1990 was the year that Gorbachev’s honeymoon with the Russian people finally ended. The economy worsened and the people turned on the man who had promised a better life, but only brought queues. After the collapse of the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, Boris Yeltsin saw his opportunity to play the Russian card, and his struggle against Gorbachev went public, at times to the detriment of the wider aim of improving ordinary people’s lives.
This struggle was predominantly political rather than economic. Gorbachev was interested in preserving the cause of socialism and his own personal power. He saw the future in a reformed communist power structure alongside a market economy. He wanted the Soviet Union to have a form of centrally-controlled social democracy. Yeltsin saw that it would be difficult to sell anything remotely socialist to a people who had suff ered Brezhnevite economic stagnation and, before that, Stalin’s excesses. People wanted to go all the way, to “freedom” and sweep away any remaining social and economic control, and Yeltsin saw himself as the champion of people’s rights. Independence was the zeitgeist of 1990; not only for the Soviet republics, but for the gigantic Russian Soviet Republic (RSFSR) itself.
Yeltsin’s big chance came in March, when he was elected as a Deputy in the RSFSR with 84% of the vote of the Sverdlovsk district against 11 “no-name” candidates. As he travelled the country, he advocated turning the RSFSR into a “Presidential Republic with an elected president, a full-time parliament, a constitutional court, a state bank, an academy of sciences, a territorial militia and multiple political parties”. The Soviet State, de jure federal and de facto unitary, ought to be decentralised, Yeltsin said, “because monopoly and the overcentralisation of political and economic power have led our country to its present state.”
Yeltsin could certainly never had been able to even say such things if Gorbachev hadn’t beaten a path through the jungle with a machete before him. However it wasn’t the big man’s style to admit this. On May the 29th, Yeltsin became chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, narrowly defeating his conservative rival, Ivan Polozkhov, a regional secretary from Krasnodar in the North Caucasuswho was similar in mentality to Egor Ligachev. Yelstin by that time had become the champion of the pro-democracy “left-wing” Russian intelligentsia, which had long ago become disillusioned with Gorbachev.
The communist-conservative enemies of perestroika rightly predicted that if Yeltsin were allowed to continue, the Soviet Union itself would break-up. The party was indeed over. The method they choose to revenge themselves was to create a Russian communist party (there had only being one communist party previously, which held all the power, covering the whole of the Soviet Union), with the goal of overthrowing Yeltsin and putting pressure on Gorbachev. Yet the whole motive of communism had already lost its appeal in the minds of Soviet people, and the new party, although initially supported by Gorbachev, quickly lost relevance, and never achieved power.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev had been busy trying, unsuccessfully, to re-brand the Soviet Communist Party into a democratic, humane organisation. On Februry 27th, he addressed the USSR Supreme Soviet and obtained its sanction for multi-party politics. This was ratified by the 3rd convocation of the Congress of People’s Deputies on the 14th of April. On March 14 (surprise, suprise!), the USSR Supreme Soviet introduced a Soviet presidency, to which it elected Gorbachev on March 19. The new President would be the President regardless of the majority party in the Congress of People’s Deputies. Anatoly Lukyanov, who was elected to succeed Gorbachev as USSR parliamentary Chairman predicted, accurately, that the republics would counter-react with presidencies of their own. He also brought up the question of legitimacy. Why should Gorbachev be made president by the legislature, and not by the people?
Gorbachev could have won a popular vote at that time. His popularity ratings were well ahead of Yeltsin’s until June 1990. Not going to the people was, according to Timothy Colton in Yeltsin, A Life, a mistake of biblical proportions. But Gorbachev was also a proud man, and could not bring himself to accept Yeltsin as being a credible rival to himself. As he said in meeting of the Politburo on April 20: “What Yeltsin is doing is incomprehensible… Every Monday his face doubles in size [due to his self-importance]. He speaks inarticulately, he often comes up with the devil knows what; he is like a worn-out record. But the people repeat over and over, ‘He is our man!’”
On April 26, under Gorbachev’s presidency, the Congress of People’s Deputies voted to award the thirty-odd “autonomous” Soviet republics, which were ethnic homelands implanted within the union republics (most of them were part of Russia), the same status as the fifteen “union” republics of the USSR. Yeltsin was non-plussed by this as it would make Russian independence far harder to achieve.
The next day, Yeltsin was received by Margaret Thatcher in London. He tried to persuade her to deal with the “new free Russia” directly, rather than by going through the Soviet government. Thatcher replied suavely that Russia would need to be new and free in more than words. The Iron Lady noted that “Yeltsin had thought through some of the fundamental problems much more clearly that had Mr Gorbachev” and, “unlike Mr Gorbachev, he has broken out of the communist mind-set and language”.
In June 1990, the house of cards that was the Soviet Union began to tumble. Uzbekistan declared its sovereignty. On Yeltsin’s initiative, so did the RSFSR as did Tatarstan and even Karelia. The USSR was entering its final, self-destruct mode. In September, even obedient Turkmenistan declared its sovereignty. Declaring independence had become the thing to do.
The republican leaderships were calling for democracy and national self-determination. As Robert Service points out in A History of Modern Russia, in most cases, local Communist Party elites were struggling to hold on to power. They had levered a certain amount of autonomy during the Brezhnev period and, having seen off the anti-corruption campaigns instigated by Andropov in 1982-4 and Gorbachev the mid-1980s, they settled down to enjoy their privileges. They hated perestroika, and only used democratisation as a means of reinforcing their position and increasing their affluence. By announcing their independence, they aimed to seal off each republic from Moscow’s day-to-day interference.
