Nothing Personal

In his polite moments, Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed the proceedings as "a political trial." In a franker moment, he shouted, "This is shit!" Russia's Constitutional Court is ruling on the legality of Gorbachev's old Communist Party, and last week the former Soviet leader-not long ago the most praised man on the planet-faced possible prosecution for refusing to testify. He ultimately paid a 100-ruble fine, about 30 cents. But Russian President Boris Yeltsin would not let the matter drop. He issued a decree handing over the offices of Gorbachev's foundation (a think tank) to a new academy; Moscow police sealed off the building. Gorbachev called forth his last remaining weapon-the media-and denounced his old rival as "a real Russian strongman."

Nothing seems to make Gorbachev and Yeltsin happier than causing each other pain. It all started when Yeltsin openly criticized Gorbachev at a Politburo meeting five years ago. Since then, no swipe has been too low, and no slight has been forgiven, When Yeltsin had a heart attack Gorbachev didn't call him in the hospital. When Yeltsin made a comeback in popular elections, Gorbachev had the KGB tap his phone. After Yeltsin took power he gleefully paid his predecessor back. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed and Gorbachev made an appointment to turn over the "nuclear briefcase," Yeltsin didn't bother to show up.

When Gorbachev returned to private life, Yeltsin took away his limo, his apartment and his dacha. Last week he took away his right to travel abroad. And Gorbachev, who left office promising not to form an opposition to Yeltsin, has been one of the Russian president's most persistent critics. Yeltsin's team "has failed, and they don't like failure" was his latest salvo, published last week in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. "The president can't handle his responsibilities."

So perhaps it was no coincidence that last week the Center for the Preservation of Contemporary Documents declassified (and gave to NEWSWEEK) a series of Politburo transcripts that made Gorbachev look bad indeed. Although clearly genuine, the documents were often missing several pages and in some cases were touched up by hand to remove surnames. Strangely-or maybe not so strangely-they included not a peep from Boris Yeltsin, who joined the Politburo in March 1986. Still, they provide insights into the early Gorbachev, during the months after he came to power in 1985. The man who now calls himself a refusenik (because Yeltsin won't let him travel to South Korea this week) has a few refuseniks on his own conscience.

In a transcript from August 1985, the Politburo discusses whether or not to allow Yelena Bonner, the half-Jewish wife of dissident Andrei Sakharov, to leave the country for medical treatment. Letting her go "would look like a humane step," says KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov, "but we cannot let Sakharov go ... Sakharov's behavior is influenced by Bonner." Gorbachev comments: "That's Zionism for you."

In another meeting, weeks after the failed U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, Gorbachev blisters his American counterpart. "Our 'friends' in the United States have no constructive program at all and are doing everything to heat up the atmosphere even more. They're acting in the crudest way, behaving like bandits ... We need to win propaganda points, to go on the offensive in explaining our view to America and the entire foreign community. Washington officials are afraid of this." Gorbachev says the Soviets must find "an appropriate formula" to convince the world that "Reagan cannot manage his crowd ... Reagan is behaving like a liar."

Though Gorbachev was never broadly popular in Russia, his current straits have won him some sympathy. "I don't like him," said Andrei Cherkizov, a political commentator for Ekho Moskvy radio, "but that's not the point. You have to respect him ... Russia doesn't have another Gorbachev." Others pointed out that Gorbachev did not bear sole responsibility for what happened during the years of Soviet power. "The Constitution itself was unconstitutional," wrote Viktor Gushchin in the weekly Moscow News. "We ourselves were unconstitutional, for letting ourselves be manipulated. We're all guilty of something."

But even some of his own comrades disagreed with Gorbachev's refusal to testify. "If he didn't want to go to the court, he could have answered questions in written form," said Dmitry Shostakovsky, one of the directors of the Gorbachev foundation. Those former Communist bosses who complied with the court's demands were especially insistent. "They'd probably ask him unpleasant questions, but so what?" said Vladimir Ivashko, Gorbachev's old No. 2 in the party leadership. "So you just answer them, and go home." Valentin Falin, former head of the party's international department, resisted the court's demands as long as he could, pleading a weak heart and a lecture engagement in Hamburg. "[Gorbachev] shouldn't give up the chance to say what he thinks," said Falin, who returned from Germany to testify last week. "Nobody's going to make him say what he doesn't want to say."

Gorbachev evidently wants nothing to do with his former pals from the party. "He hasn't called," said Falin. Perhaps he doesn't want to end up like the parade of ghosts from the Communist past now making its way through the court. Ivan Polozkov, the hard-line former chief of the Russian Republic's Communist Party, is unemployed and idle. "I walk back and forth in my apartment," he told NEWSWEEK, "and I think, 'Maybe I shouldn't have done this ... Or maybe I shouldn't have done that.' And I wonder where I went wrong." Yegor Ligachev, once the Soviet Union's conservative bogeyman and Gorbachev's main hard-line opponent, has fewer doubts. "God forbid we should have this kind of democracy!" he said before a court session last week. Stripped of their bustling retinues and long limousines, the onetime masters of the mighty Soviet Union are sad old men, tucking scarves into their gray overcoats and stepping out alone into the cold October rain.

Mikhail Gorbachev, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a man of tremendous vanity, clearly does not see himself as one of such company. But his foundation is full of Communist ghosts, too. It runs programs from political-science seminars to children's health charities, and provides the dog-and-pony shows a former president needs: a welcoming group at the airport after his foreign trips, for example. And the foundation's headquarters, with its long, red-carpeted hallways and solemn nameplates on the doors, must have felt homey to Gorbachev, something like the old Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Now that his foundation has lost its offices, what can the former Soviet maximo do--except try to stay out of trouble? Legal experts debated whether the Constitutional Court has the authority to haul in Gorbachev in handcuffs. Asked if he feared prison, Gorbachev retorted that "others will land there first." Considering how low the former president has fallen, throwing him in jail does not really seem necessary. But the personal vendetta that Gorbachev touched off in the first place has clearly not exhausted itself. And for a man who will be a former president himself one day, Yeltsin has not set a very kindly precedent.