1989 saw the beginning of the end. The election of a parliament made the dismantling og the Soviet apparatus possible. The mighty Soviet Union sank not because of war, strife or even great hardship. The sip with the red star was sruppered as we Westerners egged the captain on. Gorbachev, Yeltsin and other reformers did more to wreck the cause of Soviet Communism in the space of a few years than decades of anti-Soviet propsganda and the Cold War put together.
Even as the Soviet Union went down, the out-lying reaches of the empire rushed for the exits. The speed of it all was breathtaking. Suddenly the Berlin Wall was rubble and leaders who had been feared only a few months earlier were ridiculed, exiled and even shot. This time, spring (unlike that in Czechoslovakia in 1968, which ended with Soviet tanks rumbling down the streets of Prague) really had come.
By John Harrison
By 1989, glasnost or openness had created an atmosphere where the West (whatever that was, it didn’t matter at the time) was good and anything to do with Communism was bad. Towards the end of 1989, Gorbachev was accused of dragging his heels compared with the new knight in shining armour, determined to deliver the country from the evils of Communism: Boris Yeltsin. Now Gorbachev was seen by many to be part of the old system. The more opposition Gorbachev faced, the more he was fêted abroad, and the more he was accused of being a showman by Russians at home. The stronger Yeltsin became—although he was, in fact, more of a showman than Gorbachev—the more pressure Gorbachev faced to get radical. It was at about this time that he started making serious political blunders.
Photo by John Harrison
Yeltsin himself said: “It seems to me that if Gorbachev had not had a Yeltsin, he would have had to invent one.” Whether they preferred the emotional Gorbachev or the impulsive Yeltsin, the point was that Russians no longer supported the Communist Party and the old ways. The bickering between the two helped to bring the Soviet Union down. Nobody seemed to care too much, in 1989 at least, whether Gorbachev or Yeltsin had a coherent economic policy. Whether or not a more gradual change would have been better for everyone was not important. Gung-ho, seismic change had started and there was no going back.
By the winter of 1989-90, milk, tea, coffee, soap and meat had vanished from many state shops, particularly in Moscow. Sugar was scarce. “You promised us improvements; then why do we have to queue for basic things to eat?” was written in the sky in vast thought bubbles whenever Russians went to the shops in search of something edible, let alone tasty. Millions of Russians puzzled it out in their own way, coming to the conclusion that they wanted more radical change. Gorbachev did too but always with a delay, “clinging to the dying embers of the Communist faith,” as Timothy Colton put it.
Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin used the shortages to press for the further decentralisation of industry. But the transfer to private retail and semi-private production caused problems which neither was able to handle well because power had also been decentralised. When Gorbachev saw that the co-ops he’d encouraged weren’t bringing about the desired results, he started talking about the need to create a “socialist market economy”, an oxymoron in Russia.
The Law on the State Enterprise (1987) empowered workers to elect their own managers and led, naturally enough, to wage inflation and an increase in the cost of living. The newly formed cooperatives were popular when they started in 1988 and 1989 but people soon became disillusioned.
Robert Service wrote in A History of Modern Russia, “The co-ops aggravated the shortages in the shops and raised the cost of living, and were generally disliked. They also added to the problems of law-breaking since their owners had to bribe local government officials in order to be allowed to trade; and often they could not get enough raw materials and equipment without colluding with factory directors illegally. They [the co-ops] often had to function for days at a time without anything to sell: cartons of milk disappeared from time to time, and the staff had nothing to do but explain to an ill-tempered public that they had nothing to sell.”
But there were deeper economic problems behind the collapse of the economy. Gorbachev had been printing money on a large scale since 1985, stoking inflation. Export revenues were down and his anti-alcohol drive from May 1985 to 1988 inflicted serious damage on the budget. The Finance Ministry relied heavily on alcohol-related taxes, which was one reason why the anti-alcohol campaign was abandoned. Another was that the campaign adversely affected Gorbachev’s popularity at home.
Beyond all that, oil prices had plunged from a high of around US$49 a barrel in spring 1980 to less than US$9 in 1988, falling by 50 per cent in 1986 alone). Oil and gas constituted only 18 per cent of exports in 1972 but a whopping 54 per cent by 1984. Only in armaments was the country keeping up. Paradoxically, industrial production had actually risen by 11 per cent between 1983 and 1985 thanks to Yuri Andropov’s disciplinarian methods. Gorbachev was Andropov’s heir and his original goal had been to modernise the Soviet Union, not destroy it. But from an economic point of view, it was difficult for Gorbachev to keep on funding the Soviet Union. There was no turning back.
Meanwhile, the empire continued to fall apart. In January 1989, Estonia and Lithuania joined Latvia and awarded their own languages official status along with their own pre-Soviet flags, anthems and public holidays.
In February 1989, the last remaining Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan.
