Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
Scarcely thirteen years separated the first federal constitution of the USSR, issued shortly after Lenin’s death in January 1924, from the version that was adopted by the Eighth Extraordinary Congress of Soviets on December 5, 1936 and graced from the moment of its birth with Stalin’s name. Both the contents of the fundamental laws that comprised the constitution and the elaborate process by which they were brought into being suggest that the 1936 constitution was designed to consolidate the principles of the new socialist state and present an attractive image for both domestic and international consumption. In the language of the time, it was a reflection of the “new correlation of class forces” that could permit the universal rights previously denied to former exploiters, kulaks, officials of the tsarist regime, and the clergy. All Soviet citizens were now equally protected by the law and entitled to the franchise, the right to hold elective office, and other privileges of Soviet citizenship.
The constitution was the product of a commission appointed by the Seventh All-Union Congress of Soviets in February 1935. Chaired by Stalin, the commission consisted of thirty-one members each of whom participated in one or more of twelve sub-commissions. After a year’s work, the constitutional commission came up with a draft which was submitted for national discussion. The official figures on the extent of this discussion are mind-boggling: 623,334 meetings held, over forty-two million people attending them, and 169,739 proposals, comments, and prospective amendments. The impression of a public actively engaged in studying and debating the draft is somewhat belied by reports of people being compelled to attend meetings, as well as of the party’s central committee having decided beforehand to approve the draft “in the main.” Still, there is no doubt that the discussion of the constitution provided a rare opportunity in the Stalinist era for the citizenry to air its views on matters of both state and personal importance and that many availed themselves of it. The articles that attracted the greatest attention in discussions and proposed amendments concerned the rights of personal property and inheritance, the civic equality accorded to independent farmers, and the proclaimed freedom of conscience that enabled religious believers to stand for public office. Many who commented on these provisions were opposed to them while others proposed amendments inscribing the right to travel abroad, abolishing the death penalty, permitting the establishment of multiple parties, and so forth.
The constitution did not prevent Soviet authorities from carrying out a wide range of arbitrary actions and abuses, including the Great Terror. But it is not insignificant that over succeeding decades most protests against the arbitrariness of political power began by invoking the fundamental laws of the constitution.