The 1991 Project: October 17-23. Russia’s Grim Prospects

By Liam Martin

The front page of The Moscow News, 20 October 1991. The graph in the bottom right indicates a majority (60%) of readers believed armed conflict between former Soviet Republics was “possible” or “quite possible.”

By late October, the USSR was actively disintegrating. Power had moved entirely into the hands of the constituent republics, most notably in Russia and with President Boris Yeltsin. The Soviet Union was, in many ways, nothing more than a formality. In The Moscow News edition from October 20, Mikhail Gorbachev, at that time still the leader of the USSR, was barely discussed outside of a single article about his actions during the August putsch. A break from the Soviet system toward a more democratic model with market liberalization was no longer a theoretical possibility, it had begun to actively happen. The fall of the Soviet Union had moved from possible, to inevitable, to immediate. 

 In fact, one major topic of discussion within The Moscow News was whether or not Russia should secede from the USSR outright and whether it might have already. In the article “Russia Has Independence, What About Statehood,” Oleg Rumyantsev notes, “We have declared our independence. The Union with the attributes ‘Soviet’ and ‘Socialist’ no longer exists.” He notes, however, that this does not mean Russia is a state, going on to call it a quasi-state with a constitution and government but not clear distinctions of power. This clear vision that the future is outside the USSR, coupled with a cloudy vision of what exactly that entails, is expressed a number of times throughout the paper.

If the future could be considered blurry within the USSR, it was even more so in the former constituent republics and former Warsaw Pact countries. This was discovered by Moscow News reporter Igor Baranovsky on his journey to the now functionally independent nation of Lithuania. In it, he describes both a resurgence of Lithuanian culture coupled with a lack of state organization. The border, for example, was completely porous, and Russian rubles were still the currency used in most of the country. On the other hand, the Russian language had already begun being replaced actively by Lithuanian, and the government of the new republic was devoid of Russians. Baranovsky notes that this situation coincided with a mass exodus of Russians from a country in which they no longer felt welcome. This experience was by no means the norm for newly independent nations, however. In a section titled “Letters from Abroad,” citizens of former Soviet republics express their concerns about this blurry future, and opinions on what should be done range from a resident of Kazakhstan that wants to maintain the Union, with full democratic rights for constituent republics, to writers from Yerevan and Baku, who desire nothing less than full independence for Armenia and Azerbaijan and express deep suspicion about Moscow’s motivation. As the writer from Yerevan puts it, “Hands off!” 

While the difficulties of transitioning out of the Soviet system were felt greatly within the former Warsaw Pact countries and the constituent republics, they were felt most strongly within Russia itself, which had always been the state most dominated by the USSR. Russia had been under Communist rule the longest, and had always been most identified with the USSR. Until the 1990s, there was no real Russian state to speak of. It is this lack of political identity that pervades the October 20 issue of The Moscow News. in the opinion section, titled, “Russia Has Quit The USSR: What Next?”, writers express a variety of opinions, many of which are not unlike those expressed by the writers in the constituent republics. Some, like Lev Ovrutsky, argue that Russia can survive without help from the constituent republics while others, such as Sergei Alexeyev, argue that separation from the Union would be a disaster. Perhaps the most prescient of this line of argument is laid out by People’s Deputy of the USSR Galina Starovoitova, who acknowledges both the inevitability of the separation and its consequences. “When the Russian Federation quits the USSR,” she says, “we are going to realize that we have neither full fledged national statehood nor a civil society.”  

Liam Martin is a junior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and International Studies


(1991, October 20). Page 3. Moscow News Digital Archive. Retrieved from 

(1991, October 20). Page 6. Moscow News Digital Archive. Retrieved from 
(1991, October 20). Page 8. Moscow News Digital Archive. Retrieved from

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