In 1989 the Baltic republics' declarations of sovereignty within the Soviet Union began a cascade of similar declarations by jurisdictions within Russia. In the second half of 1990 alone, ten of Russia's autonomous republics declared sovereignty. When Russia became an independent state, perceptions of Moscow's weakness further encouraged separatist movements, which in turn prompted a long-term campaign by the Yeltsin government to maintain the federation intact. Although some experts predicted that the Russian Federation ultimately would suffer the same fragmentation as the Soviet Union, little evidence of such an outcome has been seen in the first five years of the post-Soviet era. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The signing of the Treaty on the Final Settlement (the Two-Plus-Four Treaty) in Moscow on September 12, 1990—which marked the formal reunification of Germany—is viewed as the end of the Cold War. This event took place about 10 months after the Berlin Wall came down. After Communism collapsed in East Europe, mass demonstrations were held in Russia and millions of people took to the streets to protest abuses by the Communist party and the KGB.


Democracy in the Supreme Soviet

October 28, 1988 was an important day in Soviet political history. It was the first time in the history of the Supreme Soviet that anyone voted "nyet" on proposed legislation. Thirteen delegates raised their hands to vote "no" against anti-demonstration regulations.

The Soviet Union got its first real Parliament in August 1989. At the first session of the First Congress of People's Deputies (the Supreme Soviet) to include democratically-elected non-Communists, Soviets watched in almost stunned silence as legislators, one after another, expressed their displeasure with the Communist government. So many people watched the 13-day proceedings on television that industrial factory output dropped by 20 percent.

Describing the history-making event, Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, "Watching the Supreme Soviet reinvent itself is little like speed-reading the "The Federalist Papers." Profound questions about the nature of government, mixed with questions about the nature of government mixed with nuts-and-bolts novelties of parliamentary procedure, hurtle past, driven by an urgent sense of the country's proliferating emergencies.”

"Many deputies have pored over books on comparative government, studying British, Swedish and French parliamentary experience, scavenging for ideas." Keller wrote. "How do you write a law? How do you amend it?...How much staff does a legislature need? Where does the information come from."

Rise of an Opposition in the Soviet Union

In May 1989, the initial session of the Congress of People's Deputies electrified the country. For two weeks on live television, deputies from around the country railed against every scandal and shortcoming of the Soviet system that could be identified. Speakers spared neither Gorbachev, the KGB, nor the military. Nevertheless, a conservative majority maintained control of the congress. Gorbachev was elected without opposition to the chairmanship of the new Supreme Soviet; then the Congress of People's Deputies elected a large majority of old-style party apparatchiks to fill the membership of its new legislative body. Outspoken party critic Yeltsin obtained a seat in the Supreme Soviet only when another deputy relinquished his position. The first Congress of People's Deputies was the last moment of real control for Gorbachev over the political life of the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the summer of 1989, the first opposition bloc in the Congress of People's Deputies formed under the name of the Interregional Group. The members of this body included almost all of the liberal members of the opposition. Its cochairmen were Yeltsin, Andrey Sakharov, historian Yuriy Afanas'yev, economist Gavriil Popov, and academician Viktor Pal'm. Afanas'yev summed up the importance of this event, saying, "It is difficult for Gorbachev to get used to the thought that he is no longer the sole leader of perestroika . Other forces are already fulfilling that role." Afanas'yev had in mind not only the Interregional Group. He also was referring to the miners striking in Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Siberia, and the popular fronts in the Baltics, which were agitating for independence. In January 1990, a group of reformist CPSU members announced the formation of Democratic Platform, the first such CPSU faction since Lenin banned opposition groups in the 1920s. *

