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

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

GORBACHEV'S GORDIAN KNOT NOVEMBER 1990

The illusory, mercurial nature of Soviet affairs is perfectly rendered in this
snapshot: Things are not what they seem, they change overnight, and even
the changes are not what they seem. The weak, indecisive leader seen in
earlier snapshots has disappeared, and has been replaced by a man of action.
As previous snapshots have shown, however, Gorbachev is unlikely to main-
tain any image for long.

Mikhail Gorbachev's speech at the November 16 meeting of the Supreme Soviet, as well as the developments that followed, suggest that he faces a seemingly impossible task: He must untie the Gordian knot of seventy years of Soviet rule before one of his opponents unties it, and before it unravels of its own accord. The events of the meeting, and the behavior of the deputies and of Gorbachev himself, provide the strongest evidence to date that the Soviet Gordian knot, to which Gorbachev himself has added several twists, is growing increasingly complex.

Most predictions regarding the manner and timing of the unravelling of the Soviet Gordian knot have proven inaccurate, largely because such predictions have underestimated Gorbachev's strength, as well as his ability to control the KGB and the army. As it turns out, Gorbachev himself has initiated a radical shift in the methods used to loosen the knot's grip on Soviet life.

During the November 16 meeting of the Supreme Soviet, Gorbachev was interrupted several times by catcalls and arguments from the hall, and he repeatedly begged the delegates to let him continue his reflections on the situation in the Soviet Union. His comments failed to coax any solid applause from his audience, and when the chairman of the Supreme Soviet attempted to calm the audience, Gorbachev stopped him, saying that a speaker should either welcome the comments of the audience or abandon the podium. These were wrenching moments for a Nobel prize-winning leader recently acclaimed throughout Europe's capitals. Although Soviet TV tried to spare Gorbachev by hiding the delegates' most hostile reactions, Soviet viewers still saw several demonstrations of the delegates' contempt.

The delegates, as well as many of the Soviet people, seem to have forgotten (or would like to forget) what Gorbachev did for their country. They ignore the fact that Gorbachev, who enjoyed unrestrained power in 1985, could easily have remained the country's undisputed leader for at least a decade. Yet, instead of opting for tenure, he chose to take risks and challenge the bureaucracy. In doing so, he introduced previously unknown elements of

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