Constitutions, Soviet

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Constitutions, Soviet


in the USSR, documents that define the principles of the socialist social and state structure of the USSR and of the Union and autonomous republics, the system of Soviet state bodies and the principles of their organization and activity, and the basic rights and duties of Soviet citizens and the material and legal guarantees for their realization. Legally formulated in the Soviet constitutions are the social relations and procedures that most fully express the interests of the working people and correspond to the tasks of communist construction. As the fundamental law, the Soviet constitutions are the legal basis for all current legislation—that is, all Soviet laws must conform to the constitution and may not contradict it.

The USSR has three types of constitutions: the Constitution of the USSR, the constitutions of the Union republics, and those of the autonomous republics. All of them are built on common socialist principles. The legal authority of the Constitution of the USSR, which applies to the entire territory of the Soviet Union, supersedes that of the constitutions of the Union and autonomous republics. The supremacy of the all-Union constitution is also evident in that the constitutions of the Union republics must conform fully to the Constitution of the USSR, although the national and economic features of each Union republic must also be taken into account. These features give rise to certain structural differences between the Constitution of the USSR and the constitutions of the various Union republics. (For example, the constitutions of all the Union republics contain a special section about the republic’s budget, although there is no comparable section in the Constitution of the USSR.) The constitution of an autonomous republic is written in accordance with the basic principles of the constitution of the Union republic of which it is a part. (After it has been adopted by the Supreme Soviet of an autonomous republic, the constitution of an autonomous republic is subject to confirmation by the Supreme Soviet of the Union republic.)

The RSFSR Constitution of 1918 was the first Soviet constitution. Its fundamental principles were elaborated during the struggle of the working people for Soviet power during the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917. Many of these principles were reflected in the first decrees of Soviet power and were expressed in documents of the All-Russian Congresses of Soviets, which formulated the most important theses about the Soviet social and state structure, the system of Soviet state bodies, and the legal status of citizens. The Declaration of the Rights of the Working and Exploited People was included as the first section of the RSFSR Constitution of 1918. Like other Soviet constitutions adopted between 1918 and 1935, the RSFSR Constitution of 1918 proclaimed the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat to be the basic instrument of socialist construction and the soviets of workers’, peasants’, and Red Army deputies to be the state form of this dictatorship. State power belonged only to the working people, who made up an absolute majority of the population. The nonworking classes and groups were deprived of their political rights. In comparison with other classes, including the peasantry, the workers were granted certain advantages in electoral rights. For example, at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets the municipal soviets were allotted one delegate per 25,000 electors, whereas the provincial congresses of Soviets were assigned one delegate per 125,000 inhabitants. The RSFSR Constitution of 1918 provided for indirect elections to bodies of state power at the district level and above. The production-territorial principle of elections to the Soviets was established. All of these principles were fundamental to Union republic and autonomous republic constitutions adopted between 1919 and 1929, as well as to the USSR Constitution of 1924, the first Union constitution, which legally affirmed the formation of the USSR in 1922.

The present Constitution of the USSR, which was ratified by the Extraordinary Eighth Congress of the Soviets of the USSR on Dec. 5, 1936, reflected changes that had occurred in the structure of Soviet society and the state since the adoption of the USSR Constitution of 1924. It confirmed the victory of socialism in the USSR. The Soviet constitution is based on the principles of socialism: total dominance of socialist ownership of the land, forests, factories, plants, and other means of production; elimination of exploitation and exploiting classes; labor as the responsibility and duty of every able-bodied citizen; and the right of Soviet citizens to work, to rest, and to enjoy other socioeconomic and political rights and freedoms. The Soviets of working people’s deputies became the political form of organization of the central and local state power. The principle of universal, equal, and direct suffrage by secret ballot was introduced. The system of organization of state power was democratized, and the competence of bodies of power and their executive-directive agencies was more clearly defined.

The USSR Constitution of 1936 consistently implements the principle of the supremacy of the law over other normative acts and the priority of representative bodies of state power in relation to all other components of the machinery of state. It significantly broadened the democratic rights and freedoms of Soviet citizens, establishing material, legal, and other guarantees for their implementation.

A number of specific aspects of the Constitution of 1936 reflect its essential role as the fundamental law of the socialist state. Among these is the principle of state sovereignty of the people—their full power, which is guaranteed by the socialist economic system and by socialist ownership of the basic instruments and means of production. The Constitution of the USSR proclaims the indestructible alliance of workers and peasants and the leading role in it of the working class as the most advanced and most organized class in Soviet society. It recognizes that the guiding and directing role of the CPSU in all spheres of life of Soviet society is the most important political guarantee of the realization of the principle of popular sovereignty. The Constitution of 1936 views a combination of the Soviet federal and unitary governmental forms as the state structure that most fully expresses the principle of the complete equality of peoples in all spheres of state activity and their right to self-determination. The principle of the unity of state power and the sovereignty of representative bodies of the socialist state is recognized by the Soviet constitution, as is democratic centralism, the basis for the organization and activity of the Soviet state and its bodies.

