Imagine wandering over the largest country on earth,

not in the train of a railroad, but in the train of

one of the most powerful and contradictory men on earth.  

Or all by yourself.


of RED SQUARE by GWENDOLYN STEWART c. 2013; All Rights Reserved

A  Clyde's T-shirt. In Red Square! I could not believe it. I had hauled myself all the way from Washington, D.C., to New York, New York to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Moscow, and who should be practically the first person I saw on the rainy cobblestones outside the Kremlin but a young man wearing a familiar green-and-white T-shirt marked "Clyde's" -- an eating-and-drinking establishment less than four short blocks from my apartment in Georgetown. Thrilled to be finally in Red Square, stretched out by the red-eye flight, barely making it to the center of Moscow before the last light fled, I was unable to contain myself. I gushed my excitement to the young man and his buddy, and then walked on.

When the two of them crossed my path in the Square a second time, not long thereafter, and seemed to want to continue, I was not sure what should come next.   I found myself repeating and elaborating on my earlier amazement at seeing something from home.   "A foreign friend gave it to me," said the young man.   Since he was not asking me for anything, nor saying all that much himself -- but not leaving either -- it seemed to fall to me to do the talking.   Clyde's, I told him and his friend, was very famous.

Suddenly, a militia officer came up and led the two of them away.

It was 1984.

George Orwell had made 1984 famous.   Or rather, notorious.   Andrei Amalrik had capitalized on that notoriety by writing a book asking, Will The Soviet Union Last Until 1984?   It was halfway through 1984, and I was making my first journey to the Soviet Union.   The first people I had talked to casually in the USSR had been hauled away, and I had seven weeks to go.

I had studied Russian language and history, and Soviet politics and economics, in college and graduate school, and I had already traveled to China and Poland, in 1981. Now I wanted to see the motherland of communism for myself. I was working as a photojournalist in Washington; I had carved out seven weeks between my assignments photographing the Democratic Convention in San Francisco in July and the IMF-World Bank Annual Meeting in Washington in September. Seven weeks to sample all the major regions of that one-sixth of the landmass of the planet:   fifteen locations -- the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, Kiev and Moscow and Leningrad, the Volga-Don region and Siberia and Central Asia -- with temperatures ranging from a high of 113 degrees Fahrenheit to a low of 40 degrees.   Officially, it was summer.

In seven weeks of wandering around on my own I was to be taken over and over again to be part of the scenery, assumed to be a local photographer working the central city tourist spots, or just someone useful to ask directions of. When I was heard to be not a native Russian speaker, the guesses as to my origin ranged widely. One of my favorites was being taken to be a "sportsmen" from the GDR -- an athlete from East Germany -- a tribute, I assumed, to my being almost six feet tall and strong.   What seemed not to be credible was that I could possibly be an American -- an American woman traveling alone over the face of the Soviet Union.   In 1984.

For 1984 was the last year of Ronald Reagan's first term, a time of a Cold War newly heated up, before Nancy Reagan helped convince him that peace made a more useful historical legacy. It was the summer of the Los Angeles Olympics and the Soviet tit-for-tat retaliatory boycott of those Olympics (we had devastated the Soviets by boycotting their 1980 Moscow Olympics after the invasion of Afghanistan). It was the summer of Ronald Reagan's "joke" in the warm-up to a Saturday radio address, a "joke" declaring "Russia" an outlaw nation and announcing that the bombs would fly in five minutes.

The very next year Mikhail Gorbachev had arrived to head the Kremlin; five years after that, in the summer of 1990, there was a sense that the Soviet Union was very much up for grabs, if not down for the count. Four thousand, six hundred eighty-three delegates to the Twenty-Eighth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were summoned to Moscow, to the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin, to help decide its fate. Boris Yeltsin made his move.

*   *   *   *

Photograph of the 
Approach to the Palace of Congresses, the Kremlin, Moscow, by Gwendolyn 
Stewart c. 2013; All Rights Reserved



IT WAS the Party's last hurrah. In the Soviet Union, even in the summer of 1990, there was no need to ask, "Which Party?" There was only one; only one that counted, anyway, and barely more than that at all. It was the Party's last hurrah, but almost no one in the Party could believe it. Four thousand, six hundred eighty-three delegates were summoned to Moscow. From eleven time zones and fifteen republics of the USSR they headed for the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin. Drawn by power and by perks, they came, they argued, they networked, they postured, they partied, they preened. They cheered some of their bosses; they jeered others. Sometimes they cheered and jeered the same person.

Four thousand, six hundred eighty-three delegates were called to the Twenty-Eighth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but only one walked out of the Congress, out of the Palace of Congresses, and out of the Party forever. That one was Boris Yeltsin. A handful of journalists were waiting in the foyer as he passed through, and I was one of them.


The long day was winding down into night, and the long Congress was winding down into the history books. It was July 12, 1990, the next-to-last day of a contentious two-week convocation of the leaders of the Soviet Union, the mighty and the small. It was evening outside and a bit dull inside the lobby of the great Palace of Congresses.

