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Soviet Union Had First Real Taste of Democracy 30 Years Ago Today – and Politburo Document Shows How Committee Made Sense of It

March 26, 2019

By Svetlana Savranskaya

Thirty years ago today, the Soviet Union had its first real taste of democracy—its first competitive multi-candidate elections, which many people in Russia today still remember as the most free elections in their living memory.  Contrary to popular perception, the first free elections in the socialist bloc took place not in Poland, but in Moscow following the decisions that were made at the XIX party conference held in June 1988.  Although the Soviet Union still had a monopoly of Communist party enshrined in its Constitution, the electoral process helped define cleavages in the party and among the voting public, which later helped in the formation of the new parties.  For the first time, candidates were free to campaign on their own platform and could nominate themselves without the party’s approval.  Several candidates could be nominated for one seat, and even where only one candidate was nominated, people could vote for or against that candidate.  Freedom of expression reached its peak in preparation for the elections where new revelations about “blank spots” of history, corruption, and party privileges were published every day and newspaper readership skyrocketed.

As the results started to come in, people learned that the leading dissident Andrey Sakharov, who just recently was brought back from his exile by Gorbachev, was elected to the Congress, and that Boris Yeltsin, the reformer bounced by Gorbachev from the Politburo in 1987, won overwhelmingly as Moscow’s at-large candidate.  Some 20 percent of party candidates lost –even with no opposition—including the top party leaders in Moscow and Leningrad.  The Leningrad party chief drew only 110,000 votes while 130,000 of his constituents crossed out his name –a practice that would become epidemic in the June 1989 Polish elections. The party was shocked by its losses, the citizens were shocked by their success.  Nobody quite knew yet how to govern the new processes and where they would lead, but Moscow was floating in a state of democratic euphoria, which is unforgettable to the people who lived through it.  The following document shows how the ruling Politburo was trying to make sense of what has just happened.

This weekly Politburo meeting from March 28, 1989 follows the March 26 vote for the USSR’s first popularly elected national Congress of People’s Deputies.  The discussion features both Gorbachev’s positive spin and a thinly—veiled sense of shock on the leadership’s part.  The new super legislature of 2,250 members—elected by 170 million voters—would meet from May 25 through June 9, elect a standing legislature—the new 542-member Supreme Soviet—and become the focus of national and world attention thanks partly to live telecasts spotlighting noted dissidents such as Andrey Sakharov in their extraordinary new roles as elected deputies.  At this session, Gorbachev lays claim to achieving the Politburo’s goals of advancing democratization and successfully holding free elections.  Yet there is a serious discordant note: the party was unprepared for the new democratic process it was trying to launch.   As in Poland, the CPSU went into the elections without a sense of how dramatically it had squandered its legitimacy.  In the short term, the new reformist Congress would strengthen Gorbachev’s agenda; but subsequently it would become a platform for the radical democrats.

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