On January 11, 1994, the State Duma of the Russian Federation—the first Russian parliament since 1917 to be elected in a multiparty vote—opened its session in Moscow. As the first Duma marks its 20th anniversary, IMR Senior Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza recalls its experience—the experience of a parliament that, unlike today’s parody on the Duma, was truly a “place for discussion.”

 

The first session of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. Moscow, January 11, 1994.

 

There are few memorable dates in the short history of Russian parliamentarianism. One such date is April 27 (O.S), 1906, when the first State Duma opened its session in St. Petersburg. Another—negative to be sure, but certainly memorable—is January 6 (O.S.), 1918, when the Bolsheviks forcefully disbanded the democratically elected Constituent Assembly (“The working people do not need your chatter… The guards are tired,” sailor Anatoly Zhelezynakov told Speaker Viktor Chernov before shutting down the session). January 11, 1994, undoubtedly deserves to be included in the list of important historical dates. On this day, the first session of the State Duma of the Russian Federation opened in the former Comecon building, hastily renovated after the events of October 1993, when it was stormed by militants under the command of nationalist General Albert Makashov. Although this was the first Duma in the Russian Federation, it was often referred to as the “fifth” in reference to the four pre-1917 State Dumas and in an attempt to emphasize historical continuity.

With the possible exception of the second State Duma of the Russian Empire (1907), which included fourteen party caucuses, from the extreme left to the extreme right, the 1994–1996 Duma was the most representative parliament in the history of Russia. It was elected on December 12, 1993, in Russia’s first multiparty parliamentary elections since November 1917 (the March 1990 elections of People’s Deputies of the RSFSR, although competitive, were held under the still-existing Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution that institutionalized one-party rule; 86 percent of the deputies elected in 1990 were Communist Party members). Thirteen parties and blocs took part in the 1993 election; eight of them crossed the five-percent threshold and entered the State Duma. In addition, members of other parties and independent candidates won seats in single-member districts; alongside the eight party caucuses there were four other parliamentary groups in the Duma. During a visit by the Duma delegation to Washington DC in March 1994, American journalists noted that the Russian State Duma had a wider political spectrum than the U.S. House of Representatives.

During a visit by the Duma delegation to Washington DC, American journalists noted that the Russian State Duma had a wider political spectrum than the U.S. House of Representatives.

No political camp had a stable majority in parliament. At the Duma’s opening in January 1994, the leftwing and nationalist parties (including the Communists, the Agrarians, and the LDPR) had around 220 seats, while the liberal and center-right groups (including Russia’s Choice, Yabloko, and the Party of Russian Unity and Accord) had around 160 in the 450-seat chamber. During the course of the Duma’s mandate these proportions changed (not, it should be added, in the liberals’ favor), but any significant decision still required ad hoc coalitions.

Throughout its existence, the first State Duma remained in opposition to then-President Boris Yeltsin and his government. This became apparent as early as the election of the Duma speaker on January 14, 1994, when the position went to Ivan Rybkin, who was nominated by leftwing parties. In the preferential voting among six candidates, Rybkin received 233 votes—against 138 votes for former Soviet dissident and political prisoner Sergei Kovalev, the candidate of the then-ruling Russia’s Choice party.

 

Members of Russia's Choice parliamentary caucus Sergei Kovalev (center, back to the camera), Yegor Gaidar (center), and Anatoly Chubais (right) in the first Russian State Duma. Moscow, 1994.

 

One of the first decisions of the new parliament was amnesty for all participants of the August 1991 coup d’état and the October 1993 armed uprising, which was passed by 252 votes to 67 on February 23, 1994. President Yeltsin opposed the amnesty and actually tried to prevent its implementation—but amnesty, according to Russia’s constitution, is a parliamentary prerogative, and on February 26 the prisoners were released. (What a contrast with the 2013 amnesty, which was openly drafted in the Kremlin and only sent to the Duma for rubberstamping.) On June 21, 1995, by a vote of 241 to 72, the State Duma passed a vote of no confidence in the government—the first and, so far, only one in the history of modern Russia. The second no-confidence motion was only prevented by significant concessions from the Kremlin, including the sacking of the most unpopular cabinet ministers: Nikolai Yegorov, Viktor Yerin, and Sergei Stepashin.

Not only was the first State Duma an independent and full-fledged political actor in Russia; it also made a significant impact on national legislation. During the two years of its existence, more than 300 new laws went into force, including the federal laws on the Constitutional Court, the arbitration courts, and referenda, and the first part of the Civil Code.

The first Duma was a real “place for discussion;” it was truly a reflection of the whole Russian society—from Stalinists and nationalists to democrats and pro-Western liberals.

Most important, however, was that the first Duma was a real “place for discussion,” which a true parliament should be, and which parliament in Russia ceased to be after the “free but unfair” elections in December 2003. That chamber was truly a reflection of the whole Russian society—from Stalinists and nationalists to democrats and pro-Western liberals. Among its members were former Supreme Soviet member Sergei Baburin and former Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, prominent leaders of the opposing sides in the October 1993 crisis; ultranationalist Nikolai Lysenko and the architect of Russia’s pro-European foreign policy, Andrei Kozyrev; former Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee Secretary Anatoly Lukyanov and former Gulag prisoners Sergei Kovalev and Mikhail Molostvov.

“Journalists, political analysts, [and] historians are yet to give their verdict on the importance of our work for the fate of Russia, but an impartial observer can already see that the first State Duma of the Russian Federation—the fifth attempt at a Russian Duma—has succeeded,” Speaker Rybkin said in his valedictory speech on December 22, 1995. “We leave behind two years of reconciling different interests not on the streets and squares, but here; although with struggles and fights, but under the roof of the State Duma… And this, I believe, is the main result [of our work]… In this, I see the first sprouts of a new culture in the history of Russia, a new political culture.”

Unfortunately, the development of this culture was interrupted in 2003—but only for a time. The experience of the fifth State Duma will no doubt prove useful to future generations of Russian lawmakers.

If you are interested in getting a rare insight into what Russia is really about; what the Russian government and the Russian people are really thinking; what the Russian expert community is really discussing; subscribe to our newsletter below or by letting us know at info@imrussia.org.

Truly yours,

IMR team

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.