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Revolutions Of '89: The Moscow Spring

  • Brian Whitmore

Soviet scientist and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov addressing the First Congress of the USSR People's Deputies after becoming a deputy in 1989.

Soviet scientist and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov addressing the First Congress of the USSR People's Deputies after becoming a deputy in 1989.

Some stayed home and sat glued to their television sets for hours. Some went about their daily business with transistor radios pressed tightly against their ears. They gasped in shock, awe, glee, and indignation at what they heard. They hung on every single word.

It was the spring of 1989, the Soviet Union's first democratically elected legislature was in session.

The daily sessions were filled with passionate speeches and heated disagreements. The Soviet public had never seen anything like it -- and couldn't get enough.

"People were carrying radios everywhere they went, on trams, on buses. Everybody was listening to the deputies' speeches. If somebody didn't have a radio, they would stand next to somebody who did. Everybody gave others the opportunity to listen," says Yury Vdovin, deputy director of the St. Petersburg-based human rights organization Citizens Watch.

And what they heard was -- for the time -- revolutionary.

Gone were the empty, scripted platitudes and numbing cadence that previously dominated official Soviet life. Instead, newly elected representatives were boldly chastising once-untouchable Politburo members, criticizing their failures and shortcomings as the television cameras rolled.

The revolutionary year of 1989 is most closely associated with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. But inside the Soviet Union itself, particularly in its Russian republic, the year was also the high-water mark of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's era of perestroika and glasnost.

Before the remarkable autumn of 1989 that saw Poland and Hungary install noncommunist governments, Germans tear down the Berlin Wall, and Czechoslovakia wage its peaceful Velvet Revolution, there was the Moscow Spring.

It was a time of newly competitive elections, unprecedented public demonstrations, vigorous debate, and unbounded optimism. Throughout most of the year, much of the Soviet Union was actually freer, more democratic, and more open than its Warsaw Pact satellites.

Paul Quinn-Judge, the Moscow bureau chief for the U.S. newspaper "The Boston Globe" at the time, describes 1989 as "a hell of a year" that had the feel of a national catharsis.

"1989 was when the Soviet past and the chaotic future sort of banged into each other," Quinn-Judge says. "It was a very weird time. There were very passionate, lively debates. All the inhibitions and prohibitions were breaking up."

Intellectuals, Dissidents, And Communists

The public awakening was set off by Gorbachev's decision to allow competitive elections for a newly established legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies.

Gorbachev had been battling hard-liners in the Communist Party who were resisting glasnost and perestroika. He hoped that the new legislature would give him an avenue to work around the retrograde elements in the party and implement his reforms.

Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee, interrupts Andrei Sakharov at the First Congress of People's Deputies in 1989.
But Gorbachev got more than he bargained for. Although most of the seats in the new legislature were reserved for party members, pro-democracy candidates won the vast majority of the contested seats.

And these new democratic legislators -- a collection of outsiders, intellectuals, ex-dissidents, and reform communists -- were in no mood to simply follow Gorbachev's lead. Unsatisfied with what they called the "half-measures" of perestroika, they urged the Soviet leader to establish true democracy.

The new democrats weren't interested in Gorbachev's project of reforming communism. They were interested in ending it.

"At the congress a schism emerged, that was never overcome, between the democratic movement and the reformist wing of the [Communist Party] nomenklatura, which was led by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev," Moscow-based political scientist Tatyana Vorozheikina said at a conference of the Gorbachev Foundation in May.

The democratic lawmakers organized themselves into a faction called the Inter-Regional Group, with human rights champion Andrei Sakharov as its undisputed leader. Other key figures in the group included Boris Yeltsin, who would become Russia's first post-Soviet president, as well as the historian Yury Afanasiyev and Leningrad-based ethnographer Galina Starovoitova.

Sakharov's emergence on the political scene had been made possible by Gorbachev, who in 1986 freed the dissident physicist from seven years' internal exile in Gorki, where he had been sent as punishment for his opposition to the Soviet regime.

But if Gorbachev was expecting gratitude, he was mistaken. After winning a seat in the new legislature, Sakharov sparred continuously with Gorbachev. He pushed relentlessly for the Soviet system to be transformed into a multiparty democracy and for Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which guaranteed the Communist Party a monopoly on power, to be revoked.

At one memorable session, Sakharov said that "the Communist Party has the right to exist, just like any other party, just like any church. But it should be just one type of organization among many."