"Palace" very likely conjures up the wrong image. It is not Versailles; it is not the Hermitage, the former Winter Palace, in St. Petersburg. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., that "Kleenex Box on the Potomac," is more like it, another modernist construction built on government orders. The Palace of Congresses was the Soviets' chief public contribution to the Kremlin grounds, the last new edifice added on their watch to this ancient citadel. An ugly duckling -- no match at all for the ochre Italianate government buildings otherwise nestling within the Kremlin walls, to say nothing of the glory of the cathedrals, the buildings dedicated to God. And a threat to the rest of the Kremlin complex it was too. For in driving their five-story Palace fifteen meters underground, the builders had disturbed the foundations of the nearby older structures. A challenge it had been, to construct a grand gathering place for the People's representatives, to give a proper size and splendor to this chosen venue for the most authoritative meetings in the USSR, while keeping it from overshadowing its neighbors.

The Palace of Congresses lacks the Kennedy Center's dramatic setting on a hill above the Potomac. This is so even though the Kremlin also sits on a hill above a river, the Moskva or Moscow River. A much older invention, the Kremlin, unlike the Washington White House, is not one building, but a complex of buildings from different eras on a plot of land (sixty-nine acres of it) which is roughly a triangle, with a river side, a Red Square side and a city side proper. The Palace of Congresses is located on the city leg of the triangle, tucked behind the public entrance of the brick red Trinity Gate. Six days a week, then and now, the tourists, local and international, pour in through this gate, and for Swan Lake and New Year's celebrations and such the Palace itself (now rechristened the State Kremlin Palace) becomes a people's palace.

This plain box does at least have the saving grace of glass.  If it cannot match the glories of its more fortunate older neighbors, it has one virtue not found in the Kennedy Center. It reflects the beauty of the gems of the Kremlin ensemble, capturing something of the cream and gold marvels nearby -- the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, the Assumption Cathedral -- in its light blue panels, knitted together by light marble pylons. This, as I had discovered on my first trip to the Soviet Union in 1984, is best captured by approaching not from the street side, but from the opposite side, from Cathedral Square. From this direction trees lend a cool, quiet dignity to the largely pedestrian oasis of this heart of power.

It was Nikita Khrushchev who had opened the Kremlin grounds to the public. In Joseph Stalin's time, the Kremlin had been a Forbidden City. And it was Nikita Khrushchev who had pushed through the construction of the Palace of Congresses in time for the Twenty-Second Congress in October 1961. To this Congress the thirty-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev had gone for the first time as a delegate; by then he had already been a member of the Party for nine years. Boris Yeltsin did not go. He had barely joined the Party, finally, in 1961 -- the same year in which, as it happens, he had also turned thirty. As Gorbachev was climbing up the Party ladder in his home province of Stavropol, Yeltsin was climbing another kind of ladder in Sverdlovsk, his native province. He too was becoming a boss. But he was building housing blocks instead of organizing political activity.

The Twenty-Second Congress was the second anti-Stalinist Congress Khrushchev conducted, the one he used to sanction removing the old dictator's body from the Lenin Mausoleum. Mikhail Gorbachev was there, and inspired by the reform spirit of Khrushchev's time. Boris Yeltsin was not. It was Gorbachev who had the vision and the drive to attempt to remake the communist system. Without Gorbachev, Yeltsin would most likely have remained only a provincial leader in an unreformed superpower muddling through to the end of the century. But it is Yeltsin who dreamed of going Khrushchev one better and removing Lenin himself from the Mausoleum, and of laying him to rest where he wished to be, next to his mother in St. Petersburg.


That Thursday night in July 1990, seven Congresses and nearly three decades after the construction of the Palace of Congresses, the delegates were tucked away in its vast (six-thousand-seat) auditorium, and most of the journalists on duty were in the hall with them.   A few privileged Soviet correspondents strolled the long aisles of the auditorium; the foreigners and the rest of the Soviets with passes for the second half of the day perched up in the balcony, near the front, facing the dais from audience left.

Only a few of us kept vigil in the lobby, and a sprawling big multistory lobby it was; when it was empty it felt very empty. The walls and columns inside the Palace of Congresses were faced with marble and limestone "tufas" from around the Soviet Union, from Georgia, Armenia, Siberia, and the Urals. Pride of place in the foyer was given to the seals of the fifteen constituent republics of the USSR -- symbols of the fifteen republics that then but for not much longer comprised the Soviet Union. A hot topic of the summer was something called the Union Treaty. It was supposed to help bind the parts of the USSR together in a new cooperative relationship. Yet six of the fifteen had already declared themselves sovereign states, and three of the six had proclaimed their independence. Only on the lobby walls were they strung together in perpetuity.

