Staunton, February 4 – “The tragedy of Russian Federalism is that it wasn’t able to form itself during the years of Perestroika” because the Soviet authorities, the dissidents, and the democratic movement focused on ethnic territories and their rights rather than on the rights that predominantly ethnic Russian regions should have as well, Andrey Degtyanov says.
The Russian historian says that “the social-political agenda in 1987-1991 was formed by dissidents, human rights activists and political informals who were little interested in the issue of Russian federalism” but instead focused on the rights of Soviet citizens as a whole or on the rights of ethno-national units like union republics (region.expert/russian_federalism/).
Among the few people who did focus on predominantly ethnic Russian regions at that time were the authors of ruralist prose, “but in the literary-ideological dispute which occurred between ‘progressive Westerners’ and ‘Soviet defenders,’ the ruralist writers were not able or did not want to become ‘a third force’” – and so split among the other two.
There was as a result little discussion of the problems of the political standing of Ryazan, Kuban or the Urals. Instead, activist focused on “the struggles with communists and Zionists” depending on their other preferences, Degtyanov continues. Moreover, the increasing nostalgia for the Russia destroyed by the Bolsheviks worked against the Russian regions as well.
And the combination of this inattention to ethnic Russian regions and the growing influence of the idea of “’a great return’” to the pre-1917 situation effectively killed off any first shoots of federalism while opening the way for ethno-national particularism and even separatism.
As a result, the historian continues, “today’s Russia is just as much as federation as was ‘the power of the Soviets’ in the Soviet Union – nothing more than a decoration for the power vertical.”
Degtyanov points out that the June 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty did recognize “the need for an essential broadening of the rights of autonomous republics, autonomous oblasts and autonomous districts as well as those of krays and oblasts.” But it gave the RSFSR authorities the right to decide the latter rather than making it a principled consideration.
As a result, the historian says, “the substantively ethnic Russian regions were allocated not a nation-state role but [only] an administrative-territorial [one], typical of guberniyas in a unitary state” as was the Russian Empire before 1917. And the Congress of Peoples Deputies reinforced this attitude, focusing on the ethnic republics rather than ethnic Russian regions.
Six months earlier, in January 1990, Degtyanov continues, Galina Starovoitova, a leader of the Interregional Deputies Group, delivered an address on “The Future of Our Federation” in which she said that she foresaw “a single type of national-state formation in our country, the union republic, independent of the size of its territory or population and independent of its having or not having external borders.”
“The RSFSR,” she continued, “as a federation within a federation, will be liquidated because the autonomies will leave it as sovereign republics with equal rights. Russia will remain which must rethink its new historical functions … [and] create full-fledged organs of state administration.”
Thus, the historian says, she and others like her at the time, saw “Russia in place of the RSFSR [with] a unitary state in place of a federation.” Even Academician Sakharov’s proposal in November 1989 for a Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia ‘did not foresee any role for ethnic Russian krays and oblasts of the RSFSR as subjects of the Union state.”
Such leaders were focused on “the problems of overcoming the inheritance of Stalinism, democratization and glasnost, a Union treaty and international relations,” Degtyanov says. They weren’t focused on “the status of Russian regions in ‘a renewed Union.”
The only major exceptions were the writer then in emigration Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Moscow philosopher Mikhail Epshteyn. Solzhenitsyn wanted to see a Russian Union of the three Slavic republics plus Kazakhstan in which predominantly Russian regions would enter on the same basis as non-Russian entities.
And Epshteyn saw a Russian future in which the country would exist as a union of “unique regions” rather than as “a classic European state.” (His most important essay on that point from the early 1990s has now been reposted by the Region.Expert portal at region.expert/o-rossiyah/).
“Perhaps,” the Moscow philosopher suggested, “the only salvation of Russia would be in a community of various Russias” including Muscovite and Far Eastern, Petersburg and Ryazan, and so on.
But the impact of such ideas paled in comparison with the influence of the former CPSU leaders who in fact took over in the course of the collapse of the USSR. Boris Yeltsin, a former candidate member of the Politburo, in July 1991 in his inaugural address as Russian president, declared his position, one that marked “the start of the process of imperial restoration.”
The August 1991 putsch and the Beloveshchaya accords “put an end both to the process of Perestroika and to arguments around the future of ‘the renewed Union.’ Before the Russian authorities now stood another task: to keep the national authorities which a year earlier had declared their autonomy within the borders of the Russian Federation.”
The 1992 Federative Treaty “was not the result of disputes and the search for consensus.” Indeed, it was not an agreement as such: “It was concluded not between the Russian regions but between the federal center and individually, republics, districts, oblasts and krays of the Russian Federaiotn.”
Russian federalism reflected the efforts of some regions to play a larger role, but they were always having to play catch up – and that allowed the Kremlin to be “several moves ahead, to establish ‘a power vertical,’ and in the end, to disband the regional Soviets elected in 1990 after the Russian parliament was fired upon by tanks.”
That ended whatever positive features the 1992 Federative Treaty had and left Russia in the state that it continues to be up to now, the historian concludes.