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

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

THE DIFFICULT DECISIONS OF PRESIDENT GORBACHEV AND KING JOHN: ENGLAND, 1215 REVISITED MAY 1991

This snapshot finds Gorbachev following in the centuries-old footsteps of
another weak, indecisive leader. Gorbachev's failure to move swiftly and
firmly to meet the needs of the republics forced them to demand action and
place Gorbachev on the defensive--hardly a position from which to rule
an empire.

On April 23, Mikhail Gorbachev met secretly in Novo-Ogarevo, on the outskirts of Moscow, with the presidents of nine national republics. The circumstances of this meeting were remarkably similar to those of various secret meetings between British heads of state in the Middle Ages. Although most of the latter meetings were little more than insignificant interludes between feudal wars, some of them changed the course of history. One such meeting was that held in Runnymede, England on June 15, 1215, between King John and twenty-five English barons. That meeting produced the Magna Carta.

The Runnymede and Novo-Ogarevo conclaves had similar roots: The English barons and the Soviet republican presidents challenged their respective supreme leaders and demanded that they be heard. In neither case, however, did the challengers constitute a homogeneous group. Although the English barons were all Christians and differed little in their political views, three subgroups existed, each wielding a different level of power based on personal relations, marital bonds, and geographic location.

The republican presidents were even more diverse (although less so than would have been the case had all fifteen republican presidents been present). The nine presidents in attendance were divided into two socio-religious groups--Slavs with Orthodox religious roots and Muslims with Islamic roots. The presidents also sported diverse political orientations. Boris Yeltsin, for example, is a champion of democracy whose activities are controlled by the Russian parliament, whereas Islam Karimov reigns Uzbekistan with an iron hand and permits little opposition in his republic.

Neither the barons nor the republican presidents respected their sovereign. The barons regarded their king, who had lost several wars, as a weakling, unable to prevent the loss of the Angevin empire (which included Normandy, and several other regions on the continent). His reputation paled beside that of his brother, Richard the Lionhearted--a valiant and successful warrior, and a symbol of patrician honesty. King John, by contrast, was considered

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