Discourse of democracy in the mid-1950s
After the “successful” implementation of industrialization, collectivization, and cultural revolution, at the Seventeenth Party Congress, Stalin announced that Lenin’s plan of constructing socialism had been realized. Consequently, in 1935-1936, we see some moderation in policies justified by having achieved socialism. The reform of the Constitution was a part of this larger discourse of moderation and democratization in political, economic, judicial, and ideological developments in 1933-1936, including the move to legal reform and the lower tide in repressions. The moderation of policy17 stems from two different government contexts: sometimes it was a pragmatic adjustment or ad hoc correction after the "excesses” of collectivization (Realpolitik)., at other times - on the level of metadiscourse - the relaxation was motivated by the expectation of the advent of socialism in accordance with Lenin’s plan.
The Constitution belonged to this metadiscourse, evident in a retreat from class rhetoric and a shift toward the new discourse of democracy and even parliamentarism. The members of the Constitutional Drafting Commission studied foreign constitutions very seriously: they consulted the texts of constitutions and electoral laws from England, Belgium, Poland, Germany, Norway, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland, and the text of the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” (1789). These internal consultations proved genuine interest rather than public relations theater. The scrupulous work of the Constitutional Commission while preparing the draft in 1935-1936 leads Samantha Lomb to the important conclusion that “these [civil] rights were so carefully crafted because they were not simply propaganda but real programs the state sought to implement.”18 We do not know the details of the discussions in the Commission and sub-commissions’ meetings because they were not stenographed. But later M. I. Kalinin recognized publicly that the new Soviet election system would resemble the French one.19 V. M. Molotov in Pravda, November 30, 1936, stated: “All the best in the democratic systems of other states we brought in and added to our Constitution to apply to the conditions of the Soviet state.”20 At the Seventh Congress of Soviets on February 6, 1935, Molotov, after repeating Lenin's critique, used the term “parliament” in relation to the Soviet organs:
All the best in parliamentarianism - direct, equal, and secret elections of representatives to the organs of state government with universal participation of all working people, as our Constitution demands, all these should be realized now in the Soviet Union. Thus, we have the further development of the soviet system in the form of a combination of the directly elected local soviets with a kind of (svoego roda) directly elected Soviet parliaments in the [union] republics and all-union Soviet parliament.21
After the first meeting of the Commission on July 7, 1935, the newspapers Pravda, Izvestia, Komsomol ’skaiapravda, Economicheskaia zhisn and the journal Sovetskoe gosudarstvo i pravo started publishing articles about Western and Japanese constitutions. The articles’ major propagandistic goal was to present the
“unsightly background of bourgeois constitutionalism” and the “degeneration of Western parliamentarianism.” All the authors displayed profound contempt for either democratic, fascist, or monarchical constitutionalism by means of scorn and irony. They emphasized the function of European parliaments as masking the bourgeois dictatorship in democratic wrapping. They described restrictions of voting rights for women and the military, as well as residency and income qualifications. The articles on the European constitutions on the pages of Pravda juxtaposed descriptions of the hard life of working people under these constitutions to contrast the written rights with actual conditions.22 In 1935-1936, the four-volume collection The Constitutions of Bourgeois Countries was published.23 In Prosecutor A. la. Vyshinskii’s article, accompanying the publication of “[t]he Statute on the Elections to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR” in July 1937, the critique of bourgeois constitutionalism received more detailed and expansive development with references to foreign juridical literature.24 These public references to the Western constitutions, in-house examination of their models in the Commission, and the straightforward use of the word “parliament” in relation to the Soviet legislature was a shift. It tells us about the organizers' self-confidence and their belief that “the time had come to move to a full Soviet democracy.”25 It seems they did not fear that such publications would make the readers compare the suppression of civil rights in Europe and in the USSR. The public, curious about Western democracies, accepted these publications with noticeable interest. People appreciated European freedoms and often compared them to Soviet ones. In these highly ideological articles, the attentive reader might notice that even under “degenerative democracy,” multiple workers’ and peasants’ parties existed in Europe and monarchical Japan, and they could find striking similarities between the political systems of fascist Italy and the Soviet Union. Workers talking in 1937 said: “We have no democracy; our democracy is fake; any bourgeois country has more democracy than the USSR.”26
Why was the democratic constitution introduced?
