Staunton, June 13 – Thirty years ago this week, residents of the RSFSR elected Boris Yeltsin president of their republic, an action that became possible after they approved the creation of that position at the time of the referendum in which they and Soviet citizens in most other republics declared that they wanted the Soviet Union to be preserved.
But the creation of a president of a republic and especially of the largest one directly elected by the people and Yeltsin’s commitment to “save Russia” regardless of what it took undermined the Soviet Union because it put the Russian Republic at odds with the center and its directly elected leader against a Soviet president who wasn’t.
Yeltsin was “one of the first” to recognize that the economic and political situation in the USSR was not sustainable. At one point, journalist Aleksandr Zadorozhny says, he told his wife that “we must save Russia.” She then asked “Borya, what Russia are you talking about?” And for Yeltsin, it was the RSFSR no longer the USSR (znak.com/2021-06-13/kak_i_zachem_elcin_oboshel_gorbacheva_i_stal_pervym_rossiyskim_prezidentom).
The RSFSR was not the first republic to declare sovereignty. The Baltic states had that honor, but the Russian Republic was the biggest and its 1990 Supreme Soviet elections were in fact a referendum on the idea giving the ultimate declaration of republic supremacy even greater impact, especially coming as it did in the largest of the republics.
In 1990, Gorbachev tried to block this declaration by blocking the election of Yeltsin as chairman of the presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet but he behaved in such a clumsy fashion, offending the new deputies by opposing Russian sovereignty, that both Yeltsin and the declaration won out.
Once Russia had acted, other republics, including Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan followed suit, forcing Gorbachev to make concessions in the form of the 500 Days program and of negotiations for a new union treaty.
But Gorbachev backed away from the original principles of the 500 days program, reducing his credibility with those who demanded change, and left himself surrounded with the very people who led the August coup, something Yeltsin opposed from his new position as elected Russian president.
In short, and despite Zadorozhny’s denials, it was the Russian Federation and its elected leader that set the stage for the disintegration of the USSR, the republic because it was the largest and for the first time set itself at odds with the Soviet center and the second because he was the boldest and sought the popular legitimation through direct election that Gorbachev never had.