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In 1991, the Soviet Union held a referendum about its future political structure. The results of that referendum are presented in this inforgraphic, or here.

What was the purpose of this referendum? Was this referendum about the continuation of governance by the communist party? If there such a positive response to the questions, why did the Soviet Union break up anyways?

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    The USSR had ceased to exist by this time anyways (Google failed coup against Gorbachev) so what political system best suited the new reality under Boris Yeltsin who famously stood on a Tank and sided with those who could not run "what came next"? What evolved was a Commonwealth stretching over the entire Eurasian Landmass...which appears to be true even today. – Doctor Zhivago Sep 10 '16 at 23:23
  • The answer to the last question is very simple: people's vote meant nothing in "USSR", they have always happily voted for anything the Party would tell, 99% up to 146%. Nor could the voting help the regime from collapse due to economic reasons. – bytebuster Sep 11 '16 at 0:18
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    @user14394 the coup was about half a year after the referendum. – Anixx Sep 11 '16 at 4:46
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    @user14394 The USSR had ceased to exist by this time anyways You're absolutely wrong. That's the problem with the history: people are always confused with dates. – Matt Sep 11 '16 at 7:02
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The referendum was not about the continuation of government of Communist party. Gorbachev was going to sideline the party anyway. The referendum had no "keep status quo" option. It had two options: to destroy the USSR quickly or to destroy the USSR slowly (by transforming it into a lose confederation as Gorbachev wanted).

Gorbachev planned to replace the USSR with Union of Sovereign States, and this referendum should legitimize it. Either outcome would be used by Gorbachev. If the people voted to keep USSR in renewed form, he would argue USS was the renewed USSR. If the people voted to dissolve he would argue the USS was not the same as the USSR.

The USSR was destroyed against the will of the people.

  • to destroy the USSR slowly (by transforming it into a lose confederation as Gorbachev wanted) That's not right. Gorbachev hadn't any connection to the "commonwealth" project. He was... well, just a goof without any plan. – Matt Sep 11 '16 at 7:10
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    @Matt Gorbachev planned to replace the USSR with Union of Sovereign States, and this referendum should legitimize it. Either outcome would be used by Gorbachev. If the people voted to keep USSR in renewed form, he would argue USS was the renewed USSR. If the people voted to dissolve he would argue the USS was not the same as the USSR. – Anixx Sep 11 '16 at 7:13
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    @Matt "He was... well, just a goof without any plan." Psch, Glasnost was more of a plan than most politicians have managed since. From what I understand of it, his failing was typical of reformers. Too optimistic, he thought it could work without the system falling apart. – inappropriateCode Sep 12 '16 at 16:29
  • @inappropriateCode In 1991 he had neither friends, nor allies, nor supporters. If he had some plan then I don't know what the word "plan" means. – Matt Sep 12 '16 at 16:59
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The question in the referendum had nothing to do with Communist party. It was about preservation of the Union of 15 republics. The union was created in 1922, with the provision that the republics (which joined voluntary) had a right to leave. The majority voted to preserve the union. But later events in the same year lead to its dissolution (See Wikipedia article Dissolution of the Soviet Union).

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What was the purpose of this referendum?

Pro-USSR party wanted to strengthen their position. The future breakup was almost imminent but they had a hope to stop this.

Was this referendum about the continuation of governance by the communist party?

No. Although if USSR had survived then the communist party could possibly continue to govern.

If there such a positive response to the questions, why did the Soviet Union break up anyways?

People's opinion had a little impact on political life. The biggest loss for USSR was Gorbachev himself. He did nothing to prevent a breakup. And pro-USSR party couldn't just have thrown him out.

On a mentioned coup of 1991, they tried to make a deal with Gorbachev first, not just to arrest him or such. They expected to put him under their influence and use his position to defeat the opposition. But that plan was quite foolish and, of course, didn't work. That was the reason why not all pro-USSR politics even supported them.

And after the attempt had failed, the USSR was doomed. Yeltsin and others simply blew it up without paying any attention to the previous referendum.

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Others addressed other aspects of the question, so I will focus on

If there such a positive response to the questions, why did the Soviet Union break up anyways?

First, the single question was phrased to consist of 4 parts:

  1. Do you want to preserve the Union?
  2. Do you want the union to be preserved as a Federation?
  3. Do you want the federal subjects to be equal and sovereign?
  4. Do you want equal right for persons of all ethnicities?

Note that 2 and 3 are mutually exclusive.

To vote, one had to cross out(!) the answer they did not like. So, if you vote "yes", you have to cross out "no".

So, it was basically "have you already stopped beating your wife every morning" situation.

Second, many republics did not hold the vote. IOW, saying that "the response was positive" is like saying that "4 wolves and a sheep decided democratically what's for dinner": the Russians voted to preserve their empire while (some of) their colonies tried not to participate in the vote.

NB: The apologists love to site the official statistics that every single republic voted "Yes". This might be true, because in most republics (Baltics, Transcaucasia, Ukraine) only a small fraction of population voted. To extend the analogy from the previous paragraph, "4 wolves and one sheep voted on dinner, while 6 more sheep ignored the vote". This is, of course, disputed by the apologists who site the official Soviet statistics - the same statistics which brought us 100% participation rates for decades, and reached 146% recently.

Finally, Soviet Union did not break up (as in "disappear"). The Russian Empire lost some but not all colonies, but it is still there, and is now openly talking about gathering them back into the fold.

  • Actually, in all participating republics people voted to keep the USSR, in the Caucasus and Central Asia more than in Russia. I downvote because you compare it with 4 wolves and a sheep: in no place those in support of dissolution won. – Anixx Sep 12 '16 at 14:22
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    "in most republics (Baltics, Transcaucasia, Ukraine) only a tiny fraction of population voted" - what a crap! In Ukraine 84% voted (70% for the USSR), in Azerbaijan 75% voted (93% for the USSR)! This is the chart from the question: i.imgur.com/xXS4jN0.jpg In most republics the majority voted. – Anixx Sep 12 '16 at 14:39
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    Okay, so you are resorting to the claims of forgery. Any evidence of forgery? Or for that only a "small fraction" participated in Ukraine? Actually, the local elites in many republics (including Ukraine) were in support of dissolution of the USSR (and in some republics they banned the referendum) so what's the point for them to forge the results in favor of the USSR? – Anixx Sep 12 '16 at 14:46
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    "Everything coming from the Communists is presumed to be a lie" - presumed by whom? "Local elites did not necessarily control the elections" - they in many places had so much control that they refused the referendum (Georgia, Armenia, Moldavia), changed the question (Kazakhstan), added additional questions (Ukraine). In all these cases the changes were taken against keeping the USSR. The central power was very weak at the time. – Anixx Sep 12 '16 at 14:58
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    The Russian Empire lost some but not all colonies Do you care to say which ones remain? Maybe I live in colony without knowing this?! Looks like propaganda in US is so-o much stronger than it ever was in SU. My pity. – Matt Sep 12 '16 at 16:06

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