The first competitive elections in the Soviet Union: how it was

How did Soviet Elections Work? (Short Animated Documentary)

The first competitive elections in the Soviet Union: how it was

Former USSR People’s Deputies and their assistants recall the atmosphere of freedom at the congresses of the late 80s and the people’s enthusiasm in anticipation of democratic changes

Exactly 30 years ago, on March 26, 1989, the first round of elections of People’s Deputies of the USSR took place. In a number of cases, a second vote was held, which took place two weeks later – on April 9.

This election campaign went down in history as the first partially free elections in the Soviet Union. As a result, 2,250 deputies were elected – 750 each from national-territorial constituencies, from territorial constituencies and from all-union public organizations, which, according to the USSR law “On elections of people’s deputies of the USSR”, included, in particular, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Komsomol, trade unions, veteran organizations, the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Arts and the Soviet Cultural Foundation.

In most districts (1101 out of 1500), elections were held on an alternative basis. Candidates had the right to present their programs to voters and to campaign. The Russian service of the Voice of America contacted some of the former USSR people’s deputies and members of their teams, and asked to share their memories of the events of 30 years ago.

“We were, as if, in the palm of the voters”

One of the five co-chairs of the Interregional Deputy Group, Nikolai Travkin, was elected in a single-mandate constituency, which included a number of the nearest suburbs of Moscow. “The promotion went through labor collectives, and the first of them was a large military plant, or the so-called” mailbox “in Fryazino,” recalls Travkin.

Speaking about the course of the election campaign, he notes a high level of people’s activity. “The very turnout in the elections was 90% – unimaginable numbers today. And there were a very large number of those who just wanted to help me in carrying out the campaign – today they are called volunteers or activists, and then they were volunteers. And I had a lot of them, moreover, of all ages.

And the campaign itself was carried out manually. At that time there was no Internet, photocopiers were not allowed. The leaflets were written by hand and reproduced at the same military factories. Everyone understood that this was a violation, but then the special departments were already looking at them, half-closed their eyes, “the ex-USSR deputy noted..

According to Nikolai Travkin, it was impossible to win that campaign without trying to reach every voter: “But the voter also willingly came to us. The meeting rooms were packed and a lot of questions were asked. And this activity of our voters is probably the most memorable ”.

And then the sessions of the congresses of people’s deputies of the USSR began, and their live broadcast became the most popular television program of that time. “We were like in the palm of the voters. And everything that happened at the congress was under the influence of TV viewers. Moreover, this influence intensified at the end of the meetings. We left through the Spassky, or through the Borovitsky gates of the Kremlin and walked as if through a line of voters who stood on both sides of the aisle. And they knew all the deputies by their last names. At the same time, people of democratic convictions gathered at the gates of the Kremlin. And it turned out: a democratic deputy comes out – he is happily greeted and applauded. There is an inveterate communist – loud whistles and curses are heard in his address, they say, to what the country has been brought, and so on. And this strengthened the perception that politics is being done not under the carpet, but in full view of all voters, of all fellow citizens, “Nikolai Travkin notes..

And in the meeting hall there were queues to the microphone, because every people’s choice was overwhelmed with a desire to speak out on the most pressing problems of the country. “And this public activity, of course, left the most vivid impressions. But this activity was connected, of course, not with the “victory of democracy”, but with the understanding that it was allowed from above, and that nothing would come of us for that, ”the MDG co-chairman characterizes the atmosphere of that time.

When asked whether it is possible in modern Russia to repeat the same social upsurge that was in the USSR at the peak of Perestroika, Nikolai Travkin replied: “It’s hard to say. After all, if we are talking about those years, then it is necessary that dissatisfaction with the existing way of life and the actions of the authorities accumulated for the same number of years. And if this vector, by which Russia is moving, continues for another 40 years, the same amount of energy will probably accumulate below. This is the time. And besides, there should be a second Gorbachev, who will give the go-ahead: “Freedom, you can not be afraid of anything!” After all, that time the social energy spilled out, because freedom came from above, it was not won. And we – the leaders of the democratic movement and the most recognizable media figures – were already catching up with public opinion. But it was not we who led these people, Gorbachev raised them, ”sums up Nikolai Travkin.

“Everything was done on people’s enthusiasm”

Captain 1st Rank Alexander Shchelkanov was nominated for the 51st territorial district in the then Leningrad. He was elected People’s Deputy of the USSR as a result of a repeat vote on April 9. He was also a member of the Interregional Deputy Group. And in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of the last convocation, Shchelkanov was the chairman of the committee for the affairs of the armed forces.

He also especially notes the social situation in which the formation of the “St. Petersburg offensive detachment” took place at the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR. “There was an opportunity in the election process to really compete with those who went through official channels. After all, representatives of factories, workers of ports, and so on went along the same single-mandate districts. Second: there was open opposition from the district party committees. Third, I and members of my support group could openly go to metro stations in our area, set up a poster and start talking to people who immediately began to cluster together. By the way, now not only candidates, but also elected deputies have no right to hold such mini-rallies, “Shchelkanov emphasizes..

