The 1936 Soviet Constitution, adopted on 5 December 1936 and also known as the Stalin Constitution, redesigned the government of the Soviet Union. It purported to be highly democratic, with multiple guarantees of rights and democratic procedures. Supporters around the world hailed it as the most democratic constitution imaginable. In practice, it solidified the total control of the Communist Party and its leader Joseph Stalin. Historian J. Arch Getty concludes:
- Many who lauded Stalin's Soviet Union as the most democratic country on earth lived to regret their words. After all, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 was adopted on the eve of the Great Terror of the late 1930s; the "thoroughly democratic" elections to the first Supreme Soviet permitted only uncontested candidates and took place at the height of the savage violence in 1937. The civil rights, personal freedoms, and democratic forms promised in the Stalin constitution were trampled almost immediately and remained dead letters until long after Stalin's death.
Beginning in 1936, 5 December was celebrated as Soviet Constitution day in the Soviet Union until the 1977 Soviet Constitution moved the day to 7 October. Before 1936, there was no Soviet Constitution day.
Many countries in the Eastern bloc adopted constitutions that were closely modeled on the Stalin Constitution.
The constitution repealed restrictions on voting and added universal direct suffrage and the right to work to rights guaranteed by the previous constitution. In addition, the constitution recognized collective social and economic rights including the rights to work, rest and leisure, health protection, care in old age and sickness, housing, education and cultural benefits. The constitution also provided for the direct election of all government bodies and their reorganization into a single, uniform system. It was written by a special commission of 31 members which Stalin chaired. Those who participated included (among others) Andrey Vyshinsky, Andrei Zhdanov, Maxim Litvinov, Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek, though the latter two had less active input.
The 1936 constitution replaced the Congress of Soviets of the Soviet Union and its Central Executive Committee by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. Like its predecessor, the Supreme Soviet contained two chambers: the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities. The constitution empowered the Supreme Soviet to elect commissions, which performed most of the Supreme Soviet's work. As under the former constitution, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet exercised the full powers of the Supreme Soviet between sessions and had the right to interpret laws. The Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet became the titular head of state. The Sovnarkom (after 1946 known as the Council of Ministers) continued to act as the executive arm of the government.
Of the three Soviet constitutions, the 1936 Constitution survived longest as it was amended in 1944 and replaced with the 1977 Soviet Constitution.
The names of all Soviet republics were changed, transposing the second ("socialist") and third ("soviet" or e.g. "radianska" in Ukrainian) words.
Leading role of Communist Party
In 1936, for the first time a Soviet constitution specifically mentioned the role of the Communist Party. Article 126 portrayed the Party as a "vanguard of the working people in their struggle to strengthen and develop the socialist system and representing the leading core of all organizations of the working people, both public and state". This provision was used to justify banning all other parties from functioning in the Soviet Union.
Soviet portrayal and liberal criticism
The constitution provided economic rights not included in constitutions in the Western democracies. The constitution was presented as a personal triumph for Stalin, who on this occasion was described by Pravda as "genius of the new world, the wisest man of the epoch, the great leader of communism". However, historians[who?] have seen the constitution as a propaganda document. Leonard Schapiro, for example, writes: "The decision to alter the electoral system from indirect to direct election, from a limited to a universal franchise, and from open to secret voting, was a measure of the confidence of the party in its ability to ensure the return of candidates of its own choice without the restrictions formerly considered necessary"; and that "a careful scrutiny of the draft of the new constitution showed that it left the party's supreme position unimpaired, and was therefore worthless as a guarantee of individual rights".
Freedom of religion
Article 124 of the constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, the inclusion of which was opposed by large segments of the Communist Party. The article resulted in members of the Russian Orthodox Church petitioning to reopen closed churches, gain access to jobs that had been closed to them as religious figures and the attempt to run religious candidates in the 1937 elections.
