Presidium of Supreme Soviet

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The Russian word soviet means "council." The Supreme Soviet beginning in 1936 was the pre-1991 equivalent of the Parliament or Congress in democratic countries. It consisted of two chambers. The upper chamber (the Council of Nationalities) consisted of representatives ("people's deputies") of the hundred-plus nationalities of the USSR; the lower chamber (the Council of the Union) represented the population at large on a per-capita representative basis. Initially they were elected for four-year terms, then, beginning in 1977, for five-year terms. There were eleven convocations (following eleven elections) of the Supreme Soviet between December 12, 1937, and March 26, 1989, which met in eighty-nine sessions. The Supreme Soviet met for only a few days semiannually to vote unanimously for the government's (in reality, the Communist Party's) program. It elected the Presidium, which was a standing body that had more functions; as well as nominally formed the government, including the Council of Ministers of the USSR; chose the procurator general (chief prosecutor, equals attorney general) of the USSR; and appointed the Supreme Court of the USSR.

The Brezhnev Constitution of 1977 converted the Supreme Soviet into a fuller legislative and control organ elected by the Congress of the Council of Nationalities and Council of the Union. The Supreme Soviet itself appointed the Council of Ministers, the Control Commission, the chief prosecutor, and chose the Presidium from among its members.

In 1989 the old Supreme Soviet was converted into the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR, a standing body with 2,250 deputies, one-third elected from equal territories, one-third from nationality regions, and one-third from social organizations. Five such congresses met between 1989 and 1991. From its members it chose by secret ballot a new Supreme Soviet, in accord with a law of December 1, 1988, which was subordinate to it. The new Supreme Soviet had the same two chambers as before with 266 deputies in each.

table 1.

Presidium of the Supreme Soviet
IndividualDates in Office
SOURCE: Courtesy of the author.
Mikhail I. Kalinin1938-1946
Nikolai M. Shvernik1946-1953
Klimentii E. Voroshilov1953-1960
Leonid I. Brezhnev1960-1964
Anastas I. Mikoian1964-1965
Nikolai V. Podgornyi1965-1977
Leonid I. Brezhnev1977-1982
Iurii V. Andropov1983-1984
Konstantin U. Chernenko1984-1985
Andrei A. Gromyko1985-1988
Mikhail S. Gorbachev1988-1989

The heads of the Presidium were the nominal heads of state of the Soviet Union: Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin (19381946), Nikolai Mikhailovich Shvernik (19461953), Kliment Efremovich Voroshilov (19531960), Leonid Ilich Brezhnev (19601964 and 19771982), Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan (19641965), Nikolai Viktorovich Podgorny (19651977), Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov (19831984), Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko (19841985), Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko (19851988), and Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (19881989). Most of them were figureheads, for power actually lay in the Communist Party, and the state authorities were its rubber stamps. However, when Brezhnev in 1977 decided to combine the jobs of head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and of the USSR (followed in this by Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev), the heads of the Presidium were the most important figures in the Soviet Union. The Presidium also had the office of first assistant to the head, but this office was so insignificant that it was not created until 1944, and then was not appointed from 1946 to 1977.

The men who made the Presidium work were its secretaries: A. F. Gorkin (19381953 and 19561957), N. M. Pegov (19531956), M. P. Georgadze (19571982), and T. N. Menteshashvili (19821989).

To the extent that the Soviet service state (q.v.) functioned efficiently or not, the Presidium secretaries deserve much of the credit or blame. They embodied the meritocratic principles of the service state and the last two, as Georgians, personified the multinational nature of the Soviet empire.

Occasionally the plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU, the Council of Ministers of the USSR, and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR met together, as happened on March 5, 1953, from 10 to 10:40 p.m., when they adopted resolutions on governmental organization after Stalin's death.

The Supreme Soviets met only a few days annually, and its Presidium carried on its business in the intervals. (The two organs paralleled the Communist Party's All-Union Congresses and the Politburo. In theory, the CPSU made policy; the government carried it out.) According to Article 119 of the 1977 Constitution, the Presidium had thirty-seven members. The chairman was nominally in charge; then there were fifteen vice-chairs, one for each republic, who were present more for decoration than for work. Then there was the secretary, the workhorse of the Presidium, and twenty others who had area responsibilities corresponding to the ministries that ran the USSR. The presidium had a long list of functions, only some of which can be mentioned here. It set the dates for the election of the Supreme Soviet and convened its sessions. It was responsible for the government observing the Constitution and that all laws were constitutional. It had the task of interpreting the laws when dispute arose. The Presidium instituted and awarded orders and medals, including military ones. It ruled on matters of citizenship. It formed the Council of Defense and appointed and dismissed the leaders of the armed forces. It was the body that could proclaim martial law, declare war and peace, and order the mobilization of the armed forces. It ratified foreign treaties and dealt with diplomatic matters. Article 121 of the Constitution authorized the Presidium to create and disband governmental ministries and to appoint and fire ministers.

See also: congress of people's deputies; constitution of 1977; council of ministers, soviet; supreme soviet


Kudriavtsev, V. N., et al., eds. (1986). The Soviet Constitution. A Dictionary. Moscow: Progress.

Richard Hellie