A primary issue for the opposition was the repeal of Article 6 of the constitution, which prescribed the supremacy of the CPSU over all the institutions in society. Faced with opposition pressure for the repeal of Article 6 and needing allies against hard-liners in the CPSU, Gorbachev obtained the repeal of Article 6 by the February 1990 Central Committee plenum. Later that month, before the Supreme Soviet, he proposed the creation of a new office of president of the Soviet Union, to be elected by the Congress of People's Deputies rather than the people. Accordingly, in March 1990 Gorbachev was elected for the third time in eighteen months to a position equivalent to Soviet head of state. Former first deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet Anatoliy Luk'yanov became chairman of the Supreme Soviet. *

By the time of the Twenty-Eighth Party Congress in July 1990, the CPSU was regarded by liberals, intellectuals, and the general public as anachronistic and unable to lead the country. The CPSU branches in many of the fifteen Soviet republics began to split into large pro-sovereignty and pro-union factions, further weakening central party control. In a series of humiliations, the CPSU had been separated from the government and stripped of its leading role in society and its function in overseeing the national economy. For seventy years, it had been the cohesive force that kept the union together; without the authority of the party in the Soviet center, the nationalities of the constituent republics pulled harder than ever to break away from the union. *

Soviet Republics Demand More Autonomy

Under Gorbachev, republic in the Baltics, Caucasus and Central Asia began asserting themselves and passed laws that had precedence over those of the Soviet Union and declared various degrees of sovereignty and independence. Responding to advice from hardliners Gorbachev sent in troops to quell street demonstrations and ethnic violence.

The issue Gorbachev understood least of all was that of the nationalities. Stalin, a Georgian, had been a commissar for nationalities, Khrushchev had built his career suppressing Ukrainian nationalism, and Brezhnev had risen through his work in Ukraine and Moldavia. Gorbachev was a Russian whose political background included little time outside Russia proper. His policies of glasnost and demokratizatsiya , which loosened authoritarian controls over society, facilitated and fueled the airing of national grievances in the republics. As the peoples of the Soviet Union began to assert their respective national characters, they clashed with ethnic minorities within their republics and with Soviet authorities. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

As early as 1985, reports of clashes between Estonian and Russian students began seeping into the West. By 1987 the Baltic republics all had developed popular fronts and were calling for the restoration of their independence. In November 1988, Estonia issued a declaration of sovereignty, claiming that all Estonian laws superseded Soviet laws. Lithuania and Latvia followed with their own declarations of sovereignty in May and July 1989, respectively.

As it had in the republics along the Soviet southern perimeter, national consciousness reawakened in Ukraine and Belorussia. In Ukraine the first popular front, the Ukrainian Popular Movement for Perestroika, known as Rukh, held its founding congress in September 1989. Strikes among coal miners in the Donets Basin in Ukraine in 1989 put additional pressure on the Soviet leadership. On March 4, 1990, Ukraine and Belorussia elected new legislatures. In both cases, opposition movements and coalitions made good showings despite ballot tampering and legal obstacles erected by authorities.

In October 1990, multiparty legislative elections in Georgia resulted in victory for the pro-independence bloc, and the new Supreme Soviet in Tbilisi began to move toward declaring independence. The major challenge to Gorbachev, however, came not from the non-Russian constituent republics but from Russia itself.

Ethnic Violence in the Soviet Republics

The first major flare-up of ethnic violence came in December 1986, when Gorbachev replaced the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakstan with an ethnic Russian. A large crowd gathered in the Kazakstani capital, Alma-Ata (renamed Almaty after independence), to protest the move. When a force of 10,000 Soviet troops was deployed in Alma-Ata to disperse the crowds, demonstrators rioted. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1987 citizens of the autonomous oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked enclave of Armenians inside Azerbaijani territory, petitioned the Central Committee, requesting that the region be made part of the Armenian Republic. The Central Committee's rejection of this petition was followed by demonstrations in the autonomous oblast and similar displays of sympathy in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. A promise by Gorbachev to establish a commission to study the Karabakh issue provoked outrage in Azerbaijan. After an anti-Armenian pogrom took place outside Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, large-scale fighting erupted between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with both groups claiming to have been victimized by the Soviet regime in Moscow. In both republics, people rallied around popular fronts, which later became movements for independence from the Soviet Union. By the end of 1988, Georgia had developed its own popular front as well. In April 1989, more than twenty Georgians were killed as Soviet troops brutally dispersed demonstrators in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. *

