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State and Society under Stalin: Constitutions and Elections in the 1930s

  • J. Arch Getty (a1)


It is clear that tested by the Constitution of the Soviet Union as revised and enacted in 1936, the USSR is the most inclusive and equalised democracy in the world.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, 1937

Many who lauded Stalin's Soviet Union as the most democratic country on earth lived to regret their words. After all, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 was adopted on the eve of the Great Terror of the late 1930s; the “thoroughly democratic” elections to the first Supreme Soviet permitted only uncontested candidates and took place at the height of the savage violence in 1937. The civil rights, personal freedoms, and democratic forms promised in the Stalin constitution were trampled almost immediately and remained dead letters until long after Stalin's death.



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The research for this article was supported in part by travel and research grants from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), and the University of California-Leningrad State University faculty exchange. I wish to express my gratitude and intellectual debt to Ellen Wimberg of the University of Pittsburgh and V. V. Kabanov of the Institute of History, USSR Academy of Sciences, both of whom pointed me toward important sources. Special thanks also go to Tat'iana Feliksovna Bavarova, who went out of her way to locate what, to her, certainly seemed bizarre archival materials, and to my colleagues and friends Andrei K. Sokolov and Efim I. Pivovar for their help on many fronts.

1. This article is based on archival files from the late 1930s in the Tsentral'nyi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv oktiabr'skoi revoliutsii i sotsialisticheskogo stroitel'stva SSSR (hereafter TsGAOR), which were recently opened to foreign scholars. Fondy 3316 and 1235 are part of the files of the RSFSR and USSR Central Executive Committee (TsIK) of Soviets.

2. Relatively little serious historical work has been done on the drafting of the Stalin constitution. An uncritical review of the archival documents is provided by Bogatyrenko, Z. S., “Obzor dokumental'nykh materialov po istorii sozdaniia konstitutsii SSSR 1936 g,” Istoricheskii arkhiv, no. 2 (1959): 197204 . A sketchy account of the subsequent discussion of the constitution is Tret'iakov, G. I., “Vsenarodnoe obsuzhdenie proekta Konstitutsii SSSR,” Voprosy istorii, no. 9 (September 1953):97102 . The most serious Soviet work is Kabanov, V. V., “Iz istorii sozdaniia Konstitutsii SSSR 1936 goda,” Istoriia SSSR, no. 6 (1976): 116127 . See also Ronin, S. L., Konstitutsiia SSSR 1936 g (Moscow, 1957), and Iakubovskaia, S. I., Razvitie SSSR kak soiuznogo gosudarstva. 1922-1936 gg. (Moscow, 1972); A solid analysis of the press is Ellen Wimberg, “Socialism, Democratism, and Criticism: The National Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution,” unpublished paper, University of Pittsburgh, 1989. Other works that touch on the constitution and the elections are Drobizhev, V. Z., Lel'chuk, V. S., et al., Rabochii klass v upravlenii gosudarstvom (1926-1937gg.) (Moscow, 1968); Kozhevnikov, E. M., Istoricheskii opyt KPSSpo rukovodstvu Sovetskim Gosudarstvom (1936-1941) (Moscow, 1977); I. la. Kernes, Chto chitat’ k vyboram v Verkhovnyi Sovet SSSR (Moscow, 1958); Vybory v Verkhovnyi Sovet SSSR i v Verkhovnye Sovety soiuznykh i avtonomykh respublik 1937-1938 gg. (tsifrovoi sbornik) (Moscow, 1939). Several Soviet dissertations also deal with this question: S. la. Bard, “Bor'ba partii bol'shevikov za podgotovku i provedenie pervykh vyborov v Verkhovnyi Sovet SSSR v 1937 godu na osnove novoi Konstitutsii” (Moscow, 1952); O. Soshnikova, “KPSS v combor'be za pobedu bloka kommunistov iz bespartiinykh na vyborakh v Verkhovnyi Sovet” (Kiev, 1954); and V. la. Ashanin, “Organizatorskaia rabota Kommunisticheskoi partii Sovetskogo Soiuza v usloviiakh zaversheniia stroitel'stva sotsialisticheskogo obshestva i provedeniia novoi konstitutsii (1934-1937 gg.)” (Moscow, 1954).

