Back to the Past: 1989

19891989 saw the beginning of the end. The election of a parliament made the dismantling of the Soviet apparatus possible. The mighty ship with the red star was scuppered by Gorbachev, Yeltsin and other reformers, who did more to wreck the cause of Soviet Communism in the space of a few years than decades of anti-Soviet propaganda and the Cold War put together.

By the winter of 1989-90, milk, tea, coffee, soap and meat had vanished from many state shops, particularly in Moscow. Sugar was scarce. “You promised us improvements; then why do we have to queue for basic things to eat?” was written in the sky in vast thought bubbles whenever Russians went to the shops in search of something edible, let alone tasty. Millions of Russians puzzled it out in their own way, coming to the conclusion that they wanted more radical change. Gorbachev did too but always with a delay, “clinging to the dying embers of the Communist faith,” as Timothy Colton put it.

6Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin used the shortages to press for the further decentralisation of industry. But the transfer to private retail and semi-private production caused problems which neither was able to handle well because power had also been decentralised. When Gorbachev saw that the co-ops he’d encouraged weren’t bringing about the desired results, he started talking about the need to create a “socialist market economy”, an oxymoron.

Oil prices had plunged from a high of around US$49 a barrel in spring 1980 to less than US$9 in 1988, falling by 50 per cent in 1986 alone). Oil and gas constituted only 18 per cent of exports in 1972 but a whopping 54 per cent by 1984. Only in armaments was the country keeping up. Paradoxically, industrial production had actually risen by 11 per cent between 1983 and 1985 thanks to Yuri Andropov’s disciplinarian methods. But from an economic point of view, there was no turning back.

In February 1989, the last remaining Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan.

April turned out to be a cruel month in Soviet Georgia. Sensing that the situation in the Baltics was spinning out of control, hardliners in the Interior Ministry turned nasty and ordered troops to open fire on a mostly female crowd in Tbilisi. That day, 19 were killed and several hundred injured. Twenty-one people were struck by soldiers wielding sharpened shovels. Many linked the violence directly to Gorbachev and the issue was brought up at the first session of the newly-elected parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, which ran from 25 May to 9 June. Almost daily, high-ranking state officials, including even Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, were harangued as they spoke. Gorbachev watched silently and coldly. Dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, recently allowed home from internal exile, called for the scrapping of Article 6 of the Constitution, the one that enshrined the ‘leading and guiding role’ of the Communist party. But his proposal was rudely rejected by Gorbachev. Sakharov died shortly after, in December.

By April 1989, resolutions passed at the 19th Communist Party Congress in June 1988 came into force. The number of Central Committee economic departments went down from 20 to nine. The remaining ministries had to report to the new Congress of People’s Deputies. From now on, the economy was to become more and more self-regulatory.

On the 25th of April, 74 full Central Committee members and 24 candidate members were bullied by Gorbachev into resigning. Stalin, of course, would have had them all shot. These included household names such as Andrei Gromyko, the Foreign Minister who had been known in the West as Mr. Nyet, and, at the United Nations where he was constantly vetoing Security Council resolutions, the Abominable No Man. Premier Nikolai Tikhonov also passed into history.

In July 1989, coal-miners in a pit in western Siberia went on strike, following a string of miners’ strikes in the Don basin. Their strike spread like wildfire to other mines in the Siberian Kuzbass and Vorkuta in the north. The miners demanded improved living and working conditions, better supplies, greater control over their work place and, interestingly, curbs on the co-operative movement. Fearing unrest, Gorbachev met most of their demands. However, overall conditions remained appalling. Brezhnev or Khrushchev would have used force against anybody daring to strike.

On the 9th of October, the Supreme Soviet finally recognised the right to strike, thus breaking with the Soviet sophistry that no such right was necessary or possible because workers in a workers’ state could not go on strike against themselves.

On the 14th of December, Andrei Sakharov died at the age of 68. This was an occasion for a nation-wide display of genuine grief, mingled with fear lest the precarious liberties so recently won might equally speedily be withdrawn.