Ethnic violence became a frequent occurrence throughout the Soviet Union--in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks, and in Georgia, when that republic's Abkhazian Autonomous Republic and South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast sought status as separate Soviet republics. Wherever Soviet forces intervened, they either failed to master the situation or contributed to the violence. In January 1990, the Armenian Supreme Soviet enacted a measure giving its own legislation supremacy over Soviet law. In the Armenian government's view, this meant that the Soviet demarcation of autonomous jurisdictions such as Nagorno-Karabakh no longer was binding on Armenians in that enclave. That vote caused rioting to break out in Azerbaijan. When the Soviet government imposed a state of emergency in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and deployed 11,000 troops to end the anti-Armenian and anticommunist riots, at least eighty-three Azerbaijanis were killed. *

In 1990, riots also took place in Tajikistan and in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, leading to hundreds of deaths and the imposition of a state of emergency in several areas of Kyrgyzstan. The Moldavian government also declared a state of emergency when Gagauz separatists tried to declare the independence of their region, prompting Gorbachev to deploy troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moldavia. Violence between ethic Romanian Moldavians and Russians broke out in the Transnistria region of the republic a few weeks later.

Revolt in the Baltics

The revolt against the Soviet government and a true democracy and independence movement began in Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in October 1988 with the formation of the Popular Front of Latvia, an organization openly opposed to Soviet rule. Other political and human rights were organized. In 1988, a half million people gathered in Tallinn's Laulubaljak Square to show their support for the Estonian Popular Front.

In August 1989, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians protested the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—in which Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin agreed in 1939 to allow the Soviet Union to take over the Baltic states—by joining their hands in a human chain stretching across all three Baltic states from Tallinn to Vilnius, with people singing a special song written for the occasion: "Rise Up Baltic States."

In March 1990, Lithuania declared independence, and Gorbachev imposed a partial economic blockade in response. The same month, at elections for the Supreme Soviet, the Popular Front of Latvia won a convincing victory by taking 131 of 201 seats.

In January 1991, the Soviet government intervened militarily. Self-appointed "salvation committees" supported by Soviet Union "Omon" troops tried to take over power from the duly elected governments in Latvia and Lithuania. Various strategic buildings were occupied. More than 20 unarmed citizen were killed and hundreds were injured. To thwart coup attempts, Latvians and Lithuanians fought back by erecting and maintaining barricades around their government buildings and communication centers. There was little bloodshed other than the storming of a television station in Vilnius, Lithuania on January 13th, 1991 that led to the death of 13 unarmed Lithuanian protestors by Soviet troops.

Attempts to Link Russia with the Soviet Union

Many institutions that existed in the other constituent republics did not exist in Russia. Russia had no television stations addressing specifically Russian interests. Unlike other republics, the Russian Republic had no academy of sciences. It also lacked a ministry of internal affairs, a republic-level KGB, and a Russian communist party. Between 1918 and 1925, the CPSU had been called the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), but it was known as the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) from 1925 until 1952 when Stalin changed the name to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Such a policy by the communists had aimed at tying the Russian people as closely as possible to the Soviet state. The strategy was based on the belief that, lacking internal security forces and the political base that would be furnished by a Russian communist party, the Russians would be unlikely to engage in opposition to the system. By 1990, however, Russians were beginning to think differently. Although the predominantly Russian CPSU promoted policies of Russification to facilitate its rule and to placate the large Russian population, in the late 1980s average Russians increasingly saw the CPSU's efforts to co-opt and coerce the other nationalities as debasing the Russian language and culture and depleting Russian natural and financial resources. Gorbachev viewed this growing body of opinion with fear, but Yeltsin, who had been learning from the Baltic republics' struggle, saw it as providing an opportunity. Yeltsin took up the cause of Russia's rights within the union, making alliances with both Russian nationalists and Russian liberals. *

