Why did the Constitution turn out to be a sham?

The outcome of the state-sponsored popular discussion of the Constitution in the summer and fall of 1936 dashed the high hopes of Stalin that society had been successfully transformed. Besides the mobilizational, integrational, educational, and legitimization functions of the discussion,32 I would like to draw readers’ attention to its monitoring function. Organizers were very persistent in gathering information on the popular comments and they reprimanded lackluster cadres for nonreporting. The USSR TsIK33 collected 43,000 comments, plus copious reports went to Party leaders from newspapers, localities, the NKVD (Soviet security and intelligence body), as well as personal letters. Prishvin assumed in his diaries that the discussion had become a kind of test for Sovietness, after which freedom would be allowed: “[The government] ... expects real hosannas [praise] ... from the people, and then, after they [the government] are confident of the genuineness of the hosannas, [they will] say, ... Speak, write whatever you want freely.”34

However, the unexpected reactions of society to the Constitution brought disillusionment to its organizers, who anticipated unanimous support from the allegedly Sovietized society. The popular clamor for civil rights and support - real and orchestrated - for the innovations of the Constitution contrasted with mass discontent, disapproval of the new liberties, warnings about numerous enemies, and demands for the continued segregation of “former people.” On top of that, the public, especially peasants, complained about scarcity, excessive taxes, bureaucratic arbitrariness, and the disruption of religious freedoms. Threats of anti-Com-munist uprisings in case of war, condemnations of the kolkhozy, and distrust in the Constitution were recorded in the reports from different agencies as “anti-Soviet moods.” The expansion of the franchise (got 10.8 percent of all recorded comments) met extremely articulate opposition - against the enfranchisement of “former people,” kulaks, clergy, and individual farmers. Arguing with Stalin’s programmatic thesis that all classes had become socialist and friendly, many commentators warned about resilient anti-Soviet attitudes among the population: “Former merchants, kulaks, and other exploiters have not yet transformed themselves and forgotten their former wealth. During elections they can propagate their views and attract unstable, hesitant citizens. Former people should be restricted in their rights.” “In the future war, priests may betray the socialist fatherland.”35

There were numerous fears among the public that old enemies - especially former kulaks and priests - could use the new constitutional liberties and suffrage to obstruct the construction of socialism. Tellingly, it is exactly these two groups that became the first targets of mass operations against commoners in 1937. These warnings about enemies came now from various sources: in addition to the regular OGPU-NKVD svodki (summaries) on popular moods, the USSR TsIK collected materials from the soviets, localities, and newspapers. After reading an article by the TsIK secretary I. A. Akulov, in Izvestia, summarizing the comments, a British intelligence analyst concluded: “Akulov would have us believe that the bulk of public opinion is unwilling to accept so ‘liberal’ a Constitution, and would prefer to see the paternal government endowed with more effective powers for the suppression of dangerous thoughts.”36 We know from Stalin’s discussion of the popular comments at the Eighth Congress of Soviets that he picked up the same kind of message.37

Worse, two months later, Stalin received another sobering piece of information: results of the 1937 Census showed that society lagged behind the expected progress already acclaimed on the eve of the census.38 Illiteracy had not been completely overcome, religiosity remained high (57 percent claimed to be believers), and population growth was below extrapolated numbers. The results were so discouraging that the census data was suppressed and the statisticians paid with their lives for figures that dissatisfied the government.39

First, the popular commentaries on the Constitution and, second, the results of the 1937 Census revealed to Stalin the lack of progress in society and made him change his mind. Stalin's protracted conflict with regional Party-state clans40 and the inflammatory role of the new NKVD head N. I. Ezhov provides the background for his change of heart. On top of that, several developments during the winter of 1936-1937 could have influenced Stalin’s reversal in views on society and politics. International developments - the insurgence of the opposition in Spain and the November 1936 German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact - heightened Stalin’s fears and insecurity. His internalization of the popular discussion of the Constitution can provide the missing piece in the puzzle explaining why relative moderation ended and mass repressions began. Only then, in the winter of 1936, did the Constitution become a sham. The 1937 February-March Central Committee Plenum of the VKP(b) (the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks)) made clear that Stalin had changed his mind and moved toward repressions against masses.41 Following purges in the military in June 1937, operations against believers and tserkovniki (derogative name for priests), and then kulaks and anti-Soviet elements began in the summer of 1937 as a “final blow” to potentially disloyal sectors of the population.

Thus, the Constitution was not an intentional trick from the very beginning. We never find in the leaders’ internal communications on the Constitution, now available in the archives, any suggestions to declare one thing but do another thing. Instead, a perceived conflict between paradigmal expectations of triumphant socialism and the need to deal with the “imperfections” on the ground rendered the Constitution pro forma.

The 1936 failed shift to democracy was not the first. A. Medushevskii stresses the continuity of sham constitutionalism in twentieth-century Russia: in the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire of 1906, the Soviet Constitutions of 1918, 1924, 1936, 1977. and in the 1993 Constitution.42 Here, he follows Max Weber's view about the token nature of the 1906 reform, exemplified in the creation of the Duma, which did not effectively constrain the monarchy. Reform was seen by Weber more as the product of difficult circumstances and the disinterest of society in liberalism rather than of the Russian people’s “immaturity for constitutional government.”43 We see a certain zigzag pattern in history when both Nicholas II and Stalin, under very different circumstances, introduced freedoms but then withdrew or emasculated them.

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