3. See Pravda, 7 and 8 February 1935, for the announcement and amplifications.

4. The original announcement in February 1935 called only for amending and “correcting the text” of the 1924 Constitution. The decision to produce an entirely new document was apparently taken between February and July 1935, when the editorial commission began to draft a constitution.

5. TsGAOR, fond 3316, opis’ 40, delo 81, listy 1-5; ibid., dd. 20 and 74-78 contain extracts and texts of the German, French, and other constitutions gathered by Radek and Bukharin. Delo 19 contains the 1917 electoral law of the Provisional Government.

6. These three were heads of important Central Committee departments: Iakovlev was head of the agricultural department; Stetskii was head of Agitprop; Tal’ was head of the press department.

7. TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 40, dd. 39, 81, contain general protocols of the commission's work in this period. Ibid., dd. 1 and 4 contain these two drafts.

8. Ibid., d. 5.

9. Ibid.,dd. 2 and 5-7.

10. See Fainsod, Merle, Smolensk Under Soviet Rule (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), for the first scholarly description of powerful family circles; Arch Getty, J., Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), chaps 1-4; Gabor T. Rittersporn, “The State against Itself: Social Tensions Behind the Rhetorical Apotheosis,” Telos 46:1979, and “Rethinking Stalinism,” Russian History, 11:4; Rigby, T. H., “Early Provincial Cliques and the Rise of Stalin,” Soviet Studies 3 (January 1981): 328 .

11. See Aryeh L. Unger, Constitutional Development in the USSR (London, 1981), chap. 2.

12. TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 40, d. 81,11. 20, 22, 24, 26, 50.

13. Ibid., d. 5,11. 2-14.

14. Kabanov, “Iz istorii sozdaniia,” 118.

15. TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 40, d. 4,11. 15, 19, and d. 2,1. 17. For background, see Peter H. Solomon, “Local Political Power and Soviet Criminal Justice 1922-1941,” Soviet Studies 37 (July 1985), and Rittersporn, Gabor T., “Soviet Officialdom and Political Evolution: Judiciary Apparatus and Penal Policy in the 1930s,” Theory and Society, 13 (1984).

16. TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 40, d. 81,11. 34-40, 42-45, 47-52.

17. Ibid., 1. 42; and ibid., d. 4,11. 16-18.

18. Conquest, Robert, The Great Terror (New York: Macmillan 1973), 134 , citing Boris Nicolaevsky's “Letter of an Old Bolshevik” ( Nicolaevsky, Boris I., Power and the Soviet Elite [New York, 1965], 22 ). The “Letter” is the much-quoted origin of many persistent rumors about Stalinist politics in the 1930s. For critiques of the Letter's value, see Medvedev, Roy A., Nikolay Bukharin (New York, 1980), 115118 ; McNeal, Robert H., Stalin: Man and Ruler (New York: New York University Press, 1988), 355 . See also the recent critical testimony of Bukharin's widow: Anna Larina, Nezabyvaemoe (Moscow, 1989), 272-289.

19. Wimberg, “Socialism, Democratism, and Criticism.“

20. TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 8 and 41, contains many files of citizen comments. In Leningrad A. A. Zhdanov received reports from the raiony and his staff assembled them for transmission to Moscow. Ibid., op. 41, d. 126, 1. 7 is a report to Zhdanov; ibid., d. 127, 1. 145 is the “Svodka ob itogakh vsenarodnogo obsuzhdeniia” his oblast sent in on 25 November 1936. See also the svodki and reports in ibid., d. 136,11. 74-87, 93. Ibid., op. 41, d. 207,11. 1-46, 46-77, 79-135, 135-152, 153-177, 203-217 are six “informatsionnye svodki” on the discussion circulated to top leaders.

