Staunton, August 19 – It has long been customary to view the meeting of the presidents of the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus as the date on which the Soviet Union died, but in fact, Sergey Markedonov argues, the three of them did not so much cause its death as, like three doctors at a morgue, recognized the patient was no longer living.
In fact, the leading Moscow commentator argues, the USSR died as a result of “the parade of sovereignties” which the failed putsch sparked at the end of August and the beginning of September 1991, a parade that reflected an underlying defect of the Soviet political system (www.chaskor.ru/article/parad_perehodyashchij_v_raspad_9712).
Writing on the 19th anniversary of the start of that putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev, Markedonov notes that the coup led ever more of the republics, union and otherwise, to declare themselves “sovereign.” The three Baltic countries recovered de facto independence during the coup, and six union republics declared themselves sovereign within three weeks of that event.
Indeed, he suggests, “the rapid acquisition of independence of the former union republics … resembled ‘the triumphal march of Soviet power’ in October-November 1917. Equally rapid was the sovereignization [of these republics] at the end of summer and the beginning of fall 1991.
Ukraine adopted a declaration of independence on August 24. Moldova did the same on August 27. Azerbaijan on August 30 adopted a resolution on “the restoration” of the Azerbaijani statehood that the Bolsheviks had suppressed in April 1920. And on August 31, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan followed with their independence declarations.
Armenia, as Markedonov notes, was a special case. It had earlier voted to meet the Soviet constitutional requirements for leaving the union. On September 21, its people voted overwhelmingly to do so, and two days later, Yerevan adopted its Declaration on State Sovereignty.
But again, “as had been the case with the triumph of the SR-Bolshevik bloc [at the start of Soviet times], so too the triumph of sovereignization did not become ‘the end of history’” at the end of Soviet times. Instead, autonomous formations like Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniestria followed suit as did South Ossetia and Abkhazia within Georgia.
As for the Russian Federation, the Chechens declared independence in the fall. Moreover, many other non-Russian republics already had or were soon to declare themselves sovereign, including Tatarstan, Sakha, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, and Tyva. And some ethnic Russian regions did as well.
What this “incontrovertibly” shows, Markedonov says, is that “the Soviet Union already before its official collapse had in fact ceased its existence.” But as one Russian deputy put it at the time, “the parade of sovereignties will lead to a war in which all will suffer, including those who started it.”
It is important to recognize why these declarations were the proximate cause of the demise of the USSR, Markedonov says. And to explain the background of that, he quotes with approval Russian émigré writer Yuri Slezkin’s observation that “the USSR was established by nationalists and destroyed by nationalists.”
The basic components of the Soviet state were not individuals but “socialist nations,” Markedonov continues. And that state “institutionalized ethnic groups as the main subject of policy and government law. Not the rights of any individual but the rights of nations were considered to have priority.”
That conception in turn led to “the formation of ideas about the ethnic property of this or that ethnos for a territory designated as a national republic, an autonomous formation within a national republic, and even for ethnically based districts.” That in turn led to “the formation of ethno-national movements for self-determination.”
Moreover, that inherent flaw in the Soviet system was exacerbated when members of various nationalities found, on the basis of post-World War II censuses that the percentage of titular nationalities in each republic was increasing, while the share of non-titular groups was falling, sometimes very fast.
Markedonov concludes: “In the words of Karl Heinrich Marx, the Soviet elite and the communist party itself became the grave digger of the union state and the party as a system of state administration.” At the time of the putsch, “quantity (errors, crimes, repressions, mutual demands and suspicions) passed into quality.” And the Soviet Union ceased to exist.