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10 November, 2018  ▪  Stanislav Kulchytsky

A reform that ruined the Soviet Union

Why the bomb laid under the foundation of the USSR exploded

The state Vladimir Lenin built was composed of two power verticals with “democratic centralism” as its basis. This meant that the lower ranks of the hierarchy were blindly obedient to the upper ones. As a result, vozhdi – the leaders – held the power within the dictatorial party vertical. The vertical ofsoviets, i.e. councils, was organizationally separated from the party and every rank of it was subordinate to the respective rank in the party vertical. All this combined ensured full managerial power for the soviet vertical. 

The soviet vertical was comprised exclusively of communists and non-aligned sympathizers. As a result, the party and the soviets turned into a single political force that shared the same name: the soviet government. The dictatorship of the leaders was thus anonymous, masked under the simulacra of “proletariat dictatorship”. When vozhdiexpropriated production facilities from small and big owners in the process of “building socialism” as they pursued economic dictatorship in addition to the political kind, the “proletariat dictatorship” was replaced by the simulacra of “socialist democracy”. 

 

A contract of dictatorship

The party vertical did not depend on the people while the functionaries of the soviet vertical got their mandates through elections. Party committees arranged elections without a choice in their dictatorial manner – they were determining who would join soviet entities. The soviet state looked like that of workers and peasants as it selected functionaries from the grassroots level. In fact, it was a totalitarian one as the state sovereignty belonged to the leaders, not the people. 

The Bolsheviks used this double structure of power to disorient the population in national regions. “Lenin’s national politics” supported national liberation movements of subjected peoples provided that they would join the construction of soviet statehood. One impressive example of this -- the red Russia had to invade the Ukrainian People’s Republic three times before it finally gathered a million-strong army there. But on December 28, 1920, it signed a workers-peasants agreement with the soviet Ukraine it established whereby it solemnly confirmed the “independence and sovereignty of each of the parties to the agreement.” 

A transfer to the new economic policy (NEP) removed the looming prospect of the economic collapse resulting from the communist experiment. Joseph Stalin and the leaders of the second echelon used this to try and strip national soviet republics of their status of states, which would essentially turn them into autonomous republics of the Russian Federation. The idea of “autonomization” was discussed without Lenin who fell sick then. The leader rejected it and offered an alternative whereby the independent republics, including Russia, would “together and as equals” create a federation of the second tier called the Soviet Union. Every union republic would preserve its status as a state reinforced by the constitutional provision on free exit from the Soviet Union. Obviously, the mechanism of leaving the Soviet Union was not described in the Constitution.  

Organizing the state by establishing a “second tier” federation was more convenient for those in power. This triggered less resistance from the population in national regions than the integration of them into the borders of Russia would. In order to understand what happened next, it is important to note that the guarantor of the Soviet Union’s existence was the Communist Party vertical. If national republics were then diminished to autonomous regions within the Russian Federation, the vertical of soviet bodies would be the guarantor of the multinational Russia’s existence.  

 

Time was ticking

The Soviet Union had neither external nor internal enemies that could actually threaten its existence. The sole threat for it came from the system of power, anti-people in essence, and the inefficiency of its command economy. The communist regime got a second wind when Adolf Hitler pushed the Soviet Union into the anti-Hitler coalition, then another one when the price of fuels started going up.  

Still, the degradation of the Soviet Union progressed rapidly. The soviet economy of coal and steel failed to stand up to the challenges of the post-industrial era in which the world’s top countries already lived. The two intertwined verticals of power were working worse and worse. 

The failed economic transformation of 1985-86 forced Mikhail Gorbachev to radicalize the vector of reconstruction or perestroikahe declared. He pressured the Communist Party Central Committee into passing a decision at its January 1987 plenum introducing direct and alternative elections by the communists of party committee supreme leaders at all levels, from the secretary of the lowest (basic) party organization to the secretaries of oblast and republican organizations. This undermined the basics of “democratic centralism” but did not deliver a palpable result. Anatoliy Cherniayev, Gorbachev’s assistant, wrote the following fragment in his book published in 2003: “The famous Central Committee January plenum on staff policy was the first one after Lenin to blame what was happening in the country and its crisis on the party and its Central Committee. However, it did not deliver the result expected from perestroika. The party remained reluctant and incapable of driving transformations. Gorbachev later admitted that the mere nature of the party prevented it from doing so. He came out with a solution: to use an All-Union Party Conference to strip the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of state power functions and restore the full power of soviets abolished by Stalin in the 1920s.” 

