How is Russia Governed?

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formed in 1923 when four republics united themselves by treaty. All reference to the predominantly Russian character of this federation, which since the annexation of Eastern Poland and the Baltic states in 1940, consists of 16 union republics, was purposely omitted from its name. It was expected that other soviet socialist republics, whenever and wherever formed, would eventually join the USSR.

During the first two decades of the Soviet state—between 1918 and 1936—the vote was a privilege reserved for the “toiling masses.” Persons who lived on unearned income or who hired labor for profit—private merchants and kulaks—as well as members of the former aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and priest-hood could not vote.

Industrial workers, moreover, enjoyed advantages over peasants inSoviet elections, with respect both to the number of delegates whom they could elect to the soviets (the word soviet means “council”) and the manner in which they elected them. The difference in voting rights was held to be justified on the ground that during the change from capitalism to socialism the politically educated workers had to lead the backward peasant masses.

By 1935 agricultural collectivization, which tended somewhat to equalize working conditions on farms and in factories, was complete. This, and the gradual disappearance through death or exile or conversion to communism of active anti-Bolshevik elements, opened the way to changes in the Soviet constitution.

In 1936 Stalin declared that “the first phase of communism,” had “in the main” been achieved in the Soviet Union. He called this phase “socialism.” The “exploiting” classes, he contended, had been “liquidated.” There remained only the workers and peasants, plus the intellectual group, now called the “toiling intelligentsia.” Economic differences between social groups were being gradually wiped out, he said, and class antagonisms-were disappearing. The Soviet Union, having achieved a socialist economy, was moving in the direction of socialist democracy and a classless society. A distinction, by the way, should be made between what we ordinarily call “socialism” and what the Soviets mean by the word. They have used it to describe the stage of development at which Russia had arrived by 1936 when, in their opinion, communism had not yet been established.

The 1936 constitution

Under the 1936 constitution the vote was to be universal, equal, and direct. Elections, which had usually been open in the past, were to be held by secret ballot. All citizens who had reached the age of 18 could vote, irrespective of race, nationality, religion, education, residential qualifications, social origin, property status, or past activity. This abolished the vote-less group, which at one time was estimated at 8 million persons but by 1934 had almost dwindled away. In practice, however, Soviet elections are not yet the kind we know in the United States. At the polls, every voter is handed a ballot on which appears the name of a single candidate for each office. The role of the voter is simply to drop the ballot in the box. While all nominees are not necessarily Communists themselves, the Communist Party will have approved or selected each one.

The federal government

The USSR, in terms of law, is a federated state of 16 union republics now as compared with 4 in 1923. Each republic has a constitutional right to secede from the Soviet Union—but it is open to question if any state would attempt or be successful in an attempt to exercise that right. In this federation Michael Kalinin is the titular head of the state since he is president of the Presidium of the Supreme Council. He therefore performs some of the ceremonial functions usually exercised by presidents of Western republics, such as the reception of ambassadors.

The constitution, however, makes no provision for a president. All legislative, executive, and judicial powers are entrusted to the Supreme Soviet, or Council, of the USSR (formerly known as the All-Union Congress), which the constitution requires to be called twice a year—instead of every 2 years as had been provided in 1924. This Council is composed of more than a thousand representatives who may be recalled at any time by their constituents.

The only appeal from the legislative authority of the Council lies in a popular referendum, which may be requested by any one of the constituent republics. The Council appoints the highest executive and administrative organ in the country, the Council of People’s Commissars (comparable to our Cabinet), and elects the Supreme Court and special courts of the USSR for terms of 5 years. In 1941, on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Russia, Stalin, who had hitherto occupied no official post in the Soviet government, assumed the offices of premier and commissar for defense.

The Supreme Soviet

The Supreme Council consists of two chambers—the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities—composed of an almost equal number of members elected directly by the citizens. The Soviet of the Union is elected on the basis of population, with one representative for every 300,000 people. Representatives to the Soviet of Nationalities are elected on the basis of a given number for each union republic, for each autonomous republic, for each autonomous province, and for each county. In the multi-national Soviet Union, the Council of Nationalities is intended to give representation to the specific interests of national minorities.

Between sessions the Supreme Council is represented by a Presidium of 37 members, which it elects, and which constitutes a kind of “collective presidency.”

Americans, accustomed to strict separation of powers, are particularly struck by the lack of such separation in the Russian political system. Every organ of the Soviet administration, from the humblest soviet in town or village to the Council of People’s Commissars, exercises both executive and legislative powers, and may issue decrees binding on the citizens. Lack of separation of powers, however, creates little confusion in practice, since the entire machinery of government is subordinated to the single control of the Communist Party. That party has a role of dominance over the state for which there is no parallel in the United States or the countries of western Europe.