My pool pass for the balcony having expired for the day, I was confined to the area outside the auditorium. I rode the escalator up and down to see who else was about, biding my time, knowing that the best opportunities for interviews and photographs came in bursts, during the breaks between sessions. Over several days at the Congress I had learned the drill. The old Soviet rules were gone. Even Communist Party bigwigs were fair game when they emerged from the hall.

CBS, I had discovered, was camped out in the foyer too. They had a TV monitor one flight up from the main entrance to the auditorium, and they were keeping watch on the proceedings. I drifted up to check out what was happening officially, and drifted back down in case any delegates ventured out betweentimes. And up again.

Suddenly a rush! Boris Yeltsin had unexpectedly interrupted the proceedings to ask to speak, and to the astonishment of the auditorium, had announced his resignation from the Party. As head of the Russian Republic, he said, he could not continue to be subjected to the directives of any party. The father of the country he was to be, above the fray, above any parties. I flew downstairs to station myself by the door to await his exit.


It had taken Yeltsin a month and a half after he had become "president" of Russia, or what was then known as the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), to fulfill his campaign pledge to resign from the Party if he did. So difficult was it for him to break this tie that he even had considered suspending his membership rather than giving it up altogether. Anguished days and sleepless nights preceded his decision. Being a president without a party has its penalties. He has done without the organization and the connections, even though periodically he suggested that a presidential party should be formed. His heart did not seem to be in it. The experience with the CPSU seems to have made "party" a bad word for many Russians.

Already since his ascension to the top post in the RSFSR on May 29, 1990, Yeltsin had been accused of being dictated to by Democratic Russia, the movement that had helped him win election to the RSFSR parliament in the first place. Yet he had announced his resignation from Democratic Russia two days after being elected head of the Supreme Soviet, and its members complained that Yeltsin did not consult them or offer patronage to the very people who helped get him elected. So for him to keep his CPSU membership even temporarily was anomalous. On the other hand, he did not lay claim to the leadership of the Russian Communist Party when he was elected Chair of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, even though Gorbachev had argued that Party and state functions could or should be combined at the local level, and he himself held both posts at the top level. Gorbachev was President of the USSR; Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin was "advising" him to give up one post or the other, and supposedly setting him an example by not going after the top job in the Russian Communist Party. Never mind that it was extremely doubtful that Yeltsin had any chance at winning that post, as conservative as that new outfit was turning out to be.

Meanwhile, he had a state to run, more or less, a fragment of the Soviet Union. Quite a fragment: three quarters of its landmass and half its population. But what was it, this Russia, this RSFSR? Never had it been meant to take seriously its constitutionally enshrined prerogatives. The Party ruled. Everyone else took orders. Nonetheless, two weeks after barely winning the top Russian post in a vote in the Congress of People's Deputies, he had coaxed a symbolically ringing Declaration of Sovereignty out of it. He was reaching out to the leaders of the other Soviet republics, even -- or especially -- those in revolt against the first Moscow, the Moscow of Mikhail Gorbachev. But their positions were, if anything, more precarious than his. No other republic had anywhere near the weight of Russia. To make his mark, should Yeltsin stand constantly in opposition? Or should he seek instead a direct collaboration with the Center, with Gorbachev -- where the power was?

He had waited to see what the CPSU would do at its Congress. It had, after all, been his party for almost three decades. This was perhaps the last chance to reform the system on something like a Union-wide basis, through the Party. The capture of the Russian Communist Party by Ivan Polozkov and the other conservatives on the eve of the CPSU Congress bode ill for such a possibility. "Neanderthal" was a label that the combination of Polozkov's physiognomy and anti-market rhetoric conjured up for Russians all too easily. The members of what was now "his" Russian Communist Party made up more than half of the membership of the all-Union Party, and the delegates to the just-completed Russian Party Congress were carried over directly as delegates to the Twenty-Eighth Congress itself. There was talk, some of it by Yeltsin, of the need to postpone this long-awaited, "extraordinary" (ahead-of-schedule) CPSU Congress, of putting it off until another, better day. Gorbachev kept his nerve, and opened the Congress on July 2nd, as planned.

Ten days later, with only one day left to go, Gorbachev could be forgiven for feeling self-congratulatory. For all the threatened revolts from right and left, he had held his Party together. He had managed to steer the Congress through to some sort of middle course. For Yeltsin it was not enough. He quit; now he would be president of all the citizens of Russia and not of only one party. As it was nearing its end, he decided that "there would be no renewal in the party."   So:

"When they began to nominate people for the Central Committee and my name appeared on the lists, I understood that the time had come to make a statement about my decision to withdraw from the CPSU. The atmosphere was extremely tense and two-thirds of the 5,000 people in the hall were feeling negative, but I did not respond to the "booing" because everything was very serious by now. I spoke after having thought everything over beforehand, but when I descended from the podium I felt that the eyes of the people in the hall were following me: Would I go back to my seat or leave? I left, and I think that put an end to it."