Such words were heresy to the party elite, especially the hard-liners who often booed and hissed when Sakharov spoke. But they were music to the ears of masses of citizens fed up with Communist rule, especially in the reformist strongholds of Moscow and Leningrad.

Taboos Lifted

The popular weekly newspaper "Argumenti i fakti" published a poll in 1989 showing that Sakharov was, by far, the most popular politician in the country.

The poll, which reportedly infuriated Gorbachev, was illustrative of the new liberties the media was taking as official censorship eased.

Deputy Galina Starovoitova and by-now-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1991, two years after they allied under the Inter-Regional Group.
"1989 was such an eventful and colorful year because the Communist Party lost its control over the mass media and journalists began to exploit this new freedom with great pleasure," Vdovin said.

Newspapers like "Moskovsky novosti" and magazines like "Ogonyok" and "Novoye vremya" published articles criticizing the elite and examining previously taboo historical topics. Popular television shows like "Vzglyad" analyzed political developments with unprecedented independence.

The civic awakening was not limited to the chattering classes of Moscow and Leningrad. That year, coal miners in Siberia went on strike demanding higher wages and better working conditions -- and actually won concessions from the Soviet government.

When Soviet forces killed 19 pro-independence demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia, in April, demonstrations in support of the Georgians were staged in Russian cities and the Congress of People's Deputies appointed a commission to investigate.

But just as the demise of official censorship and unofficial taboos allowed society's liberal elements to come forward, it also unleashed its most retrograde elements. It was in 1989 that nationalist groups like the openly anti-Semitic Pamyat began to gain traction.

By the end of the year, Russian society had become increasingly polarized between the resurgent hard-line and nationalist elements and the liberal intelligentsia -- with Gorbachev and his reformers stuck in the middle.

The Beginning Of The End

The democrats suffered a severe emotional and political blow on December 14, when Sakharov unexpectedly died of a heart attack in his Moscow apartment while preparing a speech for the next day's session of the Congress of People's Deputies.

Quinn-Judge notes that the emerging social divides were clearly visible in the legislature the day after Sakharov's death.

"The day after he died, people were laying piles of flowers on his seat," Quinn-Judge says. "But at the same time you could see the hard-liners, the nationalists. I remember very distinctly, a couple of them were not quite celebrating his death, but they thought the thing was a little over the top and were smirking about it. So the mood was changing."

After Sakharov's death, Yeltsin took up the mantle of leader of the democratic forces.

Yeltsin won election as president of the Soviet Union's Russian Republic in June 1991. He then led the democrats to what appeared to be a victory months later when he faced down a hard-line coup in August 1991 and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union, bringing Gorbachev's political career to an end.

Boris Yeltsin addresses deputies at the People's Congress in Moscow, as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (left) listens.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service last month, Gorbachev acknowledged that laying the path for change had not always been gratifying, but that he had no regrets about the forces he unleashed.

"There were so many trials, so much work, day and night, night and day, and people were ungrateful. But then I asked myself, 'Why should people thank you?' The question should be put the other way around: 'You've had such great luck, to be able to change this massive country. What greater happiness can you ask for?'" Gorbachev said.

But Gorbachev's changes were short-lived. Yeltsin's rule quickly fell prey to cronyism, corruption, and intrigue. His handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin, reversed most of the democratic gains that began in 1989. Current parliamentary debates are a largely unified and compliant affair. Twenty years later, the promise of the Moscow Spring is merely a memory.

With Sakharov's death, did Russia lose its Vaclav Havel, the moral leader who could have guided them through the perilous transition to democracy?

"It would be a little too neat to say his death marked the beginning of the end, but certainly there was a change of mood going on at that point," Quinn-Judge said.

As the countries of Eastern Europe -- now functioning democracies with NATO and EU membership -- celebrate 20 years since their autumn of change, the hope and excitement of the Moscow Spring is largely a memory.

Vdovin, for one, worries that the promise of the USSR's season of reform may never be fulfilled.

"It was a wave of freedom that we had never seen before, and never imagined that we would see in our lifetimes. But now we have gone backwards, we have departed from this," Vdovin said.
When The Wall Came Down
Revolutions Of '89
In the fall of 1989, a singular wind of change swept across the continent, blowing down the Iron Curtain and revealing the public's yearning for freedom. Click here for RFE/RL's look back at the year communism collapsed.

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