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

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

WATCH THE SOVIET WORKING CLASS OCTOBER 1989

First it was glasnost, and then free elections. Here the Soviet people discover
yet another political forum--the workers' strike. Their discovery continued
a process already captured in several snapshots--Gorbachev's reforms were
slowly eroding the foundations of the country he sought to rebuild.

Of the many significant events to rock the Soviet Union this year, one in particular (ironically, probably the most important to the Soviet Union's future) seemed to escape the attention of the West, specifically, the sudden transformation of the Soviet working class into a pivotal political actor on the Soviet scene.

For years, Soviet apparatchiks had watched condescendingly as their Polish colleagues struggled in vain to prevent the ascension of Lech Walesa and Solidarity. After all, the Soviet leadership had managed to hold its workers in check for decades and, despite the misery of the average worker's life, had convinced the workers that they were the leading force in society. The Soviet leadership had no idea that it would soon encounter a situation similar to that experienced by the Poles. Following the events of this year, however, Moscow's four major political groups--the party leadership, the liberals, the neo-Stalinists, and the chauvinists--are acutely aware that their political futures rely heavily on the positions adopted by the workers.

The workers first flexed their political muscle during the election campaign early this year. At that time, the workers seemed to side with the liberals and with liberal informal organizations--first by fighting vigorously for the observation of democratic rules in the election, and then by helping defeat leading party apparatchiks in several industrial centers.

Surveys conducted by Moscow's Center of Public Opinion Studies during the spring 1989 session of the Congress of People's Deputies confirmed the workers' tendency to support democratic ideas. The workers joined much of the rest of the population (no less than 90 percent) in supporting the democratic idea that parliament, not the party, should be the major repository of power in the country.

The workers again demonstrated their political clout in July, when coal miners from practically every region in the country went on strike. The strike--the most powerful in seven decades of Soviet history--brought the Soviet economy to the brink of collapse, and forced the leadership to accept

____________________
This article appeared as "The Soviet Workers' Role Becomes Uncertai", in The Detroit News on November 8, 1989, and as "Gorbachev's Real Foe: The Soviet Worker", in The Washington Post on November 26, 1989.

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