Wednesday, May 23, 2018

30 Years Ago This Week an Ethnic Russian Region Rose Against Moscow and Forced It to Back Down

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 22 – “Thirty years ago, from May 21 to May 28, 1988, Soviet Sakhalin stood in the squares and called the authorities to account for the impoverished condition of the people,” Regnum’s Olga Demidenko writes. Protests spread across the region, and Moscow was forced to fire the region’s obkom secretary, “an unheard of event in the Soviet Union.”

            She picks up ( on the memoirs of those day that have been assembled by a regional news agency, KrabikMedia ( and not insignificantly posts her article under the rubric “politics” rather than “history,” an indication of the way the 1988 events echo today. 

            Until 1985, heavy government subsidies meant that the people of Sakhalin lived far better than many of their counterparts elsewhere in the USSR, people there recall; but then came Mikhail Gorbachev and everything “began to change” and “not for the better” – the shelves of stores emptied and by May 1988, “Sakhalin was in fact at the brink of hunger.” 

            To be sure, no one died; but only because they could go into the forests or to the rivers and sea and find food for themselves.  People had to stand in long lines, and they were offended by the fact that the communist party elite continued to live well and to do nothing, even as their own lives deteriorated. 

            Vera Boltunova, described by Demidenko as “a real participant of the Sakhalin Spring of 1988, a member of the CPSU, a happy mother of three children, and an employee of the regional gas and oil prospecting trust, says that everything began when the appeals of Moscow and the actions of local officials diverged.

            Moscow was talking all the time about glasnost and perestroika and about the need to select “real leaders, “she says; “but local party bosses demanded that people vote for the only candidate they put forward. The opinion of rank and file communists wasn’t considered or taken into consideration.”

            Sakhalin residents were angry but the trigger for the protests, Boltunova and others recall, was the visit to the region of a central television journalist who invited people to come and talk about their problems and “unexpectedly” said that the first secretary of the CPSU Oblast Committee had been accused of “exceeding his authority.”

            Petr Tretyakov’s crime?  “He had given his own daughter an apartment out of line.”  Boltunova says that a party boss would do that was no surprise but that a Soviet journalist would talk about it and suggest that others do as well very much was. Then, obkom officials made things worse: they expelled the journalist from Sakhalin.

            That was too much under the circumstances. On May 21, small groups of people began to assemble in front of the local theater.  And at the invitation of several people in the crowd, they began to share their grievances which went far beyond the heavy-handedness of the obkom secretary.

            There was no extremism in this, and some of the protesters, led by bulldozer operator Sergey Mikhail kept order. After a few hours, they elected “an initiative group” and it undertook to organize similar groups in workplaces and in neighborhoods.  The idea that the people could take things into their own hands spread like wildfire.

            By May 28, thousands of people from around the oblast flooded into Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to take part in a mass meeting whose slogans were: “Give us perestroika!” “Down with privileges” and “Raise the militance of party organizations!” And participants said bluntly: “if the authorities don’t understand how the simple people live, how can they run things?”

            “None of those knew then that an enormous country, the USSR, had only three years left or that ahead of the Sakhalin residents and everyone else of the rest of the Far East could look forward to a real hell, which has passed into history under the name of ‘the wild 1990s,’” Demidenko says.

            “As Regnum has reported,” she continues, “the incomes of citizens of today’s Russia have been falling for the last four years. The government of the new-old prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is talking seriously about raising the retirement age.” Many say that will create “a nightmare for the country.”

            And this tragedy of the people is occurring when the new bosses are living well and amassing enormous wealth that they claim they have “’honestly earned’” but that most believe they have stolen from the people, the Regnum journalist says. As for Sakhalin, conditions are again bleak.
            The island’s residents “today just as 30 years ago, are complaining about collapsing housing, about how new construction quickly collapses because it isn’t being built up to standards, about shabby hospitals, the lack of places in schools, and a whole range of other misfortunes.

            It is thus an open question, Demidenko implies, if and when they will act as their parents did 30 years ago. 

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