Rise of Yeltsin and the Russian Republic

In 1990 Yeltsin became chairman of the parliament of the Russian Republic, which occupied four fifths of the Soviet Union and was home to half the Soviet population. Over time his power and popularity rose and he openly criticized and challenged Gorbachev. Yeltsin also raised the idea that change was impossible within the existing system and for real change to take place the old system had to be discarded and a new one put in its place. In 1990 Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party and the reform-minded Russian parliament proclaimed the sovereignty of the Russian Republic. On June 11, 1991, Yeltsin became Russia's first democratically elected president.

In July 1990, Gorbachev finally acceded to the founding of the Russian Communist Party, which became a bastion of Russian nationalist conservatism and opposition to Gorbachev. The party failed to gain control of the Russian Republic's legislative bodies, however. Instead, it faced formidable competition in the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, which by that time was dominated by Yeltsin. Yeltsin's May 1990 election as chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet had made him the de facto president of the Russian Republic, just as Gorbachev's election as chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union had made him de facto president of the country in 1989. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Yeltsin's new position enabled him to pose a serious challenge to Gorbachev. On June 11, 1990, Russia issued its declaration of sovereignty, the first republic to do so after the Baltic states. This move challenged Soviet jurisdiction over the very heart of the union. By the end of November, another nine republics had followed Russia's lead. The last instance of cooperation between Yeltsin and Gorbachev in this period was their effort in the fall of 1990 to draft a common economic policy. However, Gorbachev's desire to protect the favored position of the military-industrial establishment caused the effort to founder and the two men's relationship to deteriorate rapidly. *

As the leader of the most populous and richest union republic, Yeltsin became the champion of all the republics' rights against control from the center. However, he did not advocate the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin originally hoped for the creation of a new federation anchored by bilateral and multilateral treaties between and among the union republics, with Russia as the preeminent member. When Soviet forces cracked down on the Baltic states in January 1991, Yeltsin went to Estonia in a show of support for the Baltics, signing agreements with the Baltic states that recognized their borders and promising assistance in the event of an attack on them from the Soviet center. *

Reforms and the Weakening of Gorbachev

In 1990, Gorbachev's proposal to create an ill-defined federal system that would keep the Soviet Union intact was largely ignored but his plan to reduce the power of the Communist party was accepted. In early 1990, a parliament chose him for the new post of executive president. This change only weakened him further. He seemed to lose his nerve for reform in the fall 1990, about the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize, when he backed away from "the 500 Day Plan” to change the Soviet Union’s party-controlled economy to a market economy in 500 days.

In the winter of 1990-91, food and fuel shortages left people cold and hungry. In the spring of 1991, miners went strike for several months over poor pay and working conditions brought about by hardships caused by chaos in the Soviet economy. They adopted Yeltsin as their champion, undermining Gorbachev's authority.

Throughout the summer Yeltsin and the leaders of the republics began putting pressure on Gorbachev to give them more power while hardliners called for a return of law and order and return to Communist doctrine. The leaders of the republics drafted a treaty that would grant them more autonomy, including control of taxes and budgets but keeping the Soviet Union intact. The treaty was to be signed on August 20.

In June 1990, Gorbachev already had initiated talks on a new union treaty. The Supreme Soviet debated provisions of a draft union treaty throughout 1990 and into 1991. With tensions increasing between the center and the constituent republics, Gorbachev scheduled a national referendum in March 1991. The Baltic states, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldavia refused to participate. In the Russian referendum, Yeltsin included a question on the creation of a Russian presidential post. The overall referendum vote gave approval to Gorbachev's position on preserving the union, but the voters in Russia also approved Yeltsin's call for a president elected directly by the people. On June 12, Yeltsin, whose popularity had risen steadily as Gorbachev's plummeted, was elected president of the Russian Republic with 57 percent of the vote. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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