April turned out to be a cruel month in Georgia. Sensing that the situation in the Baltics was spinning out of control, hardliners in the Interior Ministry turned nasty and ordered troops to open fire on a mostly female crowd in Tbilisi. That day, 19 were killed and several hundred injured. Twenty-one people were struck by soldiers wielding sharpened shovels. Many linked the violence directly to Gorbachev and the issue was brought up at the first session of the newly-elected parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, which ran from 25 May to 9 June. Almost daily, high-ranking state officials, including even Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, were harangued as they spoke. Gorbachev watched silently and coldly. The Congress was televised and workers watched in disbelief as their leaders, recently above all criticism, were verbally attacked and sometimes ridiculed. Work stopped in factories and offices when sensitive issues were debated. The conservatives accused Gorbachev of giving radicals too many opportunities to speak while the reformers felt brushed aside. Dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, recently allowed home from internal exile, called for the scrapping of Article 6 of the Constitution, the one that enshrined the “leading and guiding role” of the Communist party. But his proposal was rudely rejected by Gorbachev. Sakharov died shortly after, in December.
The Congress proved to be Boris Yeltsin’s big come-back. He won a seat in the Congress on a brilliant city-wide Moscow ticket, where he grabbed 89 per cent of the popular vote. His entrance to the 450-seat upper house, called the Supreme Soviet, was blocked by unfriendly deputies despite his popular mandate of five million Moscow citizens. Only when Aleksei Kazannik, a lawyer from Omsk, gave up his seat was Yeltsin able to secure a position in the upper house. Gorbachev, worried that the public would ridicule the whole parliament if Yeltsin were excluded, approved. Many historians argue that Gorbachev underestimated Yeltsin, and that this was one of his most serious mistakes. Gorbachev basically considered Yeltsin to be too uneducated, unrefined and populist to present a major threat. He could hardly have made a bigger miscalculation.
Yeltsin had already become the darling of the intellectuals by agreeing, in 1988, to join the supervisory board of the anti-nationalist Memorial Society. He was chosen for this honour on write-in ballots by readers of the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta and the magazine Ogonek, both publications famous with the Russian intelligentsia. Meanwhile, Gorbachev rejected the advice of his chief aid, Georgy Shakhnazarov, to post Yeltsin to some far-off embassy.
Yeltsin cunningly boosted his Everyman image by signing himself out of the Kremlin health clinic and into City Polyclinic No. 5. Naina Yeltsin did her part by shopping in neighbourhood grocery stores not reserved for the elite. Be this as it may, Yeltsin’s popularity only overtook Gorbachev’s in mid-1990. Meanwhile, Gorbachev cemented his position by appointing himself Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR during the first Congress. Now nobody could vote him out of power, as happened to Khrushchev.
By April 1989, resolutions passed at the 19th Communist Party Congress in June 1988 came into force. The number of Central Committee economic departments went down from 20 to nine. The remaining ministries had to report to the new Congress of People’s Deputies. From now on, the economy was to become more and more self-regulatory.
In a clear message to Eastern European satellite states that they were on their own now, the special Department for Relations with Communist Workers’ Parties of Socialist Countries was amalgamated into a general International Department. Power was drawn away from the hallowed Secretariat of the Central Committee, the office through which resolutions of Central Committee members were implemented. In its place, six new Central Committee commissions came into being but they mattered little because the authority of the Party itself had come into question.
On 25 April, 74 full Central Committee members and 24 candidate members were bullied by Gorbachev into resigning. Stalin, of course, would have had them all shot. These included household names such as Andrei Gromyko, the Foreign Minister who had been known in the West as Mr. Nyet, and, at the United Nations where he was constantly vetoing Security Council resolutions, the Abominable No Man. Premier Nikolai Tikhonov also passed into history.
In July 1989, coal-miners in a pit in western Siberia went on strike, following a string of miners’ strikes in the Don basin. Their strike spread like wildfire to other mines in the Siberian Kuzbass and Vorkuta in the north. The miners demanded improved living and working conditions, better supplies, greater control over their work place and, interestingly, curbs on the co-operative movement. Fearing unrest, Gorbachev met most of their demands. However, overall conditions remained appalling. Brezhnev or Khrushchev would have used force against anybody daring to strike. On 9 October, the Supreme Soviet finally recognised the right to strike, thus breaking with the Soviet sophistry that no such right was necessary or possible because workers in a workers’ state could not go on strike against themselves.
On 23 August, the 50th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet-Nazi pact that had allowed Soviet annexation of the Baltic states, over one million Balts joined hands in a human chain that ran from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius. Despite this, Gorbachev still refused to believe that the three Baltic republics could really leave the Soviet Union, considering that ultimately they would be too dependent on Russia to make it on their own.
On 14 December, Andrei Sakharov died at the age of 68. Yeltsin earned respect for walking behind the bier in a sleet storm, speaking briefly at the Luzhniki stadium and then going to the funeral. This was an occasion for a nation-wide display of genuine grief, mingled with fear lest the precarious liberties so recently won might equally speedily be withdrawn.