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

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

A DRAMA FOR TWO PLAYERS: THE GORBACHEV-YELTSIN CONFRONTATION, ACT I JUNE 1990

In this snapshot, Yeltsin moves clearly into the foreground, brilliantly en-
couraging and then riding a wave of Russian independence. Yeltsin clearly
magnified the differences between he and Gorbachev--the more solidly
Yeltsin placed himself on the left, the further Gorbachev was forced to move
to the right. This movement underscored something seen in several previous
snapshots: Gorbachev's troubling lack of political convictions.

When Gorbachev assumed the role of general secretary in March 1985, he dutifully followed the time-honored traditions of Moscow political theater. Those traditions dictated, among other things, that all the main events occur behind the scenes, that the script writer, the director, and the hero all be rolled into one star performer, and that the star never have to compete for the limelight. By all accounts, Gorbachev fulfilled his role as director and dramatist brilliantly.

As a director and headliner from the old school of political theater, Gorbachev tolerated no interruptions or scene stealing. When, just days before his death, Andrei Sakharov suggested eliminating the party's political monopoly, Gorbachev interrupted him, cut off his microphone, and called his suggestion naive. Similarly, Gorbachev impugned the good intentions of the Inter-Regional Group and accused them of being motivated only by their need for power.

Of course, Gorbachev has saved his most discourteous treatment of late for Boris Yeltsin, who, in the last year, has become Russia's rising star. Gorbachev's hatred of Yeltsin has caused him to slip out of character more than once to denigrate and humiliate his antagonist, including during his 1989 trip to the United States. In May 1990, in two appearances before the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, Gorbachev accused Yeltsin of various failings, and worked to secure his defeat. In the end, it is likely that Gorbachev's attacks actually helped Yeltsin, who went on to be elected chairman of the Russian Parliament on May 29.

It would be nearly impossible to exaggerate the significance of Yeltsin's election, since it heralds the end of the old Moscow political theater and its main characters: the combination director-script writer-hero, and those in the audience hired to applaud the action onstage.

____________________
This article originally appeared as Will Yeltsin Upstage Gorby in their Political Drama? in Newsday on June 29, 1990.

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