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Acronym for Sovet Narodnykh Komissarov (Council of People's Commissars), the government of the early Soviet republic.

Sovnarkom was formed by Vladimir Lenin in October 1917 as the government of the new revolutionary regime. The word commissars was used to distinguish the new institution from bourgeois governments and indicate that administration was being entrusted to commissions (commissariats), not to individuals. Initially membership included Lenin (chairperson), eleven departmental heads (commissars), and a committee of three responsible for military and naval affairs. Until 1921, under Lenin, Sovnarkom was the real government of the new Soviet republicthe key political as well as administrative bodybut after 1921 political power passed increasingly to Party bodies.

With the creation of the USSR in 1924, Lenin's Sovnarkom became a union (national) body. Alexei Rykov was chairperson of the Union Sovnarkom from 1924 to 1930, then Vyacheslav Molotov from 1930 to 1941, and Josef Stalin from 1941 to 1946, when the body was renamed the Council of Ministers. There were two types of commissariats: six unified (renamed "union-republican" under the 1936 constitution), which functioned through parallel apparatuses in identically named republican commissariats, and five all-union with plenipotentiaries in the republics directly subordinate to their commissar.

In 1930 Gosplan was upgraded to a standing commission of Sovnarkom and its chairperson given membership. By 1936 the number of commissariats had risen to twenty-three, and by 1941 to forty-three. A major trend was the replacement of an overall industrial commissariat by industry-specific bodies.

The 1936 constitution granted Sovnarkom membership to chairpersons of certain state committees. It also formally recognized Sovnarkom as the government of the USSR, but deprived it of its legislative powers. By this time the institution was and remained a high-level administrative committee specializing in economic affairs.

See also: commissar; council of ministers, soviet; lenin, vladimir ilich; molotov, vyacheslav mikhailovich; rykov, alexei ivanovich; stalin, josef vissarionovich


Rigby, Thomas Henry. (1979). Lenin's Government: Sovnarkom, 19171922. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Watson, Derek. (1996). Molotov and Soviet Government: Sovnarkom, 1930-41. Basingstoke, UK: CREES-Macmillan.

Derek Watson

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