The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

4
1989: The Masses Speak Out

The March election of deputies to the Supreme Soviet radically changed the course of Russian history. Although Gorbachev had championed the idea of placing several candidates on each ballot, he had apparently given little thought to the possible outcome of the election. Despite several flaws in the new election law and aggressive campaigning by the party apparatus, the Soviet people ousted party officials in Moscow, Leningrad, and dozens of other major cities across the country. It was the Soviet people's first opportunity in seven decades to express their attitudes toward the party, and they did so unequivocally. Boris Yeltsin's election to the Congress of People's Deputies, which came despite an acrimonious campaign against him organized by Gorbachev, signalled Yeltsin's entrance into the political arena as a truly independent politician.

Perhaps more than any other event, the March election marked the point at which Gorbachev and the party began losing control of the country's political processes. The first session of the newly elected Congress of People's Deputies, held in May, greatly augmented the Soviet people's education in democracy. The Soviet people were transfixed by the deputies's open debates and criticism of Gorbachev, the party, and the KGB. The thousands of socalled informal organizations, each with a unique political program, that began emerging in 1988 swelled during 1989--and this in a country where a stamp-collecting club would once have been prohibited had it not been totally controlled by the state. Moreover, 1989 saw workers enter the political arena for the first time. The national miners' strike convinced a frightened but fascinated country that a new political force had emerged.

Paradoxically, Gorbachev's stunning progress in the areas of democratization and glasnost were followed by steady declines of his prestige in the

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