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Federalism, Democratization, and the Rule of Law in Russia$

Jeffrey Kahn

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780199246991

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0199246998.001.0001

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Soviet ‘Federalism’

Soviet ‘Federalism’

(p.69) 3 Soviet ‘Federalism’
Federalism, Democratization, and the Rule of Law in Russia

Jeffrey Kahn (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Although most scholars were quick to puncture the Soviet Union's sham claims to democracy, too many accepted at face value its claim to be a federal state. The shifting debates about federalism in Bolshevik doctrine and communist theory are explored. The formation, systematization, and stagnation of the so‐called ‘Soviet federalism’ is examined and debunked through analysis of the constitutions and political realities that existed under Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev.

Keywords:   Bolshevism, Leonid Brezhnev, Communist Party, communist theory, constitution, democracy, V.I. Lenin, Soviet federalism, Soviet Union, J.V. Stalin

A constitution is fictitious when law and reality diverge; it is not fictitious when they coincide.

Lenin, 1909

Since the Soviet Union preserves all the features of federalism, the mere fact that its federalism fails to prevent tyranny should not lead to casting it out of the class of federalisms. Rather it should lead to a reevaluation of what federalism means and implies.

William H. Riker1

The Soviet Union's claims to be a democracy were not considered credible by most serious scholars. Terms like ‘democratic centralism’ and ‘people's democracy’ were deemed rhetorical. The reality of the Soviet system belied any such assertions found in its constitutions or declared by its leaders. The same scepticism was far less common when it came to Soviet claims to be a federal system. ‘The federalism of the Soviet Union’, wrote William Riker, ‘ . . . is as clearly the product of the two conditions [of the federal bargain] as are the United States and German federalisms’.2 Riker employed a continuum of centralization in federal systems, by which he expressed the range of policy‐issues on which a central government could make decisions independent of consultations with constituent units of the federation. The USSR, though at the maximum extreme of this continuum, maintained a ‘unique form of federalism’.3 Riker was not alone among scholars who, although quick to puncture sham claims to democracy, accepted at face value the ‘federal’ form of Soviet autocracy.

These are extraordinary assertions. They have also had an extraordinary impact on scholarship in this area. This chapter examines why this uncritical acceptance of federal form as a proxy for federal content presents serious problems for analysis of both Soviet and post‐Soviet institutions and politics.

(p.70) Demands for self‐rule, decentralization, and even various forms of federal autonomy were common to turn‐of‐the‐century political parties and intelligentsia as well as national minorities that occupied the physical and social periphery of the Russian Empire.4 The Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, however, initially rejected federalism as contrary to the dialectics of history and the faction's own global vision. Lenin promised: ‘Marxists will never, under any circumstances, advocate either the federal principle or decentralisation. The great centralised state is a tremendous historical step forward . . . and only via such a state (inseparably connected with capitalism) can there be any road to socialism.’5 However, influenced by the work of Austro‐Marxists Otto Bauer, Karl Renner and others, and by the fact that virtually all contemporary major political parties had issued solutions to ‘the national question’, Lenin made a tactical reversal in support of political self‐determination of peoples, a concept he soon recognized had enormous propaganda potential. Lenin cleverly promoted proletarian self‐determination, achievable only via the dictatorship of the proletariat in the form of the Russian Communist Party. The right to secede and form independent states was granted, contingent on its prudent exercise: ‘The party of the proletariat must decide the latter question quite independently in each particular case from the standpoint of the interests of the social development as a whole and of the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat for socialism’.6 As Stalin stated with regard to the North Caucasus in 1920: ‘Autonomy means not separation, but a union of the self‐ruling mountain peoples with the people of Russia’.7

This Orwellian redefinition of concepts is one far‐reaching aspect of the Soviet ‘federal’ legacy: autonomy, sovereignty, and self‐determination took on very different meanings when used by Soviet leaders. Autonomy meant unification, not independence! Seventy‐five years later, this rhetorical amphiboly was still useful. ‘Take all the sovereignty you can swallow’, Yeltsin's exhortation to regional politicians in the hot summer of 1990,8 was the rhetorical progeny of Lenin's ‘Release from the prison house of nations’. (p.71) Once in power, Yeltsin discovered what problems such rhetoric created, especially when deprived of the terroristic methods of his Soviet predecessors.

