In 1991, the Soviet Union held a referendum about its future political structure. The results of that referendum are presented in this infographic, 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. Sep 10, 2016 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. Sep 11, 2016 at 0:18
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    @user14394 the coup was about half a year after the referendum.
    – Anixx
    Sep 11, 2016 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, 2016 at 7:02
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    The referenced Wikipedia article states, "The referendum was made with the aim of approving the Union of Sovereign States ." Please update the question to explain why that is insufficient?
    – MCW
    Oct 22, 2020 at 11:02

6 Answers 6


(This answer was originally here: https://history.stackexchange.com/a/32715/1569)

In brief

The referendum was not about "continued governance by the communist party" because by the time the referendum was held the communist party had already effectively abdicated its power - the train had certainly left that station by then.

What the referendum did show was that a majority of Soviet people were in favour of retaining a federal state with an unspecified system of government rather then breaking it up to create a number of smaller independent countries, as had eventually transpired in reality.

The end of communist governance in the USSR

The communist party (CPSU) high-handedly ran the Soviet state ever since its inception. This was formally acknowledged in Article 6 of the Soviet constitution of 1977 (the earlier 1936 constitution had a similar article too, of course). But during perestroika the reins of power began to slip from the party's grasp and on March 14, 1990 this article was amended from the clear-cut statement of communist paramountcy:

The leading and guiding force of the Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system, of all state organisations and public organisations, is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [...] The Communist Party [...] determines the general perspectives of the development of society and the course of the home and foreign policy of the USSR [...]

to the toothless platitude:

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, other political parties as well as labor, youth and other public organisations and mass movements [...] participate in the policy-making of the Soviet state [...]

This was no trifle - it was the main demand of the newly-formed democratic opposition movement and Gorbachev's giving in to it was a clear indication that the party's grip on power was effectively broken.

Indeed, the very same bill which abolished the party's monopoly on power introduced the new office of President of the USSR, to be filled by Gorbachev who urgently needed a new job title. Clearly, being merely Secretary General of the CPSU was no longer enough to command full obedience.

The referendum question: another look

If you will now reread the referendum question, you'll find that it does not mention the CPSU or communism at all! Rather, it reads:

Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, which will fully guarantee the rights and freedoms of all nationalities?

Another telling fact is that if one read's carefully the wiki page on the referendum, it turns out that originally there were 5 questions planned, rather than one. Question 2 and 3 were to refer to the preservation, respectively, of the socialist system and of the Soviets. However, all the extra questions were dropped from the final ballot. Probably because the organizers did not feel they would be able to secure a majority on them.

The struggle to preserve the federal state

During 1990 and 1991 the Soviet state went into implosion mode. Long-repressed ethnic rivalries escalated into violence, pogroms, and open warfare. The federal leadedrship, no longer sure of itself, tried half-hearted repression and then when things went sour, reneged on its own repressive measures, blaming local army commanders. This cost it its credit with the military and police.

The regional elites now sensed weakness on behalf of the central government and saw an opportunity to assert themselves. Thus during 1990 many republics of the USSR either seceded or asserted their "sovereignty", finding themselves at loggerheads with the central authorities. Which laws were now to take precedence? The federal or the republican ones?

Gorbachev, an astute enough politician, saw what was going on, saw that the old Soviet system was by now beyond saving and took a reasonable step: he invited those republics who have not seceded (9 out of 15) to negotiate a new federal compact. In effect, the Soviet Union was going to be replaced by a new creation, the Union of Sovereign States.

The referendum was a political move by Gorbachev to shore up support for the federal center vis-a-vis the republics and to leverage it to gain more power during the negotiations for the drafting of the USS. It probably achieved its purpose.

In the event, the new federal compact was to the signed on August 20, 1991. A day before that, on August 19, a group of communist blowhards in Gorbachev's government tried to turn the clock back with their infamous abortive putsch. In the aftermath, both Gorbachev's political reputation and the idea of a federation took such a hit that the final scuttling in December 1991 was almost unavoidable.

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    Thanks for finally bringing it over! I've been wondering what happened! Oct 24, 2020 at 2:44

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 the USSR in renewed form, he would argue the 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, 2016 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, 2016 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.
    – user17846
    Sep 12, 2016 at 16:29
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    @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, 2016 at 16:59

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).


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.

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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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 16:06
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    @Matt: Caucasus, of course. Chechnya and Dagestan. It's common knowledge basically. Chechnya de facto isn't even Russia. There is a local warlord who is just loyal to Kremlin, but he basically controls the republic himself, not caring about federal government. What does it have to do with propaganda, that's common knowledge. :) Oct 26, 2020 at 16:16

The USSR ceased to exist to objective economical, political and ideological reasons, that were accumulating for many years (at least from the late 70-s).

So of course no referendum could stop the objective decay of the system.


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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