Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Thursday, 26 March 2009

First steps in Russian democracy

Soviet leaders at an early meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies
Soviet leaders line up at an early meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies

Russia is marking the 20th anniversary of a pivotal moment in the history of the former Soviet Union.

Artyom Krechetnikov of the BBC's Russian Service looks back at 26 March 1989, when millions of Soviet citizens had the chance to vote for a new parliamentary body that included non-Communist Party candidates for the very first time.

Mikhail Gorbachev introduced many changes with his perestroika policy when he became Soviet leader in 1985 and one of the most important went under the banner of "democratisation".

This began in earnest in January 1987, but there was still no discussion of transition to a Western-style democracy.

The authorities considered that the USSR had no problems with its version of democracy, it just needed to be "widened and deepened", to use Mikhail Gorbachev's favourite expression.

Mikhail Gorbachev - the architect of perestroika
Mikhail Gorbachev - the architect of perestroika

Soviet society came to understand that a professional parliament should do some of the work previously fulfilled by the unelected Communist Party apparatus.

A new body, the Congress of People's Deputies, was proposed - the result of a compromise between reformists and orthodox Communists.

The Congress would have 2,250 members. One third was to be elected in first-past-the-post constituencies, a third would come from the regions based on nationalities and territories, and a third from public organisations, such as trade unions.

It would meet once a year, or twice if needed, and was to decide on crucial matters of national life.

Before these changes, the authorities had maintained that one of the advantages of Soviet democracy was that lawmakers were not professional parliamentarians who would become distant from the people they were supposed to represent.

Elections to the Soviets - or councils - on all levels had been held regularly in the Soviet Union. Candidates were always carefully selected party loyalists. There was just one per constituency. And the Soviets themselves merely rubber-stamped decisions taken earlier by the Communist Party structures.


The Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov
The people, the electorate chose us and sent us to the Congress in order for us to take responsibility for the future of the country
Andrei Sakharov

Candidates for seats in the new Congress of People's Deputies were proposed at meetings of labour collectives, public organisations and local residents' groups.

These pre-election gatherings were attended by representatives of factories and organisations - the workers' "aristocracy" - people with proven records of loyalty and obedience. And no gathering could be organised on the premises of a factory or organisation without the management's approval.

Many ordinary citizens saw this as a way of entrenching the dominance of Communist Party members and their supporters, while creating an illusion of democracy.

Despite this, non-Communist Party candidates stood in a large number of constituencies. Voters' clubs and initiative groups appeared for the first time - though the Communist administration and local party committees tried to stop them campaigning for their chosen candidates in factories and the workplace.

There were no computers or printers in the Soviet Union at the time, so volunteers, often workers from the numerous scientific research institutions in the country, spent hours hammering out election flyers on manual typewriters. They would spend their nights sticking them up, and their days giving speeches in public places.

In the end, the results of the election surpassed all expectations. Even the comparatively undemocratic votes conducted in the Soviet Academy of Sciences or in artists' unions - traditionally conservative bastions - saw a large number of future opposition activists elected.

Future president

Boris Yeltsin campaigning for Moscow seat in 1989
The gap between words and deeds has reached a critical point... enough speeches, we need deeds
Boris Yeltsin

Of course, there were no openly anti-Communist candidates in 1989. Many prominent opposition figures such as Boris Yeltsin, who was to become president, rose through Communist Party ranks.

Mr Yeltsin had been removed from the Moscow city leadership by the Communist hierarchy back in 1987. He had received calls from all over the country, but considered it his duty to stand for the city of Moscow.

A pre-election constituency meeting took place in front of scores of journalists, lasted 13 hours, and finished in the middle of the night. Two candidates for Moscow were ultimately selected: Mr Yeltsin and the general director of the ZiL car factory, Evgenii Brakov.

Mr Yeltsin's supporters ingeniously played on Brakov's name, which in Russian can mean "damaged goods". They wrote "let's get rid of the rubbish!" across his election posters. In the end, Mr Yeltsin received almost 90% of the vote.

Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear scientist and dissident released by Mikhail Gorbachev, also received many calls to stand for election in Moscow. But he insisted he would only stand for the Academy of Sciences.

He wanted the colleagues who had once signed letters condemning him to admit they had been wrong. Initially, the leadership of the Academy voted down all reform-minded candidates (four of them, including Sakharov). But under public pressure, it was forced to revise its decision.

The first session of the Congress of People's Deputies opened in May 1989, two months after the elections. Its historical importance relates not to the decisions it adopted, but to what it symbolised - freedom of speech.

Its deputies, enjoying parliamentary immunity, were able to say things publicly that they had previously only whispered. The entire country came to a standstill, transfixed, as the debates went out live on Soviet television.

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Timeline: Soviet Union
03 Mar 06 |  Country profiles
Obituary: Boris Yeltsin
23 Apr 07 |  Europe


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