Another distinctive feature of the spring 1989 election campaign was that the candidates did not spend money. “Everything was done on the enthusiasm of those people who shared my moods and opinions. And these people themselves came to me and offered help. And this helped me to fight those who opposed me on behalf of the regional committee, and those with whom I competed in my district, ”the ex-deputy recalled in an interview with the correspondent of the Russian service“ Voice of America ”.

He considers his experience of participation in the Interregional Deputy Group very useful, since this association represented democratically minded people from different republics of the Union and the national outskirts of the RSFSR. And going to the microphone, Alexander Shchelkanov, according to him, realized that he was speaking not just on behalf of the deputy from Leningrad, but represented a huge community of his like-minded people and their voters..

And when asked to compare the public atmosphere of the spring of 1989 with the moods that prevail in Russia today, he answered briefly: “I can say quite clearly that we have insanely increased militarization at the national level. This is the militarization of state policy – external and internal, this is the militarization of the economy, and finally – the frenzied militarization of the consciousness of citizens ”.

The Interregional Deputy Group was not the only informal association of the participants of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR. Ideologically, it was opposed by the “Union” group, which insisted on the preservation of the orthodox Soviet ideology and on the integrity of the “homeland of world socialism”.

“Now all democratic initiatives are vulgarized”

Meanwhile, the MDG included democratically-minded representatives not only of the largest cities of the RSFSR, but also deputies from national entities and from the union republics. In particular, Stanislav Shushkevich was among the deputies representing Belarus..

In an interview with a correspondent for the Russian service of the Voice of America, he said that the election as a People’s Deputy of the USSR in the first round with 76% of votes in favor was a complete surprise for him..

“I also remember that the live broadcast of what we said at the congress made a huge impression on me. And when I returned to Minsk, I could not walk through the streets – everyone recognized me. Because everyone saw our debates, sharp questions and answers to them, and it was all live. That was awesome. But, unfortunately, then it was ruined, in particular – in Belarus. And people do not see who is who, because the point of view of only a certain “luminary” is presented. But he is a narrow-minded person, and does not want and does not know how, except to retain power, “- says Stanislav Shushkevich.

Returning to the times of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, he recalls: “There were people of categorically different political convictions, often with opposite aspirations. And when the normal work of the congress was going on, it became clear that it was possible to build a democratic state in which the government would be elected. And in those days I hoped, and even was sure that it is possible “.

Speaking about the current situation in Belarus and Russia, he notes with bitterness: “All democratic undertakings are so vulgarized, and such definitions as“ democracy ”,“ elections ”and“ dictatorship ”are so humiliated that at present there is a repetition of such a popular upsurge, as 30 years ago, it is simply impossible “.

According to the former USSR People’s Deputy, a qualified intelligentsia, not indifferent to political events, is required for democratic transformations. And the modern intelligentsia – both Belarusian and Russian – according to Shushkevich, is very far from playing a worthy political role: “She just sighs, tries to explain something, and nothing more. No active action. And the old party nomenclature and its heirs are active. They learned a simple principle: “I am the boss, you are a fool.” Then they arrange a feeding trough, near which they keep people who do not understand anything about the development of science and the state, but who understand very well in terms of ensuring personal gain, “concludes Stanislav Shushkevich.

“Comparison is not in favor of the Kremlin”

Lev Ponomarev, executive director of the For Human Rights movement, deputy of the State Duma of the first convocation, was Academician Andrei Sakharov’s confidant in those elections. In his opinion, the elections of 1989 and 1990, when the people’s deputies of the RSFSR were elected, were approximately the same in terms of transparency and honesty. Then it only got worse from time to time, he says to the Russian service of the Voice of America..

“One of the then procedure of nomination for deputies, which was worth it,” the human rights activist notes. – Imagine, even the Taganka Theater could nominate its own candidate from the public. Muscovites came to large, specially designated halls, they were registered with their passports, and they voted. For example, I was nominated as a candidate in a labor collective – the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics. There was an open war between the secretary of the party committee of the institute and yours truly. At the same time, there was an open vote, different, often diametrically opposed positions were expressed “.

Another thing is that Mikhail Gorbachev “booked” a quota of one hundred deputies from the CPSU from among the main “singers,” Lev Ponomarev clarified: two thousand deputies “.

In the opinion of the executive director of the movement “For Human Rights”, the current government is reluctant to recall the elections of those years..

“After all, everything is known in comparison,” he explained. – And we know under what administrative pressure and with what restrictions all subsequent elections in Russia were going on. First of all, candidates from the opposition forces from among the most authoritative opponents of the authorities are not allowed before the elections. They are cut off at various stages, it is carefully thought over who can be allowed and who must not. And besides, monstrous violations are recorded: stuffing, “carousels” and so on, which is especially demonstratively happening in the republics of the North Caucasus.

Of course, the comparison is not in favor of the Kremlin, stated Lev Ponomarev. It seems to him that today Andrei Sakharov would not have been allowed to participate in the elections, taking into account his convictions, although such moral authority is extremely necessary both in the legislative and power structures of the country..

  • Victor Vladimirov

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