Openness and restructuring
When Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on his crusade of reforms and unleashed the forces of “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” he had confidence in the nationality policy of the Soviet State, and therefore felt comfortable opening up Soviet society to a wide range of economic change and political discord. However, Gorbachev soon found himself in a conundrum, unable to control the forces he had unleashed and with conversations about reforms soon turning into conversations about the complete dismantling of the Socialist system in the USSR and of the USSR itself. This process was encouraged by authorities and individuals who were investigating the previous crimes of Stalin’s Government, which brought many questionable events to light, such as his military failures at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, and most importantly the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. These revelations brought two things into question when Soviet society was already rapidly and unpredictably developing. Firstly, new revelations of Stalin’s crimes brought the validity of the Communist party and its monopoly on power into question, and under pressure Gorbachev was forced to remove article 6 from the Soviet Constitution, which guaranteed the Communist Parties monopoly on power. This opened the door for nationalist politicians and other political parties to gain control of the Supreme Soviets of the republics of the USSR. And secondly, these revelations put into question the legitimacy of the Baltic States incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940. This question on part of the Baltic States created intense campaigning for independence from the USSR, and popular front movements took control of the Supreme Soviets of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.
The Perils of reform
With the Baltic States leading the charge for independence, central authorities in Moscow further eroding away slowly losing power and authority to the State institutions of the Russian SFSR, and proving unable to quash ethnic conflicts in Azerbaijan and Armenia, other Republics began to move more towards independence. Popular fronts began to win the majority in many Republic’s Supreme Soviets, particularly in Georgia and Armenia. Not only were many of the Soviet Union’s republics breaking away from Central Authority, but Gorbachev himself was facing ever more opposition to his reforms from both conservatives and more hard line reformers. Many of the conservatives in the party were appalled with Gorbachev’s reforms, and were afraid his policies would lead to the collapse of the Union. At the same time, many liberals such as Boris Yeltsin and Independence advocates were arguing that Gorbachev’s policies did not go nearly far enough. With the Liberals beginning to lose faith in Gorbachev, he began to increasingly rely on his former conservative enemies, appointing them to numerous state positions when he was elected to the newly created post of President of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev also made one more calculation, he knew that the majority of Soviet Citizens would support the continued existence of the Union in a new less centralized format. To accomplish this Gorbachev knew many concessions would need to be made to the Republics in a “New Union Treaty ” that would allow the Union to continue to exist. However, to push such a radical reform past his conservative and liberal opponents he needed a widespread popular mandate, which he hoped this referendum would give. Gorbachev also hoped this referendum would pressure some Republics who began to break away to rejoin the fold.
From the very beginning the referendum was wrought with contradictions, firstly the question was not as simple as “Would you like your Republic to remain in the Soviet Union” or “Do you support the continued existence of the USSR” but a more vague “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” Nor was this the only problem with the referendum, the wording was changed depending on the republic and questions were added in each individual republic. For example, in the Russian SFSR a question on the establishment of the position of President of Russia was added, which gave significant power to Gorbachev’s rival Boris Yeltsin who was later elected to the position. Additionally, the questions added in each republic contradicted the official referendum, with many asking whether they wanted their republic to be a sovereign State, which would understandably produce contradictory results if both questions passed, which they did. However, the most damning setback of this referendum is that 6 out of the 15 republics of the USSR, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldavia, and Georgia decided not to participate in the referendum and decided to hold independence votes instead.
Results of the Referendum
The results of the referendum are quite interesting and show overwhelming support for a “renewed” Soviet Union. In the Republics that participated voter turnout was over 80% with over 77% of the population voting in favor of a “renewed” Union. Rural areas and non-Slavic areas of the USSR showed the most support toward a “renewed” USSR; while the major cities such as Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, in addition to the Slavic areas of the USSR showed lackluster support for the Union. An interesting hypothetical situation I thought would be interesting to look at, is what would the referendum results have looked like if the six Republics of the USSR that boycotted the election participated and all voted “No”. For some perspective, according to the last Soviet census of 1989, the population of the USSR was 286,730,819; and without the six Republics the population drops to 265,719,467, so those six Republics have a total population of 21,011,352. When calculating this hypothetical situation I take the information for five of the Republics (Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia and Estonia) from their number of registered voters according to the results of their independence referendums held a few months after the March Referendum. For Moldavia, since they did not have an independence referendum, I took their number of registered voters from a Parliamentary election held earlier in 1991. I take these numbers and assume these Republics have a similar voter turnout of 80% like the rest of the nation. I then generously assume that every single one of these voters votes “NO” in the March Referendum, and the results are quite interesting. The calculations find that even if these six republics participated in the election and every single one of their citizens voted “NO”, then still an overwhelming majority of 73.3% of the entire country would have still voted to remain in a “renewed” Soviet Union. While this exercise may seem like a stretch of the imagination I ask the readers to think of our own nation and our own experiences of secession. Should a few States be allowed to break apart the entire structure and apparatus of Government? Or is it proper in this regard to use force and coercion to keep the nation intact?
I am going to be completely honest, this post took so long because as soon as I started my research my perspective changed. I came into this project thinking that an overwhelming majority of the Soviet People voted for the preservation of the Soviet Union, and despite that, Boris Yeltsin and other nationalist politicians illegally disbanded the Soviet Union in pursuit of their own personal power. However, as history has proven many times over, the situation was much more complicated than that. The referendum was called upon by Gorbachev in order to help fix some of his wrongs in his reform process and was an attempt to use the will of the majority to suppress the very heightened passions of a sizable minority. However, I still believe that my original perception of the referendum still holds up, that the majority of Soviet citizens wanted to remain in a larger union with their fraternal brothers in a large multinational State. On the other hand, something that I did not originally notice and acknowledge is that many Soviet citizens showed that they would only be willing to remain in a Renewed Soviet Union if their individual rights and the rights of their native Republics were increased and respected.
I would like to thank my girlfriend for helping me with my calculations for the Soviet Referendum hypothetical outcome, I am terrible at math and would have not been able to do it with her, Thank you so much Trina!
Marples, David R. “Revisiting the Collapse of the USSR.” Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes, vol. 53, no. 2/4, 2011, pp. 461–473. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41708351. Accessed 5 May 2020.
“March Referendum.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, 19 Sept. 2015, soviethistory.msu.edu/1991-2/march-referendum/.
“MESSAGE FROM THE CENTRAL COMMISSION OF THE USSR REFERENDUM ON THE RESULTS OF THE USSR REFERENDUM ON MARCH 17, 1991.” Archive.today, archive.is/20120710231411/new.hse.ru/sites/tp/isakov/1990-1996dn/71/1/Сообщение об итогах референдума СССР 17 марта 1991 года.htm.
Webmedia. “1991. Aasta 3. Märtsil Eesti Vabariigi Iseseisvuse Taastamise Küsimuses Korraldatud Referendumi Tulemuse Kinnitamise Kohta.” 1991. Aasta 3. Märtsil Eesti Vabariigi Iseseisvuse Taastamise Küsimuses Korraldatud Referendumi Tulemuse Kinnitamise Kohta – Riigi Teataja, www.riigiteataja.ee/akt/13069820.
This post earned a “Red Star” award from the editorial team.