A defining moment in the Soviet breakup


Ivan Laptev, Chamber of the Union chairman, speaks with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) listens during a session of the Congress of People's Deputies in Moscow in 1991. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
June 11, 2011

On June 12, 1991, Russians made Boris Yeltsin the first freely elected president in the history of their country. It was a seminal moment in the deconstruction of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin ran against Communists, and against communism, and won a hearty endorsement from the Russian people.

He should have been a nobody by then. Once a member of the top echelon of the Communist Party, he had been booted out of the Politburo in 1988 for being a little too insistent on supporting the reform program of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev — more insistent, even, than Gorbachev. The Soviet system was not one that allowed comebacks. When Yeltsin was expelled, everyone knew that this was supposed to be the end of him.

But Gorbachev’s reforms opened up space in public life for non-Communists. The Communist Party itself was sorely divided over Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, even as public opinion became ever more impatient over the lack of progress. Yeltsin, who struck a chord among millions of ordinary Russians, turned against his former comrades and bulldozed his way back onto the stage. He won election to the parliament of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and he emerged as its leader, much to Gorbachev’s alarm and dismay.

In March 1991, Gorbachev had turned to a referendum as a way of enhancing his steadily weakening position. He wanted voters to show that they backed his efforts to maintain the Soviet Union, and he got what he wanted. But within Russia — the largest of the Soviet republics — Yeltsin slipped another question onto the ballot: Should there be free elections for the post of Russian president?

Yes, said the Russians, and that’s why they returned to the polls three months later. Six candidates joined the race. Gorbachev encouraged several to jump in, apparently hoping that they would deny Yeltsin the 50 percent of the vote he needed to avoid a runoff. It didn’t work: Yeltsin won easily with 57 percent.

That same day, voters in Leningrad approved a name change back to St. Petersburg (or Sankt Peterburg, the name by which it is known in Russian, given to it by its founder, Czar Peter the Great). Liberal mayors won races there and in Moscow. Gavril Popov, the victor in Moscow, said afterward, “Russia has entered the civilized age.”

Yeltsin later wrote: “Many Russians came to June 1991 with a sense of the end of Soviet history. . . . Everything that was Soviet in people’s heads — not all of them, but the most active and thinking parts of society — had by then receded.”

It wasn’t a totally fair election: Soviet television had devoted a long documentary to Yeltsin’s primary Communist opponent just before the voting, and the day before the polls opened, the chief Soviet prosecutor announced that he was looking into currency violations by Yeltsin. Despite this, Yeltsin won; the world was astonished and Russians were delighted that they had actually chosen a leader democratically.

It hasn’t happened since. Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996 was heavily manipulated, and in this century, presidential voting has been completely stage-managed. The political exhilaration that many Russians felt 20 years ago has long since withered away.

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