From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty-six

Finale of the USSR, Gorbachev’s leaves the stage

Diary notes, 25 December 1991

Wednesday,  25 December – a completely lazy day. The news of the day is Gorbachev’s resignation speech and U.S. recognition of the successor states to the USSR, – Russia, Byelorus, Ukraine, Armenia, Kyrghizia. This is a watershed in history. For the first time in 70 years the red flag is lowered in the Kremlin and the tricolor flag of Russia is raised in its place.

I have been a most admiring fan of Gorbachev for most of the past 7 years of his rule. He is clearly a giant intellectually and in political gifts. He succeeded in moving the Soviet Union into radical reform without violence and catastrophe thus far.  Yet he was also a victim of his own successes and eventually made himself irrelevant. He opened the political process to new forces which rightfully moved onto the stage and displaced him. He put too much emphasis on retaining the structures and personnel of the past, hoping to make the Communist Party into an obedient tool of his reforms. Instead he nearly became the victim of the Right, whose powers he, like most everyone else, overestimated.

The death knell for Gorbachev’s years sounded  during the August 21-23, 1991 coup d’etat. The loud mouth and unorganized democratic opposition , Yeltsin, Sobchak, Popov, who had over the preceding years shown only their unpreparedness to administer and run things, now in a pinch showed their civic courage and saved Gorbachev’s freedom from the henchmen of totalitarianism: Yaneev, Pavlov, etc. whom Gorbachev himself had put in power ostensibly to forestall such a right wing reaction, but also as continuation of his balancing act between right and left to maintain his own relevance and indispensability.

Gorbachev, saved by the Liberals, now became their hostage. Like a sparrow that has been rescued by humans, he was healed but lost his ability to fly. It was only a question of time before the dual power, the contest between him and Yeltsin would be solved once and for all. And so it should: continued dualism would only invite further putsch attempts.

Yes, I agree with those who find the gentleman Gorbachev a far more calming, reassuring leader than the ruffian Yeltsin, who seems to talk from the corner of his mouth and to snarl. But this is the man who saved Russia, who scrapped the Communist Party and he’s the one to implement economic reforms about which Gorbachev could only talk in a dilettantish way. Yeltsin, like Walesa, is the first leader to have an electoral and popular mandate to carry through reforms that everyone knows will cause much suffering on the already miserably poor and unhappy population. The price de-regulation comes on January 2nd; let’s hope Yeltsin can stick with the Polish radical reform and not fall back on the populist, interventionist economic policies that were formerly ascribed to him.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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