Eltsin and Russian Sovereignty

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Bound together by the collapse of political order, and seemingly by fate, Boris Eltsin and the sovereign Russian state rose and fell during the final twenty months of Soviet power. Eltsin was party boss of Sverdlovsk when Gorbachev plucked him from provincial obscurity to join his team of reformers. His popularity soon forged ahead of his patron’s, and Eltsin was eventually stripped of his post as Moscow party chief in 1987. Two years away from Gorbachev’s floundering rule brought Eltsin credibility. When the Congress of People’s Deputies was elected by popular vote in 1989, he won a seat, quickly emerging as leader of the reform factions. When elections were held in March 1990 for the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, he won a seat there too. By May, members of the Supreme Soviet had elected him President of the Russian Republic, a newly-created post; a year later his status was confirmed by popular vote.

The private, often personal struggle between Russian President Eltsin and Soviet President Gorbachev reflected the shift of political power from central Soviet institutions to organs of the Russian Republic. Political posts in the RSFSR had, in Soviet times, been relatively unimportant; in fact, Russia had been the only republic without its own Communist Party. By force of will, Eltsin gave tremendous power to the Russian presidency. One of the first acts of the Russian Supreme Soviet under Eltsin was to dismantle state censorship; although Soviet censorship was still legal, it could no longer take place on Russian soil. The confluence of the Twenty-Eighth Congress of the CPSU, and sessions of the Congress of Peoples Deputies of the RSFSR and the RSFSR Supreme Soviet in Moscow in early June afforded opportunity for dramatic decisions. Most significant was the decision by Eltsin to resign from the Party, calling it a party of “power thirsty bureaucrats.” He was followed by Gavril Popov (Mayor of Moscow), Anatolii Sobchak (Mayor of Leningrad) and other members of the Democratic Platform. With the resignation of Aleksandr Iakovlev from the Politbiuro, the Communist Party ceased to be an institution capable of pursuing a reform program. Initiative shifted to the Russian legislature, and on June 12 the Congress of People’s Deputies of the RSFSR issued a Declaration of State Sovereignty of Russia, declaring that its authority took precedence over Soviet rule within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. As a result, Russia found itself under a dual power system eerily similar to 1917. In Moscow, there was Gorbachev as the head of the Soviet Union and Eltsin as the head of Russia. The act was a de facto declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, now celebrated on June 12 as Russian Independence Day. The bold move was followed in subsequent months by similar declarations from other republics, including Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine.

Possessing tremendous powers of political improvisation, and backed by an indisputable popular mandate that Gorbachev would never be able to claim, Eltsin was at the peak of his game in June 1990. The Soviet leadership was continually flummoxed by his unpredictable decisions, and over the next eighteen months he would succeed in breaking up the union. Improvisational master that he was, Eltsin was less the master of long-term planning, and seemed unaware of potential consequences of his actions, several of which he would later rue. Close observers in late 1990 would have noted that declarations of sovereignty came not only from Soviet republics, which were in theory federal subjects possessing the right to secede; they also came from “republics” and regions within the RSFSR, including Tatarstan and Chechnya (November 27, 1990). Using the legislative techniques pioneered by Eltsin, these territorial entities would begin the campaign for independence that would lead to bloody civil war during the post-Soviet Eltsin presidency.

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