The Supreme Soviet was described in the 1936 and 1977 constitutions as the "highest organ of State power."
In the USSR, the bicameral Supreme Soviet was the chief, central legislative organ of the Soviet state. The constitutions of 1936 and 1977 followed closely the wording of the two preceding constitutions of 1918 and 1924 in describing the powers and functions of this body (earlier known as the Congress of Soviets) and its executive Presidium.
As in preceding years, the deputies to the Supreme Soviet, elected to four-year terms throughout the republics, regions, provinces and other political-administrative subdivisions of authority throughout the USSR, were said to represent the interests of the workers, peasants, soldiers, and intellectuals. That the deputies would faithfully serve those interests, it was claimed in documents explaining the workings of the central legislature, was guaranteed by fact that the Communist Party at all levels played the determining role in selecting the single-list candidates for election to the legislative body. By the 1936 and 1977 constitutions, non-Party deputies could run for election and be elected. These deputies, too, were carefully vetted by the Party "aktivs." Polling places for election of deputies seldom provided voting booths.
The USSR Supreme Soviet was divided into two chambers, called the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities. The former was based on representation by geographic, political-administrative territorial units nationwide; the latter was based on national, or ethnic, territorial units. The rationale given for this in official documents was that in this way the Soviet people would be represented both by geographic location as well as by ethnicity.
Representation was based on one deputy per every 300,000 of the population. There was no class restriction as found in the first, 1918, constitution.
The numbers of deputies in each body tended to increase over the years. This reflected the growth in population. No officially recognized cap was put on the total number of deputies, yet a limit nevertheless seemed to be in effect. The Soviet authorities apparently preferred to keep both bodies at approximately equal and manageable size. In that sense, the Communist Party leadership exercised control over the size of the legislative bodies as well as the texts of the bills submitted to it for enactment—always enacted unanimously by a show of hands.
From 1937 to the 1960s, the Soviet of the Union increased from 569 to 791 deputies. The members of the second, or lower, chamber during the same period climbed from 574 to 750. The increase in the latter came from the addition of several new Union Republics to the USSR. These were the result of territorial annexations made before and during World War II.
Both chambers met either separately or in joint session in the Supreme Soviet building within the Kremlin. They would meet jointly especially when the powerful executive Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was elected (every four years) along with elections of the USSR Supreme Court and of the Council of Ministers (formerly, Council of People's Commissars), or government and cabinet. The chairman of the Presidium was considered to be, as head of state, the Soviet President. By the constitution the chambers were to meet twice per year in which the closely regulated sessions lasted only about a week. Prior to the 1950s, the two Soviets sometimes met more than twice per year.
Besides effecting indirect Communist Party control over the legislative proceedings, each chamber of the Supreme Soviet established a Council of Elders. This body, though unmentioned in the constitution, served as a further conduit for Party control. Each council numbered approximately 150 elders. It consisted of leading figures from the republics, territories, and provinces. Besides proposing legislation, the councils supervised the formation of legislative committees, known as commissions,
within both houses. The committees oversaw affairs concerned with the State budget, legislation, the courts, foreign affairs, credentials, and so forth.
The work of the committees was closely regulated. Often a leading member of the Communist Party Central Committee would chair a committee, such as that concerned with foreign affairs.
Soviet propaganda aimed at a foreign audience boasted of the heterogeneous, democratic makeup of the USSR Supreme Soviet. One such document, Andrei Vyshinsky's Law of the Soviet State (Gosudarstvo i pravo ), noted that in the 1930s and 1940s. the Soviet legislature had a far greater proportion of women deputies than Western parliaments or the U.S. Congress. The alleged working-class backgrounds of the deputies was also touted. Party representation in the legislature stood at around 18 percent, or several times that of the percentage of Party members within the population at large. Government officials were said to constitute some 15 percent of the deputies.
Soviet juristic writings explicitly denied that the Soviet Union's political system recognized the Western principle of the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial organs. Instead, it was claimed, the Soviet political system stressed the merging of executive, legislative, and judicial functions that was further afforded by the system's centralized structure. Such unity was further enhanced by the parallel Communist Party hierarchy that was likewise structured to emphasize unity of function at all levels of administration and political authority.
When the time came for voiced criticism of the system—beginning to surface within the illegal reform movement, or samizdat, of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—the dissidents, some of whom were put on trial and served sentences in the labor camps, called in some instances for retaining the basic structure of the soviets. Yet they demanded radical overhaul of the functions of the soviets at all levels of authority as well as elimination of exclusive Communist Party supervision of soviet elections and legislative deliberations. Some reformers called for incorporation of the principle of separation of powers.
See also: communist party of the soviet union; congress of people's deputies; constitution of 1936; constitution of 1977; dissident movement; presidium of supreme soviet; state committees
Reshetar, John Stephen, Jr. (1978). The Soviet Polity Government and Politics in the USSR, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row.
Vyshinsky, Andrei Y. (1979). The Law of the Soviet State. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Albert L. Weeks