Constitution of 1936

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The Soviet Constitution of 1936, also known as the "Stalin Constitution," was approved by the Eighth Congress of Soviets and became law on December 5, 1936. This Constitution remained in force until 1977 when Leonid Brezhnev based his new "Brezhnev Constitution" on the 1936 document. At Josef Stalin's urging, the Central Committee of the Communist Party had proposed to the Seventh Congress of Soviets in February 1935 that the 1924 Constitution be changed to reflect the profound transformations in Soviet society wrought by the First Five Year Plan (1928-1932). According to the Soviet government, the main goals of the new constitution were to reflect the successful attainment of socialism in the USSR, to institute universal suffrage, and to grant basic civil rights to the entire Soviet population. Former class enemies such as the nobility, the bourgeoisie, priests, and socalled rich peasants or "kulaks" would now be incorporated into Soviet life as equal citizens with full civil rights. The constitution affirmed that "socialist ownership of the instruments and means of production shall constitute the economic foundation of the USSR," though it did allow "the smallscale private economy of individual peasants and artisans based on their personal labor"; private ownership of small plots of land, houses, and domestic property; and inheritance of private property. The document expanded the state's role in providing social welfare by guaranteeing the right to work, free secondary education, and medical aid for all toilers and by furnishing social insurance and paid vacations for industrial and whitecollar workers. The constitution also reorganized the Soviet government based on direct elections and reshaped the federal structure of the Soviet Union.

In a marked departure from previous Soviet political practice, a draft constitution was circulated beginning in June 1936, and the population was invited to take part in a "nationwide" discussion to propose changes. Throughout the summer and fall of 1936, the Soviet government put extensive pressure on local officials to organize collective discussions of the draft. Soviet figures claim that as many as seventyfive million people, or 80 percent of the adult population, took part in these discussions. In spite of the dangers of speaking out, the population actively criticized certain aspects of the draft constitution, such as the privileged status of workers in comparison to peasants. Many also protested the granting of equal rights to former class enemies. After polling citizens on their views, the government largely ignored the opinions gathered. Few of the changes proposed by the Soviet population made it into the final version of the constitution.

Given the repressive political climate throughout the 1930s, one of the most striking aspects of the Stalin Constitution is the explicit enumeration of the civil rights of the individual. The constitution guaranteed "universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot" and created new legislative bodies at the allunion, republican, and local levels. The new Supreme Soviet of the USSR, the supreme soviets of the union republics, and various local soviets were all to be directly elected. Paradoxically, the government let loose a barrage of publicity informing citizens about the candidates for the Supreme Soviet elections in December 1937, despite the fact that each district ballot had only one candidate, who had been chosen in advance by Party and government officials. The constitution also guaranteed Soviet citizens equal rights irrespective of gender, nationality, or race; freedom of religious worship (but not religious propaganda); freedom of assembly; freedom of association; freedom of the press; and inviolability of person and of the home (Articles 122-128, 134). These extensive guarantees remained only on paper, however, as the Soviet government trampled on the civil rights of its citizens through censorship, persecution because of religion and nationality, and widespread illegal arrests and executions.

The transformations in the federal structure of the Soviet Union brought about by the Stalin Constitution were more substantive. The constitution named eleven territories (Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Azerbaijan, Georgian, Armenian, Turk-men, Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz) as union republics and granted other ethnic territories the status of autonomous republics and regions. This administrative structure created a hierarchy of nationalities that gave some groups more privileges than others. The constitution also enumerated a new division of powers between allunion and republican institutions. There is a scholarly consensus that the constitution represented a move toward greater political centralization at the expense of the Soviet republics.

Analysts have sharply diverging views of the importance of the Stalin Constitution. Because of the egregious failure of the Soviet government to respect the civil rights it guaranteed in the constitution, most critics from the 1930s onward have dismissed the constitution as mere propaganda or windowdressing intended to woo Western European allies in the popular front against Fascism. In the early 1990s, a new interpretation (Getty) suggested that the constitution, and the elections that followed in 1937, were a genuine but abortive attempt to democratize the Soviet Union. According to this view, the constitution was both an attempt to tighten political control over the vast Soviet territory and a potential turn toward democracy that Stalin ultimately decided not to take. Stalin's political intentions and the reasons behind the cancellation of contested elections in late 1937 after several months of preparations for them may never be known, but the remarkably contradictory nature of the document and the disjuncture between Soviet law and life are undeniable.

Scholars writing in the late 1990s have argued that the constitution, despite its many contradictions, should not be dismissed as mere propaganda (Davies; Petrone). They suggest that the constitution introduced Soviet citizens to a new political language and opened up spaces for the discussion of such issues as justice, equality, and civil rights. This political language offered Soviet citizens new ways to articulate demands and means to negotiate with state authorities. While the promulgation of democratic ideals may have provided citizens with ways of envisioning alternatives to Soviet political structures, these alternatives were crushed by the intense repression of the late 1930s.

See also: central committee; communist party of the soviet union; nationalities policies, soviet; stalin, josef vissarionovich


Davies, Sarah. (1997). Popular Opinion in Stalin's Russia: Terror, Propaganda and Dissent, 1934-1941. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Getty, J. Arch. (1991). "State and Society under Stalin: Constitutions and Elections in the 1930s." Slavic Review 50(1):18-35.

Petrone, Karen. (2000). Life Has Become More Joyous Comrades: Celebrations in the Time of Stalin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Unger, Aryeh L. (1981). Constitutional Developments in the U.S.S.R.: A Guide to the Soviet Constitutions. London: Methuen.

Wimberg, Ellen. (1992). "Socialism, Democratism, and Criticism: The Soviet Press and the National Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution." Soviet Studies 44(2):313-332.

Karen Petrone

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Constitution of 1936

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