Although he had telegraphed his intentions during the election campaign, the Congress collectively was stunned by his announcement. After all, he had just been proposed for membership in its Central Committee. After all the fuss he had caused and the grief he had given them, the Party still wanted him. Or at least, Mikhail Gorbachev was willing to have him sit among the four hundred or so top rulers of the CPSU. The Politburo, the inner body, was a different matter. Membership in the Politburo was not on offer. But then the Politburo was no longer to be what it had been, either; it was losing its most favored position.

Quitting the CPSU was not a simple matter. One did not casually hand back one's Party card. For all his agonizing, Boris Yeltsin was willing to cut himself off from the mother lode of power and community in the Soviet Union. Not that he was the first Party member to do so -- 136,600 of the eighteen-plus million on the rolls of the CPSU had done so in 1989, and another 82,000 in the first three months of 1990, it was reported at the Congress. But he was certainly the first at his level. "Shame!" "Shame!" rang out in the auditorium as he departed.

Gorbachev, presiding over the Congress, had been the one to give Yeltsin the floor when Yeltsin had sought recognition to speak, and Gorbachev had had the dubious pleasure of sitting directly behind Yeltsin when his former lieutenant made his short but shocking farewell address. For all that he was master in this realm, Gorbachev seems to have been shaken by the news.

There he sat, bang in the center of the ruling dais. A mammoth multistory red head and shoulders of Lenin painted on gray accordion-fold drapes hovered behind him. His almost-peers, men who were comrades from the Politburo or leaders of the communist parties of the Soviet republics, spread out to his right and left on the dais. Behind them sat the supporting row of staff, and on the third of the three tiers, a daring if small array of telecommunications and computer equipment on a stray table. Gorbachev was used to the Palace of Congresses, and used to presiding in it. When he had invented the Congress of People's Deputies, the new super-parliament, it too, like the Party Congresses, was allotted these very same premises for its sessions. Mikhail Gorbachev conjured up these new gatherings, and Mikhail Gorbachev presided over them.

There he sat, lord of the realm twice over: President and General Secretary, General Secretary and President. And there, directly in front of him, at the wide podium, with his back to his President and his General Secretary, Boris Yeltsin revealed that he was jumping ship: "...I announce my departure from the CPSU," he said. They were nominating him to a ruling position in an organization he no longer wished to be a member of at all. Gorbachev grasped the nettle. He declared that it hardly made sense to enter Boris Yeltsin's nomination to the Central Committee, and he called on the Congress delegates to cancel his mandate to the Congress itself. Immediately. It would not even be necessary, he declared, for Yeltsin to have to go to his primary party organization (the old Party cell) to hand in his Party card.

In his memoirs, Gorbachev gives a cool account of his own reaction. When Yeltsin pulled this stunt he decided, he writes, "to treat this question as a routine matter...." He watched "Yeltsin's ostentatious exit from the conference hall. He walked slowly, probably thinking that the delegates would applaud and someone would follow him." No one did. One eyewitness describes Gorbachev as having sat "impassively" while Yeltsin spoke, and delivering his own remarks afterwards with "a wry smile." But as Yeltsin made his long walk out of the hall, another heard "a flushed and angry" Gorbachev snap "into a microphone he thought was dead: 'Can't you see how I feel? Leave me alone.'"


Doomed to be forever yoked together in history, they seemed to be. Gorbachev, the superior in rank, was twenty-nine days younger than Yeltsin, born March 2, 1931, in Privolnoye, in the Russian South; his rival, in Butka, Siberia, on February 1, 1931. Both were boys from the provinces, from what Russian sophisticates are pleased to call the glubinka, the sticks, and from the provincial countryside at that. Both had grown up to be provincial apparatchiks.

Gorbachev had made "President" first, and of the whole Soviet Union, too, in March 1990 -- not by direct popular election, but by a vote of the super-parliament, the all-Union Congress of People's Deputies, and with no one running against him. Yeltsin had followed him shortly as "President" of Russia, also through a vote in his parliament, with fierce competition. But he was campaigning for changes in the system, in favor of a direct popular vote for the top post in Russia, which was now his post. Gorbachev was in charge, the Reformer-in-Chief. But he balked, and chose not to go to the people; not now, not to risk his own position.

Once there had been no question of his popularity. Even at the Congress I had witnessed traces of the old magic. On July 4th Gorbachev had staged a walkabout outside the Palace of Congresses and been repaid with attention and admiration for having the Kremlin kept open for the first time during a Party Congress. Mingled correspondents and tourists -- including Russian tourists -- shoved and clamored and scrambled up my back as I struggled to hold my position close to Gorbachev, keep steady, and get a clear photograph. Gorbomania was supposed to be dead, at least in the USSR, by then; hard to believe in that crush.


Yeltsin had made his move. Steve Cohen and his CBS crew and I dashed to reach the foyer door before he marched out. Now Yeltsin strode directly by us, keeping his head up and looking neither right nor left, shunning all questions. ALONE. No entourage; no allies; no rivals for attention.

