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Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding
Standing Strong: Witnessing Resilience in Ukraine
13:13February 26, 2024

The Russian Constitution at Fifteen: Assessments and Current Challenges to Russia's Legal Development (2010)

Russian constitution at 15 cover image
Russian constitution at 15 cover image

Excerpts from Mikhail Gorbachev's Opening Remarks

  • In the mid-1980s, the whole country called out for change. It was not just the intelligentsia, which should always play the role of critically assessing the existing power structure. No, in this case the entire society was united in the belief that we could not go on living as we had. This is the simple, paramount social consensus of the time that will go down in history: we cannot keep living this way.
  • So I was at the center of these events. And the first thing I did in response to this demand for change was to begin a nationwide discussion under the well-known policies of glasnost and perestroika. Many people still argue about whether glasnost was necessary on such a large scale, or whether it was a factor in the chaos, whether it unleashed the forces that made the country ungovernable. All these years after perestroika—over twenty years have passed now—I am now convinced that without glasnost, we would not have been able even to start the process of change. Clearly, this was a project that would take decades, but the most thoughtful people among the supporters of democracy—some of whom are sitting here today, including our distinguished professor, one of the smartest and most talented people—they were all demanding that we go faster and faster. “Why are you hesitating?” they would say. “Are you indecisive? Nothing is happening, the conservatives are organizing…” And in many cases their warnings proved true. But it was still impossible to do it that way. We needed 30 years, but I was only there for six years, and all of this happened in that short time.
  • I listened patiently to all of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s comments. I had a good relationship with him, even though we are very different people in terms of our character, the way we see the world, and our views on reform in Russia. He said publicly that Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost ruined everything. At an international conference of major newspaper editors, I finally responded that I do not know know what would have happened without glasnost. I think everything would have proceeded gradually or even stagnated, and I probably would have held the office of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party for much longer. Or perhaps not. But I know for sure that Solzhenitsyn would have remained in Vermont, chopping wood to stay warm in the winter. But he returned to Russia, and we listened to what he said and read everything he has written.
  • At the very least, this laid the foundation for the fundamental changes that began in politics, the economy, and society. Laws were enacted on freedom of conscience, free elections, and changing the status of the party. I am referring to the notorious Article 6 of the the previous Soviet Constitution, which gave the Communist Party the right, without the consent of anyone else, to decide any issue in the country. The Communist Party’s monopoly on power came to an end. And everything changed immediately: we saw what our party really was—a very weak organization propped up only by that monopoly on power.
  • Among the most important laws that were enacted were the laws on freedom of conscience and religion, the freedom to leave the country, freedom of the press, and the law on private property. This is what created a new environment for people to live in and made them think about the future. What began next was the massive process of putting these new laws into effect. But the more we went up against the massive Soviet system and tried to fully comprehend it and begin to change it, the greater the political resistance we faced.
  • This was in "my" Politburo, in which I served until 1989. But in the beginning of 1989 it began to fall apart. There were schisms in society, from resistance to perestroika by the conservatives to splits among the reformers, and people began to express serious doubts. The ship of state was listing, and it became very difficult to steer. The attempted coup of August 1991 occurred at the eight of this schism and conflict, radically accelerating the process of collapse and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The disintegration had terrible consequences, including harm to the process of democratic reform. Yes, we desperately needed to decentralize our reforms. If this had been done more rapidly, the disintegration could have been prevented. But this did not happen. We lost time. The main mistakes were: delays in reforming the Communist Party, delays in reforming the USSR as a union of different nations, problems with the market, and providing for the needs of the population. These were the most urgent issues, but we were trapped by the situation we were in.
  • Those who took power rejected evolutionary change and called for rapid, immediate change. As Boris Yeltsin, my successor in Russia, said: “Be patient. We will be in decline until November 1992, but then we will start rising again, and in three or four years we will be one of the four most developed countries on earth.” Of course, everyone understood that this was reckless talk, nothing more. But by then the people were so tired of being disappointed that they did not think about what was in Yeltsin’s head. They thought: “Yeltsin is a tough guy ready to govern with a strong hand. Nothing would get in his way—everything would get done.”
  • We have come a long way. But as I have begun to say only recently, we are probably not more than halfway through the democratic transition process. Now you will discuss the agenda of this conference. This is all very important to us, I should say. If for many of you these are theoretical issues, you will make comparisons and express very precise and scholarly opinions. But life is not like that for us, and we will once again debate these issues with the same passion as before.

Citation: Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Kennan Institute Occasional Paper Series #304, 2010. PDF 76 pages.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more