Gathering Voices: Political Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

By
Markian Dobczansky and Mary Elizabeth Malinkin

"Mass publics matter during transitions," said Henry Brady, Class of 1941 Monroe Deutsch professor of political science and public policy, University of California, Berkeley at a 1 March 2007 Kennan Institute seminar. Brady, along with Cynthia S. Kaplan, professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara, and former short-term scholar, Kennan Institute, underscored the role of public opinion and social movements in bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union.

Over the course of their research, Kaplan and Brady analyzed cultural journals, interviews, memoir literature, voting data, and surveys conducted in Estonia and Russia during the years 1987–91. Kaplan and Brady focused on challenges posed by mass political movements to the USSR in Estonia and Russia from 1988 onward.

In the Estonian case, the nationalist movement advocating independence emerged in August 1987, Kaplan said, and reached a climax by March 1990. Agitation began in cultural journals, and focused at first on culture and history, specifically the 19th century "national awakening" of Estonia, she noted, and only later moved to support for independence. Initially, public support for independence was low, but within a relatively short period of time, support for independence became overwhelming as protest actions mobilized public opinion.

Kaplan identified three major groups in Estonian politics based on their study in Estonia: the "restorationist" movement, the "reform" movement, and the Soviet counter-movement. These three groups were made up of fairly stable constituencies, and there was a strong statistical correlation between support for the groups and support for their positions on the issues, Kaplan explained.

The "restorationists" saw the Soviet government as an occupying power, she said. They advocated independence and the restoration of the independent Estonian republic that had existed between the World Wars. The "reformers," Kaplan continued, supported the Popular Front, and initially supported perestroika and Gorbachev. They advocated national rights within the Soviet context, but eventually shifted to supporting full independence as a result of competition with the "restorationist" movement for public support, she stated. The Soviet counter-movement opposed Estonian independence and supported communist ideology. Initially, the "reformers" had the majority of support within Estonia, but once the "restorationists" won over Estonian public opinion, they shifted to independence as their goal, Kaplan said.

In the Russian case, Kaplan and Brady examined the challenge led by Boris Yeltsin to Gorbachev's rule. They noted that the sovereignty question in both Russia and Estonia forced Gorbachev to consider the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union, and put him on the defensive. Brady also noted that Yeltsin had learned how to exploit the issue of sovereignty from the example of the Baltic states. Brady and Kaplan concluded from their research that changes in public opinion empowered Yeltsin and weakened Gorbachev as time went on, demonstrating that public opinion influenced politics in Russia as well as in Estonia.

Brady showed that in May 1988, Gorbachev and perestroika enjoyed high support from the majority of the public. "Support for Gorbachev and for perestroika were fundamentally linked," Brady said. However, he also demonstrated that looking at mass political preferences from 1988 on showed that Gorbachev grew increasingly vulnerable to attacks from both the liberal and conservative sides.

Brady then showed that the results of surveys from 1989 and 1990 indicated that while Gorbachev was still in the political center and received more support than any other political figure during those years, Yeltsin was an emerging national figure. By mid-1990, as the economic situation continued to worsen, the general public began to doubt perestroika, which soon translated into a drop in support for Gorbachev.

Yeltsin's support, on the other hand, was not related to perestroika at all, Brady asserted, but rather to the question of Russian sovereignty. "While the faltering of the Soviet system gave Yeltsin the opportunity to challenge Gorbachev, public support gave him the means," he said. His embrace of sovereignty for Russia as an issue enabled him to form a coalition of liberals and conservatives to challenge Gorbachev from both sides of the political spectrum, Brady stated. Liberals supported Yeltsin because he represented the best chance for reform, while conservative Russian nationalists viewed Yeltsin as a champion for Russia within the Soviet Union. Thus, the Congress of Russia in May 1990, an event crucial to the sovereignty movement, significantly boosted Yeltsin's popularity. By July 1990, public support for Yeltsin was on the rise as a result of widespread support for the Congress of Russia, while Gorbachev was losing popularity because of the poor performance of the economy, Brady summarized.

Brady and Kaplan reiterated that three of the major phenomena that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union—secessionism in the Baltic republics, falling public support for perestroika and Gorbachev, and Yeltsin's appeal for Russian sovereignty—were all propelled by mass popular movements. Thus, in their view, the secession movements in the Baltics "lit the fuse"; Gorbachev was weakened by great public disappointment in the economy and the perestroika reforms; and Yeltsin capitalized on this disappointment to appeal broadly to both liberal reformers and Russian nationalists. In conclusion, Brady and Kaplan stressed the importance of mass publics in determining the outcome of state transitions.

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