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

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

THE CONTINUING DUEL BETWEEN TWO SOVIET LEADERS APRIL 1991

This snapshot captures the desperate and paradoxical position that Gorbachev
faced vis-à-vis Yeltsin. As an unpopular leader in a decaying country, Gor-
bachev was under constant pressure from Yeltsin to defend himself and his
regime. Unfortunately, this pressure led him to take actions that merely
highlighted his weaknesses. The more he fought, the more precarious his
position became. He could win only by giving up--something he seemed
unprepared to do.

The duel between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, which began to heat up considerably on February 9, will go down in political science textbooks as a remarkable example of a major miscalculation by a world leader. Despite having championed the democratization of Soviet society, Gorbachev failed to understand that public opinion would eventually become a powerful political force in the Soviet Union. Moreover, he failed to understand, much less predict, shifts in public opinion--a failure that his archrival, Yeltsin, managed to avoid, despite their similar party backgrounds.

The Gorbachev-Yeltsin duel has been replete with intrigue and deception worthy of the notorious Borgias. In a February 19 television interview, Yeltsin demanded Gorbachev's resignation. Yeltsin's demand, which made him the first politician to openly repeat cries previously heard only at meetings of radicals in Moscow and other cities, triggered a remarkable chain of events.

By all accounts, Gorbachev and his new advisors, who had replaced the liberals in his milieu, decided that Yeltsin, by demanding an action that would certainly destabilize the country, had made a terrible mistake that they could immediately exploit. Gorbachev's lieutenants successfully organized a rebellious group of leaders from within the Russian parliament-- Yeltsin's stronghold--who were willing to denounce Yeltsin and publicly support the insinuations Gorbachev had been heaping on Yeltsin for years.

Svetlana Goriacheva, a temperamental Yeltsin deputy and a fixture at the podium of the Russian parliament, was instructed to ask for the podium at the parliament's February 21 meeting. Once there, she told her flabbergasted colleagues that Yeltsin was nothing more than an unrepentant political adventurist who, in the service of his insatiable ambitions, was prepared to support nationalism in every republic, destroy the Soviet Union, ruin the Soviet economy, and abolish elementary order.

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