Staunton, March 18 – Thirty years ago, on March 17, 1991, the Soviet leadership organized a referendum about whether the population of the USSR wanted to keep the country in one piece. Seventy-eight percent said yes, and many still view that vote of confidence as something that slowed the centrifugal forces of disintegration.
But Moscow commentator Yevgeny Krutikov argues that the referendum had just the opposite effect. Instead of highlighting support for the Soviet Union as one country, it called attention to just how far along the path to disintegration it had proceeded and contributed to its ultimate demise (vz.ru/society/2021/3/17/1089955.html).
Today, many in Russia and the West continue to believe in myths about the referendum rather than to focus on the facts. They accept Mikhail Gorbachev’s evaluation of it and the vote of the population in favor of the USSR as self-evident truths, even though they are anything but, the Moscow analyst says.
Only nine of the 15 republics took part, and most of those which did modified the language of the measure people were voting on, adding language about their own sovereignty or adding provisions like the introduction of a presidency in the RSFSR, that meant what people were in fact voting for is an open question.
The situation in Ukraine was especially indicative in this regard. Seventy percent of Ukrainians who took part in the referendum voted in favor of a renewed USSR, but at the same time 84 percent voted for the independence of Ukraine, hardly delivering the vote of confidence the Kremlin expected and claimed.
Such confusion, Krutikov argues, is by itself “a dangerous symptom.” But even more important is the fact that until the spring of 1991, “many in general could not imagine or allow for the possibility that the Union might fall apart.” That was so far removed from their basic understandings that they didn’t see what asking questions like the ones in the referendum did.
Gorbachev and those around him who came up with the idea of a referendum certainly didn’t think about the possibility of disintegration. Up until nearly the end of 1990, they even viewed what the Baltic countries were doing as something marginal and irrelevant, something that the USSR would overcome with ease.
They were hardly alone in this, Krutikov says, “even the collective West did not recognize” the moves of the Baltic countries to recover their independence or Armenia’s declaration of independence. All that has been forgotten in more recent discussions of the referendum.
But that changed in December 1990, when the Fourth Congress of Peoples Deputies approved the idea of the March 1991 referendum and thereby opened the gates to these “marginals” to become part of a Kremlin-legitimized discussion on whether the USSR should continue, Krutikov points out.
What should have happened, he says, is that the Soviet deputies should have clearly declared that “the Union will not be destroyed” and thus close the discussion rather than opening it wider. But that would have required different people with different aspirations than the ones who sat in the Congress of Peoples Deputies or in the Kremlin for that matter.
And such a declaration, Krutikov concludes, would have blocked the efforts of the RSFSR to make Boris Yeltsin its president, a move that “pulled out from under Mikhail Sergeyevich the last of those stools on which he tried to sit.”