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Russia After Perestroika


On April 24, 1991, Pravda published the text of a joint statement signed by Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federal Republic, as well as the leaders of Byelorussia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kirgizia, and Turkenistan. Georgia and the Baltic Republics were notably absent, but nine out of the fifteen Soviet republics signed the statement, representing 98.6 percent of the USSR’s territory and 92.7 percent of its population.1

That Yeltsin had called for Gorbachev’s resignation only a few days before made the publication of the joint declaration seem all the more dramatic; for it said, in effect, that whatever their former differences, the signers were now determined that the country recover from a deep crisis—specifically, “social and interethnic conflicts, plummeting production, decline in people’s living standards,” and the “serious disruption of law and order.” The government’s own “mistakes committed in the course of perestroika” had contributed to the crisis, the statement admitted, and it proposed a broad five-point program aimed at resolving it.

On the one hand the declaration promised to rescind the highly unpopular 5 percent sales tax, imposed last January to soak up money, and to lower the price increases on foodstuffs and other consumer goods that had gone into effect only three weeks earlier, supposedly in order to encourage farmers to put more food in the shops (e.g., a 100 percent increase in the price of milk and eggs, 200 in the price of meat, and 300 of rye bread). It also proposed to improve the production and distribution of consumer goods.

On the other hand, the declaration spoke vaguely of the need for a “special work regime”—which sounded like the old Stalinist talk of strict factory discipline—in certain key industries, and called for a ban on all acts of “civil disobedience,” another ominous-sounding restriction in a country where public meetings in recent years have generally been allowed to take place. Specifically, it urged the nation’s coal miners, as well as other workers then on strike, to go back to work and “to make up for the losses they had caused in the immediate future.”

In one of its most unexpected passages, the joint declaration stressed the need for greater independence and autonomy on the part of the republics. Each must have the right, for instance, to control its own exports and properties. While a new Union treaty and a new USSR constitution must be created as soon as feasible, the republics should be free “to adopt additional economic measures” as they see fit. The republics that refused to sign the statement—the Baltic countries, Moldavia, Armenia, and Georgia—will be able “to independently decide” whether or not they want to join the Union. Gorbachev for a long time seemed to regard the quest for independence as some kind of malignant growth either to be cured or excised (as he apparently attempted to do by sending troops to repress the independence movements in Vilnius and Riga last January). He now in effect provided independence with a mantle of legitimacy. Moreover, the agreement between Gorbachev and the republican leaders may also prepare the way for direct presidential elections in 1992, rather than (as the present constitution states) in 1995.2

The joint declaration is one of the more surprising events of recent months. Only a week earlier, Boris Yeltsin, while on a visit to France, had urged the European Parliament and the French government to bypass the Soviet authorities and deal directly with the Russian Republic—a demand that both Enrique Baron, president of the European Parliament, and President François Mitterrand pointedly rejected. 3 On April 22, the Democratic Russia Movement (DRM), which Yeltsin heads, had called for Gorbachev’s resignation and endorsed the miners’ strike. Yet Yeltsin not only signed the agreement, but called it “a tremendous victory,” praising Gorbachev, and supporting the ban on strikes.4 Small wonder that his new position caused some consternation among his colleagues and admirers, including the Russian Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin, a leader of the DRM, who called Yeltsin’s signature on the agreement his “greatest error and a colossal blunder.”5

On the day the text of the joint declaration appeared in Pravda, a plenary session of the Party’s Central Committee opened in Moscow. Gorbachev’s hard-line enemies in the Communist party organizations, the army, and the KGB were hopeful that the meeting would vote to severely censure the General Secretary, or, if possible, to expel him from office. They had been waiting for a long time. Last February, Ivan Polozkov, the first secretary of the Russian Republic’s Communist party, attacked Gorbachev for “giving priority to planet-wide values rather than class interests,” for “robbing the people of their past and their present” without providing them with any “convincing account of what they can expect in the future.” Gorbachev, he charged, was weak, irresolute, indecisive. He had brought the Soviet Union to the brink of disintegration, and permitted

our pseudodemocrats (i.e., the liberal forces) to use any method—slander, defamation, fabrications, blackmail—to discredit socialism.6

