Constitution of 1977

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The 1977 USSR Constitution was a curious mixture of fact and fiction. It gave a correct description of the formal government structure of the USSR and correctly noted in Article Six: "The guiding and directing force of Soviet society, the nucleus of its political system, state, and societal organizations is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union." At the same time, it contained a purely illusory set of promises of basic human rights and the fundamentally false statement that the Communist Party "exists for the people and serves the people." This "Brezhnev" Constitution, adopted when Leonid Brezhnev was General Secretary of the Communist Party, replaced the 1936 "Stalin" Constitution. It did not bring any significant immediate changes in the Soviet system. However, under Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, radical changes began to occur in the USSR, and the 1977 Constitution was amended to advance these changes. As the USSR disintegrated in 1990 and 1991, the constitution lost its practical importance. On December 25, 1991, the USSR was formally dissolved, thus ending the story of the 1977 Constitution.

The opening chapter of the constitution was devoted to the political system. It accurately affirmed the superiority of the Communist Party. But it incorrectly stated that "all bodies of state power are elective from the lowest to the highest." In fact, all important positions were filled by orders from the Communist Party. And it misled when it said that the Soviet state protects "the rights and freedoms of citizens." The next chapter gave a generally accurate description of the economic system based on state ownership and state planning. The following chapter on social development and culture correctly noted the state's role in providing public health and education services. However, it failed to note that the economic system provided for extraordinary privileges for members of the Communist Party elite. The chapter misinformed when it said, "the development of professional art and of the artistic creativeness of the people is encouraged in every way," since in fact only creative works that met the narrow tastes of the party leadership were encouraged.

The chapter on basic rights pointed out economic rights that were to a large extent implemented and civil rights that existed only on paper. The economic rights included rights to full employment, education, medical care, housing, and pensions. The political rights included a right to vote that was in fact meaningless because the Communist Party allowed only one candidate for each position, and a right to free speech that was mocked in practice by the sending of dissidents to labor camps and psychiatric institutions. The remaining chapters provided a relatively accurate description of the formal governmental structures of the USSR, though, of course, these structures were all subject to the leading role of the Communist Party as stated in Article Six of the Constitution. Even these chapters contained gross omissions and outright untruths. The provisions on elections did not mention that the party only allowed one candidate to run for each position. The provisions on the Supreme Soviet did not mention that it was controlled so as always to rubberstamp unanimously anything that had party approval. The provisions on the courts did not mention that judges were expected to obey telephoned instructions from party officials.

Mikhail Gorbachev engineered major amendments in 1988, 1989, and 1990, which reflected and hastened the decline of Communist Party dictatorship. The 1988 amendments provided for relatively free elections to a newly created Congress of People's Deputies, though the election constituencies were structured to favor the Communist Party. Further amendments in 1989 and 1990 abolished the special Constitutional position of the Communist Party, legalized competing political parties, restructured the electoral system to be fully democratic, and created the post of president. Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen president by the Soviet parliament. A constitutional amendment provided that future presidents should be chosen by popular election, but the Soviet Union dissolved before such an election could be held. Also during the period 1988-1990, under Gorbachev's leadership, restrictions on private businesses were swiftly abolished. The constitution was amended to legalize private business. In the area of civil rights and human rights, Gorbachev greatly liberalized the Soviet system. An amendment to the constitution created a Committee on Constitutional Review empowered to examine legislation for conformity to the constitution. During its brief existence, the committee found unconstitutional a number of the worst features of the Soviet system, such as secret legislation and restrictions on freedom of movement.

See also: article 6 of 1977 constitution; brezhnev, leonid ilich


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Peter B. Maggs

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Constitution of 1977

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