gorbachev dismissed the men behind the coup and appointed liberal Russian
Prime Minister Ivan Silayev to head a new government. Now, some analysts say, the Soviet leader has a chance to accelerate reforms rapidly. In Ottawa, Joan DeBardeleben, of Car letón University’s Institute of Soviet and East European Studies, said that although “the ball is in Yeltsin’s court,” Gorbachev “can play with him if he has the political courage to do it.” The two men, both 60, became acquainted about 15 years ago while serving as party functionaries in their native districts. Yeltsin, a six-foot, one-inch civil engineer who joined the Communist party when he was already 30, rose through the ranks of the local construction establishment to become party first secretary in the Siberian province of Sverdlovsk. He was, by his own account, a committed Communist—
but one with a rebellious nature. In his 1990 autobiography, Against the Grain, Yeltsin traces his clashes with authority to his childhood, when he was expelled from school for denouncing a teacher as sadistic. On another occasion, he lost his left thumb and a finger trying to dismantle a grenade he had stolen from a storage depot.
Gorbachev, by contrast, joined the Komsomol Communist youth organization in the southern Russian village of Privolnoye when he was 14. After law school at Moscow State University, he returned to his home region to lead the Komsomol in Stavropol. When he became first secretary, Gorbachev acted as custodian of the party’s luxurious spas in the area and frequently entertained senior officials from Moscow. Such powerful connections won him admittance to the ruling Central Committee in 1978.
Storm: Seven years later, at the age of 54, Gorbachev assumed the leadership of the £ Communist party. Hailed in g the Western media as the g golden hope of Soviet politics, he moved swiftly to consoli| date his position, replacing 9 some of the most extreme o hard-liners on the Politburo S and bringing scores of young t; Communists to the Kremlin.
One newcomer was the first secretary from Sverdlovsk:
Boris Yeltsin became Moscow city party chief.
Yeltsin took the capital by storm. He made frequent walking tours, visiting understocked grocery stores and poorly equipped hospitals. He used public transport instead of the Zil limousines reserved for senior party functionaries. And during his zealous and highly public campaign to rid the capital of corruption, he once boasted that he had dismissed 40 per cent of Moscow’s bureaucrats.
But Yeltsin’s brash populist style clearly irritated his colleagues, and he soon made an enemy of his sponsor. During his first year in power, Gorbachev talked only of uskoreniye, or acceleration—tinkering with the old command economy to make it more efficient. Many of the
newer members of his administration openly favored more ambitious plans. But Yeltsin was the most vocal. And even after Gorbachev committed himself to perestroika, or restructuring, the Moscow chief, speaking at a meeting of the Central Committee in October, 1987, harshly criticized him for the slow pace of change. In response, Gorbachev expelled Yeltsin from his Moscow post and exiled him to a job in the construction ministry. It was a severe personal blow. “Even now,” Yeltsin wrote in Against the Grain, “a rusty nail is still lodged in my heart.” After his demotion, he entered hospital because of what he called “a physical breakdown.” Yeltsin bounced back 16 months later. And although Gorbachev treated him with open disdain, it was the Soviet leader who made
Yeltsin’s political resurrection possible by calling for elections to the newly created Congress of People’s Deputies. His official pariah status earned Yeltsin the support of citizens in their first, limited opportunity to cast a ballot against the Communist system. He won 90 per cent of the vote in Moscow and a seat in the lower house of parliament.
The party tried to undermine Yeltsin’s popularity. The official media portrayed him as a buffoon. And in one instance, a storm of protest from readers led the Communist party daily
newspaper Pravda to apologize to Yeltsin for describing him as a bourbon-drinking knave during a September, 1989, American tour. He was not taken seriously abroad, either: President George Bush refused to receive him in the Oval Office, although they did have a brief, informal meeting down the hall in national security adviser Brent Scowcroft’s office.
Gorbachev also entered the battle. In March, 1990, on the eve of Russian parliamentary elections for the republican presidency, he described Yeltsin as an “anti-socialist” who wanted to break up the union. Yeltsin’s victory after a hard-fought three-ballot race underscored Gorbachev’s own inability to control the party. It also served to make the Siberian native even more radical. Each of Yeltsin’s
clashes with the Kremlin, said Carleton’s DeBardeleben, “reinforced the initial steps he took in 1987 when he distinguished himself among the reformers.” Now, she added, “he has virtually disavowed the old system.”
That same month, reformers took control of local governments in Moscow, Leningrad and other cities. Republican governments were becoming openly nationalistic. And the Congress of People’s Deputies installed Gorbachev in a new executive presidency, removing the party’s power to vote him out of office.
Those events intensified the struggle between hard-liners and radicals. At a dramatic party congress in July, 1990, nearly 5,000 delegates argued bitterly over the future of communism. On the 10th day, Yeltsin astonished them by announcing his resignation from the party. He walked abruptly out of the hall— and onto the centre stage of the increasingly powerful radical reform movement.
Gorbachev, meanwhile, clung to a narrow middle ground, leaning first to the right, then to the left, to appease each camp. Last fall, he appeared to embrace the old guard when he rejected a radical 500-day economic plan to transform the Soviet economy into a Westernstyle free market. He also took men who would engineer the coup against him, including VicePresident Gennady Yanayev, into his inner circle. In December, his longtime ally Eduard Shevardnadze abruptly resigned as foreign minister, warning that the country was sliding towards “dictatorship.” That statement had an eerie resonance in January, when Gorbachev refused to condemn the military assault on a TV transmitter in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, in which 14 people died.
Ally: Yeltsin, however, flew to the Baltics to express his solidarity with the republican governments. Relations between the two leaders sank to new depths in February, when Yeltsin accused Gorbachev of amassing “absolute personal power” and demanded his resignation.
In April, however, tensions eased between the two leaders. Gorbachev, apparently feeling that he had the hardliners under control—in retrospect, a miscalculation— leaned again towards reform. He talked about resurrecting a revised version of the 500day economic plan. He began seriously negotiating a new union treaty with nine republican leaders that would shift power from the centre to the republics. And Yeltsin, who won the Russian republic’s first direct presidential elections in June, called Gorbachev an “ally.”
The hard-liners did not see him that way: they launched their coup the day before the union treaty was to be signed. Yeltsin’s defiance in the face of imminent military attack certainly raised his political stock in the country—and abroad. Now, Gorbachev, relieved of the constrictions imposed by the discredited Communist party, will need all of his courage and flair to emerge from the shadow of the Siberian dynamo.
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