Desktop version

Home arrow History

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>


Free elections are at the core of democracy and were in the center of the 1936 Constitution. The mechanism of elections and Soviet manipulations is a large topic deserving further studies.86 Here I only briefly present a few examples of subverted elections in 1936-1937 at the grassroots. Before that, open voting by raising hands under OGPU surveillance, rather than by secret ballot, and voting for the whole list of candidates presented by the organizers effectively “usurped democracy.”87 The new Constitution’s voting rules were spontaneously tested in the fall of 1936 during the elections to the local and all-union soviet congresses, even before the Constitution’s formal adoption, and were expanded to Party organizations and trade unions from May through the summer of 1937. The party, soviets, and the NKVD were not ready to implement new constitutional norms despite official encouragement to criticize and dismiss ineffective officials in the campaign of criticism. The NKVD with its civil war mentality saw the 1936 pre-election mobilization of the population, inspired by new freedoms, as anti-Soviet agitation and regularly reported on the revival of socially alien elements, who were formally absolved by the Constitution.88 The old practice of control over elections continued. It was the duty of Party organizers to “direct

Nominal democracy in Stalinism 271 election campaigns,” organizing 100 percent turnout and selecting and verifying the candidates. However, newly enfranchised persons were often removed from the voting lists in 1937. “It [is] the responsibility of local soviets to ensure that voter lists [are] compiled correctly.”89 But those in the soviets who had deported kulaks in 1930 were not interested in reinstating the voting rights of returnees. In the 1936 discussion, they regularly articulated that they anticipated revenge.90

Nomination of candidates was a crucial moment that allowed the party-state to manipulate the process. The Party and soviet officials arranged the nomination of desirable candidates. If this filter did not work for some reason, the unwanted candidates were excluded from the voting lists or arrested by the NKVD. The plenum of the Gorkii Krai Party Committee in September 1936 directly instructed Party officials to scrutinize the cadres of the candidates and to manage the elections of the deputies to the soviets’ congresses.91 And of course, the NKVD did its job searching enemies. In October, it reported with alarm that voters had nominated and elected to the local soviet congresses anti-Soviet elements, lishentsy (the disenfranchised), or former counterrevolutionaries. The NKVD quickly dismissed such delegates from the congress list: in Malaia Vishera, Podporozhie, Novoselskii raion in Leningradskaia oblast’, Zeldskii raion in Odesskaia oblast’, and other places.92 The kulak lishenets Afanasii Popov in the Caucasus was deprived of his deputy mandate in the middle of the congress by the NKVD, while delegates “Khoptiar, suspected in spying, and Zaidman, a Trotskyist,” in Vinnitsa oblast’, were arrested.93 Security bodies and the Party directly intervened in the elections, blocking undesirable candidates and imposing their nominees. In Tikhvin raion, Leningrad oblast’, the voters declined the candidacy of village soviet chair Sokolov, but the raion representative said, “[y]ou can vote him out, but my word is final: Sokolov will stay chair.”94 A disunited and unorganized population could not effectively promote and defend their candidates from the ground or oppose the state security forces. Pessimistic citizens moaned: “Even if the people elect their representatives, the Bolsheviks, under the conditions of their dictatorship, will do everything to dismiss them.”95

Another method of manipulation was “an informal quota system,” or raznari-adka. For example, the Gorkii krai soviet leader instructed his staff: “Elections to the krai [Soviet] Congress should guarantee [the winners to include] 34 percent women, 40-45 percent nonparty people, 22 percent workers, and 30 percent kolk-hozniks."96 This sorting took place at the moment of nomination. Such a system of Party backing of loyal candidates made deputies much more dependent on their supervisors than on their constituencies. Under such conditions, the democratic principle of accountability of the deputies to the electorate did not work. Thus, already in the fall of 1936 the local elections of delegates to soviet congresses saw the failure of implementation of the new freedoms. Elected former kulaks, lishentsy, and members of now banned parties were blocked illegally via something akin to “criminal checks,” or they were simply arrested. The elections remained phony. Getty convincingly argues that the mass repressions of 1937 were of a preemptive character in view of the coming free elections to the Supreme Soviet in December 1937. In the summer, the ballots were printed to accommodate several candidates. Scared by the revival of its perceived enemies, the Party quietly canceled contested elections in October, but elections remained universal and direct by secret ballot. In December, the people were disappointed to find only one name on each ballot. The intelligent and critically minded Leningradian Liubov’ Shaporina wrote in her diary:

During the studies of the election law in all enterprises and institutions, the public asked if they could take the ballot and go home to ponder what candidate to vote for. Answer: yes. I entered the booth where I was supposed to read the ballot and choose my candidate to the Supreme Soviet ... [but] we have on the ballot one name, selected in advance. I had a laugh attack in the booth. For a time, I could not make the appropriate calm face. At the exit I met lurii with a stony expression on his face. I raised my collar [to hide my face - OV] - it was incredibly laughable. In the yard I met Petrov-Vodkin and Dmitriev. V. V. [Dmitriev] talked about something and wildly laughed. ... We all laughed.97

The tool of democracy was firmly in the hands of the rulers - they reserved it only for the low- and middle-rank cadres. Criticism against high targets was not intended by the masterminds in the Kr emlin in an official campaign of criticism targeting incompetent or corrupt officials in 1936-1937. Rather, they exploited the democratic tools of criticism and elections to discipline the intermediate bureaucrats by using the hands of the people. British diplomat MacKillop observed in September 1936 that a Soviet citizen, invited to criticize,

must... surrender his critical faculty and [not] use it for the still immovable establishment of those in high office - he must not use it against them - by helping them to detect and to eliminate the inefficient among those minor office-holders with whom he comes into daily contact and by generally reducing that sense of security among elected persons.98

However, this tool of controlled democracy did not always work as expected by the Kremlin. Getty describes how the Party and soviet functionaries cunningly diverted the critiques and purges to the lower-ranking officials and thus escaped the blow of criticism from below and democratic rotation.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics