Nationalism on the rise
The attitude to the national question in the USSR changed since Stalin’s time. “Great Russian” features alien to socialism had already begun to emerge in the state just before World War II. The Russians were “big brothers” and other nations were “little brothers”. This factor remained the same until Gorbachev came to power. An unofficial contract had developed under Brezhnev, where Moscow turned a blind eye to the misappropriation of state property if the elites in the Union republics remained loyal to Moscow. Andropov broke this unofficial agreement by fighting corruption, but his sudden death did not allow him to do what he wanted. Gorbachev continued to pursue the same policy, but because of his inability to raise the standard of living, both the elite and the people of the Union republic were losing the connection with the center. The superiority of the “big brother” was now put in question. The elites everywhere began to believe that they could run their republics more efficiently than Moscow.
The KGB leadership also saw the rise of nationalism. KGB chief Chebrikov, in December 1986, advised Gorbachev to include the national question in the discussions on renewing cadres. However, Gorbachev was conservative on the issue and did not take Chebrikov’s advice. The first spark of nationalism came from an unexpected place—Yakutia. In April 1986, Russian and Yakut university students fought one another for three days. This incident strengthened Yakut nationalist sentiments in the country. In late April, about 600 young Yakuts demonstrated in front of the Yakutsk City Council building. The young people held banners with slogans “Yakutia for the Yakuts, Russians get out!”
The second major conflict took place in Kazakhstan. On December 11, 1986, Dinmukhamed Kunaev, the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, resigned in protest against Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika in the country. Chair of the Council of Ministers of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev advised Gorbachev to appoint a Kazakh to succeed the Kazakh Kunaev. The Gensek ignored this advice and appointed Gennady Kolbin, formerly first Party secretary of Ulyanovsk oblast. He was formally elected by a Kazakh Party CC plenum, on 16 December. The following day, Kazakh students organized a crowded protest in front of the Communist Party building in Almaty. The crowd grew to several thousand. The KGB and militia tried to disperse the crowd. Violent clashes broke out between the militia and the protesters, who were armed with stones and pieces of wood. Two militiamen and on protester were killed and more than 1,200 were injured. (Pikhoya, 1998:464-465). Many vehicles belonging to the KGB and the Interior Ministry were destroyed. The main reason for the rise of nationalism in Kazakhstan was the economic gap between the Kazakh-majority south and the minority north. South Kazakhstan was much poorer than the north. This factor fed into their nationalism.
Starting in Yakutia and Kazakhstan, nationalism spread to other Union republics in 1987. In the summer of 1987, Crimean Tatars renewed their campaign to return to their homeland from exile in Central Asia. The Crimean Tatars, one of the 50-odd nationalities deported by Stalin in 1944, had been rehabilitated under Khrushchev. However, the Volga Germans and the Crimean Tatars were the only two nationalities not permitted to return to their homelands after rehabilitation.
The bloodiest inter-ethnic conflict, however, took place in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan. In February 1988, the Supreme Soviet of Nagorno-Karabakh passed a motion requesting the Soviet government to transfer the territory from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR. The Azerbaijani SSR reacted sharply to the separatism in Nagorno-Karabakh. This was the first inter-ethnic conflict covered live by the national media. The political elites of both countries came face to face with each other. Some members of the Politburo wanted martial law but Gorbachev, as ever, sought a compromise. He reminded his colleagues that force had not worked in Afghanistan.
At the same time, separatist tendencies emerged in the Baltic republics. In June 1988, the Sajudis movement was established in Lithuania. National fronts began to appear in all republics. As a rule, these national fronts were directed against the Russians and the Russian language. The national front in Belarus complained about the limitations placed on the use of the Belarusian language. Other Union republics (for now) were in no hurry to secede from the center, since they benefited financially from their relations with Moscow (with the exception of the Baltic states). (McCauley, 2007:413).
The 19th Party Conference: June 1988
The 19th Party Conference, which began in June 1988, clearly showed the ideological split within the party. Conservative Politburo members opposed the reforms, as the economic situation continued to worsen. More radical members Yakovlev, Shevardnadze, Ryzhkov and Medvedev were in the minority. Gorbachev, as always, chose not to lead any faction, always looking for a middle ground. Speaking at the Party conference, Yakovlev attacked the conservatives. He presented a choice: do we continue with perestroika or go into reverse? Yakovlev’s speech showed that the radicals had won the argument. Ligachev’s star began to fade, and he later lost the right to chair Secretariat meetings. New decisions were made at the party conference. Gorbachev recommended that the local Party bosses become the chairs of the local soviets (councils). Thus, the Party and the soviets would function not as separate entities, but as a unified institution. The USSR Congress of People’s Deputies, which had lost its relevance since Lenin’s time, was revived. This reform transformed the role of the chair of the Supreme Soviet. Hitherto, the chair of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, was a decorative function. It was held by Andrei Gromyko. Gorbachev removed Gromyko from office because he wanted the position for himself.
However, there were opponents of the course of the perestroika within the Party. One of them was the writer Yuri Bondarev. Bondarev likened perestroika to a plane which after its take-off had no idea where it was going to land. According to him, the perestroika had no clear goals or direction, everything was being destroyed without anything new being built. Opposition leader Boris Yeltsin made a strong impact with his speech. He was against the division within the Party and tried to justify his position by saying that “there can be no special communists in the party.” Yeltsin had strong support in rural areas, especially for his attacks on the nomenklatura. He knew the plight of the peasants from their letters and tried to turn the situation in his favor. Gorbachev had no doubts that the Party apparatus was the main reason for the country’s problems. Therefore, in September, the Politburo considered the reorganization and downsizing of the Party apparatus. Ligachev reported that these changes involved dismissing up to 800,000 people. This led to confusion and complete disruption of discipline. Gradually, Party cadres began to view the General Secretary as the source of all their problems.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa Gorbacheva, was wildly unpopular with the common people. Raisa Maksimovna accompanied Gorbachev to almost all countries and cities he visited. During his travels, she shopped in brand name shops and usually wore clothes that were considered luxury by the Soviet people. There were even rumors that she owned a credit card. The situation was so tense that during Mikhail Gorbachev’s official visit to the United States in December 1988, officials recommended that Raisa Maksimovna refrain from shopping and wear only clothes made in the Soviet Union (Pikhoya, 1998:483-484).
Establishment of the Russian Communist Party and Russia’s sovereignty
In 1989, elections were held to the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies, a new supreme body formed by reform. These elections are considered to be the first free elections in the history of the USSR. Formally, 86% of the deputies were communists, but the Party was divided into dozens of factions. Most of the deputies were heads of enterprises and agencies. Workers and peasants only accounted for 6% of the deputies. The security services, including the KGB, were well represented. In the Ukrainian elections, the Party leader estimated that anticommunists made up about a quarter of deputies. KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov told Gorbachev that the country was near a breaking point. The Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR demanded more and more power from Gorbachev. Anatoly Lukyanov, acting chair of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, openly joined the opposition. The public was tired of standing in queues. During the May Day demonstrations, thousands of people marched with banners saying “The Politburo should resign”, “Down with the CPSU,” and “Down with Marxism-Leninism”. (Pikhoya, 1998:521). The Russian tricolor, which has been banned since 1917, began to appear on the streets. To calm the growing opposition in Russia, Gorbachev decided to establish a Bureau of the Russian Central Committee. Thus, on June 19, 1990, the establishment of the Communist Party of the Russian SFSR was announced.
Until then, there had been attempts to establish the Russian Communist Party. Under Stalin, this desire of the Leningrad communists resulted in their repression. Russia had always been represented by the Communist Party of the USSR, and specifically Russian parties were seen as nationalism and decentralization. Time showed how right the position of the former communists was in this matter. There were two main candidates for the position of the First Secretary. The candidate from the conservative (Communist) forces was Ivan Polozkov, and the candidate from the liberal wing was Boris Yeltsin. With Gorbachev’s intervention, Ivan Polozkov was elected. All Russian members of the CPSU automatically became members of the Russian Communist Party. However, Polozkov’s election resulted in mass resignations in the Soviet Communist Party. Many reformers refused to join the Russian Communist Party. Boris Yeltsin was one of the high-profile members who left the CPSU.
The chair of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR was to be elected at the 1st Russian Congress of People’s Deputies of the RSFSR held from May 16 to June 22, 1990. Polozkov and Yeltsin were opponents here as well. Gorbachev did his best to prevent Yeltsin from being elected chair of the Council of People’s Deputies. In the first round and the second round, neither Polozkov nor Yeltsin were able to win. Yeltsin was slightly ahead of Polozkov. In the third round, Gorbachev confirmed Alexander Vlasov as the Kremlin’s candidate to replace Polozkov. In the third round, Yeltsin received 535 votes and Vlasov 462 votes. Thus, by a majority of 73 votes, Boris Yeltsin was elected chair of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR. (Pikhoya, 1998:523).
