Soviet Democratisation

by James Graham

"Democracy is the wholesome and pure air without which a socialist public organisation cannot live a full bloodedlife."

(Quote from Mikhail Gorbachev's speech to the 27th Party Congress Moscow 25 February 1986)

Gorbachevs process of democratisation attempted to reform not only the Communist Party of the Soviet Union but the USSR itself. His aim was to shift power away from the Politburo to reformers who supported perestroika.

In this speech to the 27th Party Congress Gorbachev is expressing his belief that the party had to 'reform or die'. Gorbachev is recognising the mistrust and dissatisfaction the Soviet people held the party in. Also he is stating that he believes the Communist Party is drifting and failing in its duty to improve the standard of living of the Soviet people. The choice of the words "socialist public organisation" is interesting as it mentions socialist instead of communist. While the differences are slight he does seem to be hinting that the party can not last forever as of right. The quotation introduces the idea of democracy if only to high ranking members of the Communist Party.

Gorbachev delivered on his promise to introduce democracy to the Soviet Union. In 1987 Gorbachev began the process of democratisation by implementing the right for Communist Party members to elect party officials rather than have them appointed by senior party members. The Politburo and the General Secretary the most powerful people in the Communist Party were still appointed. With change at all levels of the party meeting stiff resistance, Gorbachev attempted to shift power away from it. During March 1989 the first elections in the USSR since 1917 were held. Representatives were elected to the soviets (councils) of each republic and to the Supreme Soviet. The elections were anything but free and unbiased with candidates standing unopposed in many areas. Even this trick did not always work. Anatoly Gerasimov the Leningrad (now St Petersburg) party leader received a humiliating fifteen percent of the vote despite standing unopposed. So many people had crossed his name out he failed to gain the necessary fifty percent of the vote. Wherever reformers did stand, they ran away with the votes. This ensured roughly a third of the Supreme Soviet was filled with dissenting voices like Boris Yeltsin, Andrei Sakharov and Baltic representatives. Not being large enough in number to introduce policy the radicals instead used their positions to gain information and voice their opposition to the Communist Party. No taboo was left untouched as Sakharov called for the abolition of the party's leading role. Gorbachev was enraged by such speeches but was powerless to prevent them. The Soviet people had never heard of anything like it and were glued to their televisions almost non stop for days while the Supreme Soviet was in session. The interest was so high a twenty percent fall in industrial output was officially blamed on the nations political square eyes. As more political and economic power moved to the republics the Supreme Soviet became obsolete. Delegates soon choose to attend their republic's soviet over the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev began the process of democratisation but he increasingly opposed it as it was taken over from below.

Democracy in the USSR proved to be a disease of the mind. The more democracy Gorbachev sanctioned the more radical the demands became for faster, wider reform. He was often left reacting to protesters demands than genuinely introducing reform. The televising of the elected Soviet parliament simply accelerated the change in people's minds. The old belief of "what can I do" became the new question "how can I help?"


Collapse of The Soviet Union Series:
Introduction | Glasnost | Perestroika | Ethnic Problems
Baltic Independence | The Conservative Coup