On April 24 the same accusations filled the Central Committee meeting hall. Indeed, the atmosphere became so nasty that Gorbachev, on the second day of the session, offered to resign—perhaps a shrewd bluff, perhaps a genuine offer. Either way, his threat to leave sufficiently frightened Party members that he was given an overwhelming vote of confidence. This was not the first time that Gorbachev offered to resign. He did so at the 28th Party Congress last July, and was re-elected with a larger mandate than before.7 In both cases the hard-liners backed off, terrified lest Gorbachev’s departure lead to a schism in the Party and the country, and eventually to their own political demise. Indeed, at the April 24 meeting the hard-liners retreated to the point where the plenum voted to invite representatives of other political parties and movements for political talks, possibly leading to some kind of “coalition government.” However calculated the offer may have been, however unlikely such a coalition, the Communist party had never gone so far before.

Gorbachev’s victory at the Party plenum and the obviously well-timed joint declaration took the wind out of the sails not only of his Party opponents, but of his foes in the Supreme Soviet as well. Just three days before the declaration, on April 20, the second congress of the hard-line “Soyuz” group of USSR Supreme Soviet deputies had met in Moscow, and heard its chairman, Yuri Blokhin, call for what amounted to a removal of Gorbachev from power, for an immediate state of emergency, with a moratorium on strikes and rallies, the suspension of the activity of all political parties, and military control over transportation. The extreme rightist Colonel Viktor Alksnis, one of Gorbachev’s bitterest enemies, demanded a special session of the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies in order to oust Gorbachev from the presidency—a proposal endorsed by the delegates. After the Central Committee meeting on April 24, however, Blokhin asserted that the joint declaration was acceptable insofar as it contained ideas shared by Soyuz, such as the introduction of a “special work regime” in basic industries, such as power, transport, and communications.

The declaration does indeed refer to the need for “a special work regime” in certain industries, but according to Yeltsin those industries will be given “most-favored status” by way of incentives (“various benefits, financing, and taxes”) and the new “order and discipline” must be predicated entirely on these incentives.8 The request for a “special session” of the Congress of People’s Deputies, Blokhin said, would be scrapped.

The import of these events soon became evident. After months in which every decision Gorbachev made seemed to push him further to the right, he named several well-known reformers as his aides, among them the jurist Vladimir Kudryavtsev, the economists Leonid Abalkin and Yuri Yaremerko, and the Ukrainian writer Boris Oleynik. Within two weeks of the declaration of April 24, Yeltsin, despite criticism among his own supporters, was able to use his immense authority among workers to settle the coal mine strike. At the same time, the central government agreed to cede control of the Russian mines (among other industries) to the Russian Federal Republic, with the understanding that the coal fields could be privatized if the miners so desired. (Several of the mines have long been unprofitable, subsidized by the state because of the disastrous consequences to be expected if they were closed down. That now has become Yeltsin’s problem.) In addition, Yeltsin and the KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, agreed to establish a separate KGB under the jurisdiction of the Russian Republic.

An even more remarkable sequel to the declaration came in May, nearly a month later, when the Soviet government announced that thirteen of the fifteen republics had agreed on the details of the “special work regime.” The new agreement made it clear that a ban on strikes would be counterbalanced by incentives such as wage increases tied to higher productivity, and the right of enterprises to sell a part of their products on the open market, rather than (as has been the case so far) on terms strictly dictated by the state. Most startling was the fact that thirteen out of the fifteen Soviet republics, with the exception of Georgia and Estonia, agreed to the new economic measures. Equally if not more startling was the trip by Grigory Yavlinsky, the reformist economist, and six other economists, to the United States to discuss with a number of Harvard economists a new plan designed to transfer the USSR to a market economy. As Moscow News reported in the May 26–June 2 issue, the new Yavlinsky effort is supported fully by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and Gorbachev has expressed “his interest and eagerness to see the results.” All of this illustrates how grave is the economic crisis and how momentous the accord reached on April 24.