1. Formation: Lenin's Constitutions

Following the Revolution, the old Bolshevik approach of fomenting dissent in the Russian Empire conflicted with the new task of building a socialist state from which to launch world revolution. A federation of peoples, previously rejected as regressively nationalistic, was now considered a transitional tactic. Lenin's first official statements supporting federalism, after years of opposition, were made in January 1918; in essence, the new policy was lifted directly from the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Ukraine and Russia were joined by Bolshevik fiat, and considerable violence, into a new ‘federation’: the Soviet Russian Republic. Armed force was required after the Ukrainian Rada sought to realize pre‐Revolution promises of autonomy and resisted Ukrainian ‘independence’ under Russian Bolshevik leaders. The Rada leaders' attempts to remain in control exposed the contradictions of Soviet federalism for the first time.9 It is worth pausing to note how different these origins of the Soviet state were to the precondition that Riker rightly identified for federal systems: willingness among respective government leaders to conclude a mutually beneficial bargain of union.10 Forceful annexation is, of course, anathema to the Rikerian voluntary federal bargain. Riker glossed over the bloody origins of Soviet ‘federalism’ by asserting that national elites ‘gladly accepted the bribe of federalism’ in the face of the military threat of the Red Army.11 Considering that this threat was the Civil War, caused by the lack of recognition by these governments and large sectors of the population of the legitimacy of the Soviet takeover, it seems strange to imagine any voluntary bargain in the grip of the Red Terror.

(p.72) Two distinctive aspects of Soviet ‘federalism’ appeared early: fusion of party and state institutions, and the manipulation of ethnic groups to establish central control over distant regions. First, the distinction between the growing Party apparatus and the state bureaucracy blurred as the Soviet state emerged from the crucible of what became known as ‘War Communism’. The establishment of the world's first party‐state revealed the deeply centralist assumptions behind the Bolshevik theory of federalism: there were many Soviet republics, but there could be only one Communist Party to rule them. Although Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Belorussia were accepted as separate Soviet republics, separate national communist parties were categorically rejected. Second, elites from ethnic minorities in these and much smaller groups were encouraged to serve in new Soviet institutions, part of the programme of nativization (korenizatsiia)—Lenin's surprisingly successful promotion of indigenous languages and local customs. Such an indigenous cadre created what Philip Roeder calls an ‘institutionalised monopoly on the public expression of ethnic identity’, and therefore on the ethnic group itself.12 The seeds were planted for the institutionalized dominance of titular ethnic groups in state regional structures.

As will be argued in later chapters, years of such propaganda decreased the range of options available to ethnic republics after the collapse of the Soviet Union and elevated to the point of irresistability the idea of state sovereignty founded on a particular ethnic group. There are serious risks to minority rights and democracy inherent in what Robert Hayden calls constitutional nationalism, which ‘envisions a state in which sovereignty resides with a particular nation (narod)’ and which privileges that group above others in different ways.13 Without making a statement about the beginnings or growth of nationalism in general across the range of Soviet nationalities, it can be said that the origins of the conceptual, legal and institutional structures associated with constitutional nationalism can be traced to these beginnings. By the early 1920s, seventeen republics and oblasts within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) declared themselves to be, and thus acquired the prefix, autonomous. These units were in addition to those higher‐level soviet republics (e. g. Ukraine and Belorussia) which had already united with Soviet Russia.

(p.73) 1.1 The Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic

Virtually every administrative post in the regime soon required the approval of the powerful People's Commissariat of Nationalities (Narkomnats) and its first Commissar—Joseph Stalin.14 The Commissariat's portfolio included the maintenance of Soviet power in autonomous republics and supervision of constitutions, decrees, and laws.15 Narkomnats had a pernicious effect on the new federation's structure. A constitutional commission for the RSFSR, headed by Yakov Sverdlov and Stalin (perhaps simply speaking for Lenin), rejected proposals to establish a federation based on anything other than national divisions.16 A member of the Commissariat of Justice, Mikhail Reisner, had vigorously advocated a federation of trade unions and other socioeconomic groups in a non‐territorial manner reminiscent of the old Bauer‐Renner proposals. His warning against ‘hidden centralism under the cover of a federal structure’, was rejected by Stalin, who demanded a national‐based structure.17

