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The Soviet Constitutions (1917–1993)

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The Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) of 1918, adopted at the fifth All-Russian Congress of the Soviets on July 10, 1918, was very noticeably class-based in character. It reflected the slogans proclaimed by the Bolsheviks as they prepared the way for and carried out the 1917 coup. All power was given to the Soviets, private land ownership was abolished and certain social groups had their political rights restricted.

The constitution’s authors did away with virtually all the democratic principles of the representative system of power that had been developed by that time. The new constitution gave no place whatsoever to parliamentary institutions, an accountable government, recognition of opposition rights, the rule of law and so on. The issue of overstepping or abusing authority had not even been raised, and so the principle of division of powers was deemed superfluous.

In 1924, following the formation of the USSR, the Soviet constitution was adopted. This constitution reproduced in large part the provisions of the 1918 constitution. In accordance with the provisions of the 1924 Soviet constitution, a new draft of the RSFSR constitution was adopted in 1925. This new constitution, unlike the previous version, no longer contained provisions about crushing the exploiter classes and pursuing world revolution. One of the main issues it dealt with was the delimitation of powers between the Soviet authorities and the RSFSR.

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On December 5, 1936, the VIII Extraordinary Congress of the USSR Soviets adopted a new constitution that aimed to strengthen the foundations of socialism and lay the basic guidelines for further work on building communism. In particular, the new constitution cemented the principle of the Communist Party’s leading role. The constitution also set out the basic economic principles of socialism: the abolition of private property, the predominance of the socialist economic system and socialist ownership of the means of production, and the establishment of state economic planning that would determine the country’s entire economic life.

One of the 1936 constitution’s major objectives was to act as the democratic facade for Soviet power. Thus, the constitution contained some elements of a division of powers based on a declarative independence of the Soviet “parliament”, government and judicial system from each other. The constitution moved away from the earlier restrictions of political rights for certain groups and proclaimed equality of rights for all citizens. For the first time in the history of the Soviet state, the constitution referred to political and individual rights and freedoms and socio-economic rights. Unfortunately, these constitutional provisions were not reflected in the country’s life. Moreover, the adoption of the 1936 Soviet constitution and the new RSFSR constitution, adopted on January 21, 1937, coincided with a new and ruthless wave of Stalinist repression. Among the particularities of the 1937 RSFSR constitution were provisions establishing the right of the RSFSR to withdraw from the Soviet Union.

The construction of a new communist society did not proceed as rapidly as had been hoped and these delays were reflected in a new Soviet constitution proclaiming the construction of a “developed socialist society.” The constitution was adopted by the USSR Supreme Soviet on October 7, 1977. It went even further in extending Soviet citizens’ rights and freedoms, in particular, enshrining the right to housing and to healthcare.

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This seeming development of civil rights and liberties in the Soviet Union had little in common with international standards, however, for it was still completely subject to the aims of “building communism” under the control of a totalitarian state headed by the Soviet Communist Party, which in accordance with article six of the Soviet constitution and article six of the RSFSR constitution of April 12, 1978, was the “leading and guiding force in Soviet society and the core of its political system and state and public organisations”. The basis for the Soviet Communist Party’s existence as enshrined in the constitution was that it “exists for the people and serves the people”.

Over the fifteen years of its existence, the 1978 RSFSR constitution underwent radical transformation that concerned not just individual provisions but the document’s very essence. Beginning in the second half of the 1980s, the constitution reflected a gradual renunciation of building communism, the leading role of the Communist Party and the Soviet system. At the same time, it began to give greater priority to human rights, private property and the principle of division of powers. In 1991, the post of President was introduced in Russia. The Declaration of Human Rights and Civil Liberties in the Russian Federation, adopted on November 22, 1991, was incorporated into the constitution. New opportunities arose to freely create political parties and public organisations and all this had a significant impact on the country’s political life.

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