This quote shows that people within Gorbachev’s circle did not realize what they did by interfering with the leverages of power constructed by Lenin. If the assistants of Gorbachev didn’t understand this, he didn’t understand it either – in fact, the soviets never had full power under Lenin. 

RELATED ARTICLE: Elections and the Great Terror

From party to society

The 21st All-Union Party Conference in June 1988 decided to transform soviet governing bodies into structures with full power independent of party committees and their apparatuses. That constitutional reform brought about the abolition of the party & soviets tandem. Why did delegates to the conference risk taking such a radical move? 

The party nomenclature always held positions in soviets that were equivalent to their positions in the party. For example, the first secretary of the party’s oblast committee had to be a deputy of the Soviet Union or a republican Supreme Council. After several decades, party officials had grown used to their status as deputies in councils. As a result, they met the transfer of power from party committees to council executive committees as something unusual but not shocking. The functionaries of the party vertical were willing to perform their managerial functions from a different seat – of the council or council executive committee chair of a respective level. 

What did the reform actually change? The abolition of the party & councils tandem meant that the sovereign power went from the party to society. The countries where societies elect members of top state institutions are usually referred to as democracies. That reform thus turned the Soviet Union from a totalitarian state into a democracy overnight. That democracy, however, was very original – with no tradition of democracy, society relying on the state for everything, and with the communist backbone that paralyzed any free movement of the social organism. 

All of the party’s decisions had now to be authorized by soviet entities. Mikhail Gorbachev proposed the constitutional reform at the extraordinary 12thsession of the Soviet Union Supreme Council (November 29 – December 1, 1988). The deputies who mostly represented the nomenclature of the communist party and soviets did not object the proposed reform. 

Before it was submitted to the Supreme Council, the constitutional reform was put up for a general public discussion.  But the public was not aware that it was discussing the construction of Lenin’s government system that had earlier removed soviets from political decisions. The essence was skillfully masked by simulacra words to which both soviet people and soviet politicians were used. The number of comments and proposals during the discussion exceeded 300,000. But nobody mentioned that the reform would upend the soviet political order. 

Gorbachev’s team initially failed to understand the impact of the reform on the socio-political life. Meanwhile, the assembly of the Soviet Union deputies formed after the March 1989 elections produced democratic opposition that was joined by Boris Yeltsin, a powerful rival of Gorbachev. Still, the Communist Party’s dictate over society seemed to remain intact as the party functionaries were used to running the show while soviet officials were used to being ruled. 

 

The centrifugal force

The parade of sovereignties – that’s how Gorbachev described the aspiration of periphery elites to free from the embrace of the Soviet Union center – started before the first free elections to the supreme councils of the Soviet Union republics, that is, before non-nomenclature figures appeared in soviet governing bodies aiming to gain independence for their peoples.

On November 16, 1988, the Supreme Council of Estonia passed the Declaration of Sovereignty for the Estonian SSR. It declared the republic’s laws superior over the laws of the Soviet Union. The Lithuanian and Latvian Soviet Socialist Republics followed suit with identical initiatives on May 26 and July 28, 1989, respectively. 

Established in September 1989, the People’s Movement of Ukraine for Reconstruction was growing into a powerful factor in the country’s socio-political life. Detached from the all-Union center, the Russian communist and soviet nomenclature led by Yeltsin was expanding a fight for the sovereignization of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.  

Paradoxically, it was the Russian Federation that was seeking sovereignization most proactively. In fact, the position of Russia within the Soviet Union was always obscure. It was a crucial republic in the Union and the Soviet Union center defended its interest first and foremost. The Union’s unofficial table of rankings listed the Russians as the titular nation of the Union, not just the Russian Federation. This meant that they were never a national minority in any of the Union’s republics. Still, Russia was deprived politically since the Kremlin could not afford to sustain two equally powerful centers of power – that of the Soviet Union and of Russia -- in Moscow. 

Elections to republican authorities were scheduled for March 1990. Just like earlier, power within the Ukrainian SSR was in the hands of Volodymyr Ivashko, First Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee. However, his supremacy was based on the fact that he was Head of the Supreme Council, the Verkhovna Rada. After the abovementioned reform of the party and soviet system, the Supreme Council was the sole center of authority. 