The new Constitution established a ‘free union of free nations’, joined in federation (Art. 2). This extremely ideological document, written at a time when a prevailing legal nihilism inspired the destruction of the tsarist judicial system, could be called ‘anti‐law’ in that it categorically rejected legal principles of property on which the law (in Russia, as in most of Europe) had for centuries been based.18 The document contained no provisions for the resolution of disputes between federal authority and different republics. Formal institutions were proclaimed, but not necessary infrastructure or procedures. Most of the country was in administrative chaos and the new constitution did little to alter that condition.19 This was a federation in name only. The powers of the central authority were enormous and unchecked (cf. Arts. 49 and 81); regional institutions were administrative appendages of the centre.

(p.74) The final draft was never intended to withstand close legal scrutiny (there is no mention in the document of any judicial institutions) nor was its aim long‐term institution‐building (Art. 9 proclaimed the constitution to be ‘ . . . designed for the present transition period . . . ’.). The state was expected to wither away. From the perspective of federalism, its great legal innovation was the notion of ‘dual subordination:’ each executive body was accountable both to its electorate and to the executive body immediately above it in the hierarchy of democratic centralism (Arts. 61 and 62). As Aryeh Unger remarks: ‘It need hardly be emphasized that while centralism might conceivably be reconciled with democracy it was entirely incompatible with local autonomy. The administrative device of “dual subordination” obscured this contradiction but did not resolve it. By coupling “horizontal” with “vertical” subordination it seemed to grant local authorities a measure of control over local affairs; by the same token, however, it ensured that no part of such control was truly autonomous’.20 The reader would be right to note how such a concept resonates with the ‘vertical of federal executive power’ asserted (although rapidly softened) by President Vladimir Putin more than eighty years later (the subject of Chapter Eight).

1.2 The Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Any nominal federalism expressed in the RSFSR constitution was lost as the regime was consolidated. As noted above, social movements demanding genuine self‐rule were crushed and their leaders executed or exiled. Concrete planning for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics began in August 1922 in a special commission chaired by Stalin. A Treaty of Union was adopted in December joining the RSFSR, Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Transcaucasian SFSR. This was the basis for the constitution issued by decree of the Central Executive Committee on 6 July 1923 and given final ratification ten days after the death of Lenin, on 31 January 1924 at the Second All‐Union Congress of Soviets.

The constitution which emerged from this treaty, establishing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was drafted in a single week by a subcommittee chaired by the Commissar of Foreign Affairs, and then quickly passed to Stalin and Lenin. The document established national‐territorial units for only a fraction of the 104 officially recognized nationalities. These units were arranged hierarchically (union republic, autonomous republic, autonomous region), implicitly rejecting the principle of equality for all ethnic groups. (p.75) Only the top‐tiered union republics were constitutionally guaranteed the right to secession (Art. 4), a sham promise in the light of other articles (e. g. Art. 6). The framers of this constitution did not expect it to last very long. This was still a heady, ideological atmosphere: constitutions, laws, and states were anticipated soon to whither away.21

This new constitution can no more be interpreted to establish a federal system than the ‘federal’ constitution of the preceding RSFSR. Alongside the increasing indistinguishability between Party and State, the powers given the centre made the USSR the most centralized state on earth. The first article conferred upon the centre not only the power to tax and form a state budget but the power to authorize taxes for the budgets of the constituent republics, establish and control a central economic plan for the entire economy (including location of industry), unilaterally annul republican activity deemed contrary to the constitution, control migration, and regulate the alteration of internal state boundaries. Article 20 granted the Central Executive Committee the right to suspend or annul the actions of all lower‐level congresses, executive committees and other organs without the condition of alleged unconstitutionality or any other condition or check. Article 29 declared the Central Executive Committee's Presidium to be the highest administrative, legislative, and executive organ of power. This body had powers of suspension and annulment over every other institution (Art. 31). Union republics, to the extent that they could freely exercise the rights promised them, were favoured over autonomous republics in terms of representation and internal decision‐making powers.

