Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
On March 17 1991, the people of the Soviet Union voted in a referendum to resolve the greatest question of the time: should the USSR remain a single country, composed of its fifteen national republics, from Ukraine to Uzbekistan, or should it be allowed to dissolve? Turnout was 80%. 76.4% voted to preserve the USSR.
Nine months later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Gorbachev held the referendum to restore good relations between Moscow and the republics. Everything hung in the balance: the political vision of perestroika, the existence of the country, his own career. The ruling establishment issued dire warnings of the consequences of a ‘leave’ vote. One writer begged his readers to vote for the status quo. Voting no, he argued, would be to turn their back on the democratization of the last few years, with its promise of stability and a better material and moral life. ‘There will be disturbances, civil wars and possible wars between former members of the Union, […and] the threat of a new totalitarianism[.]’
Aimed at shoring up the Union, the referendum campaign ‘has itself become a problem, exacerbating the confrontation in society,’ the same writer argued. He feared that instead of voting on matters of principle, people would vote against the politician they disliked more, Gorbachev or Yeltsin. Yeltsin was leading the Russian Republic towards independence and therefore sought the dissolution of the USSR.
Gorbachev himself warned of the economic dangers of disrupting the mutually beneficial ties between the republics. He feared the consequences for the USSR’s position in the world. ‘In terms of political weight and credibility, the Soviet Union is today a mighty state in the international arena. […] It took tremendous efforts to acquire this influence. But it could be squandered and thrown to the winds very quickly.’
There was a big vote in favour of preserving the USSR in all the republics that voted, including Ukraine, though six refused to hold the poll. But there were pockets of opposition. Take Sverdlovsk, where most people voted no. How could this be, in the Russian heartland, in the Urals? This was Yeltsin’s hometown, and he had an effect in all sorts of ways. But commentators also suggested that the people of Sverdlovsk were not really voting about the future of the USSR at all. Instead, academic specialists argued ‘that a major industrial city used this as a way to express its outrage at the exploitative nature of the relations between it and the centre.’
So what’s the message of the all-union Soviet referendum for Brexit Britain?
First, the dire warnings of the establishment might well be right. People voted to preserve the Union, but it collapsed anyway, with many of the consequences that Gorbachev and others predicted.
Second, when people vote in the way that an arrogant political class doesn’t want them to, it can only be because they’ve deliberately chosen to answer a different question.
Third, referendums are dangerous in political cultures unused to them, precisely because they ransack society for mutual opposition and bad feeling.
Fourth, the results turned out to be irrelevant.
Fifth, Clement Attlee pointed out long ago that referendums were ‘a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators’ like Hitler and Mussolini. More recent history shows they are a disastrous one for hapless politicians like Gorbachev and Cameron. One of them lost control of events and unintentionally caused the collapse of the supranational union that bound his country together. And the other?