But he walked straight and upright. Score one point for posture. And for rectitude? In my family's book, standing straight and tall and standing proud were synonymous. Yeltsin was so often described as a giant, yet here he was, right in front of me, looking to be about 6'2". That meant he was just comfortably in my height class. On the lapel of his "trademark blue suit" was a red, blue, and gold enamel pin with its hammer and sickle and star proclaiming his status as a People's Deputy of the RSFSR. But he wore no Twenty-Eighth CPSU pin; no Lenin head anchored him in place.

That rich thatch of top-white hair had drawn my eye -- and my camera -- to Yeltsin when I was stationed up in the balcony and he was seated below me on the aisle, absorbed in conversation. Now that hair was tightly controlled. And so was his left hand, visible from my vantage point as he walked by, and caught in mid-swing in my photograph. His hand was a fist. But this was not aggression; this was a defense mechanism, ingrained to instinctiveness. The hand was curled to hide the missing thumb and forefinger, lost in a childhood accident. I had yet to learn the story. Nor did I yet know what photographs taken inside the hall would later reveal: In coming off the podium, Boris Yeltsin can be seen, face blanked, reaching into his shirt pocket, apparently putting away the text of his speech. His left arm is swinging free and the left hand open and claw-like. By the time Anatoly Khruchov catches up with him for his photograph, a number of rows farther up the aisle, the whole guarded look, complete with curled fist, has clicked into place, and Yeltsin actually pauses so that Khruchov can get his picture!


Outside a chauffeured car was waiting. "I have said everything I have to say inside," he announced as he slipped into the car. I had a morning pass and could not follow him all the way out the door. I could stay in the building all day, but would be denied re-entrance after the afternoon witching hour if I stepped outside the building. It was Martin Malia who brought the message back to me. Malia, Professor of Russian History at Cal-Berkeley, was soon to own up to being "Z," the famously anonymous author of a Daedalus article on the decay of the Soviet Union. For now he was not telling, but I already had had my suspicions. Once I had mentioned the article and the stir it had caused back at the Russian Research Center at Harvard, he had been bursting to know what people there thought. More importantly for the moment, hecould follow Yeltsin all the way out to the car.

Some "spontaneous" gesture, I thought. You do not just park anywhere you please on Kremlin territory. I was a typical American skeptic; I was underwhelmed.


In coming to cover the Congress, I had brought my opinion of Yeltsin with me from the States. While studying for a Ph.D. in Political Science at Harvard, I was back to taking photographs on assignment for Business Week, as I had for a number of years in Washington.

The USSR and China were my academic specialties. I knew about Boris Yeltsin. In the new Soviet politics he was the "populist," the one who railed against privileges and liked to drink. I was a skeptic, and I was not alone. The American reportage seemed to be almost universally negative. It was not until I got to Moscow that I had heard real praise of him for the first time. Yet strangely, even his partisans there, when pressed, seemed to gush a lot about his great advisers. It was the same ultimate fallback justification that was later to be made for supporting George W. Bush. Was that the best they could say for either man, that he had great advisers? Boris Yeltsin did, however, have an interesting history.

Dumped from the leadership in 1987, right after the celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution's seventieth anniversary, he had made a miraculous comeback a year and a half later. Gorbachev had decided that political reforms were necessary to clear out the human deadwood and make economic reforms possible. To finesse the bureaucratic opposition he was encountering, he determined to make his underlings more responsive to the public. They would have to run for their offices. The faux elections that the Soviet Union had boasted of for decades would now be genuinely competitive -- except that a small number of safe seats in the new parliament would be reserved for the most consequential leaders. Unsurprisingly, Gorbachev numbered himself among these "essential personnel."

Boris Yeltsin had snapped at the chance to make a new political career. Since the rules had allowed anyone to serve at two levels, national and "local," he had triumphantly taken his revenge twice over. First he won eighty-nine per cent of the vote for the #1 Moscow seat in the all-Union Congress of People's Deputies; then a year later he won eighty-four per cent of the vote back home in Sverdlovsk for a seat in the Russian Congress of People's Deputies. There, a month and a half before the Party Congress, he made his victory complete: by four votes on the third ballot he squeaked through to become Chair of the parliament of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. On June 12th he had coaxed the parliament to declare Russia's sovereignty. It was one month later to the day when he declared his own, by casting off the Party's claim on him.


Came the next break, and the foyer exploded. Reinforced by correspondents from the hall, we went flying about in search of prime candidates for feedback and photographs. Splashes of light and motion sparked the lobby and summoned us to the most popular subjects. The prize of prizes was Yegor Kuzmich Ligachev. A Siberian, like Yeltsin. Very demanding, like Yeltsin. White-haired, too, but short, and ten years older. And a teetotaler -- indeed, he was the father of the anti-alcohol campaign. Until Yeltsin had snatched away the limelight, the big story of the day had been Gorbachev's final victory over Ligachev.