Lenin and Stalin increasingly disagreed about the structure of this Union. The most basic disagreement concerned the distinction between the autonomous republics already incorporated within the RSFSR and the soviet republics joined by various separate treaties to the new USSR, thereby enjoying higher institutional status. In one of the first drafts to emerge from his commission, Stalin envisioned the incorporation of the soviet socialist republics (SSRs) of Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan as lower‐level autonomous republics (ASSRs). This was intended both to end the accumulated piecemeal collection of treaties and to strengthen an already highly centralized structure. In response, Georgian, Bashkir, and Tatar representatives to the 12th Party Congress in April 1923 argued that the ASSRs should be permitted to secede from the RSFSR and rejoin the union independently. Others argued that only a select number of union (p.76) republics (SSRs) should have deputies in the Council of Nationalities in the first place. Stalin rejected both proposals.22

Stalin began to enact his own changes, however, even as the draft was distributed for comment, enraging nearly every national group. Lenin, who came sick, late, and ill‐informed upon Stalin's ‘autonomization plan’ rejected it as tactically flawed. In the end, Lenin marshalled his remaining authority to preserve the constitutional distinction between units. As Pipes concludes: ‘It is likely that had he [Lenin] not suffered a nearly fatal stroke in March 1923 the final structure of the Soviet Union would have been quite different from that which Stalin ultimately gave it’.23

2. Systematization: Stalin's Constitution

Stalin's totalitarianism required a centralized bureaucracy with enormous powers, but one with sufficiently rigid and calcified command structures to afford complete control (and complete protection) to its increasingly paranoid creator. After more than a decade of volatile mass mobilization, but with the apex of Stalin's bloody purges still to come, Stalin's desire for stability in the aftermath of his massive industrialization and collectivization campaigns led to the drafting of a new constitution in 1936. Combined with the purging of the top tier of ethnic elites to ‘unmask and liquidate’ national deviations, the result further weakened once‐promised federal powers by removing regional authority over natural resources, heavy industry, and fiscal planning.

The anarchy and nihilism of revolutionary legality now ossified into an increasingly conservative, legalistic, and bureaucratic regime. While the new constitution claimed to guarantee property rights and long lists of political freedoms, these were abridged by the qualification that they be exercised solely in the interests of workers and in order to strengthen the socialist system (Art. 125). It also noted, for the first time by name, the vanguard role of the Communist Party as the core of all state and social organizations (Art. 126). From the point of view of federal structure, the new constitution strengthened the existing façade while ignoring its ever‐weakening foundations. The number of soviet socialist republics increased from six to eleven as Central Asia was divided into SSRs. The changes in the powers specifically accorded these republics were cosmetic at best. Each SSR had rights to its (p.77) own constitution (Arts. 16 and 60), to secession (Art. 17), and to inviolable borders (Art. 18). But these were subordinated to the principle of dual subordination (Art. 101), the total primacy of all‐union legislation (Art. 20), and the unilateral central power to carve out new territories and autonomous republics in the union (Art. 14). The constitution announced that SSR sovereignty was limited within the bounds set by Article 14, the 23 subclauses of which stripped republics of virtually all sovereignty, including jurisdiction over civil and criminal codes, transportation, all aspects of fiscal and monetary policy, and the establishment of ‘basic principles’ for essentially everything else.

If the real and imagined powers of union republics (SSRs) had been denuded in the new constitution, autonomous republics (ASSRs) were weakened even more. The equivalency of representation possessed by both types of republics was terminated under Article 35: SSRs were granted twenty‐five deputies in the Council of Nationalities, but ASSRs were permitted only eleven deputies, and still fewer were granted to autonomous regions (five) and national areas (one). The five articles devoted to ASSRs listed no specific rights or powers; even union republics, following in the logic of dual subordination, were given the right to suspend or annul actions of commissars and executive committees of these now officially second‐class autonomous republics (Art. 82).

