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Russia at Twenty

Russian anticommunists always balked when the outside world interchanged the words “Russian” and “Soviet,” equating a dictatorial system with a people it persecuted. This often reached a point of absurdity. Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent 12 years in prison in the 1960s and 1970s for political dissent, recalled how Western newspapers wrote about “Russian troops” invading Afghanistan and “Soviet academician” Andrei Sakharov protesting the invasion. Such substitution was not only ignorant but insulting to the memory of millions of Russians who perished in the Leninist-Stalinist state terror. Natalia Gorbanevskaya, one of the seven dissidents who staged a rally on Red Square on August 25, 1968 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, wanted Russia to be the first republic to secede from the USSR.

In the end, the first one was Lithuania, which proclaimed its independence on March 11, 1990. Russia followed on June 12, when the Congress of People’s Deputies, the first Russian legislature chosen in competitive elections since 1917, adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty. Though not formally ending Russia’s membership in the Soviet Union, the declaration made it meaningless: It introduced Russian citizenship (separate from Soviet), decreed Russia’s right to have its own diplomatic representation abroad and, most importantly, declared that Russian laws take precedence over Soviet laws and that any Soviet legislation that contradicts Russian statues will be suspended. The declaration was passed by a vote of 907 to 13 and signed by Boris Yeltsin in his capacity as parliament speaker. (Exactly one year later, on June 12, 1991, Mr. Yeltsin would defeat the communists in the presidential poll, becoming the first elected head of state in Russia’s thousand-year history).

Despite the succession of independence or sovereignty proclamations by its constituent republics in 1990 and 1991, the Soviet Union continued to exist. It was the abortive KGB-led coup in August 1991, intended to stop the “sovereignty parade” and restore Kremlin authority over its crumbling empire, that proved the system’s death knell. After the tanks were stopped by pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets of Moscow and Leningrad, there was no going back. On September 6 the independence of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia was recognized internationally. On December 8 the elected leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met in Belovezhskaya Pushcha to formally dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. On December 25 the red flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. In 1992, June 12 was designated a national holiday.

In today’s Russia, ruled by former security officers nostalgic for the Soviet past (Vladimir Putin famously called the dissolution of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”), June 12 is an uneasy reminder of a freer and more hopeful time. Though not abolished, like Constitution Day on December 12, the holiday has been purged of its original anti-imperialist and anti-totalitarian sentiments. Official ceremonies, complete with the restored Soviet national anthem, have little to do with the spirit of the declaration. This week’s twentieth anniversary events are not likely to be different, perhaps with some “democratic” rhetoric from Russia’s figurehead president, Dmitry Medvedev.

But for all the distortions, the holiday survives. And every year on June 12 Russia’s pro-democracy activists celebrate a day they can call their own, looking forward to the time when the promises of democracy, political freedom and the rule of law enshrined in the 1990 Declaration will finally be realized.

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