The March 1990 elections to the Ukrainian SSR Supreme Council saw an unusually active electorate. Two thirds of the 450 deputies elected were people with real power in their constituencies, i.e. representatives of the party and soviet nomenclature, directors of industrial enterprises, heads of collective farms etc. Now, the parliament had 85% of the Soviet Union Communist Party members. This was 16.5% up from the share of communists in the 11th convention of the Supreme Council. Still, the split of the party & councils tandem sidelined them in political life. “Despite the fact that the 12th (1st) convention of the legislature had 373 members of the Communist Party, they were unable to decisively influence decision making from this party’s perspective,” wrote Ivan Pliushch, then-Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, in his memoirs published in 2010.  

 

“Time to admit our defeat”

Alongside elections to republican authorities, the extraordinary Third Convention of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union took place. Gorbachev then introduced the position of the Soviet Union’s president that fit him – albeit alien to the soviet political system – thus diminishing the dangerous wobbling of power between the two centers of the party and soviets. But that’s when the elections of deputies in the Union’s republics created 15 new centers of power simultaneously, including one in Moscow. As head of the Supreme Council, Boris Yeltsin ended up at the helm of the Russian SFSR.

He did not hesitate to take up the opportunity offered by the norms of the Soviet Union and republican constitutions to remove the party & councils center from power, thus eliminating the dual power structure that emerged in Moscow after the March 1990 elections. In parallel, the nomenclature in the national republics stopped counting on the help of Moscow where struggle between Gorbachev and Yeltsin was unfolding. Part of the national nomenclatures realized that they now depended less on the Kremlin regardless of who chaired it and more on their voters. As a result, the Ukrainian nomenclature started breeding more and more sovereignty-oriented communists.  

On March 7, 1990, the Soviet Union Communist Party Central Committee politburo reviewed the results of the Russian elections. Most of its members assessed the elections as satisfactory, hoping that the all-Union center would manage to keep the Soviet Union’s central republic under control. Only Ivan Frolov, an assistant in Gorbachev’s team in 1987-1989, then Central Committee Secretary and politburo member from July 1990, did not share that optimism. A philosopher with the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences, he suddenly realized how dangerous the constitutional reform was, as well as the basis on which the pre-reform system of power was built. The party had stumbled into a deep crisis. Still, under Lenin’s concept, it had to serve as the foundation of the centralized state that was sold to the public as a fake union of free and equal republics with the constitutional right to leave the “federation”. Yeltsin’s intention to get into the seat of Russia’s president undermined Lenin’s construction of power with tragic consequences for the center of the Soviet Union. 

“We have to admit our defeat, realistically and unambiguously,” Frolov said in one speech. “I think we have a very controversial result here: we have received so many votes for the party members and so on, and yet we know that there is a split… Popov is in the party, Afanasiev is in the party (Yuriy Afanasiev and Gavriil Popov, both soviet politicians – Ed.)… Afanasiev and others don’t want to leave it so that they can undermine it at the convention (the 28th convention of the Soviet Union Communist Party was approaching – Ed.). We need to energetically remove old members. We are losing the party because of them… And the last thing. Of course, Russian structures, party structures and these Councils present the most powerful bombs – nuclear or so. They will destroy our Federation in general. That’s the reason why all these Popovs and others, Afanasiev and Yeltsin, have focused on them.”  

On March 11, 1990, the new convocation of the Lithuanian Parliament gathered for the first session and announced the Declaration of Restored Independence of the Lithuanian State. On May 4, Latvia passed an identical document. On May 8, the Estonian SSR announced that it was exiting the Soviet Union. The deputies of the Baltic republics were right: these states had been integrated into the Soviet Union under the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which the Second Convention of the Soviet Union Deputies admitted and condemned in December 1989. After they declared independence, the three Baltic States spent over a year in an undefined status. Eventually, the USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev was forced to acknowledge their independence on September 6, 1991. 

In May 1990, the First Convention of Russia’s Deputies took place. Despite desperate resistance of the Soviet Union center, Boris Yeltsin was elected as head of the Russian SFSR Supreme Council. The Convention of Russia’s Deputies passed the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian SFSR. The document featured Ivan Frolov’s worst expectations. It ended the acts of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which countered the sovereign rights of the Russian SFSR. Its Article 7 declared that the Russian SFSR preserved its right to freely leave the Soviet Union in keeping with the procedure established by the Union treaty and the legislation based on it. The First Convention of the Russian SFSR Deputies ended with Yeltsin’s declaration of leaving the Soviet Union Communist Party. 

