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The XXI century will be a сentury either of total all-embracing crisis or of moral and spiritual healing that will reinvigorate humankind. It is my conviction that all of us - all reasonable political leaders, all spiritual and ideological movements, all  faiths - must help in this transition to a triumph of humanism and justice, in making the XXI century a century of a new human renaissance.

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22 June 2009

The First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR: 20 Years Later.

On May 21 the Gorbachev Foundation held a discussion on the historic role of the first free alternative election in the USSR and the First Congress of People’s Deputies that opened in Moscow on May 25, 1989.


Mikhail Gorbachev opened the Round Table discussion. Among the participants in the first session “The 1989 Election and the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR as a Breakthrough to Society’s Self-Awareness” were the former deputies of the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR Yury Afanasyev, Mikhail  Bocharov, Fedor Burlatsky, Roy Medvedev, Anatoly Chernyayev, Alexei Yablokov, Oleg Rumayantsev; human rights commissioner in the Russian Federation Vladimir Lukin, researchers Kirill Strakhov, historian (St. Petersburg); Elena Strukova, National Public Historical Library; D.S. Sekirinsky, and A.B. Shubin, the Institute of Universal History under the Russian Academy of Sciences.  


Speakers in the second session “1989-2009: the Evolution of Society’s Attitude to Democracy and the Political System of Contemporary Russia” included the former deputies of the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR V.I. Lisitsky, D.N. Khudonazarov, Nikolai Shmelev, Adviser to the President of the USSR Vadim Medvedev, people’s deputy of the RSFSR Viktor Sheinis, the Deputy of the RF State Duma from 1994 till 2003  Vyacheslav Igrunov, First Deputy Head of the “Fair Russia” faction in the State Duma O.G. Dmitriyeva; journalist A.V. Politkovsky, researchers: political scientist Tatyana Vorozheikina, sociologist Alexei Levinson, literary critic Natalya. Ivanova, human rights activist Sergei Kovalev, political scientists Viktor Kuvaldin and Andrei Ryabov. 



Compared to Present Parliament, It Was Like the House of Lords

Ilya Kriger, Novaya gazeta, May 25, 2009


Just as 20 years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev chaired the conference. Other participants included the former deputies of the 1989 Congress, historians of that period, political scientists, sociologists, and journalists. 


At the opening of the round table discussion Mikhail Gorbachev said that “the 1989 election set the whole country in turmoil” and “rehabilitated our people” that suddenly “rushed in crowds to attend the meetings with people running for election – and their number was by ten times higher than required”; “no one could tell for sure what ocean this high water may drift us to”. According to Gorbachev, the opinion as to the genetic indifference of our compatriots was not true. The former General Secretary called on the present government to relax its grip on the electoral system and appealed to society to make itself ready for a free election.


Historian Roy Medvedev, a former Congress deputy, said that the centenary of the establishment of the State Duma celebrated several years ago is not to be seen as the birthday of Russian parliamentarism. According to him, “a sovereign parliament which the government could not but reckon with” appeared in 1989. Medvedev shared his reminiscences: “We, deputies, had been thrown into water before we learned to swim … I was very much surprised at the change of feeling shown by my voters – every fortnight I would have a totally new audience”.


Nikolai Shmelev, academician and former deputy, described the Congress as follows: “As compared to the present parliament, it was like the House of Lords … People were different at the time.”


Political scientist Fedor Burlatsky (also a former deputy) noted that in 1989 people were “merely sniffing the political process” so the Congress was a tilting yard for various groups, a field for expressing one’s opinions but not for a normal political activity”. Historian Yuri Afanasyev (deputy of the 1989 Congress) suggested that the Congress be seen as a gathering of the “representatives of Soviet nomenklatura and the representatives of the thinking class in the service of that nomenklatura” (as the latter category the academician referred to the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies including himself). “There seems to have been only one person who watched the developments as if he were beyond the system. This man was Andrei Sakharov, – only one against more than two thousand deputies. This is why the proposal he’d made to the Inter-Regional Group to become an open political opposition was not supported. Today liberal intelligentsia is also a servicing class of the Soviet nomenklatura that enjoys dominance together with the representatives of big business”.


Historian Alexander Shubin described the 1989 Congress as “a drama at the microphone” and “a drama outdoors”. “What was happening outdoors was unbelievable”. “The statement that we had no civil society”, says Alexander Shubin, “is an idealist vision of this society. Civil society had formed before the Congress opened. And then it fused together with nationally prominent politicians. If a real dialogue had begun at that time between civil society and the government that advanced the idea of “a democratic socialism”, the future of the country could have been totally different”.


Political scientist Tatyana Vorozheikina remarked that the 1989 Congress finalized the split between the democratic movement and the “reform-seeking part of the nomenklatura” led by Gorbachev. According to her, the Gorbachev reformers proved unable to perceive the democratic movement as an independent force capable of pledging its support to perestroika, while the democrats definitely overestimated their influence outside Moscow and Leningrad. At the 1989 Congress they resigned themselves to Boris Yeltsin and the part of nomenklatura that followed him. In spite of the fact that the period of 1987—1989 was “a window of opportunities” that could have broken Russia’s traditional historical model of governance (power dominates society with its executive branch dominating all other branches) modernization did not occur. Boris Yeltsin acted “quite in keeping with the century-old tradition”, so waiting for “another Gorbachev to come” is now an exercise in futility.


Commenting on the Congress’s political impact, political scientist Andrei Ryabov remarked that Velvet Revolutions that had swept Eastern Europe in 1989 brought those countries back to parliamentarism. Here, in Russia, the memories of the State Duma experience dating back to the turn of the century have been blurred, therefore the Congress proved an acceptable transitional model. But it failed in the long run, because reformation of the CPSU – the back-bone of Soviet political system – was the last thing that the reformers did.


Sociologist Alexei Levinson (Levada – Center) cited the data of opinion polls to show that Russians almost equally evaluate the 1989 Congress’s role as positive and negative, with the percentages of those appraisals being very low. The majority of those polled (60 percent in the age group under 25, and one-third of university graduates) are ignorant of this historical event. Yet, Russian society agrees with Andrei Sakharov who in 1989 called the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan an “unjust war”. 


The Round Table was Webcast and will be available at

The short-hand account will be placed on Web site