The best Gorbachev could do meanwhile was to press on with his plans to modernise the Party. The 28th Party Congress met from June 2 1990 and discussed the de-Leninized Party platform approved by the Central Committee in February. Gorbachev achieved most of his goals but not without sacrificing Alexander Yakovlev from the Central Committee. Gorbachev was retained as General Secretary by a huge majority and his programme was ratified by the Congress. Crucially, the Congress decided that the Politburo should no longer intervene in day-to-day politics and that the USSR Presidency ought to become the fulcrum of decision-making.
Yeltsin’s answer was to demand that Gorbachev and other leaders leave the Communist Party altogether. When, on 12 June, they refused, Yeltsin demonstratively stormed out of the proceedings and resigned his party membership. Gorbachev had achieved what he wanted, now he was President—but President of what?
On paper at least, the USSR still existed and Gorbachev was in charge. It was around this time that Yeltsin perceived that he could destroy Gorbachev and ascend the presidency. After all, he now enjoyed considerably stronger public support that the President. He went on a gruelling 22-day marathon tour of the Russian Republic and met on numerous occasions with miners. On August 21, 1990, when meeting with workers’ committees in the mining centre of Novokuznetsk, Yeltsin called for state enterprises to become fully independent from the Gorbachev “centre,” for de-politization of the KGB, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the army and the courts, and for a “government of popular trust”.
Ordinary people rallied behind Yeltsin. At the same time, he got the support of the intelligentsia. In December, he announced the formation of an RSFSR Supreme Consultative and Coordinating Council, chaired by himself, the blue-ribbon members of which read like a “who’s who” of the liberal intelligentsia.
On the economic front, Gorbachev refused to allow any factory or kolkhoz to go to the wall, and there were no bankruptcies although most of the state enterprises were bleeding money badly. Tough decisions on the economic front were postponed, so living standards continued to fall. Retail trade was reduced to pitiful proportions and supplies of basic foodstuff s to shops did not improve. Massive state loans were taken out with western banks. Imports of grain and consumer goods increased.
Gorbachev became the fall guy. Even if people weren’t fully aware of the huge flaws in the Law on the State Enterprise, they knew from direct experience that Gorbachev’s attempt at reform had not worked. Prime-minister Ryzhkov only introduced half-hearted reforms. He refused to let the full cost of production of basic foodstuff s be passed on to the consumer.
Trying to regain the initiative, Gorbachev’s answer was to back the radical “500 Days Plan.” This plan which is ridiculed by many today, was composed chiefly by a group of economists headed by Stanislav Shatalin and Yevgeny Yasin of Gorbachev’s camp and Grigory Yavlinsky of Yeltsin’s. In the space of a year and a half it would have abolished most price controls, permitted the privatization of state property, done away with the USSR’s industrial ministries and devolved Soviet economic coordination to an “inter-republic economic committee,” after agreement on a “treaty of economic union”.
The Russian Supreme Soviet passed the proposals on September 11th, at which point Gorbachev got cold feet. On October 16th he abandoned the program, angering Yeltsin who vowed never again to “play the fool” and join forces with Gorbachev’s people again. In September, the President ordered a re-working by Abel Aganbegyan, hoping to produce a compromise plan, which in October the Soviet Supreme Soviet finally approved.
At the time, Gorbachev’s most serious threat came not from Yeltsin, but from conservatives in the Congress of People’s Deputies who formed their own ‘Soyuz’ (Union) in October. Most Soyuz members were Russians, the others being a diverse group, from Christians and ecologists to Russian functionaries who lived outside the RSFSR and were terrifi ed about their personal prospects if the Soviet Union were to fall apart. Soyuz’s unifying belief was that the Soviet Union was the legitimate successor state to the Russian Empire. Its members were proud of the USSR’s industrial and cultural achievements. They gloried in the USSR’s defeat of Nazi Germany. For them, Gorbachev was the arch-destroyer of a great state, economy and society.
Doorway to a semi-legal private business
in a perekhod at Pushkin metro
Photos by John Harrison
Gorbachev realised that if was going to preserve the Soviet Union, he needed to act fast. He surrounded himself with people who were representative of the old conservative regime. The atmosphere on the street in Moscow changed from a gung-ho attitude of anything goes to one of concern when the realisation came that all the reforms could actually be derailed quite easily. Having backed down over the “500 Days Plan,” Gorbachev was suffi ciently worried to give ground also in politics. One by one, he did away with prominent reformers in his entourage.
Alexander Yakovlev ceased to be one of Gorbachev’s regular consultants after his bruising treatment at the 28th Party Congress. In November, Vadim Bakatin was asked to step down as Minister of Internal Affairs. Gorbachev also dismissed Vadim Medvedev. Then Eduard Shevardnadze resigned. After doing so, he gave an emotional speech to the Congress of Peoples’ deputies, on the 20th of December, warning of a new dictatorship. Ryzhkov left the political stage, suffering from a heart condition. His job as Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers was taken by Valentin Pavlov, the Minister of Finance. The new Minister of Internal Affairs was Boris Pugo, who was known as an advocate of repressive measures. Gorbachev’s choice of Gennady Yanaev as Vice-President of the USSR was another indication that Shevardnadze’s fears were not entirely misplaced. 1990 finished with an air of impending doom.