Nominal Soviet institutions

The case of Stalin’s Constitution is the most striking, but examples of the nominal, pro forma character of democracy in Soviet Russia are abundant: soviets, trade unions, “the active Soviet public (obshchestvennost’),” the state-sponsored popular discussion of the Constitution,44 etc. The soviets were gradually stripped of their decision-making power and redefined as organs of local administration.45 Decisions were taken in the Party’s Central Committee or Politburo but published under the name of the USSR TsIK. In the countryside, pressure and tutelage from the authorities, and the promotion of the poor and the Communists in soviet elections - all of these caused distrust and kept the villagers away from the soviets. Low participation in 1924 led to the cancellation of results in 40 percent of rural local elections. To keep the kulaks out of the soviets, the state directive from September 1926 expanded the constituency of the disenfranchised, but despite that, due to “unsatisfactory” results - the election of kulaks - authorities had to cancel them in many places. Finally, in the winter of 1927-1928, the Politburo postponed elections to the soviets for a year because of the peasants’ rage.46 Apart from the soviets, a number of agencies were organized by the state - officially, to represent the interests of the peasants: cooperatives, committees of peasants’ mutual aid (KKOV), and credit funds, but in reality they promoted the exploitative interests of the state rather than the interests of the peasants. Villagers protested: “The soviets and the Communist Party do not express the interests of the peasants.” “Neither committees of the poor, nor KKOVs satisfy us, middle peasants.”47 But the Party incessantly tried to "revive” the lifeless soviets and inculcated controllable proxies. The power levers of competing peasant communes, including their budgets, were shifted to the soviets and finally the communes, the countryside's last independent institution, were abolished in 1930.

“The active Soviet public” (sovetskaia obshchestvennost’), like workers’ and peasants’ correspondents,48 among others, was cultivated in the place of civil society for which all possible venues, such as cafés, printing presses, and associations, were barred. The trade unions, initially active in political and economic participation, in 1921-1922 were made responsible for mobilizing workers for production tasks and were allowed only “to correct blunders and excesses resulting from

Nominal democracy in Stalinism 265 bureaucratic distortions of the state apparatus.”49 Simon Pirani describes the process of curtailing the workers’ democracy in 1922-1923, gradually confining it to secondary questions. Unions were “involved in implementing rather than making decisions.” The initial workers’ democracy was substituted by political mobilization campaigns where “workers were consigned to a supportive, passive role.” It was a kind of social contract: workers publicly displayed their support in organized street demonstrations and orchestrated meetings, donation and state loan campaigns in exchange for some privileges, higher rations, and opportunities for promotion.50 Effective here was the state mechanism of sponsoring pseudo organizations, artificial and under Party control, substituting live and organic agencies: the Orthodox Church by the Renovationist branch, independent peasant unions and peasant communes by the KKOVs and rural soviets, artistic and public organizations of the 1920s by the state-sponsored unions of writers, artists, etc. The tools of taming were substitution, repression, propaganda, infiltration,51 and splitting (razlozhenie) from the inside. When and to what degree these policies were conscious and intentional is a difficult question. But in the case of splintering the Peasant Union movement and the Orthodox Church hierarchy, the OGPU destroyed them very purposefully and consciously.52

However, sometimes it was self-delusion. The leaders believed in the power of socialist conditions and “Party enlightenment” to shape society. In 1917, Lenin did not see the public in Russia as being mature enough for full democracy or able to intelligently participate politically. Following Marx and in the state of emergency during the Civil War, Bolsheviks limited democracy to the dictatorship of the proletariat to discipline the soviets, electors, factory committees, and the press53 to behave in required ways under close Party scrutiny and backed up by terror. The immediate need to hold power took preeminence over the democratic ideal - Lenin and then Stalin got a taste of centralization and state violence as a quicker way to transform society in a time of perceived emergency and they delayed democracy. Besides economic transformation, they announced the need to enlighten the public and shape its socialist values, to purge enemies, and only then grant society freedom, as Stalin did in 1936. But his illusion of successful Sovietization of society was short-lived.

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