Nov 1, 2021
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Yuri Boldyrev: “Sovereignty of a ruler is not a guarantee of the strength of the state”

In the photo: President of the USSR Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev speaking at a joint meeting of the chambers of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in the Grand Kremlin Palace.  1991 year.

In the photo: President of the USSR Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev speaking at a joint meeting of the chambers of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in the Grand Kremlin Palace. 1991 year. (Photo: Vladimir Musaelyan / TASS)

The closer we are to the now thirty-year anniversary of the final destruction of the USSR, the more acutely the question is raised again and again about the possibility of an alternative development of historical events – about what would have happened if … And also about what led, what allowed, what did not prevent the tragedy of a great state.

To understand the events of those times, it is necessary to remember more precisely what the self-awareness of the rulers and the majority of ordinary people was then, what worried them, tormented them.

Sadly, it is worth admitting that there was not and could not have been such nostalgia for the Soviet past, which is felt now in the comments to any material touching on the question of the destruction of the USSR and the events that followed. There could be nostalgia, but not for the Soviet (since we continued to live in the USSR in the same autumn days of 1991), but simply for one or another relatively more prosperous, paradoxical as it may sound, “stagnant” times.

At the same time, it must be admitted that society was divided in these dramatic, even pre-tragic years, months and days. A certain more conservative minority (as the results of the then various votes and elections showed) were more nostalgic for the pre-perestroika, “pre-Gorbachev” past. The more active and undoubtedly at that time the dominant majority (at least in Russia and, above all, in its large industrial and cultural centers) was disposed to reject Gorbachev’s, “sluggish-perestroika” and a significant part of the previous – periods of “stagnation”, “repression” etc.

How this could be, how did we come to this is a separate important question that deserves continued study, research, re-evaluation and learning of sad lessons again and again. But to assess the situation in the period preceding the immediate final destruction of the USSR, it is important to understand that society could be “decomposed” into the widest range of various socio-political and ideological forces. There was only one thing critically small in this spectrum – the forces that actively supported the then Gorbachev leadership of the USSR.

The authority of the union leadership has especially collapsed after the strange August 1991 coup, with the role of the supreme leader of the state, the president, which has not been fully clarified. Gorbachev… And after the release from the Foros house arrest of the President of the USSR by forces that were publicly and harshly oppositional to him – the then leadership of the largest union republic of the RSFSR, which fronted against the union center.

There were no naive ones and could not be: did they really release him in order to, figuratively speaking, albeit crookedly and askew, but still re-place the crown of the supreme ruler on his head?

Similarly, could then the supreme ruler of the USSR himself, who had pretty much lost his authority by that time, nevertheless, in one way or another, let not directly appoint, but somehow push through as his successor one of the authoritative leaders of the Union republics at that time? – the same head of the RSFSR Yeltsin or the head of Kazakhstan Nazarbayeva?

There were both personal obstacles and, starting with the failure of the putsch, already objective ones.

How could Gorbachev hand over his post to his irreconcilable political opponent (and most importantly, his personal rival) Yeltsin? Say – for the sake of preserving a single great country? This was hardly possible.

First, it is appropriate to assume that Gorbachev believed in himself to the last, and not in his competitors. Moreover, knowing Yeltsin well, even if he suddenly became an absolute altruist, he was still sure that Yeltsin could not be entrusted with a serious matter.

Secondly, even six months before, say, immediately after a successful referendum for the central union authorities on the preservation of the USSR, a maneuver with the transfer of power (by way of early re-election of the USSR President by the Congress of USSR People’s Deputies), for example, could have been successful for Nazarbayev, anyway, in the short term.

But after the failure of the August putsch, everything changed radically. Figuratively speaking, the crown not only fell off the head of the allied ruler, but fell and irreparably shattered into small fragments. Cracks also spread across other basic institutions of the unified state.

The Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, unfortunately, it must be admitted, also lost its original authority, nevertheless, unlike the widespread opinion, did not vote for self-dissolution, but agreed with a new mechanism for the formation of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR – on the basis of additional co-optation from the higher legislative bodies union republics.

This was true – it was necessary to strengthen the supreme legislative body of the country (USSR) with the authority of those who did not lose it. So we ended up in the new Supreme Soviet of the USSR and for another three months we worked together with the deputies of the congresses of people’s deputies of the union republics. They tried to collect again almost fragments of a single country.