The deportation of entire peoples in 1941 and 1943–4 exposed the horrors possible in such a ‘federal’ system. In retaliation for alleged Nazi collaboration, the Chechen‐Ingush, Kalmyk, Crimean Tatar, and Volga German autonomous republics were literally erased from Soviet maps: territorial‐administrative borders of neighbouring units were redrawn and the ethnic populations of these regions, in a matter of days, exterminated or exiled to remote regions in Siberia and Kazakhstan.24 As a constitutional formality, following a speech by Vyshinsky to the USSR Supreme Soviet in February 1947, Article 22 of the Constitution was retroactively amended to remove all reference to the former ASSRs. Their representatives to the Soviet of Nationalities vanished, as did citations in encyclopaedias and other publications.25

Stalin's death in 1953 led to a counter‐movement that first haltingly ventured criticism of his cult of personality and then sought to revitalize the Soviet experiment sans brutal Stalinist methods. However, there would (p.78) be no Khrushchev Constitution, only ill‐fated and relatively short‐lived attempts at constitutional amendment and structural revision of the state bureaucracy. Khrushchev began a shift towards decentralization shortly after his secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956, transferring a number of enterprises from federal to republican control. At the Twenty‐second Party Congress in 1961 Khrushchev softened the official doctrine on nationalities, contending that a dialectic sblizheniia (drawing together) would allow national cultures to flourish while a sliyanie (merging) would create Soviet unity. Declaring the equality of all nations in the USSR, the programme noted that internal borders between Union republics were ‘increasingly losing their former significance’.26 The programme suggested the increasing obsolescence of federal structures as the Soviet Union reached the final stage of history.

One year after Khrushchev's secret speech, the constitution was amended. Notable from the point of view of federal affairs were the laws and amendments enacted on 11 February 1957.27 Articles in the constitution on state structure were revised to shift authority for regional and territorial‐administrative structures to the jurisdiction of the union republics (Art. 28, 1957). Non‐autonomous regions were deleted from the lists by one law, while another law began the process of reinstating and renaming regions for some of the now rehabilitated exiled nationalities (e.g. the Chechen‐Ingush ASSR; the Kabardin ASSR again became the Kabardino‐Balkar ASSR).28 Khrushchev also announced a complete ministerial restructuring, creating 105 economic regions (overseen by Councils of Regional Economy, Sovnarkhozy), and eliminating twenty‐five central ministries. By edict of the Supreme Soviet, the federal Ministry of Justice already had been abolished, in May 1956 ‘to eliminate excessive centralization in guidance of the work of the courts and legal institutions of the republics and to strengthen the role of the latter’. Ministries of Justice in the republics were abolished in 1960 and their powers transferred to supreme courts and new juridical commissions of the Council of Ministers in each republic.29 The result, however, was often (p.79) far from genuine decentralization. The Fundamentals of Legislation enacted in 1958 and subsequent conferences in Moscow for ‘guidance’ of republican legal experts left little room for regional innovation; most codes were still virtual duplicates of one another.

The Thaw, none the less, freed legal theorists from the silence into which Stalinism had frozen them, during which time little if anything of substance had been written on the subject.30 Publication in the Spring of 1956 of Lenin's (previously suppressed) criticisms of Stalin's ‘autonomizing’ and chauvinism opened the dispute to greater analysis. The Institutes of State and Law, General History, and Marxism‐Leninism were all internally divided by these changes. Everything from Lenin's federal convictions to the virtues of republican constitutions and ‘bills of rights’ were subject to debate.31 Some academics even suggested that the time had come for the ‘unification’ of soviet republics; the federal structure, having served its purpose, could ‘fall away’ as Lenin had predicted.32

Forswearing Stalin's terroristic methods and dismantling his controlling bureaucracy deprived Khrushchev of the most effective tool of the dictatorship of the proletariat. At the same time, his emphasis on decentralization re‐opened ethnic agendas that had first been sparked by Bolshevik agitation, then frozen by central domination. Systems of local patronage grew less dependent on Moscow and, consequently, less obsequious. The more Khrushchev allowed for indirect rule, the more patronage, nepotism, and corruption flourished. Ethnic elites became more outspoken in the pursuit of their own agendas. At its most extreme, such localism resulted in the growth of national ‘mafias’ within the SSR and ASSR Party and state apparatuses, initially left alone provided that they delivered stability and economic growth. As Ronald Suny observed, ‘The perverse result of the end of terror and centralization was the strengthening of already powerful ethno‐political machines that ripped off the state economic sector, patronised the “second economy”, and satisfied significant parts of the local population who either benefited from the spoils system or enjoyed the usually freer way of life in their homelands’.33