In the beginning, Ligachev had been Gorbachev's right-hand man, the unofficial Second Secretary. He had become first Yeltsin's promoter and then his tormentor. As Gorbachev pushed forward with his reforms, Ligachev tried to put on the brakes, and Yeltsin moved to stake out the radical position on Gorbachev's other flank. Yeltsin and Ligachev had clashed; Yeltsin was ousted. Ligachev mounted an attack on Gorbachev behind the scenes, and lost. At the Congress he had tried to claw back by election the post of second-in-command that he had previously enjoyed at Gorbachev's sufferance; he ran against Gorbachev's own favored candidate, the Ukrainian Vladimir Ivashko. He had called for Gorbachev's resignation as General Secretary. And yet in perestroika Mark 1 Ligachev had suited Gorbachev and Yeltsin had suited Ligachev and Gorbachev.


Five years had evaporated since Mikhail Gorbachev had taken power in the USSR on March 11, 1985. The "young" Gorbachev: When he became General Secretary, his youth had been universally remarked upon, although having just turned fifty-four, he was three months older than Lenin was when he had died. But then Lenin did not succeed a string of ailing elders -- this "young" Gorbachev had been in a hurry to get his country moving again. In fact, "Acceleration!" and not perestroika, not glasnost', not democratization, had been his first watchword. The heart of his initial program came from his patron, the former KGB chief turned General Secretary Yury Andropov, who had died in office a little over a year before. Its emphasis on enhanced discipline and economic tightening up also resonated well with Yegor Ligachev, another of Andropov's proteges and a keystone of the team Gorbachev had inherited.

Gorbachev knew what he wanted, more$ less: more or less what he saw in the "West." And he knew what he did not want, the tired old system he had inherited. "We can't go on living like this" was the cry of his heart as well as the title of a popular movie of the day. He knew particularly that the Soviet Union had to play catch-up in what he called the "scientific-technological revolution." A Soviet Union in which computers and copiers had to be kept under lock and key and the abacus was everywhere was not a fit competitor. What he did not know, quite, was how to get from one to another. It was a daunting task, and still is.

While Sovietologists were guessing whether he had a plan or not, Gorbachev went about largely making it up as he was going along, as we now know. Yeltsin spent almost two and a half years in the center of the action, most of it as Moscow Party boss and Politburo candidate member. Chafing at Ligachev's interfering ways, demanding faster reform -- and a larger role for himself? -- Yeltsin had finally proffered his resignation, and been ejected from the Party leadership in disgrace. "Boris, you are wrong," Ligachev had gloated to Yeltsin just two years before at the Nineteenth Party Conference, in this same Palace of Congresses. It was the first shockingly public, televised elite confrontation. "Boris, You Are Right!" signs bloomed in the street.

Ligachev was trounced in the vote for deputy General Secretary, garnering only 776 votes to Ivashko's 3,109. Gorbachev would keep control of the Party with his man as Deputy General Secretary, while he concentrated on the presidency. And to complete his rout, Ligachev was not even to be allowed a seat on the Central Committee. But Yeltsin's stunt had given him one more chance for center stage; his opinion was wanted. "For me" to leave the Party, he said, "would be political suicide. For him it's a trifle ... a logical political conclusion.''

Ironically, in Ligachev the majority of the Congress delegates had had a leader very likely nearer their real preferences than Gorbachev. Some forty per cent of them were themselves Party apparatchiks. They were the very ones whom Gorbachev's reforms were threatening, and they had much to complain of besides in what had happened to the country as a whole. The Congress delegates started strong; they demanded an accounting from their leaders. They grilled the hardest those who had been Gorbachev's closest comrades-in-perestroika, Aleksandr Yakovlev and Eduard Shevardnadze. They cheered Ligachev rousingly, but when they had to mark their secret ballots, they voted against him. Gorbachev had not been coy about making it clear whom he wanted as his deputy General Secretary, and then besides, Ligachev was so old. Sixty-nine!


Editors far away in the States called the goings-on at the Twenty-Eighth Party Congress "political turmoil." As a veteran of several American political conventions and one other Communist Party congress (Poland, 1981), I felt quite at home.   Turmoil?   No more than in$ or the Republicans.   It was not Chicago in 1968.   Heated exchanges and passionate caring, yes.   Noise and buzz in the lobby during intermissions, yes.   Egalitarian too:   the rush, the crowding, the excitement embraced Soviet and non-Soviet alike.

The Congress seemed comfortably familiar, with familiar purposes -- with a twist, of course.   This gathering was not designed to nominate candidates for the top state leadership -- the Party already held the commanding heights, at least at the all-Union level. It was for the first (and as it turned out, last) time in modern history to elect its own top leadership, to insulate Gorbachev from Khrushchev's fate of ouster by Central Committee. It was also charged with approving the Party's program, as Democrats and Republicans endorse party platforms. The CPSU was supposed to be marching "Toward a Humane, Democratic Socialism."

