‘There was a spirit of absolute freedom’ Meduza talks to one of the organizers behind the March 10, 1991 opposition protest in Moscow
Exactly 30 years ago this week, on March 10, 1991, one of the biggest opposition rallies in the history of the USSR and the Russian Federation took place on Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square. According to some estimates, up to 500,000 people came out in protest, demanding the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev, showing their support for Boris Yeltsin, and calling on Soviet citizens to vote “no” in the upcoming All-Union Referendum on Preserving the USSR. To find out more about this historic event, Meduza spoke to one of the protest organizers, Mikhail Shneider.
The March 10, 1991 rally took place on the eve of the referendum. The question was about preserving the USSR in a “renewed form.” No one really imagined what a “renewed Union” was. We understood that this was just another Soviet propaganda stunt. What’s more, it was already clear that the Soviet Union was, in fact, disintegrating. We didn’t believe that the communist government could offer a real reform of the Soviet Union. Therefore, “Demokraticheskaya Rossiya” (Democratic Russia) campaigned for citizens to answer “no” to this question. And at that time “DemRossiya” was the most authoritative political force, we were considered the real thing.
One of the meeting points [for the March 10th demonstration] was on Oktyabrskaya Square at the very top of Bolshaya Yakimanka Street. From there we led the column toward Manezhnaya Square [near the Kremlin]. There were about 150,000 to 200,000 people [in the column], and more people joined us along the way. At the head were the orators, who were supposed to speak from the rostrum, and the organizers — at least five to seven people were responsible for organizing the rallies at that time.
Television cameras were filming us at a distance of about 10 to 20 meters [33–66 feet] from the column. These were journalists from federal channels, who were critical of our actions. Their main complaint was that the opposition couldn’t offer a positive program. In many ways, this is similar to today, but back then there wasn’t the level of lies [that there is now].
My role as an organizer was to lead the column to the site of the demonstration safely. We made sure that the back rows didn’t press up against the front ones, and we regulated the pace of movement.
But there was no crush, people organized themselves and treated each other with great care. It was self-organization at the highest level. Along the way, people shouted popular slogans in support of Boris Yeltsin and demanding Gorbachev’s resignation.
On March 10, representatives of Democratic Russia spoke to the crowd: Gavriil Popov, Sergey Stankevich, Yuri Afanasyev, Nikolai Travkin. They spoke about the political situation — about the danger of a military coup, about the attacks on Boris Yeltsin [by Gorbachev and other pro-Soviet politicians], and about the need to support him. On the podium in front of a crowd of thousands, there was a feeling that everything would work out for us and a bright future would come soon.
Actually, a lot of people showed up on March 10 — according to various estimates, between 200,000 and 500,000 people. But I can’t say that it was the biggest rally. At that time all of Democratic Russia’s meetings gathered several hundred thousand people. On the Manezhnaya Square itself there were around 250,000 people maximum. If space ran out, people filled Tverskaya — there were loudspeakers that carried the sound along the entire street. Another portion of people were located on Revolution Square and some stood on the Okhotny Ryad side.
But the biggest rally in my memory took place on February 25, 1990. [What] set it apart was the fact that at the rally they read out the list of candidates for Moscow City Council deputies [in the upcoming 1990 elections]. The fact is that we didn’t have special channels for disseminating information, except for [the radio station] Ekho Moskvy, and the newspapers MK and Kuranty, so we simply decided to read out the list of our candidates from the rostrum — and asked people to write down their names so they knew who to vote for. Back then, by our estimates, up to a million people took part in the protest. People were simply fed up with the constant lies [of the authorities], the arbitrariness of officials, the falling standard of living, the endless queues, and inability to buy the most basic clothes and shoes. At that time, most people hated the communists.
I experienced the most intense emotions when I saw that all the work of calling on people to take part in the protest action was bearing fruit. Back then, to organize a large-scale rally, we used phone calls and leaflets. At that time, the organizes had a kind of pyramid: each district had its own designated “dialer,” he passed information on to other activists, who disseminate the information even further. Sometimes Ekho Moskvy helped, they advertised and worked very closely with the Moscow City Council.
[We had] about a million leaflets [about the rally] in circulation. They were printed in a small format, A7—A8. Their distribution took place in two stages: at first we gathered people at the House of Cinema, the Oktyabr Cinema, or any other roomy hall in Moscow. Activists from Democratic Russia, RSFSR deputies, and the most well-known newsmakers of that time — Yuri Afanasyev, Gavriil Popov, Sergey Stankevich, Garry Kasparov — spoke at these types of gatherings. Boris Yeltsin came on multiple occasions. These meetings took place two to three weeks before the rally. The hall was always full.
Back then we all imagined that we would live like in the West. We just needed to get rid of the party nomenclature. Abolish Article 6 of the Constitution [on the leading and guiding role of the Communist Party]. Instead of bureaucratic officials, take real professionals and specialists and start economic reforms. At that moment, a law on cooperation had already been adopted in the USSR, and the first elements of a market economy had started to appear. But people’s idea of the future was very naive: the majority of people thought that it was enough to overthrow the Communist regime and introduce a market economy. And then literally within a couple years the population would live in complete prosperity.
A revolution was taking place in the country at that time. It started in 1985 with the election of Gorbachev as the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee and went through several stages. It’s culmination took place in the events of August 19–22, 1991 [the failed August Coup].
At that time there was a spirit of absolute freedom. You could say what you think without fear of being arrested by the KGB or ending up in a psychiatric hospital. The communist opposition organized its own protest actions and no one hindered them either. People read what they wanted, wrote what they wanted, came out with placards. Workers and miners who were unhappy went on strike. Nobody pressured or arrested them — it’s difficult to imagine now.
Over the past 30 years there have been tremendous changes. Nothing like that spirit remains now. Today, any political struggle is limited to a strict framework. Politicians often have to choose [between] saying something openly and staying silent. Nowadays, the spirit of freedom is present, to a greater extent, among young people. But if a person has received a proper education and read good books, their taste for freedom can’t evaporate.
Today’s authorities are people who, from my point of view, have a particular understanding of how the country should develop. For some of them, this is linked to satisfying their personal financial interests. But perhaps some [of them] sincerely believe they’re doing everything right.
It seems to me that we’ve returned to the level that the leaders of the GKChP [State Committee on the State of Emergency] brought us to: a market economy, but for [insiders]. Since then, no real know-how has emerged in the political struggle and political life in Russia. And due to the inability to negotiate among certain leaders [of the opposition], the authorities have learned to fight and put a spoke in the wheel of alternative political associations.
It’s very difficult to negotiate. Even if you take [the example of] Democratic Russia — back then, people united to overthrow the Communists from power in Russia. This was the only effective political coalition. Now there are no such options.
Nowadays there’s no mass rallies like there were then, because the majority of people are satisfied with the way they live. But the resumption of such mass rallies like in ’91 is possible in Russia. This already happened in 2011. The main thing is [to have] an idea that will affect people deep-down.
I’m absolutely convinced that in the future Russia will become a free country, otherwise there will be a complete degradation of both the economy and social life. A person can't withstand this much. The question is how much time it will take.
This translation has been abridged for length and clarity. You can read the full interview in Russian here.
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart