Wednesday, January 14, 2009
In most countries, Independence Day conjures up images of grand celebration, fireworks, family get-togethers, parades and so on. These celebrations commemorate the declaration and establishment of sovereignty by a colony or nation occupied and governed by another nation. This is not exactly the case with Russia's Independence Day.
During the Soviet Era, Russia was considered the center of power of the USSR. In fact, the Soviet Union is often referred to as Soviet Russia. This is, of course, incorrect as Russia was one of fifteen Soviet States. Russia was the largest of the states and the capital of the USSR was in Moscow, giving the idea that Russia was the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union was Russia.
The question is, who did Russia gain independence from? This goes back to how Russians viewed their country during the Soviet Era. It was Russia which, one after another, brought together fourteen other states to form a union of states. Russia was considered the motherland and everything political led to the Kremlin and Moscow. Russia pulled the union together, Russian was the common language and to this day you can still hear people, especially in the West, use the terms Russia and Soviet Union interchangeably.
Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985. One of the first things he did was to crack down on alcohol consumption and mandated that all embassy events be alcohol free. During October and November of 1985, Gorbachev presented a sweeping plan for Soviet economic improvement. From 1986 - 2000, Gorbachev envisioned a total increase in the production of consumer goods of 90 percent. Quality of living standards were to rise 60 - 80 percent and nuclear energy output was to increase by ca. 500 percent. Wages and salaries for workers, scientists, etc., were to be doubled and he forbad agricultural workers from gaining employment in the cities and factories.
Perestroika got its start at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in 1986. Gorbachev's program of economic, political, and social reform would represent the end of roughly 70 years of the Soviet state. Most of the world observed the evolution of perestroika in shock and awe. The Soviet giant was something we never expected to see come to an end. Germany was reunited, the Warsaw Pact faded away and the all too familiar Cold War suddenly ended.
While the West lauded perestroika and glasnost, the reality inside the Soviet Union was much different. People were accustomed to the old authoritarian and centralized rule. The new freedoms of speech and religion led to worker's strikes, protests and a fast growing crime rate. For over three generations, Soviet citizens had lived under totalitarian rule. You lived by the rule or endured the consequences. Much was achieved under this highly disciplined system including a 99 percent literacy rate, many firsts in science and technology and a defense build-up that demanded the respect of the rest of the world. Suddenly, almost overnight, these people had freedoms that they had only heard about and, gradually, contact with the world outside the Soviet Union. It is human nature to want to test these new freedoms and to express all the thoughts and grievances that you, hitherto, had to keep to yourself.
Gorbachev's new policies regarding a market economy were intended to increase production, raise wages and quality of life for all workers. His plan accepted only a limited amount of privatization in both industry and agriculture. Nothing great came of Gorbachev's economic plan because centralized Communist control was left in place. Instead, deadly revolts broke out in the Caucasus and Baltic states and civil unrest grew. If you are old enough, you will remember images of Soviet citizens standing in long lines, hoping to get a loaf of bread or pair of shoes. Consumer goods became critically scarce and many went without the basics.
Gorbachev's policies of openness and reform; glasnost and perestroika; unleashed an unexpected epidemic of independence movements within the Soviet Union. People were, technically, free to speak their minds, demonstrate and protest. Perestroika opened the door for the leaders of the collection of states to demand more control over their individual regions and, eventually, sovereignty from the Soviet Union. Russia, being one of these states, was no exception.
Boris Yeltsin was the head of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies. On June 12, 1990, this assembly officially adopted the Declaration of the State Sovereignty (907-13), establishing the Russian Federation as a sovereign state within the Soviet Union and outlining its new structure and goals. In theory, this declaration gave Russia control over its own unique political and social issues. Individual inalienable rights were the top priority along with the intent to establish a law based democratic government. On matters that effected the entire Soviet Union, Russia would bow to the Soviet. Again, in theory, this was to be comparable to the U.S. where each state has a certain level of autonomy but is obligated to comply with the laws and constitution of the United States.
In the Soviet Union, this concept of independent states created a much different reality and was the final chapter of the unified Soviet state. The Russian Congress of People's Deputies declared their authority over matters within the boundaries of the Russian state to take precedence over Soviet rule. As a result, a dual political system was established within Russia. In Moscow, there was Gorbachev as the head of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin as the head of Russia.
These two forces wrestled with each other for control and superiority. One might think that Russia, as a part of the Soviet Union, would bow to the Supreme Soviet. For the sake of discussion, think about what happened in the U.S. during the mid-1800s. States, specifically southern ones, which refused to bow to Washington, left the union and banned together to form a separate country. This led to civil war.
In Moscow, Yeltsin was critical of Gorbachev's slow paced reforms. The latter was becoming increasingly unpopular with the Russian people as the whole union sunk deeper into economic despair. The flamboyant Yeltsin made a fast rise in popularity. On the first anniversary of the Russian declaration of sovereignty, Boris Yeltsin achieved an overwhelming victory to become the first democratically elected president of the Russian Federation.
Gorbachev proposed a new national structure based upon de-centralization of power and the formation of a Union of Sovereign States. This proved to be too little too late. Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States were the first to decline membership in this new union.
From this point, it was down hill for the Soviet Union. On August 19, 1991, a coup was launched by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchov and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov. Their hope was to save the Soviet Union and to abort the formation of Gorbachev's new union. Yeltsin and his supporters resisted and brought down the coup.
Ruling from the White House in Moscow, Yelstin set forth his plan for greater reforms. The Soviet Union fell apart as each state declared its independence and, under Yeltsin's leadership, formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). On December 8, 1991, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed documents which officially established the CIS. The Soviet Union, as a unified state, was forever gone. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991, and the Soviet flag was brought down from over the Kremlin.
The question is, who did Russia gain independence from? The answer is confusing one; from the Soviet Union. Actually, the official name of this June 12 holiday is Day of the Passage of the Declaration of the State Sovereignty. According to the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research, or VTsIOM, about half of all Russians surveyed think that this declaration hurt both Russia and several of the former Soviet States.
It is an official state holiday, a long weekend away from work to spend resting or getting together with family and friends. It also serves as a reminder to many Russians of a time of turmoil and uncertainty, a period which could have easily resulted in all out civil war and the point where they turned away from a strict, closed society to one opened up to the world. Russia has made progress, but will continue to wrestle with the adjustment from 70 years of Soviet domination to dealing with personal freedoms, capitalism and the freedom to interact with other peoples and nations without fear.