The liberal wing of the newly formed Communist Party of the RSFSR was influenced by Democratic Russia, a liberal movement formed in Russia. The movement, which was officially established in October 1990, had gained widespread support in Russian cities. After being elected chair of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, Yeltsin proposed establishing the post of President of the RSFSR. Yeltsin suggested that the president be elected by popular vote so that the CPSU would not interfere in Russia’s affairs. Gorbachev told Yeltsin that the USSR was a parliamentary republic, and that this authority was given by parliament, not by the people. Gorbachev was surprised that the Union republics supported Yeltsin on this issue. Gorbachev was forced to take a step back and agree to have the president elected by popular vote in all the Union republics. Yeltsin’s election as chair of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR deepened the already existing gap between Russia and the USSR. On June 12, the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR adopted the declaration of sovereignty of the RSFSR. The laws of the RSFSR now took precedence over the laws of the Soviet Union. (Sakwa, 1999:452-453).
This was a severe blow to Gorbachev. Russia would only now accept those policies which were deemed beneficial. For all intents and purposes, the collapse of the Soviet Union began that day.
At the beginning of perestroika there were three banks in the USSR: Gosbank, Stroibank and Vneshtorgbank. (Pikhoya, 1998:509). By mid-1991, there were more than 1,500 banks operating in the country. In January 1991, the Russian Supreme Soviet legalized private property. This law applied to land, capital and the means of production. It was now possible to set up private enterprises. Business owners could hire as many workers as they wanted. This law overturned the existing planned economy. The Russian SFSR began to buy all-Union enterprises in its territory. Oil, gas and mining gradually became the property of the RSFSR. The Soviet economy began to decline, disintegrating little by little. Food producing enterprises would not fulfil state orders. They no longer bartered their produce for money, wanting other means of circulation. There were queues everywhere, especially for tobacco and vodka. There was a popular joke about a man who was tired of standing in queue for vodka. Saying that he would shoot Gorbachev, he left the queue with a rifle in his hand. After a while, the man returned. “Well, did you shoot him?” “No.” “Why not?” “The queue was longer than the vodka queue!” (McCauley, 2007:418).
The public attitude to the government became increasingly hostile. In the spring of 1989, there were 51 mass demonstrations against the government involving over 350,000 people, in Moscow and other cities. To cope with the situation, Gorbachev formed a new government, filling it with more reformists. Ivan Silayev has been appointed Prime Minister (Chairman of the Council of Ministers). Grigory Yavlinsky, chair of the USSR State Committee for Economic Reforms and one of the authors of the 500 Days program, became Deputy Prime Minister, and Boris Fyodorov, who had experience of international financial institutions, became Minister of Finance.
The government had two plans to overcome the economic crisis. The 500 Days program, drafted by academician Stanislav Shatalin and Grigory Yavlinsky, was published in September 1990 and was soon adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR. The Russian Communist Party described the 500 Days program as “anti-Soviet and a capitulation to capitalism.” If this program were implemented, de facto capitalism would be established in the USSR. Nikolai Ryzhkov and academician Leonid Abalkin drafted a project for a socialist market economy (Pikhoya, 1998:506). Gorbachev was faced with two opposing models of reform and, as always, tried to find a middle ground. A joint Soviet-Russian committee was set up to draft a compromise program. However, the chair of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR Anatoly Lukyanov increasingly opposed the reforms.
In December 1989, the official exchange rate was 1 dollar to 5 rubles. The black market was trading at 15 rubles to the dollar. The impact of the reform was negligible, with more than 100,000 currency speculators operating in Moscow alone. The proposed 500 Days program was good news for black market dealer. The plan stated that “logic of the transition to the market involves the use of shadow (black) capital in the interests of everyone in the country.” Supporter of market reforms Galina Starovoytova went even further: “The black economy has the most dynamic, entrepreneurial businessmen. They have established structures and links with foreign countries.” Readers of Pravda could not believe their eyes: this was clearly a proposal to transform the black economy into the official economy.
Azerbaijanis were among the main players in the country’s black market. Azerbaijanis controlled the Beryozka retail chain, which sold brand name products in the USSR, and some foreign currency shops. Azerbaijanis had links to Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. They controlled the fruit and vegetable markets and almost all of the floral business. (McCauley, 2007:429).
Conflicts in the Union Republics and Yeltsin’s success
The domestic political situation became increasingly tense. By the time Russia declared its sovereignty, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Azerbaijan and Georgia had already declared theirs. After Russia, the other Union republics joined the sovereignty parade. After the sovereignty of all republics had been declared, Gorbachev proposed alternative methods to preserve the Union. Talks began with the Union republics to establish a new union. Gorbachev called this union the Union of Sovereign States. However, on the eve of these talks, members of the Democratic Russia movement demanded a vote in parliament on the removal of Gorbachev from power and the dissolution of the CPSU. On the morning of 21 September, the car in which Boris Yeltsin, the unofficial leader of Democratic Russia, suddenly collided with a car coming from the opposite direction. He suffered light concussion. The incident happened the day after Yeltsin had asked a US delegation to arrange a meeting between him and President George W. Bush.
