Gorbachev's last stand?

November 19, 1990

With the shop shelves as bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboard and the wolf of winter at the door, Mikhail Gorbachev has once more accumulated substantial power in what probably will be his final chance to alleviate the hardship of the long-suffering Russian people. Aware of the grimness of the situation, the United States and other Western nations acted quickly and sensibly to promise emergency food aid to help the Soviet leader.

Even so, there is a sturdy band of old Cold Warriors, generally the neo-conservatives, who seem yet to harbor the suspicion that, given half a chance, Gorbachev would revert to the authoritarianism of such predecessors as Brezhnev or even Stalin.

One senses almost that these people are so imbued with a hatred of communism that they want to see Gorbachev fail just to see the Soviet people grovel.

Generally these critics seem to place great faith in Gorbachev's persistent rival, Boris Yeltsin, on the vague theory that Yeltsin would hasten the breakup of the Soviet empire and would bring market-economy prosperity to Russia in the way the Wizard brought happiness to the land of Oz.

It is nonsensical even to entertain the idea that Gorbachev is just being obdurate in his handling of the Soviet crises. Why, we would ask, would Yeltsin -- a man who has shown the unmistakable tendencies of a demagogue -- be any better prepared to deal with the problems than a man of Gorbachev's proven ability?

Moreover, Gorbachev may not be very much in control of events today in the Soviet Union, but he is in firm control of one thing: The 30,000 nuclear warheads which still sit atop the missiles. Are we willing to turn that power over to Yeltsin, or even some unknown figure, on the mere whimsical hope that they might do better than Gorbachev? And, for that matter, are those who salivate for the break-up of the Soviet Union willing to see those 30,000 weapons divided up between, say, 16 separate small nations which may be at war with one another?

The West has a huge stake in seeing that Gorbachev survives. If that means sending food, then let's start loading the boats.

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