21. For Akulov's communications from TsIK and the various telegrams in reply see TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 8, d. 222,1. 37-39, 51-52, 94-106. Ibid., 1. 92, is an Akulov memorandum to locals accusing them of “weakly organizing” the discussion. Ibid., op. 114, is an example of exhortation to use the forum to celebrate the regime. It contains some of the records of the orgotdel of the TsIK on the national discussion broken down by oblast. Fond 1235, op. 114, d. 35, contains some of the records of the discussion in the Western oblast’ (Smolensk).

22. TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 8, d. 222,1. 36. The telegram is in Bogatyrenko, “Obzor dokumental'nykh materialov,” 200, and Wimberg, “Socialism, Democratism, and Criticism,” 21.

23. Wimberg, “Socialism, Democratism, and Criticism,” 15.

24. Ronin, Konstitutsiia SSSR 1936 g., 63. Akulov's memorandum is in TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 8, d. 222,1.92. For other examples, see ibid., 11. 51, 110-112, 135-136. Recall and removal of deputies is in ibid., op. 41, d. 105,1. 1. Such attacks on regional leaders were not out of place in 1936. Charges of bureaucratism, laxity, corruption, and “familiness” were hurled at provincial political machines from above and below. See Getty, Origins.

25. The total of suggestions and comments received in Moscow is unclear. One authoritative secondary source notes that some two million suggestions were recorded and that 13,721 were received by the TsIK up to November 1936 ( Drobizhev, V. Z. et al., Rabochii klass v upravlenii gosudarstvom (1926-1937 gg.) [Moscow, 1968], 121 ). Internal TsIK data summaries involve more than 40,000 suggestions. Only specific programmatic suggestions seem to have been saved.

26. Ibid., 11. 139-141.

27. Ibid., 1.7.

28. The approximately 3,000 comments in the table are the authors’ sampling of original statements from three of the four available dela from Leningrad (an urban oblast) and all those from Smolensk (rural). Not included are nonprogrammatic remarks thanking Stalin, changing the name of the state, drawing a new flag, establishing new holidays, or generally demanding more money or resources.

29. Several Soviet works have reproduced tables suggesting that most of the comments expressed approval of the constitution's provisions: see Bogatyrenko, “Obzor dokumental'nykh materialov,” 202, and Tret'iakov, “Vsenarodnoe obsuzhdenie,” 99. Kabanov is an exception: His careful and honest analysis, skillfully couched in the Aesopian language of the Leonid Brezhnev era, does mention the presence of dissent; see his “Iz istorii sozdaniia,” 126.

30. If we include suggestion no. 11 in this category.

31. Although the suggestions from Leningrad included those from industrial areas, the overwhelming majority of those collected in the archives appear to be from peasant meetings.

32. TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 41, d. 127, 11. 9, 13, 40, 53-54, 84.

33. Ibid., op. 8, d. 222,11. 158-162.

34. Ibid., 11. 26, 50, 62; and op. 41, d. 207,11. 173-202, 230.

35. See Moshe Lewin's “Customary Law and Rural Society in the Postreform Era,” Russian Review 44, no. 1 (1985), and “Popular Religion in Twentieth-Century Russia” in The Making of the Soviet System (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 57-71. See also Frank, Stephen P., “Popular Justice, Community, and Culture among the Russian Peasantry, 1870-1900,” Russian Review 46 (1987): 239265 , for an analysis of peasant conceptions of justice.

36. This formulation was pure Zhdanovism in the 1930s, and provided a theoretical riposte to N. I. Ezhov's campaign against “enemies.”

37. See Getty, Origins, chaps. 4 and 6, for an account of the democracy campaign and party elections.

38. Pravda, 2, 7, and 8 July 1937; Partiinoe stroitel'stvo, no. 14 (July 1937):20-28.

39. TsGAOR, f. 1235, op. 76, contains part of the files of the TsIK on these matters. See especially dela 160, 163, 164.

40. Ibid., op. 78, d. 159,1. 4. See also his threatening 29 September 1937 letter on electoral districting: Ibid., op. 76, d. 162,11. 1-2. Refusal of local officials and their arrests can be found in ibid., op. 78, d. 159,11. 121-122.