Under Khrushchev, many national leaders who overstepped these relatively lenient new policies were purged from their positions.34 Studies have (p.80) shown the strong influence, even at the height of the Thaw, of the practice of positioning an ethnic Russian as second secretary in an ethnic republic as a counterweight to the more prominent first secretary, usually a member of the titular nationality. Areas perceived as particularly prone to nationalist outbreaks often had experienced Russian Party members imposed in both positions.35 On the other hand, those republican elites who learned to adapt to the new rules of the political game certainly benefited from the patronage networks which grew under Khrushchev's relative leniency, despite these constraints. The behaviour exhibited by post‐Soviet republican elites could reasonably be traced to skills learned during and after the Thaw. As will be discussed in later chapters, many republican presidents, parliamentary chairmen and other high‐level elites started their nomenklatura careers not long after this time.

3. Stagnation: Brezhnev's Constitution

Khrushchev proposed constitutional reform in the Supreme Soviet in 1962, creating a constitutional commission with himself as chairman. But from 1964 to 1977 neither the commission nor its sub‐units held a single meeting. Most of Khrushchev's remaining reforms were reversed by the time of the Central Committee Plenum in September 1965. Leonid Brezhnev inherited a twin problem from his predecessor: the dependence of ethnic elites on the centre was continuing to decrease at the same time that a scarcity of resources was increasingly felt throughout the Soviet Union. This dependence, freed from the politics of fear inspired by Stalin's methods, focused increasingly on Moscow's ability to meet growing expectations of economic growth and material benefit. Brezhnev's policies (e. g. longer terms of office for ethnic elites, less frequent rotations of bureaucratic personnel, etc.) produced stagnation, worsening the situation as the centre was increasingly unable to meet the demands it had stimulated in the periphery and no longer had the ruthlessness to crush with systematic force. The special privileges given to the titular nationality at universities and institutions in the ethnic republics had created an intelligentsia increasingly difficult to (p.81) mollify. In fact, tensions were greatest in areas of relative prosperity, that is, in places where such preferential policies of affirmative action had been operating the longest and ethnic communities had experienced the most returns in development. Party leaders in the ethnic republics seized upon issues of resource distribution as a means to expand their control over resources and thereby their power base as well. Local political machines became even more entrenched under Brezhnev than under Khrushchev. What autonomy was constitutionally promised but restricted in official practice could nevertheless be partially achieved through the clever manipulation of economic agendas and careful utilization of the ‘second economy’.36

Brezhnev's solution was a new constitution. Khrushchev's dormant commission was abruptly re‐awakened and a draft approved for a union‐wide discussion campaign in May 1977. The final text was passed unanimously by the Supreme Soviet on 7 October 1977. The Soviet Union, it was declared, was formed on the basis of the previously unheralded ‘principle of socialist federalism’ (Art. 70). As with ‘socialist legality’ (Art. 4) and ‘socialist democracy’ (Art. 9), socialist federalism found all the explication it required within the confines of Article 6, which declared the extra‐legal, non‐democratic and unfederal Communist Party to be the essential core of all state and social systems.37

Little was changed from Stalin's Constitution regarding the limited rights of ‘sovereign’ union republics and autonomous republics. Both were still subject to the omnipresence of a capricious central body. The 1936 Constitution had ensured rigid centralization through the exhaustive powers exclusively granted the centre in Article 14. Brezhnev's Constitution simply reserved for the center, in the last clause of an equally exhaustive Article 73, the perpetual right to decide what should be of all‐union significance in future. Union law was made superior to all other laws in every case of divergence by Article 74. Article 36, expanding upon Article 123 of the previous constitution, announced that all Soviet citizens, regardless of nationality, possessed equal rights, the goal of which were to ensure the equal development and merging of nations. Despite explicit legal penalties for the restriction of rights or creation of privileges based on nationality, such subsidies and privileges continued.

