The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

GORBACHEV'S PYRRHIC VICTORY OCTOBER 1988

Although this snapshot focuses on the same events examined in the last one,
it takes a slightly different perspective. This perspective, already seen in
previous snapshots, suggests that Gorbachev may not have been the stalwart
defender of liberal democracy that he presented to the world. As in the last
snapshot, however, no matter what the "truth" was, it was clearly different
than what most Western analysts suggested.

Gorbachev's Western admirers are quite excited about his latest achievements: the acquisition of a new title--the president of the USSR--and the ousting of some of the old Brezhnevian guard from the Politburo. Many of Gorbachev's Soviet supporters, however, are quite dismayed. They see the recent developments in Moscow as extremely complicated and frightening. The origin of this difference of opinion lies in the refusal of the Soviets to accept a premise that Westerners take for granted: That the visible strengthening of Gorbachev's personal power bodes well for both glasnost and perestroika.

Until recently, Gorbachev's authority in the USSR has been based on the belief that he is a man of principles, and one truly dedicated to his cause. Doubts about Gorbachev's character, however, began to surface after he betrayed Boris Yeltsin, his most devoted lieutenant. More recently, Gorbachev's actions at this summer's party conference reinforced the suspicions of those beginning to question his intentions.

At the summer conference, Gorbachev joined a pack of party functionaries in their attacks against the Soviet press--his main ally for reform. In addition, Gorbachev proposed the consolidation of the positions of first secretary and chairman of the local government--a move that swelled the cynics' ranks.

Several of the skeptical delegates, lead by Roald Sagdeev, a famous physicist, strongly opposed Gorbachev's plan, which clearly contradicted his earlier pledge to separate the party and the state. The delegates did not, however, dare to say outright that Gorbachev seemed more preoccupied with expanding his personal power than with his stated goal of democratizing Soviet society. Gorbachev's actions clearly increased the number of those who believe that his desire to preserve his personal power drives him toward dangerous opportunism and concessions to conservative ideologues.

Late in September, the entire Soviet populace witnessed a level of governmental deceit not seen since the worst days of the Stalin era. Only months before, Gorbachev had praised the party conference, with its spirited, genuine debates, as an example of democracy and as a model for imitation. In

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