Politics – Modern Russian Essay

Mikhail Gorbachov and Boris Yeltsin are both remarkable men, and their respective essays are extensive, albeit biased versions of the transition, from the vaguely totalitarian yet all-encompassing Communist state, to the uniquely evolving, democratically reforming, inclusive style of Soviet governance. The two articles being considered by this paper offer truly first-hand accounts, of the somewhat turbulent and confusing series of events that lead to the creation of a new Soviet Parliament, the ‘Congress of People’s Deputies’. This unprecedented development in the Soviet Union would ultimately go on to have a catalytic effect on the demand for greater reform, and in fairness, the eventual break-up of the Soviet Union. This, however, is one of the benefits of hindsight, and one must bear in mind that at the time, the demise of Communism was not a realistic ambition of those who were pioneering for greater reform and openness.

Gorbachov had a favourable view of the proposed limited devolution of power, from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to the Congress of People’s Deputies (CPD), through what he termed “free elections”. This is apparent when he writes; “I had long felt the need for raising the curtain of secrecy separating the authorities and the people”. These reforms would, in his eyes, solve two key uncertainties facing the Soviet Union. First, it would satisfy a major need for bypassing the bureaucracy of the state; as well as traditional elements within the Communist party, laying the necessary groundwork for radical reform.

Also, it would sufficiently quell the growing demand for more openness and discussion, by providing a visual, stable forum for debate, which wouldn’t of-course dictate government policy or create legislation, but would do exactly what he and others had wanted all along, “to include the people in politics”. Gorbachov realised that a major sacrifice of power on the part of CPSU would be a necessary first-step in the reform process. In addition, Gorbachov knew that this would be a “painful” and possibly “lethal” process for many powerful figures within the party. He chose, therefore, to act slowly and discreetly, ultimately falling short of what was the required, to displace power from the party nomenklatura.

Unlike Gorbachov’s text, which is an extract from his memoirs published in 1995, Yeltsin’s synopsis was divulged initially in 1989 and updated in 1991, much sooner after the initial establishment of the CPD, and before the complete and total collapse of Communism in the USSR. The candidly detailed way in which Yeltsin talks about various events and interactions before and around the setting up of this new People’s Congress, indicates the overall freshness of his recollection, and adds credibility to his analysis. Following his ‘first life’ as a regular working guy, and his ‘second life’ as a political outcast, Yeltsin was set to begin what he termed his ‘third life’ as a deputy in the CPD. This is unusual language, and although purely symbolic, strengthens his appeal to the popular masses, on whom Yeltsin depended for support.

Yeltsin writes that he was fully aware that his “presence in the Congress would worry Gorbachov”, and that Gorbachov would want to know of his intentions. Roughly a week before the first sitting of the CPD, Gorbachov phoned Yeltsin to arrange a meeting; a meeting where Yeltsin went on to highlight his anxieties on the state of the country. The “bureaucrats were playing the same old game and not surrendering a scrap of power to the Congress of People’s Deputies”, and determined to ‘probe for Gorbachov’s position’, Yeltsin asked him if he was “with the people or with the system?” A system, Yeltsin claims, which would eventually bring the country to the brink of disaster. Gorbachov was “harsh” and “brusque” writes Yeltsin, and the “wall of incomprehension was growing thicker between {them}”.

Yeltsin criticises Gorbachov for turning the key but failing to apply the accelerator, emphasising Gorbachov’s wariness in effectively increasing the democratic mandate of the Congress. Gorbachov, on the other hand, tries to distance himself from the perceived image of him as a “party man” who “could not abandon his allegiance to the party”. He explains “my caution stemmed from my desire to avoid open mutiny, which could have defeated political reform, even before it had started”. This is all very well in retrospect, but one has to remember that Gorbachov was not as radical a reformer as he may have us believe. He continually talks about the need for greater reform and how he was constantly fighting critics within his party, and yet at the same time, admits his desire to lead both the CPSU and the country, clutching desperately to his hoard of personal power.

Gorbachov defends his and his parties’ recommendations to the Congress, arguing that “those candidates who deserved to sit in the CPD would not have stood a chance in an election, and hence, it was for the best that they were appointed in quotas”. These groups within the CPD, which would of-course therefore be ‘selected’ rather than ‘elected’, would ensure a ‘fair’ representation of the different groups that makeup the social strata, “sowing the seeds for multi-party politics in the future”.

Yeltsin does not immediately favour multiparty politics, citing Czechoslovakia, where although there was a multiparty system, there remained a Stalinist-Brezhnevite style of ultra socialism. Nonetheless, Gorbachov goes on to mention what he thought was quite a paradox, where although 85% of those elected to the CPD were Communist Party members, there was a deep routed sense of defeat and ‘failure was in the air’. Gorbachov states that this was to be expected, “as the Government was now becoming completely legitimate”, and traditionalists couldn’t see this. However, this begs the question, prior to perestroika and recent developments in favour of greater openness (glasnost), was the Government less legitimate? And of-course, one has to question the extent to which Gorbachov genuinely wants to see radical reform, with such reluctant steps toward democratic representation and a continuing reliance on the ‘wisdom’ of the politburo.

Yeltsin argues most emphatically that the Soviet regime was illegitimate and in decline. He states “we are the only country on Earth trying to enter the 21st century with an out-of-date 19th century ideology… the last inhabitants of a country defeated by socialism”. Nevertheless, Yeltsin also has praise for various actions taken by Gorbachov, such as the decision to broadcast the entire meeting of the CPD on national television. “Those 10 days were more informative to the people than the last 70 years” claims Yeltsin, “on the day that the Congress opened they were one sort of people, by the time the session had closed, they were different people” he goes on to say.

