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Revolutionary Concepts: From “Self-Management” to “Sovereignty” in the Soviet Union (1987-1990)

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Join us for an engaging talk by Juhan Saharov, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, who will discuss:

Revolutionary Concepts: From “Self-Management” to “Sovereignty” in the Soviet Union (1987-1990)

Soviet Estonia was the first republic to declare its “sovereignty” (asserting the supremacy of the union republic’s laws over all-Union laws) in the Soviet Union in November 1988, setting the model for all other Soviet republics to follow. One by one, the Soviet republics declared themselves sovereign in 1989–1990, earning the name “the parade of sovereignties.” Several historians and political scientists, but also Russian presidents (from Yeltsin to Putin) have later acknowledged that the concept of “sovereignty” killed the Soviet Union, acting as the main catalyst for the dissolution of the state. But how did “sovereignty“ suddenly emerge in October 1987, when nobody had been discussing it a month earlier? Why did it start in Estonia and not in other republics?

The lecture tells the story of Estonian scholars from the communist party membership who turned the central Soviet perestroika campaign into a local “conceptual revolution.” In September 1987, a group of Estonian scholars introduced the project of “Self-Manageable Estonia” – the idea of an economically self-sufficient Soviet republic, which aimed to place all economies under local and not Moscow's jurisdiction. Within a year, this intellectual movement mobilized the whole nation, eventually shifting the focus from “self-management” to “sovereignty.” The lecture illustrates how the debate on the economic model of Soviet Estonia led to the unintended discovery of the concept “sovereignty” in 1987, and how both concepts were exported to other Soviet republics in 1988–1990.

Juhan Saharov is a Research Fellow of Political Theory at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu. His research is focused on the intellectual history of perestroika in the Soviet republics, market socialism, and expert languages during the late Cold War period. His doctoral dissertation „From Economic Independence to Political Sovereignty: Inventing “Self-Management” in the Estonian SSR“ was awarded Main Prize for a PhD dissertation by the Estonian Research Council in 2021. He has published on the role of experts and academic communities in the Soviet perestroika in the journals like Contributions to the History of Concepts, Europe-Asia Studies, and Acta Historica Tallinnensia. He is a member of the research grant „Self-Determination of Peoples in Historical Perspective” at the University of Tartu.

Juhan Saharov is holding a visiting fellowship with Stanford's Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from March–April, 2024.

The event is free and open to the public. RSVP is requested.

This event is part of Global Conversations, a series of talks, lectures, and seminars hosted by Stanford University Libraries and Vabamu with the goal of educating scholars, students, leaders, and the public on the benefits of but also challenges related to sustaining freedom.