In the mid-1950s, in both public and confidential settings, the Party leaders - I. V. Stalin, V. M. Molotov, G. G. lagoda, and A. S. Enukidze - repeatedly declared that the goals of the great socialist offensive had been largely achieved - in the economy and in the social and class structure. According to Stalin’s Marxism, as soon as the economic base had been transformed through the five-year plan and collectivization, it should almost automatically reshape society. Granting democratic liberties and voting rights to the former "enemies” in 1936 grew from the Marxist maxim that the new socialist relations of production, combined with education, propaganda, and appropriate “cleansings” of society would shape a new consciousness and a new Soviet unity of “friendly classes” and nationalities.
As a result, direct, equal, and universal elections by secret ballot - a core of the participatory direct democracy envisioned by Lenin in full-fledged socialism - was introduced by the 1936 Constitution, which ended the disfranchisement of former people, kulaks, and priests - 2.5 percent of the voters, according to Molotov.27
Other liberties granted by the Constitution were hi line with an understanding of the new conditions in the country as socialist. Therefore, the new Supreme Soviet replaced the earlier Congress of Soviets as the supreme legislative body. The USSR Supreme Soviet was supposed to be elected in December 1937 with multiple candidates according to the new rules. The 1936 Constitution finalized and celebrated the ideological program of building socialism and announced a shift to democracy.
The Stalinists’ wishful thinking projected socialism as being real. In 1936, Stalin and the government were sincere in their belief.28 Ideological dogma, mental filters, and tailored information that they received distorted their perception of reality. Their aspirations for the future and their proclivity to see the present as it ought to be - representing the future as if it were already here - contributed to their wishful thinking. The writer M. M. Prishvin in his diary from 1950 dissected this kind of worldview:
To the question about the number of prisoners in the USSR, [his] answer was: whatever the number, it doesn't make a difference. ... Stalin is right, of course ... when he declares we don’t have prisoners. He believes in communism so firmly that he sees the current situation with prisoners as temporary and insignificant; he believes in free speech so firmly that he degrades the current censorship: it will pass away soon [anyway].29
J. Arch Getty explains:
The objective realities of the 1930s were perhaps not as important as the Bolsheviks’ perceptions of them, not least because the Bolsheviks acted on their perceptions. Like all politicians, the Bolsheviks interpreted their world and created representations of it that were, for them, reality.30
How earnestly the Stalinists took these anticipated transformations is seen in top-secret internal communications and in their practical steps toward a new society: the new Constitution’s enfranchisement of “former people”; the intended shift in OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate) methods (from extrajudicial repressions in favor of legality, surveillance, and prophylactics, though barely realized); permission in 1936 for previously distrusted Cossacks to serve in the Red Army. More, they expanded welfare, and in the hungry years of 1936-1937 directed food aid to the peasants now “converted” into kolkhozniks (contrasting with the treatment of peasants as saboteurs during the 1932 famine). All these steps relaxed the official policy toward the groups of the population seen earlier as enemies. Practical implementation of the Constitution was contested elections by secret ballot held in the Party and trade unions in the spring and summer 1937 with up to 70 percent rotation of cadres. Discussing this innovation, Wendy Goldman asks:
Was Stalin’s invocation of democracy simply a smoke screen? ... Was it a cynical ploy by Stalin and his supporters to strengthen and centralize power by inciting the rank and file against their regional leaders? Or was it part of a genuine belief that the Party could be purged of oppositionists and revitalized at the same time?
She answers: “Democracy was not peripheral, not a smoke screen, not a collection of meaningless slogans designed to mask the ‘real’ meaning of events.”31
Then, if in 1936 the Constitution was not a deception, why at some moment in 1937 did it turn out to be a sham? Why were its norms broken and extralegal mass repressions begun? Let's look at Stalin’s shift, first in the short term and then in the long term.