As with conventions of Democrats and Republicans, the delegates preponderantly favored suits, leavened here with butterfly silk from Central Asia and the yellow- and khaki-shirted military contingent, a large chunk of which seemed to be concentrated in the balcony opposite the press. The reactionary Colonel-General, the radical reformist Colonel, and the sharp-faced agronomist from Moscow all held mini press conferences. The strapping tall chauffeur from Cossack Ukraine, flattered to be photographed, struck up a conversation. Was the chauffeur's boss also a delegate? I did not think to ask him at the time. Of women there were not a huge number. But classy -- a glance at the shoes visible beneath the stalls in the ladies' room told me the quality beat the Metro subway sampling I was used to observing.

For all the bustle in the foyer, in the main hall, order, in the main, prevailed. Vestiges of the old perfectly programmed performances of Party Congresses still lingered. No longer were all speeches choreographed in advance; but delegates lined up at the dozen microphones strategically placed around the hall and waited their turn to be recognized. Russians, I mused, stand in church and sit in their political conventions; Americans (generally speaking?) do the opposite. Or at least if they are delegates and have seats they seem to spend a lot of time on their feet in demonstrations, "spontaneous" or otherwise. Mix in journalists prowling the aisles, and the resultant crush means more intimacy with more strangers than anyone could wish. Absolutely staggering by contrast was the standing buffet in the Palace of Congresses; five thousand souls up the escalators, fed, and down again in a twenty minute pereryv. Some "intermission"!

There were no delegations from "fraternal" parties at this Party Congress. What with the fall of Eastern Europe, fraternal ruling parties were getting a bit thin on the ground. Better to have no invited delegations and avoid invidious comparisons. But this was an international event in sharply new ways. Six hundred thirty-some Soviet and foreign journalists were accredited to the Congress Press Center. That mark of whether an event was of really major importance, the presence of American network TV anchors, was achieved, with Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw competing to get their "exclusive" interviews with the Soviet leader. No huge media boxes, Soviet or American, chopped up the hall, however. The decision to open the entire plenary proceedings was taken only after some evident hesitation on the part of our minders. This is "not a world class event," a Soviet spinmeister protested at an early briefing, when demands were being made for a full broadcast. "You can say that again," I muttered to myself under my breath. But in the end, it was.


O n the eve of the Congress, Gorbachev was reaping the results of bringing public politics to life in the Soviet Union. Far from Leonid Brezhnev's peaceful "stagnation," Gorbachev's liberalization, in opening up the system, had given rise to street marches and parliamentary demarches and violent internecine warfare. Five years after the start of perestroika, the external empire was gone; much of the internal empire was in ferment, and some of it was in open revolt. There were protests in the streets, and protests in the mines. Shades of Solidarity! The Soviet miners, the proletarian elite, had astonishingly burst out in strikes the summer before; and they used July 11th to remind everyone of their powers with a one-day strike right in the middle of the Party Congress. From out of the miners' movement and within the Party came "firebrand" Teimuraz Avaliani to run against Gorbachev for General Secretary (to little avail; he lost, 3,411-501). Miners and street protesters alike were demanding the resignation of Gorbachev's Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who had announced price hikes a month before the Congress. Doloi KPSS! -- "Down with the CPSU!" demanded the demonstrators in the Manezh, the square on the street side of the Kremlin. "They expect Eastern Europe to be happening here already," grumbled the TV journalist, not seeing it. Meanwhile, Dale Carnegie and "beezness" books sprouted in sidewalk stalls.


Gorbachev now found himself in a constant juggling act. He was juggling the Balts. His elevation to the presidency of the USSR came just as the first declaration of independence was being proclaimed under him, by Lithuania. Washington took notice, and used Lithuania as a lever against Moscow. Gorbachev was juggling the various Russians, the various Russias: the Russia that had just elected Boris Yeltsin to head the state, and the Russia that had just elected Ivan Polozkov to head the Russian subsidiary of what was still the Party. Boris Yeltsin was cooperating with the Balts against the "Center," his Moscow against Gorbachev's Moscow. Gorbachev's Moscow had imposed a blockade on Lithuania; Yeltsin's Moscow would help Lithuania circumvent it. "Managing" Soviet politics was becoming very complicated.

The core of the Party-state had surrendered -- more or less -- its official, constitutionally enshrined, monopoly (the "leading role" of the infamous Article Six) only a few months before. Now the "radicals" were aiming for the next step, calling for "departization," or depoliticization. They sought to pry the Party out of workplaces, particularly those "workplaces" where its dominance made the Party's grasp on the state, and on the populace, most onerous and real -- the "power ministries." The ban on factions within the Party had not been lifted, so factions popped up under protective labels, notably the "Democratic Platform" and the "Marxist Platform." Still the numbers of the oppositionists seemed not that threatening. Although they claimed a much wider (silent?) following in the Party at large, a mere hundred or so of the Congress delegates could be counted for the Democratic Platform. Nonetheless, the specter of a split in the Party hovered.