But here’s the problem: a number of republics – the Baltic and, most importantly, Ukraine – refused to send their representatives to the All-Union Supreme Soviet. That is, our new Supreme Soviet – without representatives of Ukraine – was already clearly insufficiently representative, incomplete.

An important digression. It is believed that we are persistently imposed that rigidly centralized authoritarian states are stronger, it is more difficult to destroy them, but “games of democracy” – they just lead to disorder and vacillation and destruction of states.

I agree: the “games” at democracy – top manipulation, falsehood and hypocrisy – lead to this. But let’s imagine that after the putsch the people would really decide what would happen?

I testify: in September 1991, a few weeks after the failure of the coup, returning from a business trip, I crossed Ukraine and Belarus by car. I saw many cars of local activists with flags and speeches, saw the hastily established customs posts between the republics. And talked to the locals. Almost none of them believed that the division of a single state was taking place. The majority treated what was happening in the same way as they relate to the petty mischief of adolescents: if they rage, they get mad, and everything will work out.

Of course, everyone was previously told that it was they who were “feeding the neighbors” for nothing. But even this did not lead to the fact that people massively approved of the hastily established customs – the majority expressed dissatisfaction with local activists – “buzoters”, but they were sure that gradually everything would work out somehow, everything would work out.

But within the framework of the “games of democracy” with the traditional for our historical path, it must be admitted, the weaknesses of society, decisions were made by completely different people. As a result of the final fall of the authority of the union center and the avalanche-like collapse of the entire system of union power, the republican leaders felt like the first guys in the village, which now can not obey anyone.

So if, in principle, you can not obey anyone else, why should something else be different?

In the photo: a rally on October Square in Moscow demanding the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev.  01 November 1991
In the photo: a rally on October Square in Moscow demanding the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev. 01 November 1991 (Photo: Sergey Mamontov, Alexander Nemenov / TASS)

This is the key feature of the autumn 1991, which was tragic for our history. The people are tortured by latent inflation – with state control over prices, which was observed, first of all, in the markets and on the black market, as well as a total shortage of everything that is vital. The people are ready to accept from the authorities any saving recipe that can somehow improve life.

But for the most part (with the exception, perhaps, of the indigenous inhabitants of the Baltic republics), the people do not at all yearn for any withdrawal from the united country. The local rulers (both in the union republics and in the autonomies) realized the only, perhaps in their life, chance right now to become almost kings – the heads of independent states.

In the photo: participants in a rally on Soviet Square in Yaroslavl, organized by the leadership of the United Front of Workers.  01 November 1991
In the photo: participants in a rally on Soviet Square in Yaroslavl, organized by the leadership of the United Front of Workers. 01 November 1991 (Photo: Sergey Metelitsa / TASS)

Independence referendums in many republics were quick and successful. Under what flags where – now I will not tell you in detail (about the sentiments I knew then in Ukraine and Belarus – about what I personally encountered, I told above), but I well remember under what sauce the further “sovereignty” of Russia and the subsequent Belovezhskaya agreements were filed with us in Russia. Despite the total rejection of the “party nomenklatura” and “arbitrariness of the CPSU”, which undoubtedly prevailed at that time, nevertheless, no one dared to speak directly about the destruction of the USSR, especially since the USSR was, after all, the legal successor of the Russian Empire, and Peter the Great at the same time, monuments were erected, for example, at the Moscow railway station in St. Petersburg (instead of a monument Lenin) … They formulated it differently – as a kind of just another reorganization, the transformation of the USSR into the CIS – the same thing, but even better, on a more honest, voluntary and equal basis …

Of course, this was the original deception, for some – even self-deception. But the main thing: among the people, in any case, in the largest centers of Russia (unlike, perhaps, from the border regions, and even more so, unlike the self-awareness of Russians in a number of union republics) there was no feeling of tragedy in connection with the destruction of the state. They did not know how exactly about the destruction, they did not understand this. Moreover, they were deceived by the hasty, solemn, almost unanimous ratification of the Belovezhskaya Agreements by the Congress of People’s Deputies of the RSFSR, which was still a hero in the eyes of the population – the winner of the August putsch.

It is all the more important for us now, three decades later, to remember those units – heroes, deputies of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the RSFSR, who then, despite the general jubilation around, did not raise their hand to vote for the destruction of the USSR. There were only seven of them, if I’m not mistaken, all of them are still alive, and on the eve of the tragic anniversary we will definitely tell about each of them.

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