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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.

chief of staff, saw the general secretary's face go purple with rage. The suggestion that the he aspired to greatness through a cult of personality had hit a nerve.

“Perhaps it might be better if I took over the chair,” said Gorbachev. “Yes, please do, Mikhail Sergeyevich,” said Ligachev hastily.

Gorbachev coldly summed up Yeltsin’s speech and suggested that their comrade was seeking to split off the Moscow party organization from the party as a whole. When Yeltsin tried to interject, Gorbachev told him brusquely to sit down and called for comments from the floor.

This was the signal for a sustained assault. Sycophants and toadies, some of them victims of Yeltsin’s purges in Moscow, took the microphone one after another to berate the heretic. Gorbachev watched his nemesis as the hammer blows descended. He reflected how Yeltsin himself had put people down meanly, painfully, often undeservedly. Now he read on Yeltsin’s face a strange mixture of “bitterness, uncertainty, regret, in other words everything that is characteristic of an unbalanced nature.”

Some comments Yeltsin found especially hurtful. His one-time mentor in Sverdlovsk, Yakov Ryabov, who was then Soviet ambassador to France, doused him in what he later described as a bucketful of filth. The insults would have been part of the rough and tumble in some Western parliaments, but they were damning in the context of a Central Committee plenum of the tightly disciplined Communist Party in 1987. Even the most progressive Politburo members, Eduard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev, rallied behind Gorbachev and spoke against the dissenter, something he found especially painful. Some denunciations were predictable. Viktor Chebrikov, head of the KGB, berated him for blabbing to foreign journalists. He was dismissed by others as clueless, someone who distorted reality, suffered delusions of grandeur, and was guilty of political nihilism. A few speakers unwittingly proved his point about Gorbachev’s cult of personality. “As to the glorification of Mikhail Sergeyevich, I for one respect him with all my soul both as a man and as a party leader,” declared regional secretary Leonid Borodin, with no trace of irony.

Twenty-seven speakers spent a total of four hours beating up on their quarry before Gorbachev brought the vilification to an end. Yeltsin meekly asked for the floor again. As had happened before, he was utterly overwhelmed. All his bravado had evaporated. He tried to be conciliatory. He never had any doubts about perestroika, he stammered. He agreed with much of what had been said about him. He had only two or three comrades in mind who went overboard with praise for the general secretary.

Gorbachev cut in. “Boris Nikolayevich, are you so politically illiterate that we must organize an ABC of politics for you here?” “No, there is no need any more,” he replied. Gorbachev twisted the knife. He accused his challenger of being “so vain and so arrogant” that he put his personal pride above the party and of having a puerile need to see the country revolve around his persona. And at such a critical stage of perestroika!

When Gorbachev had finished, Yeltsin mumbled, “In speaking out today, and letting down the Central Committee and the Moscow city organization, I made a mistake.”

Unexpectedly Gorbachev offered Yeltsin a chance to undo the damage. “Do you have enough strength to carry on with your job?” he asked. “I can only repeat what I said,” replied Yeltsin, to catcalls. “I still request that I be released.” Gorbachev proposed that he be censured for his politically incorrect tirade. The motion was passed unanimously. Even Yeltsin voted in favor. A few days later he wrote a letter to the general secretary expressing his wish to continue in the job as Moscow party chief. Chernyaev cautioned his boss: “The stakes are high. The supporters of perestroika among the so-called general public are on Yeltsin’s side.” But Gorbachev called his critic on the telephone to say bluntly, “Nyet!”

News of a rupture in the Politburo soon began to leak. Rumors about Yeltsin’s “secret speech” at the Central Committee spread throughout Moscow. Fabricated versions began appearing. One was concocted by his editor friend Mikhail Poltoranin. In this version Yeltsin complained that he had to take instructions from Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, though he had said no such thing.