Daily Hardships Dim Assessment Of Gorbachev's Achievements
HEAVY metal chandeliers barely illuminate the cavernous hall of Moscow's Kazan train station, filled with people making their way from one part of the former Soviet empire to another. Central Asians heading home from selling their goods in the Moscow markets huddle along the peeling lime-green walls. Russians stand among their bags, waiting for trains to their hometowns deep in the Urals.Here, on the morning after Mikhail Gorbachev bade goodbye to his nation, there is little sign of regret at his departure. "He's an indecisive person," pronounces Galina Vasilieva, her fur hat settled firmly in place. "What he did, he did. He performed his historic task. We thank him for what he started. But he should have resigned." Ms. Vasilieva is returning to her Siberian hometown of Tara from what is politely called "business tourism" to Poland, a euphemism for the flow of Russians and others carrying cheaply bought goods to sell in Poland, where dollars and scarce commodities are easily had. Poland's relatively free economy looks good to Vasilieva, and she endorses Russian President Boris Yeltsin's version of Polish-style radical reform. "I support Yeltsin," she says, smiling to reveal gold fillings. "He's the only person I still believe." Mr. Gorbachev was himself right up until the end - proud and defiant. In his 12-minute address, the last leader of the now defunct Soviet Union defended the necessity of change and his record of achievements. "When I found myself at the helm of this state it was already clear that something was wrong in this country," he said. "We were living much worse than people in the industrialized countries were living and we were increasingly lagging behind them. "The reason was obvious even then. This country was suffocating in the shackles of the bureaucratic command system. Doomed to cater to ideology and suffer and carry the onerous burden of the arms race, it found itself at a breaking point.... We had to change everything radically." Gorbachev ticked off his accomplishments - destroying the totalitarian system, initiating democratic reforms, turning to a market economy, ending the cold war. Ludmilla Tsukanova managed to watch the speech as she made her way from Kursk in southeastern Russia, where she works, to her Urals hometown of Nizhni-Tagil for the holidays. When Gorbachev came to power, "there was hope for the future," the horse trainer agrees. "But he didn't live up to the expectations people had," she concludes. Such comments have been common for some time here, where Gorbachev's meandering and often hectoring speeches and television interviews were met with the ire of a people who saw little change in their daily lives. For Ms. Tsukanova, like so many Russians, Mr. Yeltsin is the "right successor" to Gorbachev. "Yeltsin will be able to keep his promises. Even when he is answering questions in interviews, all his answers are to the point and without any blah, blah." It is of course, an unfair view. "The current hardships of life make it difficult for people to sit down and think about what happened," Gorbachev told Cable News Network in an interview after his speech. "One day people will rid themselves of the burdens of everyday life and realize it was difficult ... but we had to begin." Right now Yeltsin enjoys the benefits of being freshly empowered. But the blame for those "burdens" will take little time to shift onto the broad shoulders of the Siberian bureaucrat. Indeed, some who are feeling the pain of change more than others are already pointing the finger in his direction. "Yeltsin should be chased out, not Gorbachev," says Nina Prokofievna (she declines to give her family name), a Moscow pensioner waiting at the station for friends bringing a packet of meat sent by relatives for the holidays. After 40 years of working in a factory making sewing needles, she is living on her 200-ruble-a-month pension. Under Yeltsin's reform plan, she will receive an additional 100 rubles, but given the rising prices, she exclaims, "How can I live on that?" But weren't these prices going up already and wouldn't Gorbachev have had to do the same if he stayed in office, she is asked. "Only Yeltsin is behind those prices rises. As soon as he took office, prices began to rise." Perhaps Yeltsin should worry then, since Gorbachev promised to remain in politics, ready to speak whenever he feels the democratic reformers are straying from their path. "I have no intention of hiding in the taiga [the Siberian woods]," Gorbachev said ominously. He did not yield in his resignation speech on his opposition to the new Commonwealth of Independent States, which has been formed from the rubble of the Soviet Union. "The policy prevailed of dismembering this country and disuniting the state, which is something I cannot subscribe to," he declared. It is a view shared by many here, like the distraught aircraft assembly worker who phoned a Moscow friend after the speech. "Our motherland has been betrayed," he said in a voice heavy with grief. Lt. Oleg Shatkovsky is on holiday leave from his paratroop unit in Transcaucasia to his home in the western Russian city of Bryansk. The men under his command are uncertain of their future. "They don't know what will happen tomorrow. They used to protect the Soviet Union and now they don't know what country we are to protect." Lieutenant Shatkovsky conceals his youth behind a strawberry blond mustache, his military fur cap perched at a jaunty angle, proudly claiming a heritage that goes back centuries as a career Russian "military man." The lean paratrooper has no doubts about the man who now has his finger of the nuclear button. "Yeltsin is a fantastic person. I admire him very much.... He showed his strong character when, in spite of pressure from the [Communist Party] Politburo, he survived and was victorious." And Gorbachev? "He was applauded by people in the West and by many people in the Soviet Union. But he didn't understand that radical measures should be taken. He could have resigned with honor when Yeltsin was elected president."