Gorbachev Yeltsin 150615

Russia Day was June 12. I was reminded of its twenty-fifth anniversary by @ironcurtain_25, which is tweeting the events of 25 years ago, and by Paul Goble. It’s a peculiar anniversary, not really an Independence Day. Formally, June 12 is the anniversary of the passing of a sovereignty law in the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union.

The significance of that law goes back a few years before its passing. Similar laws were passed in Baltic soviet socialist republics a few years earlier, but their significance was different. The reason for that is wrapped up in the unique governing structures and politics of the Soviet Union.

Whole books have been written to try to understand those structures, so this is a quick overview. The Soviet Union was made up of fifteen republics, each of which had its own Supreme Soviet. The Union itself had a Supreme Soviet. The soviets functioned like legislatures, but their members were not elected in the same way legislators are in democratic countries. Over all stood the Communist Party. The General Secretary of the Communist Party was the top post. Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary from 1985 through 1991.

In addition to the Union itself, the Communist Party controlled a number of satellite nations in eastern Europe, including East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. These countries were not ruled directly from Moscow and had legislatures and heads of state of their own, but their policies were kept closely coordinated with Moscow.

Within the Baltic republics, activity toward independence started in 1987 and earlier, as the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian Supreme Soviets began to include members who were more nationalist than soviet. Although political parties other than the Communist Party were outlawed, groups of like-minded people worked together but were careful not to designate themselves as political parties.

Street demonstrations began  in 1987 against proposed mining activity in northeastern Estonia; later and larger demonstrations in the Baltic republics commemorated their independence from the Russian Empire after World War I. In 1988, sovereignty legislation was passed in all three republics. This legislation stated that the laws of the republics took precedence over the laws of the Soviet Union and gave control of state property to the republics. Moscow’s Supreme Soviet Presidium annulled these laws and took back control of state property. Over the next few years, the Baltics passed laws making the local languages the official languages of the republics and other steps separating them from Moscow’s control. Their legislatures called themselves councils or parliaments rather than soviets. Other republics, particularly Georgia, passed similar legislation.

Meanwhile, Gorbachev was attempting to develop more representative bodies of government, including an elected legislature and president. The control of the Communist Party was diluted. In October 1989, he released the satellite countries from Moscow’s control.

In May 1990, Boris Yeltsin was elected chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet. In that role, he was subordinate to Gorbachev. The Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic was structurally analogous to the Baltic republics. The Russian sovereignty legislation, which Russia Day honors, was passed a month after Yeltsin came into office and was modeled on that of the Baltic republics. Because Russia was the largest of the Soviet republics and had dominated the rest of the Union, the need for and purpose of this legislation was not the same as in the Baltics. It decoupled the Russian Republic from overarching Communist Party governance and made Yeltsin’s position more important while downgrading Gorbachev’s.

Two months before, Lithuania had declared its independence from the Soviet Union. In January 1991, Moscow sent in troops to reverse that independence, resulting in deaths and injuries. Lithuania was persuaded to suspend its declaration. Within days, Yeltsin visited his Baltic counterparts in Tallinn and signed agreements for the republics to recognize each others’ sovereignty. The republics were acting like autonomous nations in the face of Gorbachev’s efforts at reform.

The legislation and demonstrations toward independence in the Baltic republics were one thing, but by joining them, Yeltsin was setting up a power struggle with Gorbachev. Gorbachev could not move a calcified Soviet government quickly enough to provide an alternative that might keep the Baltics in the Union. It’s likely that Baltic sentiment would not have tolerated anything but independence, no matter what the central reforms.

Others in Moscow felt that Gorbachev’s reforms were going too far too fast. They attempted a coup in August 1991. Although the coup failed, it destroyed Gorbachev’s power. The Baltics quickly declared independence, and their friend in the Russian republic quickly recognized them.

Negotiations continued among the heads of the remaining twelve republics to try to keep a semblance of the old Union, but by December 1991, they all agreed to become independent nations.

From this viewpoint, Russia Day appears as the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, the day the center ceased to hold. It was declared as a holiday in 1992 by the victorious Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian Federation.


I should note that this interpretation seems not to be broadly held. I’ve assumed for a long time that it was, but on researching Google, I find few others providing similar discussions. Here is a more personalized version. It seems to me that this area is ripe for scholarly work and recommend it to graduate students looking for thesis topics.

One more anniversary: Today, June 15, is the 75th anniversary of the invasion of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union in 1940 and the start of deportation of citizens to Siberia and Kazakhstan, along with the killing of many others.

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