As part of RFE/RL’s coverage of the momentous events of 1989, this edition of The Week In Russia takes readers back to Moscow two years before the Soviet Union fell apart.
“Bring back Yeltsin.”
The brief message was scrawled in chalk on a sidewalk in a nondescript corner of east-central Moscow in the spring of 1989.
It was a straightforward call for the return of Yeltsin, who had been appointed by Mikhail Gorbachev as the top official in Moscow in December 1985 but two years later was banished from the politburo and handed a humiliatingly modest position as first deputy chief of the state construction committee after lambasting the Soviet leadership over the slow pace of reform.
And it was a cry for change in a country of 286 million that, three years later, would no longer exist.
But while the writing was on the sidewalk, it wasn't exactly on the wall. Or if it was, I – a foreigner and first-time visitor with limited knowledge of the Russian language and less still, probably, of Russia itself or of the Soviet Union – couldn’t read it.
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I couldn't make it out beneath what appeared to be the ingrained, enduring attributes of a society that was deeply dysfunctional but still seemed to have staying power – enough inertia to keep it going past its time, like an unhappy family held together under the weight of its own past.
Months before Eastern Europeans rebelled and communism collapsed across the Warsaw Pact, revolution was in the air in the Soviet Union, too -- or at least on the air, with rousing, televised sessions from the Congress of People's Deputies holding a country with a thirst for change in thrall.
To me, though -- lining up for butter and cheese, trudging to class past a KGB jail, and sneaking into the Sputnik movie theater -- the Soviet Union's demise was no foregone conclusion.
To be sure, there were signs of change, and of the desire for more of it. Literally, there were signs – one of which I took down and took home – pointing the way, with letters stenciled in white on arrow-shaped, red-painted pieces of wood, to polling places in the first elections in which voters in the Soviet Union actually had a choice.
And, of course, though young people who have seen the 1990s portrayed as a living hell but the Soviet era spared criticism by allies of President Vladimir Putin might not know it, there was the desire for a better life. Better housing, better clothes, better food, better jobs, better health care, better opportunities to go where you might want to go and do what you might want to do.
Better cigarettes, too, not the barely smokable sticks whose attractive package designs and alluring names – Stolichnaya (Capital), Yava (Java), Kosmos (Cosmos) – belied undeniable bad taste.
At the same time, things seemed pretty static, if not necessarily sustainable in the long term.
Shops were full of unneeded items and in many cases empty of needed ones.
Clutching ration coupons for some staples, my fellow Americans and I – mostly students on a semester program at the Moscow Energy Institute -- would scour the stores, lining up for items such as eggs, something that was supposed to be butter, and blocks of cheese that sometimes had blue plastic numbers embedded in them.
There were a few “cooperative cafes,” experiments in semi-capitalism, but plenty of state restaurants that were all but deserted but where prospective diners were turned away by a sign or a doorman who said there were “no free seats,” even if numerous seats were visibly empty. Or, if you did get in, you would find that most of the items on the menu were not, in fact, available.
At the institute, big letters adorning a main building quoted a slogan from Lenin whose logic seemed not at all obvious: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.”
In class, we were taught a few tropes rooted in Slavic tradition or Soviet geopolitical concerns.
“Red means beautiful” went one that was meant to explain the name of the vast, daunting square outside the Kremlin.
“Common European home” was another, coined much more recently and promoted by Gorbachev, whose motives may have included ensuring a place for the Soviet Union on the continent and countering U.S. advocacy of a “Europe whole and free” – that is, one in which Moscow was not the overlord of millions of people as far west as Budapest, Prague, and Berlin.
The dorm we lived in had a basement dance hall with a disco ball, and chain-link nets around its exterior to catch bottles and other debris tossed from the windows. The building was in close proximity to a cemetery, a mental hospital, and Lefortovo, a KGB jail, making for macabre remarks about the options upon graduation.
'Faster, Higher, Stronger'
The local movie theater was Sputnik, the name of the satellite whose launch in 1957 stunned the world, triggering the Space Race and marking one of the high points for the leadership of a country whose people were frequently assured that a bright future was around the corner.
In 1989, this faded promise was spelled out in large letters on the fence surrounding a disused athletic field near the dorm that read, if memory serves, “Faster, Higher, Stronger” – the Olympic motto, which was borrowed by the Soviet Union to urge achievements in sports and other sectors.
In the spring of 1989, few seemed to believe that motto matched the future of their country, and the late-March elections reflected the widespread sense that things needed to change. The lively sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies that followed -- and the huge interest among citizens in the proceedings – sent a strong signal.
Many watched on television, if they had a set, and one in the dorm was frequently tuned to the debate.
“People carried radios everywhere they went -- on trams, on buses,” Yury Vdovin, a St. Petersburg-based human rights activist, told RFE/RL in 2009. “Everybody was listening to the deputies' speeches. If somebody didn't have a radio, they would stand next to somebody who did."
Yeltsin did return, winning a seat in the Congress of People’s Deputies from Moscow with more than 90 percent of the vote and later being elected by fellow deputies as a member of the Supreme Soviet.
Others elected to contested seats in the congress included Andrei Sakharov, the physicist and dissident whose death on December 14, 1989, deprived Soviet democrats of a leading voice.
By that time, the world had changed, and nearly all the regimes in the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe had fallen. In August, Gorbachev had told Warsaw Pact leaders they could choose their own path to socialism -- but that was not the destination the people had in mind.
The Berlin Wall fell in November, the East German government resigned on December 3, and a noncommunist government was elected in Czechoslovakia four days before Sakharov’s death. On December 25, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife were executed after a brief trial that followed their flight from Bucharest in the face of a popular uprising.
Exactly two years later, Gorbachev resigned, closing the book on the Soviet Union. Yeltsin, who had been elected president of Russia that June, cemented his authority by standing on a tank and defying the coup attempt by hard-liners seeking, in vain, to halt the disintegration of the country by cracking down.
Even if the coup attempt had not collapsed in less than three days amid powerful popular defiance and bumbling by the plotters, any notion that they could possibly have succeeded in stemming the Soviet collapse seems almost ridiculous in retrospect.
Two years earlier, though, the demise of the Soviet Union did not seem imminent – at least not to one person wandering through Moscow in the stranger, simultaneously excited and subdued atmosphere that seemed to hang over the city in the spring of 1989.