Yeltsin is a down-to-earth realist who understands the situation as it and as it should be, and thus, is repeatedly positive and upbeat about the slightest shift in openness or any break with tradition. He argues that “the most important thing that had been achieved by this point, was the awakening of the people from a state of lethargy”. Yeltsin, who wanted to see free elections to the Supreme Soviet, also wanted to join it, but this was systematically blocked. Alexei Kazannik, a deputy from Siberia who was elected to the Supreme Soviet, however, withdrew his candidacy in favour of Yeltsin. Gorbachov said that he “considered the election of Yeltsin to the Supreme Soviet to be useful”, although it’s not clear whether or not these were feelings of genuine camaraderie with his contemporary colleague, or a fear of social repercussions were Yeltsin not to have been elected.

Gorbachov continually echoes sentiments of ‘cautious modernisation’, and believes that the CPSU could reform, but at a careful and steady pace. He goes on to talk about the way in which the ‘elections’ should be treated, not as a threat to the status quo, but as a message of what the people want, and how to meet those needs. Additionally, and in retrospect, Gorbachov claims to have held the ‘administrative and party structures’ in contempt, for as he put it, “applying the brakes” far too often. The “election has shown for whom the bell tolls”, declares Gorbachov, with many of those in the upper echelons of the Communist Party now facing political uncertainty. However, the actions he took against the party and the justifications he offered for the actions he did not take, were insufficient to convince many of his critics, including Yeltsin, that he had truly discarded his old party loyalties. Yeltsin, for example, argues that “the situation cannot be saved by half measures and timid steps”. He goes on to say that the CPSU is a contradiction in terms with most of it’s members now “poles apart ideologically”, demonstrating his firm belief that the “party domination of the state had become a fading reality”.

Yeltsin’s text is more reactive than proactive, and his meticulous description of his role in setting up the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies, is yet more evidence of his self-congratulatory tone throughout the article. Considering that this piece was written whilst Yeltsin was still somewhat of a ‘revolutionary’ in Soviet politics, it’s useful to note that he tries to present himself as an upstanding, hardworking man of the people, who the electorate can relate to, and subsequently entrust with political power. Yeltsin is clever enough to manipulate the growing consensus of disillusionment with the Soviet system, and is eager to paint himself as the saviour of the Russian republic. He states that he wanted “stability in Russia, no great leap, just stability”, before going on to write about himself as the “legally elected leader of the legally elected parliament, of the largest Soviet republic”. Yeltsin, however, has every right to discuss the future of democracy and reform in the Soviet Union, speaking as if significant political power was imminent, whereas Gorbachov, with his repeated references to so-called grand designs on radical reforms within the Union, is largely self-contradictory.

On the one hand he talks about “Marxist dogma having been beaten into their heads” (conservatives within CPSU), and yet felt it “dishonourable, dishonest, and even criminal to defect to the ‘other camp’ at this point”. He would argue that the “days of party dictatorship were over!” all the while his orders and directives would be rather consistently fanning the flames of tension and instability. Gorbachov has a very fuzzy recollection of his role as Secretary of the CPSU and Chairman of the Congress of People’s Deputies, and the extent to which he may or may not have played a crucial part in the reformation of the Soviet Union.

The fundamental problem with his approach to modernisation, was that he was unwilling to relinquish or supply enough political power, to meet the demand of those who had already developed a taste for it. He opted instead for a half-baked approach, hoping that the implementation of the People’s Congress would be enough of a compromise, to quench the ‘Yeltsinite’ thirst for greater freedoms and socio-economic reform. The extract from Gorbachov’s memoirs is clear indication if any were needed that he is still fundamentally convinced of his political generosity, and that he was “unnecessarily” punished for not going far enough. Gorbachov’s attitude is that of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”, and he feels compelled to argue his case that Yeltsin, Afanasiev, Palm, Popov, Sakharov and others, that he’d termed the “radical democratic opposition”, were in the business of deliberately “expanding their fight and undermining the foundations of power”.

Overall, both articles offer sharply differing opinions on an extraordinarily crucial revision of the Soviet political system. The establishment of the Congress of People’s Deputies, and subsequently the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies, as well as Yeltsin’s repeated calls for greater economic, social, and political reforms, are carefully laid out in a structured, albeit mild mannered and sometimes overly broad text. Gorbachov, on the other hand, is immediately on the defensive, desperately trying to provide moral justification either to the reader, or on a more subconsciously personal level, to himself, not only for the series of reforms that the articles appear to address, but quite possibly in an attempt to justify his tenure in office as the last Soviet dictator.

Both authors appreciate this chance to converse with particular stakeholders in the company that is their lives. Yeltsin, as a political revolutionary, places particular emphasis on key issues fundamentally important to the Russian cause, hoping to gather greater momentum, for his genuinely radical pro-democracy agenda. Gorbachov, however, with little to prove in terms of political capability and without an electorate, or a people to try and win over, attempts rather flaccidly to salvage his reputation, and possibly justify winning the Nobel peace prize. He has the nerve to criticise Yeltsin and the democratic reformers for not providing Russia with a Constitutional Monarchy, but an Absolute one, all the time neglecting to elucidate where the Gorbachovian brand of totalitarian rule would fall, on this scale of hegemonic governance.


YELTSIN, B Extract from: – AGAINST THE GRAIN 1989 (c)

GORBACHOV, M Extract from: – MEMOIRS 1995 (c)


There is an appendix of notes; which were researched from the two articles initially.

“Quotes” are direct from either article; depending on which article is being considered.