In December 1990, a vote of no confidence in Gorbachev was called at the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies. About 400 voted to remove the President but the majority voted against, including Yeltsin. (McCauley, 2007:421). The most emotional event was the speech by Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze announced his resignation, calling the government a dictatorship. Deputies voted in favor of preserving the USSR as a union of sovereign republics. The preparations for the referendum began.
The first republics to want to secede from the USSR were the Baltic states. Lithuania declared independence on March 11, 1990, and 111 deputies, most of whom were members of the Sajudis movement, were elected to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet. The Constitution of the USSR was annulled in the territory of the republic and the 1938 Constitution of Lithuania was restored. Lithuania’s independence was not recognized by the USSR government and foreign countries. Lithuania wanted to force this recognition. According to KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, Gorbachev agreed to use force against extremists in Latvia and Lithuania. On January 10, 1991, Gorbachev sent an ultimatum to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet to restore the Soviet constitution there. On the same day, Gorbachev instructed Minister of Defense, the head of the KGB and the Minister of Internal Affairs to use force in Vilnius. On the night of January 12-13, army and KGB units moved to seize the television center in Vilnius. 14 people, including one Soviet soldier, were killed in the resulting conflict. (Pikhoya, 1998:541).
Similar scenarios were carried out in Georgia in 1989 and in Azerbaijan in 1990. These events provoked a furious response across the Soviet Union. Donetsk miners demanded the resignation of Gorbachev and a truly democratic and economic transformation of the country. On March 1, Kuzbass miners went on strike with the same demand. Gorbachev claimed that he had not ordered the use of force in Lithuania. The Vilnius events showed that the Soviet government was willing to use force to keep the Union together, regardless of public opinion. However, it was possible through a referendum. In the referendum held on March 17, 1991, voters were asked if they “deemed it necessary to retain the USSR as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics”. The leaders of the parliaments of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia and Georgia refused to hold a referendum because they did not want to sign a new union treaty. As expected, the vast majority of the population (76%) voted in favor of preserving the Soviet Union. In Russia, 71% voted in favor of keeping the Union together. (Sakwa, 1999:460).
Interestingly, in Moscow and Leningrad, about half of the voters rejected the Union, and so did the majority of voters in Sverdlovsk. The referendum also included a separate section with the proposition on the creation of the presidency of the RSFSR. This proposition was also supported by Russian voters. However, in order to form a union, it was necessary to achieve stability in Russia itself. Russia was to hold presidential elections. If Yeltsin won the election, Gorbachev’s presidency would become a decorative function. On March 25, the USSR Cabinet of Ministers passed a decree banning demonstrations and rallies in Moscow. Gorbachev tried to influence the Russian Supreme Soviet by raising the army. Many deputies demanded that he withdraw the military. Ruslan Khasbulatov, deputy chair of the Supreme Soviet, was dispatched to talk to Gorbachev but he refused to remove the military.
However, this tactic did not work. Gorbachev’s armed threat split the Communist Party of the RSFSR. Alexander Rutskoy, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the RSFSR, announced his resignation from the party and formed his own parliamentary group, which 95 deputies agreed to join. Yeltsin retained his position as chair of the Supreme Soviet and gained additional powers to introduce reforms. On April 23, the President met with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan at the dacha 35 km outside Moscow. These were dubbed the 9 + 1 talks. The parties agreed on the need for a new constitution and new elections. At a plenum meeting of the Central Committee on April 24-25, 1991, Gorbachev was severely criticized and unexpectedly announced his resignation.
However, the Politburo asked him to withdraw his resignation. A vote was held on the fate of Gorbachev. The majority supported Gorbachev’s presidency. Gorbachev called for a boycott of the presidential election in the autonomous republics within the RSFSR to carry out his plan to get rid of Yeltsin. The election was set for June 12, 1991. Yeltsin was supported by Democratic Russia and many right-wing parties and movements formed in 1990. The Communists chose former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov as their candidate. The third candidate was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, representing the Liberal Democrats. Yeltsin received 57.3% of the votes, Ryzhkov 16.9% and Zhirinovsky 7.8%. (Sakwa, 1999: 455). Yeltsin was sworn in in the Kremlin on July 10. The Patriarch of all Russia also took part in the ceremony. For the first time since 1917, a clergyman blessed the incoming ruler, President Boris Yeltsin.
Sakwa, Richard (1999) The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991
Mccauley, Martin (2007) The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union
Pikhoya, Rudolf (1998) Sovetskiy Soyuz: Istoriya Vlasti 1945–1991 [Pihoya, Rudolf, Soviet Union: A History of Power 1945–1991]