 

The Ukrainian context

When the Baltic republics were passing their declarations of sovereignty, the Supreme Council of the Ukrainian SSR condemned them. Parliaments of other Union republics reacted similarly. But Russia’s steps signaled that the Moscow center was deep in crisis and was no longer able to keep other nations under control. It immediately became clear that the multinational soviet state created by the Bolsheviks could not possibly exist unless it used violent tools. 

On June 28, 1990, the Ukrainian SSR Supreme Council started discussing state sovereignty for Ukraine. In the process, the deputies were informed about Volodymyr Ivashko’s declaration of resignation as head of the Supreme Council. They learned that Gorbachev offered Ivashko a newly-created position of deputy Secretary General of the Soviet Union Communist Party Secretary General. An all-Union position in a degrading party looked more promising to Ivashko than the powerful seat of the leader in a republican parliament. His political capitulation shocked Ukrainian society, demoralized the communist majority in parliament and made it easier for the opposition to pass a document that was quite radical for its time – it established Ukraine’s sovereignty. The final text of the Declaration was supported by virtually all deputies. On July 16, 1990, the Ukrainian SSR Supreme Council passed the Declaration on State Sovereignty of Ukraine and elected Leonid Kravchuk, the leader of sovereignty-oriented communists, as its new chair. 

Once the Declaration on Sovereignty was passed, the party and soviet majority in parliament took a long pause by not showing any intent to implement the document’s revolutionary provisions. The next year was spent in tug-o-wars between the center of the Soviet Union and the leaders of nine Union republics, excluding the Baltic States, Georgia and Moldova. The parties were trying to get vaster powers while agreeing on one thing: the Soviet Union had to survive. 

The emergence and defeat of the State Committee on the State of Emergency sped up the developments. When Leonid Kravchuk delivered his speech On the Political Situation at an extraordinary session of the Ukrainian SSR Supreme Council on August 24, 1991, he admitted that the Declaration on Ukraine’s Sovereignty supported by the people at the March 17, 1991 referendum had to be implemented in action. This included the immediate establishment of the Ukraine Defense Council and the National Guard of Ukraine, and the passing of laws on the separation of law enforcement authorities from the party. He underlined that all law enforcement authorities had to report to the Ukrainian government alone and not be part of any Union structures. “Given all the profound changes that have taken place in the country, we should also revise our positions on the Union Treaty,” he ended his speech. “Ukraine can only enter a Union which entails the least possibility of anyone attacking our sovereignty.” MP Ihor Yukhnovsky called on the Parliament to immediately declare Ukraine an independent democratic state, to back up and fix the declaration of independence by the All-Ukrainian referendum to be held alongside the presidential election, and to terminate the operation of the Soviet Union Communist Party on the territory of the republic. 

Behind the scenes, Kravchuk managed to persuade the parliamentary majority to accept the opposition’s demands. The party and soviet nomenclature was scared by the news of Volodymyr Ivashko’s arrest in Moscow, the re-subordination of the Soviet Army to the Russian leaders, the sealing of the Communist Party Central Committee’s premises etc. After the break, the Parliament passed the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine with 346 votes. The text was largely composed at night of August 23 by five MPs, including Serhiy Holovatiy, Mykhailo Horyn, Ivan Zayets, Levko Lukianenko and Viacheslav Chornovil.

RELATED ARTICLE: The strikes of opportunism and independence

The inevitable turn

Would the Soviet Union have survived if it hadn’t been for the putsch led by the key figures from Gorbachev’s team? Obviously, the putsch sped up the collapse. But it was inevitable after the constitutional reform of 1988 returned sovereign rights to the different peoples of the superstate, withdrawn earlier by Vladimir Lenin during the 1917 October Revolution. 

As mentioned above, national soviet republics could have been brought together in one state in two ways after the forced restoration of the Russian Empire: by turning into autonomous republics of the Russian Federation or into the Union republics within the Soviet Union as the “second tier” federation. The state was the guarantor of the forced unification in the first scenario, the party played that role in the second scenario. The architects of reconstruction attempted to “heal” the party with the 1988 constitutional reform but the treatment proved too strong. The party could not be reformed. Therefore, the collapse of the Soviet Union could not be stopped.

The leaders of the Russian Federation have managed to stifle the appetite for state sovereignty in its autonomous republics with carrots and sticks. Still, Russia’s federative order is as much a simulacra as the Soviet Union’s “second tier” federation was. An actual federation is based on every subject having constitutional rights which the center can’t appeal against. If the Soviet Union’s federative structure was a time bomb in the foundation of the state, a similar bomb lies within the foundation of the Russian Federation. Nobody knows when exactly it can go off. 

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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