(p.82) The new Constitution, expanded by twenty‐eight new articles, devoted more than twice as many articles to individual rights as its predecessor and gave them a prominent position in the text. However, what had changed was not the regime's opinion of human rights but a new importance attached to the formalistic appearances of legality. The fluctuation over time in the approaches to the law, from ‘revolutionary legal consciousness’ to the ossification of legal superstructures, was both a reflection and partial catalyst of the changing political needs of successive regimes. The heady legal nihilism in which the Soviet Union was crafted had, by the end of the Brezhnev regime, been replaced by an addiction to structure and stability. After the first constitution of 1918, each successive document was longer, more detailed and in need of lengthier and more complex drafting procedures. The centralized reality of the formation and operation of the Soviet Union could not have been less reflected in its constitutional description. Yet these descriptions, federal in form and national in content, were all that survived the collapse of the Soviet federal façade. In the political chaos that followed, these hollow forms would take on a new life as they were filled with meaning for the first time.


(1) William H. Riker, Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964), 40.

(2) Riker, Federalism: Origin, . . . , 38.

(3) William H. Riker, ‘Federalism’, in Fred I. Greenstein & Nelson W. Polsby, eds. Handbook of Political Science: Vol. 5. Governmental Institutions and Processes (Reading, MA: Addison‐Wesley, 1975), 97, 102.

(4) Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet UnionCommunism and Nationalism: 19171923 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), 28, 77.

(5) V.I. Lenin, ‘Kriticheskie zametki po natsional'nomu voprosu’ (1913) Polnoe sobranie sochinenie, Vol. 24 (Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1961), 144.

(6) ‘Resolution of April 24–29 (May 7–12), 1917 “On the National Question” ’ in Zigurds L. Zile, Ideas and Forces in Soviet Legal History: A Reader on the Soviet State and Law (Oxford University Press, 1992), 78–9.

(7) Pipes, 248.

(8) The slight variations the reader will note in the wording of this famous phrase are due to Yeltsin's own varying uses of it and to different translations. When I use the quotation broadly—without citation—I adopt this, the most popular, version. When the exact wording matters (as in later chapters), I make a direct citation.

(9) Pipes, 115–48. For propaganda, see ‘Resolution on the Occasion of the Proclamation of Ukrainian Independence April 3, 1918’. Zile, 78.

(10) Riker, Federalism: Origin, . . . , 11–12.

(11) Riker, Federalism: Origin, . . . , 39. Riker euphemistically notes that ruling elites in the Caucasus and elsewhere were ‘persuaded’ to join with Russia. When leaders of national and religious movements sought to implement self‐rule, they were purged by Soviet central authorities who then installed more sympathetic local elites. The republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were created in 1920–1 to crush forces opposing the Soviet regime, then unified in 1922 as the Transcaucasian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic. John N. Hazard, ‘Codification of Soviet Nationalities Policies’, in Henry R. Huttenbach, ed. Soviet Nationalities Policies: Ruling Ethnic Groups in the USSR (London: Mansell, 1990), 51.

(12) Philip G. Roeder ‘Soviet Federalism and Ethnic Mobilization’, 43 World Politics, 2 (1991): 205.

(13) Robert M Hayden, 51 ‘Constitutional Nationalism in the Formerly Yugoslav Republics’, Slavic Review, 4 (1992): 655–6.

(14) Rudolf Schlesinger, The Nationalities Problem and Soviet Administration: Selected Readings on the Development of Soviet Nationalities Policies (London: Routledge, 1956), 33.

(15) Robert Conquest, ed. Soviet Nationalities Policy in Practice (London: Bodley Head, 1967), 34.

(16) A January 1918 resolution ‘On the Federal Institutions of the Russian Republic’, ordered the writing of a constitution. A drafting commission was established in April. The constitution was completed by July.

(17) Pipes, 111–12.

(18) Aryeh L. Unger, Constitutional Development in the USSR: A Guide to the Soviet Constitutions (New York: Pica Press, 1981), 9.