41. TsGAOR, f. 1235, op. 76, d. 157,1. 92: “Delo no. S-52/20”; and op. 78, d. 159,1. 74.

42. Ibid., op. 76, d. 149, 1. 13 (emphasis in original).

43. Ibid., f. 3316, op. 8, d. 222,1. 72, 73.

44. TsGAOR, f. 3316, op. 8, d. 222, 11. 139-141, on priests and evangelists; quotation in ibid., op. 41, d. 126,1. 11.

45. Ibid., op. 8, d. 222, 1. 73. Such “anti-Soviet” comments were rare in the archival collections. That there are any is surprising.

46. Ibid., 1. 11.

47. Smolensk Archive file WKP 111, 14, 33, 75; WKP 321, 97, 216.

48. TsGAOR, f. 1235, op. 76, d. 158, 1. 23-24: “O khode izucheniia ‘Polozheniia o vyborakh v Verkhovnyi Sovet’: Informatsionnyi Biulleten no. 1”; and ibid., 1. 25: “Organizatsiia massovo-politicheskoi raboty v sviazi s vyborami.”

49. See, for example, ibid., d. 157,11. 71, 76. See also the 23 October 1936 TsIK schedule for voting: “O kalendarnykh srokakh otdel'nykh meropriiatii po provedeniiu vyborov v Sovet Natsional'nostei,” which specifiéd the provisions for contested runoffs, in ibid., d. 161, 1. 13. See also Rabochiiput’ (Smolensk), “Poriadok golosovaniia,” 9 October 1937.

50. Bard, S. Ia., Bor'bapartii bol'shevikov za podgotovku i provedenie pervykh vyborov v Verkhovnyi Sovet SSSR v 1937 godu na osnove novoi Konstitutsii (Moscow, 1952), 1819 , places the decision to nominate single candidates in October; he writes that the “bloc” of candidates (the euphemism for single candidates) “appeared” after the October plenum. See also Kozhevnikov, E. M., Istoricheskii opyt KPSS po rukovodstvu Sovetskim gosudarstvom (1936-1941) (Moscow, 1977), 82.

51. See Pravda editorials, 13 and 27 October 1937, and Rabochii put’ (Smolensk), “Krepche sviaz’ s bespartiinymi massami!,” 14 October 1937, for examples.

52. Pravda, 7 December 1937, 1: an “address” to the voters from the Central Committee. The expression “bloc” of party and nonparty candidates had not been used until this date.

53. Bard, “Bor'ba partii bol'shevikov za podgotovku,” 21.

54. Within the Russian Federation the number of criminal sentences in 1934 was more than 25 percent lower than it had been in the previous year. Verdicts against counterrevolutionaries numbered some 4,300 in 1934, a drop of more than 50 percent from the previous year. These estimates are based on Peter Juviler, H., Revolutionary Law and Order (New York: Free Press, 1976), 50, 52.

55. One of the most famous of these was “Zadachakh partiino-organizatsionnoi i politikovospitatel'noi raboty,” Partiinoe stroitel'stvo, no. 8 (April 1935), 7-16. Its call for nurturing and promoting new cadres, collective leadership of party cells, and increased participation were picked up and discussed around the country. See Smolensk Archive files WKP 322, 81, and WKP 89, 3.

56. See Pravda, 12 June 1935, for Zhdanov's attack and also Zhdanov's mass-circulation pamphlet, Uroki politicheskikh oshibok Saratovskogo kraikoma (Moscow, 1935). For statistics on the Gulag population see “ ‘Arkhipelag GULAG’ glazami pisatelia i statistika,” Argumenty i fakty, no. 45 (1989) (these statistics apply only to the GULAG camps and do not include prisons or labor colonies). Zhdanov's keynote speech is “The preparation of party organizations for elections to the USSR Supreme Soviet under the new electoral system and the corresponding reorganization of party political work,” Pravda, 6 March 1937.

57. For a detailed treatment of the moderate current, see Getty, Origins, chap. 4.

58. TsGAOR, f. 1235, op. 76, d. 161,1. 58-59.

59. Ibid., 11,60-65.

State and Society under Stalin: Constitutions and Elections in the 1930s

  • J. Arch Getty (a1)


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