The constitutions of the Union republics were drafted and adopted on the basis of the USSR Constitution of 1936. The RSFSR Constitution was ratified on Jan. 21, 1937, by the Extraordinary Seventeenth All-Russian Congress of Soviets; the Constitution of the Ukrainian SSR, on Jan. 30, 1937, by the Extraordinary Fourteenth Congress of the Soviets of the Ukraine; the Constitution of the Byelorussian SSR, on Feb. 19, 1937, by the Extraordinary Twelfth Congress of the Soviets of Byelorussia; and the Constitution of the Azerbaijan SSR, on Mar. 14, 1937, by the Extraordinary Ninth All-Azerbaijan Congress of Soviets. On Feb. 13, 1937, the Constitution of the Georgian SSR was ratified by the Extraordinary Eighth Congress of the Soviets of Georgia; on Mar. 23, 1937, the Constitution of the Armenian SSR was ratified by the Extraordinary Ninth Congress of the Soviets of the Armenian SSR; and on Mar. 2, 1937, the Constitution of the Turkmen SSR was ratified by the Extraordinary Sixth Congress of the Soviets of the Turkmen SSR. The Extraordinary Sixth Congress of the Soviets of the Uzbek SSR ratified the republic’s constitution on Feb. 14, 1937, the Extraordinary Sixth Congress of the Soviets of the Tadzhik SSR ratified the Tadzhik constitution on Mar. 1, 1937, the Extraordi-nary Tenth All-Kazakh Congress of Soviets approved the Kazakh constitution on Mar. 26, 1937, and the Extraordinary Fifth Congress of the Soviets of the Kirghiz SSR approved the republic’s constitution on Mar. 23, 1937. The constitutions of the Lithuanian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Estonian SSR were ratified in August 1940, and the constitution of the Moldavian SSR, in February 1941. All of the autonomous republics ratified their own constitutions.

The Soviet constitutions are developing and changing as the social and state structure of the USSR develops. Describing the RSFSR Constitution of 1918, V. I. Lenin noted that it “will be corrected and supplemented as it is being put into effect” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 37, p. 21). There are two main groups of reasons necessitating changes in and supplements to the Soviet constitutions. The first group is associated with significant changes in the economic and class structure of the state and of society. They necessitate constitutional changes and supplements that are so important that they affect the essence of the entire system and structure of the constitution. Thus, in 1935 the Seventh All-Union Congress of Soviets indicated the necessity of changing and supplementing the Constitution of 1924. The acceptance of this proposal resulted in the drafting and ratification of a new constitution—the USSR Constitution of 1936. The second group of reasons, which does not require a fundamental reworking of the constitution, includes the effects of current state activities and the need for further improvement in the work of the machinery of state (for example, changes in the system of state bodies in charge of industry, construction, and agriculture, or changes in the competency of bodies of the USSR, the Union republics, and so forth).

The importance and role of the Soviet constitutions are established, above all, by the fact that they consolidate the socialist system and the sovereignty of the working people, serve as the legal basis for the development of the creative initiative and activity of the masses, and are an important means of mobilizing the energies of the people to cope with the tasks of communist construction. The Soviet constitutions play an important role in creating, developing, and strengthening socialist economic forms as the material basis of the sovereignty of the working people. Expressing the will of the working people, the very first Soviet constitutions strengthened new, evolving socialist economic forms by ensuring conditions for their comprehensive development and consolidation. The first Soviet constitutions also established legal restrictions on the development of private capitalistic economic forms and on the exploitation of hired labor.

The present Soviet constitutions play an important role in creating the material-technical base of communism. They strengthen the principle of the planned development of the socialist economy, obliging all Soviet citizens to observe labor discipline and to protect and reinforce socialist ownership as a sacred and inviolable principle of the Soviet system and as the source of Soviet wealth and power. The Soviet constitutions are the basis for the legal upbringing of the working people in a spirit of patriotism, humanity, and respect for Soviet laws, a feeling of love for their native land and for labor, and a spirit of friendship and fraternity among peoples.

The Soviet constitutions have great international significance. They demonstrate to the entire world that the working people, having taken power into their own hands, are capable in the briefest historical period of constructing socialism, of becoming the complete master of their own country, of legally strengthening their democratic civil rights and freedoms, and on this basis, of continuously developing and perfecting socialist democracy.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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