(19) Schlesinger, 253–4. John N. Hazard, William E. Butler, & Peter B. Maggs argue that the Russian Republic was called a federation for no greater reason than ‘to dramatize the relationship’ with the small nations the Bolsheviks were intent to tie to their Russian centre. John N. Hazard, William E. Butler, & Peter B. Maggs, The Soviet Legal System, 3rd Ed. (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana, 1977), 36.

(20) Unger, 19.

(21) Raymond Pearson, ‘The Historical Background to Soviet Federalism’, in Alastair McAuley, ed. Soviet Federalism, Nationalism and Economic Decentralisation (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1991), 26–30.

(22) Robert Conquest, The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (London: Macmillan, 1970), 37–44.

(23) Pipes, 276.

(24) The territory of these former ASSRs was partitioned among the Georgian SSR, North Ossetian and Daghestan ASSRs, the provinces of Saratov, Stalingrad and Rostov, and Stavropol territory. A Kabardin ASSR and the provinces of Astrakhan and Grozny were created from scratch, also to fill the void.

(25) Conquest, 67–83.

(26) Programma kommunisticheskoi partii sovetskogo soiuza (XXII S” ezda KPSS), ‘IV. Zadachi partii v oblasti natsional'nykh otnoshenii’, Kommunist, No. 16 (1961): 84.

(27) E.g. ‘Ob otnoshenii k vedeniiu soiuznykh respublik zakonodatel'stva ob ustroistve sudov soiuznikh respublik, priniatiia grazhdanskogo, ugolovnogo i protsessual'nykh kodeksov’ and ‘Ob otnoshenii k vedeniiu soiuznykh respublik razresheniia voprosov oblastnogo, kraevogo administrativno‐territorial'nogo ustroistva’ zakony ot 11 fevralia 1957 g. (Vedomosti Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, 1957 g., No. 4), in Sbornik zakonov SSSR i ukazov Prezidiuma Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR 1938–1961g. (Moskva: Izdatel'stvo, ‘Izvestiia Sovetov Deputatov Trudiashchikhsiia SSSR’, 1961), 42–3.

(28) No longer anticipating the fall of Finland to communism, the Karelo‐Finnish SSR reverted to the status of the Karelian ASSR earlier that summer.

(29) John N. Hazard, ‘Statutory Recognition of Nationality Differences in the USSR’, in Edward Allworth, ed. Soviet Nationality Problems (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 90.

(30) Hazard in Allworth, 89–90.

(31) See Grey Hodnett ‘The Debate over Soviet Federalism’, 18 Soviet Studies, 4 (Apr. 1967), 458–81.

(32) See, e.g., P.G. Semenov, ‘Programma KPSS o razvitii sovetskikh natsional'no‐gosudarstven‐nykh otnoshenii’, Sovetskoe gosudarstvo i pravo, No. 12 (1961): 24.

(33) Ronald Suny, ‘State, Civil Society and Ethnic Cultural Consolidation . . . ’, 31.

(34) Philip Roeder believes the removal from office of more than a dozen SSR first secretaries since 1960 can be traced to ‘either their own endorsement of primordial agendas or their unwillingness to silence others who articulated such agendas’. See Roeder, 206–7. Purges in 1959 (Azerbaijan, Latvia, Uzbekistan), 1961 (Kirghizia), 1962 (Tadzhikistan) and 1963 (Turkmenistan) were centred around issues of localism, autonomy and inter‐republic relations, lending credence to the fears of the ‘Anti‐Party Group’ that opposed Khrushchev in part out of concern that his reforms would lead to increased nationalism. See Hodnett, 122.

(35) John H. Miller, ‘Cadres Policy in Nationality Areas: Recruitment of CPSU First and Second Secretaries in Non‐Russian Republics of the USSR’, 29 Soviet Studies, 1 (1977): 3–36.

(36) See Klaus von Beyme, ‘Social and Economic Conditions of Ethnic Strife in the Soviet Union’, in McAuley, ed. Soviet Federalism, . . . , 89–109.

(37) No such provision declaring the omnipotence of the CPSU was included in the 1918 or 1924 constitutions. The 1936 constitution included a slightly softer phrasing of this principle under the provisions for freedom of association (Art. 126). Feldbrugge concludes that Art. 6 had the effect of making the Party Programme a sort of super‐constitution. Feldbrugge, 104–5.