Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

My First Day on the Job

March 11, 1985

Most important things in my life happened in March: I was born in March. I joined the Communist Party in March. It was in March 1990 that I was elected President of the U.S.S.R. And it was in March 1985 that the Politburo nominated me General Secretary of the Communist Party.

An urgent phone call had reached me the evening before. I recall it was Sunday, because on a weekday I would never have been home earlier than 10 p.m. The caller told me that Konstantin Chernenko, the General Secretary of the party and leader of the Soviet Union, was dead.

His predecessor and my mentor, Yuri Andropov, had told me before he himself got seriously ill that I must be prepared to assume the highest responsibility one day. I knew what he meant. He tried to ensure that event. In December 1983, two months before his death, Andropov sent a written message to the Central Committee plenum, suggesting that "Gorbachev should be entrusted with actual leadership." I did not know that he did this. And neither did the plenum. In 1988, I learned that Chernenko had simply cut off that part of the message and concealed it. And so he became General Secretary. If Chernenko did not exist, the Old Guard would have invented him.

Still, with Chernenko so feeble and ill, it was I who had to preside over the Politburo sessions throughout most of his tenure. Thus, it fell to me to convene the emergency session at his death. I called Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, one of the longest-serving and most influential members of the Politburo, and arranged to meet him privately half an hour before the session. I told Gromyko: "Too many problems have piled up in the country. I believe you and I have to tackle them together." Gromyko answered: "I fully agree with your appraisal of the situation." His support was most crucial.

I came back home at about 3:30 a.m. My wife Raisa met me at the door. Too worked up to go to bed, I suggested that we take a stroll. Those paths near our dacha in Zhukovka, they witnessed so much. "We've never talked about this," I said. "But I must tell you now: I might become one of the candidates. You know, I've tried to quit politics thrice. But it has become the cause of my life. If they do nominate me, I can't shirk it. The people have been watching for too long, watching their leaders passing away one by one. If we offer them another one like that, we should all be fired. Is our generation a generation of cowards? Things in the country are grave; problems are enormous. It's hardly a coveted job under the circumstances. But my conscience tells me I must do it."

Raisa listened in silence and then answered, "As always, I rely on you."

I really knew the shape the country was in. I saw the mess around me. But I still entertained illusions that the system could be reformed. I had tried a mini-perestroika during the 10 years I was in charge of Stavropol, in southern Russia. But the curbs imposed from above had not let us go farther. So, I thought, it's at the top that we must start changes to let the people breathe. But even after I got there, the system fought back, resisting and biting. Nothing changed in the country at large. The party officialdom defended its power. Only in 1988 did I realize that the totalitarian communist system could not be reformed. It had to be dismantled and replaced by democracy. Yegor Ligachev, a hard-line Politburo member, said at a later point, "It was only too late that we discerned a social democrat in Gorbachev." Indeed, it was. I strove for peaceful changes; I did not want any boot stomping. They did stomp their boots in 1991 with their failed coup d'état — and I left. Still, I dragged them to the point of no return. There could be no going back to the past and to the old system.

Gorbachev led the Soviet Union from March 1985 until its demise in 1991