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Russian history

The feud that sank the Soviet Union

Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Wojtek Laski/Getty

If Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin had got along, “the Soviet Union might still exist”, says Dominic Sandbrook in The Rest is History podcast. The pair had very different personalities: Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, was studious and idealistic; Yeltsin, the first president of the newly independent Russia, was an ebullient populist who had keen political ability but struggled with alcoholism. In 1987, under constant attack from communist reactionaries, Yeltsin resigned from the USSR’s politburo and tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself with scissors. While he was recovering in hospital, Gorbachev forced him to come along to a party meeting, pumped full of drugs, to be ritually humiliated.

In 1990 Yeltsin became leader of the Russian government within the USSR, and the following year, he got his revenge. After foiling a coup by communist hard-liners opposed to his government’s reforms, Yeltsin hauled Gorbachev into a meeting and forced him to read out a list he’d prepared of the aides (all Gorbachev allies) suspected of having taken part. And Yeltsin was “so keen to get one over on Gorbachev” that he secretly met the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine to plot the break-up of the Soviet Union. Utterly fixated on payback, he didn’t even bother discussing what to do about all the Russian-speakers in the Ukrainian regions of Crimea and Donbas – the regions Vladimir Putin has since gone to war over.

Listen to the first part of the podcast’s four-part series here.