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"Moscow, December 25, 1991": A bucketful of filth

Excerpts from GlobalPost Correspondent Conor O'Clery's new book on the last day of the Soviet Union.

Boris yeltsin speechEnlarge
Russian President Boris Yeltsin addresses the deputies at the People's Congress in Moscow, as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (left) listens in the background, on Sept. 3, 1991. (Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the second excerpt from Conor O'Clery's new book, "Moscow, December 25, 1991: The last day of the Soviet Union." The first part introduces the enormity of what two leaders accomplished that day. The third part explains how Yeltsin began the climb to leadership of Russia, from where he was able to bring down Gorbachev.

The three hundred members of the Central Committee converged on a raindrenched Kremlin early on Oct. 21, 1987 without any sense that a blowup was imminent. They stepped out of their Zils and Chaikas and hurried into the e18th-century Senate Building. Here, in rows of ornate chairs beneath the stony gaze of 18 prerevolutionary poets portrayed in bas-relief among the white Corinthian columns and pilasters high above, they awaited the single item on the agenda: General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev reading his prepared speech. The 14 Politburo members sat in a line behind a desk on a raised podium, facing the assembly.

Yeltsin took his place in the front row along with the half dozen other Politburo candidate members and various senior party officials. The meeting was closed to the media. By convention the advance speeches of the general secretary would be approved by acclamation, and everyone would retire to enjoy a pleasant lunch.

Yegor Ligachev, the member of the Politburo who had recommended Yeltsin be brought to Moscow, presided. He called on Gorbachev to speak. The general secretary outlined his presentation. After 30 minutes he finished, and Ligachev asked, “If there are no questions . . . ?” Yeltsin hesitantly raised his hand, then took it down, as if he were of two minds. Gorbachev pointed him out to Ligachev, who asked if members wanted to open debate on the speech. There were cries of “No!” Slowly the big man from Sverdlovsk stood up, his intuition to speak out winning out over the pressure to conform. Ligachev signaled to him to sit down. But Gorbachev intervened. He would give Yeltsin enough rope to hang himself. “I believe Boris Nikolayevich wishes to say something,” he remarked icily.

Yeltsin seemed nervous and ill prepared. He spoke for about seven minutes in a disjointed fashion, using notes jotted hastily on his voting card. Nevertheless, the thrust of his argument was clear. The promise of perestroika was raising unrealistic expectations that could give rise to disenchantment and bitterness. He was deeply troubled by “a noticeable increase in what I can only call adulation of the general secretary by certain full members of the Politburo. I regard this as impermissible ... . This tendency to adulation is absolutely unacceptable ... . A taste for adulation, which can gradually become the norm again, can become a cult of personality. We cannot permit this.” Besides, the opposition to him from Comrade Ligachev was such that he must resign from the Politburo, he said. As for his leadership of the Moscow Communist Party, “that of course will be decided by a plenum of the city committee of that party.”

This was sensational. Besides the fact that no one ever quit the Politburo, no one in the party had ever had the audacity to address a leader in such a manner in front of the Central Committee since Leon Trotsky in the 1920s. In the opinion of Anatoly Chernyaev, a senior advisor to Gorbachev, “Such a brazen attack on the holiest of holies — on the Central Committee secretariat, on the number two person in the party, and on the general secretary himself — was truly scandalous.” Yeltsin rationalized later that, “Something had to be changed in that putrid system.” The general secretary had reverted to being equivalent to the tsar, father of the people, and to express the slightest doubt about his actions was an unthinkable act of sacrilege. “One could express only awestruck admiration ... or delight at being so fortunate as to be able to work alongside him.”

There was a stunned silence as Yeltsin sat down, his heart pounding, “ready to burst out of my ribcage.” He knew what would happen next. “I would be slaughtered in an organized, methodical manner, and it would be done almost with pleasure and enjoyment.” It is doubtful, however, that he was ready for it.

Valery Boldin, Gorbachev's