The opposition was torn on political strategy. Was it really right to bolt? The Party was looking ripe for the kill -- or at least, for the spoils. It had long since lost its aura of sacredness, and now, its protective taboos. From being the unbreakable backbone of the entire Soviet structure, it was beginning to be seen as a prize that might be seized, with large properties to be claimed and divvied up.

The perestroika team was dissolving. The conscience of the country, Andrei Sakharov, had died in December 1989. Prime Minister Ryzhkov, whose ouster was being demanded at the Congress, lasted only another half year before Gorbachev did ease him out. Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev's Foreign Minister and long-time confidant, quit at the end of the year. Aleksandr Yakovlev, the father of perestroika, left the Presidential Council shortly before. Less than half a year after the triumph of ridding himself for good of Ligachev, the old hard-liner, Gorbachev was to invite a new crew of hard-liners into his government. They turned into the coup plotters of August 1991.


Two foreign visitors were due hot on the heels of the Congress: NATO's chief, Manfred Woerner, and Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Germany had an election coming. Kohl wanted his East Germany, and he wanted it in NATO too; it was to be the beginning of NATO's march eastward. "New Thinking's" reward to the Soviet Union had not been a peaceful neighborhood minding its own affairs.

Kohl wanted a unified Germany as his legacy. Gorbachev's attempts at economic reforms had now reduced the Soviet Union to sending urgent emissaries to plead for funds. The Bush administration was willing to supply the currency of words. NATO's London Declaration of July 6th that the Cold War was over was thought a master stroke to help Gorbachev. But it was followed immediately by the Houston G-7 summit in which George Bush refused the request for a substantial (twenty-billion-ish) assistance package. Bonn decided it would provide three billion dollars of credit on its own. As my seatmate on the press bus into the Kremlin, NBC's diplomatic correspondent John Dancy, succinctly put it to me, "They're buying East Germany." But would Gorbachev be able to sell the "bargain" to his own people?

The fall of Eastern Europe was not some abstract concept for the Kremlin, especially in the summer of 1990, eight months after the Berlin Wall had come down. It was fodder for Congress delegates berating the leadership for what it had already lost. "New Thinking" had freed the East European regimes to manage on their own, only to have them to wind up being overthrown. Yeltsin had used his big speech to the Congress the first week to warn the Party that the fate of the "fraternal" East European parties might be its fate, its leaders dragged from power and brought to trial. He had called for pluralism in the Party, in one last attempt to get his old Party to reform, to revitalize itself, and to take the symbolic leap to embrace Democratic Socialism in its name, as well as in its platform. He failed; he left.


In the short run, Boris Yeltsin's dramatic gesture hardly seemed to carry all before it. The newly elected mayors of Moscow and Leningrad, Gavriil Popov and Anatoly Sobchak, did announce their resignations from the Party -- in absentia, at a press conference of their representatives the day after Yeltsin's departure. The Democratic Platform, with which Yeltsin had been aligned, quarreled within itself whether to go or stay. When Yeltsin abandoned the effort for reform from within, he did not put himself at the head of an alternative party, but rather concentrated on building on the state structures at hand in the Russian Republic.

Boris Yeltsin had designed his resignation from the Party for maximum showmanship. At the risk of alienating his own parliament, he had decided to wave his declaration of independence right in the face of the leader of the Party he was discarding. But his farewell address included no direct, slashing criticism of that Party. He flamboyantly signaled his unique importance without insulting Gorbachev beyond forgiveness. Gorbachev responded to the gesture and the reality of Yeltsin's newly won position as head of Russia by inviting him in for their first long, substantive talk in many months. The two agreed to join forces. They put together a team to hammer out what came to be known as the 500 Days program, as Gorbachev moved to accommodate the restless Soviet republics in a new economic deal. Yeltsin left on a tour of his new domain, and I unexpectedly found myself observing him in action again. I was about to be educated -- to learn what Boris Yeltsin meant to Russians, from Russians.


Chapter Two: THE PEOPLE'S CHOICE: Yeltsin on Sakhalin

MOSCOW & the GULF WAR:   Excerpt from Chapter Three

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IN THE WORKS: A book based on the Harvard exhibit of a quarter-century of the photography of Gwendolyn Stewart entitled "HERE BE GIANTS."

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GWENDOLYN STEWART is both a photojournalist and a political scientist specializing in political leadership in Russia, China, and the U.S.   A former Bunting/Radcliffe Fellow, she is an Associate (and former Post-Doctoral Fellow) of the Davis Center for Russian Studies and Central Eurasian Studies at Harvard, as well as an Associate in Research of the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.   For the Fairbank Center she co-founded and co-chairs the China Current Events Workshop, a forum for examining pressing issues in Greater China.   Her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation (Sic Transit) dealt with the role of the leaders of the republics, especially Boris Yeltsin, in the breakup of the Soviet Union.












© Copyright 2013 Gwendolyn Stewart.   All rights reserved.