Freedom of speech
Article 125 of the constitution guaranteed freedom of speech of the press, and of assembly. However, these "rights" were circumscribed elsewhere, so the erstwhile "freedom of the press" ostensibly guaranteed by Article 125 was of no practical consequence as Soviet law held that "Before these freedoms can be exercised, any proposed writing or assembly must be approved by a censor or a licensing bureau, in order that the censorship bodies shall be able to exercise "ideological leadership."
Reorganization of the armed forces and the republics
The 1944 amendments to the 1936 Constitution established separate branches of the Red Army for each Soviet Republic. They also established Republic-level commissariats for foreign affairs and defense, allowing them to be recognized as sovereign states in international law. This allowed for two Soviet Republics, Ukraine and Byelorussia, to join the United Nations General Assembly as founding members in 1945.
- J. Arch Getty (1991). "State and Society Under Stalin: Constitutions and Elections in the 1930s". Slavic Review. Vol. 50. No. 1. pp. 18—35.
- Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Russian (2007). Routledge. p. 250. ISBN 0415320941.
- J. Arch Getty (Spring 1991). "State and Society Under Stalin: Constitutions and Elections in the 1930s". Slavic Review. Vol. 50. No. 1. p. 19, 22.
- Waller, Sally (2015). Tsarist and Communist Russia 1855-1964. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 142. ISBN 978-0-19-835467-3.
- Law, David A. (1975). Russian civilization. Ardent Media. p. 185. ISBN 0-8422-0529-2.
- Loeber, Dietrich André, ed. (1986). Ruling Communist Parties and Their Status Under Law. Law in Eastern Europe. 31. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 438. ISBN 9789024732098. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
[...] with the exception of the 1924 Mongolian Constitution, all of the constitutions of the Eastern European and Asian Communist states were adopted after the second USSR Constitution of 1936 had been promulgated in which the first direct mention of the Communist Party can at last be found.
- "Конституция (Основной закон) Союза Советских Социалистических Республик (утверждена постановлением Чрезвычайного VIII Съезда Советов Союза Советских Социалистических Республик от 5 декабря 1936 г.). Глава Х: Основные права и обязанности граждан" [Constitution (Basic Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (confirmed by the decision of the Extraordinary 8th Session of the Soviets of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of 5 December 1936). Chapter 10: Basic rights and duties of citizens]. Sait Konstitutsii Rossiiskoi Federatsii (in Russian). НПП "Гарант-Сервис". Retrieved 19 December 2015.
Статья 126. В соответствии с интересами трудящихся и в целях развития организационной самодеятельности и политической активн��сти народных масс гражданам СССР обеспечивается право объединения в общественные организации: профессиональные союзы, кооперативные объединения, организации молодежи, спортивные и оборонные организации, культурные, технические и научные общества, а наиболее активные и сознательные граждане из рядов рабочего класса и других слоев трудящихся объединяются во Всесоюзную коммунистическую партию (большевиков), являющуюся передовым отрядом трудящихся в их борьбе за укрепление и развитие социалистического строя и представляющую руководящее ядро всех организаций трудящихся, как общественных, так и государственных.
- Tamara O. Kuznetsova, Inna A. Rakitskaya and Elena A. Kremyanskaya (2014). Russian Constitutional Law.
- Pravda (25 November 1936).
- Leonard Schapiro (1971). The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (2nd ed.). Random House. New York. pp. 410–411.
- Fitzpatrick, Sheila (1999). Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York. Oxford University Press. p. 179.
- Beard, Robert (1996). "1936 Constitution of the USSR, Part IV". Bucknell University. Retrieved 5 May 2017.
- Towe, Thomas (1967). "FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS IN THE SOVIET UNION: A COMPARATIVE APPROACH". University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 115 (8): 1267. Retrieved 30 August 2018.
- "Walter Duranty Explains Changes In Soviet Constitution". Miami News. 6 February 1944.
- "League of Nations Timeline – Chronology 1944".
- "United Nations – Founding Members".
- This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/. – Soviet Union