May 1 was a day of grand festival in the Soviet Union, a red-letter day on the Soviet calendar since 1918. International Worker’s Day was a prime opportunity to celebrate the Soviet Union’s official reason for existence and to show off the ideological fervor of its people and the power of its military. Parades were organized all over the nation, synchronized with the grand festival “in the heart of Moscow.” Communist Party cadres around the country were tasked with drumming up a certain number of participants, and the press covered the march for weeks before and after the date itself.
During the Stalin years, the masses of marchers paying homage to the grand dictator on the reviewing stand of Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square gave May 1 a quasi-religious aura. In fact, the holiday took on a distinctly anti-religious character, and was considered a replacement for Easter, which occurred around the same time of the year and occasionally fell on May 1 itself.
But all this was ancient history, or seemed like it, on May 1, 1990, in the fifth year of Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika and Glasnost, his ultimately failed policies to liberalize and revitalize the communist state, were in full swing. Estonia and Lithuania had declared independence from the Soviet Union in March. Things were changing quickly. And as such, May Day would be different.
For the first time, the May Day parade was voluntary and open to any and all participants. The idea was that the Communist Party would lead the parade, with citizens’ groups of various sorts—encouraged by the newly-elected radical reformist mayor of Moscow, Gavriil Popov—joining in.
Gorbachev was hopeful. He had just overseen the Soviet Union’s first ever democratic elections to the newly-formed Congress of People’s Deputies. He welcomed popular participation in public life—in fact, his grand plans for the restructuring and revitalizing of the Soviet Union depended on public participation. And so he welcomed independent participation in the May Day parade, which he expected to be largely supportive of him and his policies.
All the same, it was not to be a free-for-all. Gorbachev took planning responsibility out of the hands of the rather unpredictable Popov and kept it in the hands of the Party. The Communist Party still developed and published the official themes and slogans for the parade. But there was to be some freedom. Participants were allowed to develop their own additional slogans, expressing their personal or professional interests and opinions.
Also, in addition to the officially organized Communist Party section of the parade, there was to be an additional, self-organized section. Citizens’ groups of all sorts would have the chance to make their voices heard. Only “anti-constitutional” slogans were to be barred.
The parade began as expected. Gorbachev, the head of the Communist Party and, as of two months prior, the Soviet Union’s first “President,” stood along with his comrades on the tribune of Lenin’s Museum in Red Square, waving at the red-banner-bearing crowds below.
True, some of the signs were a little different than in former years. “Enough Experiments,” and “A Market Economy Is Just Power to the Plutocracy” are some of the critical placards that David Remnick reports seeing in his book Lenin’s Tomb. But perhaps this was what freedom was all about—the opportunity to voice light criticisms of government policy.
Then the unofficial section of the parade arrived.
To the horror of the Communist Party bigwigs on the tribune, these were neither grateful beneficiaries of Gorbachev’s liberalizing policies nor cautious critics. On the contrary, these marchers were attacking the entire ideology that the Soviet Union was built upon. They waved Lithuanian, Estonian, and Russian flags. They held images of Gorbachev’s critic Boris Yeltsin and of the late Andrei Sakaharov. Even crucifixes. They waved signs supporting opposition parties—from social democrats to Christian democrats to anarchists—and excoriating the Communist Party of the Soviet Union:
“Socialism? No Thanks!
“Communists: Have No Illusions. You Are Bankrupt!”
“Marxism-Leninism is on the Rubbish Heap of History!”
“Communists Exploit the Workers!”
“Down With the Cult of Lenin!”
“Down With Gorbachev!”
“Resign! Resign! Resign!”
The members of the communist presidium stood in shock, embarrassment, and stupor for 25 agonizing minutes.
Tension reigned in the offices of state television. The television broadcast of the May 1 parade usually lasted to the very end of the march. Yet this meant that state television was now broadcasting a steady stream of criticism of the state. After a few minutes, Pyotr Reshetov, a hardline communist who had already forewarned Gorbachev about possible protests and recommended that he leave the reviewing stand before the unofficial march arrived, decided to cut off the broadcast. He received an angry call from Gorbachev’s team, commanding that he return the parade to the air. But a few minutes later, he pulled the plug again.
After 25 minutes of humiliation, Gorbachev and the other members of the Politburo turned and left the tribune. For more than an hour more, the demonstration continued. When David Remnick spoke with protestors on the street, one told him, “I’ve been forced to go to these rallies for years, and this is the first time I’ve come voluntarily, acting from my own soul.”
Two weeks later, the Supreme Soviet passed a law making it a crime to insult the President of the Soviet Union. But, at this point, it was too late. Thousands of people had already declared, in full hearing of the entire nation, that the General Secretary had no clothes.