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Can You Beat That?

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There was a time when a leader of the Soviet Union who went before that country’s nominal legislature knew that he was among friends, or at least among toadies who could be counted on to behave as Communist Party discipline and a prudent regard for their own skins required. A leader could speak and take his bows, comfortable in the certainty that no word of reproach would disturb his appearance, no hint of dissent would challenge his authority. No more.

When Mikhail S. Gorbachev went before the newly elected Congress of People’s Deputies this week, he found himself facing not a docile parliamentary lap dog but an animal of a different nature, more of a pit bull that snapped at his ankles and sometimes even seemed ready to rip out the seat of his pants. The Soviet Union’s experiment in legislative democratization had begun.

As it happens, Gorbachev emerged from that extraordinary unscripted session commanding more power than ever before. By a vote of the people’s elected representatives he is now president of the U.S.S.R., the presidency no longer being merely a figurehead office but one that is now constitutionally heavy with authority. Since he remains at the same time Communist Party boss, Gorbachev is thus both chief of state and top politician. That concentration of power disturbs some people, among them Andrei Sakharov, the human rights campaigner and a congress delegate, who more or less trusts Gorbachev but isn’t so sure about those who might follow him. Stalin, too, controlled the machinery of both party and government. It’s something to think about.

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Gorbachev, meanwhile, has been given other things to think about, thanks to the candor of some of the deputies who take seriously the notion that since they were elected in opposition to the party’s candidates, their responsibility is to oppose. To his credit, the new president kept his composure under a barrage of criticism directed against the party, himself and other officials, even when he heard himself compared to a Napoleon pumped up by sycophants and wifely adulation. Television brought all this and more to the eyes of the Soviet people. They must have loved what they saw.

What next? The principle function of the new congress is to elect a 542-member Supreme Soviet that will have serious day-to-day legislative authority. Whether that body is dominated by reformers or conservatives will tell a lot about where and how far political change and economic restructuring might go. Meanwhile, the Soviet people and the world have been witness to quite an astonishing spectacle this week. After this, can things ever again be as they once were?

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