The events of late April and early May make up what the Russians call a povorot (reversal) or, more strongly, a perevorot (overturn), and it is one in the direction of the left. It followed an earlier povorot, to the right, in November and December 1990, and five months that were, for most Soviet citizens, the grimmest in recent memory. A look at the earlier reversal of direction is necessary to understand the recent one.

Beginning in November 1990, events seemed to point only to one conclusion: that perestroika was finished, and that a new ominous era, routinely referred to as “post-perestroika,” had begun. One telling straw in the wind was Gorbachev’s shift on the “500-Day Plan”—the economic program drafted jointly by a group of economists headed by Stanislav Shatalin and Grigory Yavlinsky. Initially a supporter of the plan, Gorbachev reversed himself and flatly rejected it. In the months that followed, Gorbachev was vested with additional power, and a series of presidential decrees virtually put an end to the Supreme Soviet’s legislative functions. Shadowy, unconstitutional, yet officially recognized “salvation committees” in the Baltic Republics mocked the promises of a “law-based state”; so did the bloodshed when Soviet troops were sent in to repress supporters of independence in Vilnius and Riga. As the liberals, or “democrats,” resigned their positions—most dramatically Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze, and also Shatalin himself—they were replaced by prominent hard-liners such as KGB Major General Boris Pugo and Army Colonel General Boris Gromov, promoted to minister and deputy minister of Internal Affairs respectively, and the former finance minister, Valentin Pavlov, promoted to prime minister.9

  1. 1

    See “Joint Declaration on Urgent Measures for the Stabilization of the Situation in the Country and for Overcoming the Crisis,” Pravda, April 24, 1991, p. 1.

  2. 2

    See interview with Sergei Grigorev, a Gorbachev aide, in The Washington Post, May 1, 1991.

  3. 3

    Le Monde, April 17 and 18, 1991.

  4. 4

    On May 11, Yeltsin went one step further, calling Gorbachev “an ally” of the democratic movement and “clearly in favor of reforms.” (The New York Times, May 12, 1991, p. 13).

  5. 5

    Among other critics were Lev Ponomarev, a DRM leader, who said the joint declaration “smelt of 1937,” as well as the chairman of the DRM, Yuri Afanasyev, and the economist Vasili Selyunin, who accused Yeltsin of helping to keep Gorbachev in power (TASS, April 25 and 27, 1991, and Komsomolskaya pravda, April 30, 1991).

  6. 6

    Sovetskaia Rossia, February 2, 1991.

  7. 7

    See Pravda, July 10, 1990.

  8. 8

    Interview with Boris Yeltsin on Radio Russia, May 5, 1991, FBIS-SOV, May 7, 1991, p. 40.

  9. 9

    The word “liberals” and the more widespread term “democrats” are often used interchangeably in the USSR today for the democratic “camp.” There are former Communist party members (e.g., Yeltsin, Leningrad mayor Anatoli Sobchak, Moscow mayor Gavriil Popov, Moscow News editor Yegor Yakovlev, and the historian Yuri Afanasyev) who had hoped to reform the party “from within” and now consider themselves democratic socialists, or social democrats. There are unreconstructed liberals of the Manchester School variety, such as Nikolay Travkin, head of the Democratic party. There are former dissidents, former conformists, atheists, and Christians and people eschewing any political or confessional labels. They all subscribe to several basic principles: authentic political pluralism; an end to the power and privileges of the Communist party apparat; complete freedom of information; a market—or “mixed”—economy; public control over the military and intelligence services.

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