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The XXI century will be a сentury either of total all-embracing crisis or of moral and spiritual healing that will reinvigorate humankind. It is my conviction that all of us - all reasonable political leaders, all spiritual and ideological movements, all  faiths - must help in this transition to a triumph of humanism and justice, in making the XXI century a century of a new human renaissance.

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23 December 2011

William Taubman. The Impact of Individual Leaders on Perestroika: What if Gorbachev and Yeltsin had Cooperated to the End?

Photo by Dmitry BelanovskyA Talk at an International Conference on  “The USSR 1989-1991: Historical Experience and Lesson for the Future”  Gorbachev Foundation, Moscow November 10, 2011

This portion of the conference has to do with “political reforms.” Among the questions the panel is asked to address are: Was political reform inevitable in the mid-1980’s? What were the alternatives to Perestroika? To answer these questions, we are asked to assess “instruments of democratization” such as “glasnost, elections, enhancing the involvement of civil society, and to consider “various social-political forces” such as the CPSU, the intelligentsia, civil rights champions and dissidents, and other social strata including the working class and national movements in the union republics.

Not only are all these instruments and forces important, but others could be added to them: authoritarian political culture as shaped by Russian and Soviet history, Marxist-Leninist ideology as inherited by Mikhail Gorbachev and almost entirely revised by him, and external circumstances, especially the role of the West in at first doubting Perestroika, then supporting it, and at the very end, failing to do so, as well as the situation in Eastern Europe where Communism was crumbling.

The reason I mention this long list of forces influencing the fate of Perestroika is that the list is not long enough. As a biographer (of Khrushchev and now, Gorbachev), I’m naturally drawn to influence of individual leaders—what they do and why, and with what results. Especially when individual leaders have extraordinary power and when what they do with that power seems unique, i.e., not what others would do in their place. For in such cases, not only are leaders likely to have a great impact on events, but that impact is likely to be uniquely theirs.

The Perestroika years were clearly a time when one such leader had an enormous impact. As CPSU General Secretary, Gorbachev had almost unparalleled power, at least for a while. And what he did with that power was unique. He was not the only member of the Politburo who wanted to revivify the Soviet system in 1985, but he wanted far more reform than most of his colleagues did: Perestroika, glasnost, real democratization, new thinking. To be sure, a few other Kremlin leaders joined Gorbachev in pushing for far-reaching change—Aleksandr Yakovlev, Eduard Shevardnadze, Vadim Medvedev—but the only reason they were in a position to do so was that Gorbachev kept them in the Politburo (Shevardnadze) or put them there (Yakovlev and Medvedev) in the first place.

I am not going to devote the rest of my remarks to what Gorbachev did and didn’t do with his great power and unique approach. Rather, I want to ask whether there was any other leader whose power and character shaped the outcome of Perestroika’s last years.

There answer is that there was: Boris Yeltsin. Whereas Gorbachev began and sustained Perestroika in an effort to save the Soviet Union, Yeltsin tried to move far beyond Perestroika and in the process destroyed the USSR, or what was left of it at the end of 1991.

Having identified these two powerful and unique individuals and their impact, I can imagine some objecting, “Yes, of course, but in the end all the impersonal forces you’ve listed overwhelmed them both, sweeping Gorbachev aside and sweeping Yeltsin to victory.”

But is that really so? To test the proposition, I would like to ask us to discuss a “counter-factual” question, that is, one that asks us to imagine a path that history did not take: What if Gorbachev and Yeltsin had cooperated to the end? But that would have been impossible, you will say. Perhaps, I would reply, but not necessarily. After all, they initially shared a determination to reform the Soviet system, they had many of the same conservative enemies, and their very differences in some ways complemented each other. Gorbachev was cautious and calculating, Yeltsin an impulsive risk-taker.

Gorbachev worked at being or seeming even-tempered; Yeltsin either loved or hated you, and it showed. Gorbachev was instinctively democratic, Yeltsin an authoritarian populist. Gorbachev was highly educated in the humanities and married a philosopher; Yeltsin, trained in construction, married an engineer. Gorbachev was smooth, Yeltsin rough; Gorbachev, a persuader; Yeltsin a brawler.

My point (to repeat: this is counter-factual) isn’t how and why a Gorbachev-Yeltsin alliance didn’t work out. The point is to ask whether, if it had, all the other forces would look so strong and overwhelming. Some observers go so far as to argue that those forces doomed Perestroika, or to put it another way, that Soviet Communism wasn’t reformable, that its fate was either to remain as it was or to collapse. What I’ve tried to do in my short remarks is to provoke discussion by asking what might have occurred if Gorbachev and Yeltsin had worked together, Gorbachev taming the conservatives, Yeltsin leading the radicals, to the end.




The eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, he was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991. 10 August 2021
This article has been publushed in Russian in Rossiya v globalnoy politike journal, #3. 2021. 11 June 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden will meet in Geneva on June 16. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told Interfax special correspondent Vyacheslav Terekhov in an interview that the main task the two presidents will have to address is restoring strategic stability. 1 June 2021

Gorbachev in the news media