In its twisted road to independence, one that began over a century ago with many failed attempts, the Ukrainian referendum that took place on Dec. 1, 1991, stands out as a great turning point.
In the days leading to the vote, even the most ardent Ukrainian supporters of independence were uncertain, concerned about the large numbers of ethnic Russians in Soviet Ukraine, particularly in Crimea and eastern regions. But when the votes were tallied 31 years ago today on Dec. 3, 1991, the results surprised even the most optimistic of observers—over 90 percent of the population of Soviet Ukraine voted for independence.
With an 84 percent voter turnout, people from all regions participated, including Ukraine’s estimated 17 percent of ethnic Russians who had made up considerable portions of the country’s eastern provinces. Exceeding expectations, every one of Ukraine’s 25 administrative regions voted for statehood. What’s more, the people of Ukraine voted for their president on the same day in which all six candidates favored independence.
The 1991 national referendum results shed light on today’s brutal and inhumane Russian war in Ukraine. For it is a war based on the old Russian contention that Ukraine is less a nation than a collection of disparate regions, divided by religion and nationality and linked to Russia.
Seven months into his unprovoked war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally annexed the four eastern regions of Ukraine on Sept. 30, 2022, on the basis of an erroneous argument that Russia was merely granting these regions their rights to self-determination, to return to Mother Russia as allegedly desired.
Using the same arguments that Adolf Hitler had made to justify the annexation of Western Czechoslovakia in 1938—to restore self-determination to the area’s ethnic Germans—Putin in 2022 condemned the loss of large swaths of ethnic Russians to breakaway republics in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. Attributing the desire of these countries for independence entirely to outside Western influence, Putin attempted a historical rewrite of the recent past on the basis of false claims, stating, “It was the so-called West that trampled on the principle of the inviolability of borders, and now it is deciding, at its own discretion, who has the right to self-determination and who does not, who is unworthy of it.”
In eastern Ukraine, Putin continued, the ethnic Russians in 1991 had been forcefully incorporated into Ukraine against their will: “In 1991… without asking the will of common citizens, representatives of the then-party elites decided to destroy the Soviet Union, and people suddenly found themselves cut off from their motherland. This tore apart and dismembered our nation, becoming a national catastrophe… I want everyone to remember this: the people living in Luhansk and Donetsk, in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have become our citizens, forever!”
But to mark today’s anniversary, we should remember the actual truth about the people of eastern Ukraine and their aspirations. When the results of the December 1991 national referendum were counted, the inhabitants of the four eastern Ukrainian regions Russia annexed voted overwhelmingly with Ukraine for independence: 83.9 percent in the Donetsk region, 73 percent in the Luhansk region, 90.66 percent in the Zaporizhzhia region, and 86.33 percent in the Kherson region.
The December 1991 national referendum in Ukraine had built upon the momentum for separation that had begun on Aug. 24, 1991, when the Ukrainian parliament took a vote on separation—only two of 353 MPs voted against independence.
The first constituent Soviet republic to declare independence had been Lithuania in March 1990—an act that Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev opposed by sending in Soviet tanks to Vilnius in January 1991, leading to the death of 11 Lithuanians and the injury of hundreds.
Although appalled by the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania, President George H.W. Bush backed Gorbachev’s opposition to separatist movements, ones that could lead to instability and social unrest in regions of Soviet Russia that shared nuclear weapons such as Ukraine.
In his speech in Kyiv on August 1, 1991, President Bush stood before the Ukrainian parliament and warned against independence. With hundreds of demonstrators waving Ukrainian flags and chanting “freedom for Ukraine” outside the parliament building, the American president expressed his support for Gorbachev’s efforts to keep the Soviet Union intact. “Freedom is not the same as independence,” Bush said. “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. [Americans] will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”
The New York Times columnist William Safire famously belittled Bush’s Kyiv appearance, dubbing it Bush’s “Chicken Kiev speech” in an August 1991 op-ed piece. At the time, the Ukrainian leadership was divided over independence, and the majority of Kyiv MPs actually applauded Bush on that day.
The turning point came three weeks later when, on Aug. 19, 1991, Soviet hard-liners placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his seaside home in Crimea and declared a military coup in Moscow. But with the help of Boris Yeltsin in Moscow—the then first president of the Russian Federation who stood on the streets of Moscow condemning the coup—the plotters were defeated in less than 72 hours and Gorbachev returned to Moscow.
The short-lived hardliners’ coup had the effect of destroying Gorbachev’s proposal for a new union of Soviet states with broad internal autonomy. In the immediate aftermath of the failed coup, three Soviet republics declared separation—the Estonian, Latvian and Ukraine parliaments voted for independence from the Soviet Union between Aug. 20–24, 1991. The future of the Soviet Union was in peril. “Communism is dead. The Soviet empire is breaking up,” a jubilant William Safire commented in the pages of The New York Times on Aug. 29, 1991. “This is a glorious moment for human freedom.”
When, on Dec. 3, 1991, the Ukrainian national referendum returned a decisive vote for independence, the collective voice of the estimated 51.8 million inhabitants of Ukraine dealt the Soviet Union the final blow.
By the middle of December 1991, 11 constituent members of the Soviet Union had proclaimed independence. When Gorbachev tendered his resignation as president of the Soviet Union in a farewell address on Dec. 25, 1991, the Soviet Union was finished.