The form and content dichotomy
After a review of the specific circumstances of 1936-1937 and why the Constitution was not fully implemented in practice, I move now to consider the long-term factors that underlie the persistent Soviet pattern of democratic form without content. The overarching context was the dichotomy in Russian life. Indeed, well recognized in historiography, the conflict between the state modernization drive and traditionalist society is a part of this dichotomy. Old, informal norms and practices, rooted in the legacy of a traditionalist society,54 often competed with formal legal structures and official ambitions. The political system was permeated by this duality: the turn to legality in the 1934-1936 legal reform contrasted with the continuation of extralegal practices; the freedom of conscience declared in all Soviet constitutions contrasted with religious persecution; the figurative power system of the soviets was paralleled by the actual power of the Party - the Supreme Soviet remained a token organ that did little more than approve decisions already made by the Politburo, and its ordinary deputies performed the role of political marionettes. Idealistic socialist realism perfectly expressed this dichotomy. The gap between the govermnent’s intentions and their realization contributed to dualism that, from the outside, was seen as political zigzags or deception. We observe multidirectional and meandering policies throughout the interwar period: (1) a tactical retreat from War Communism to the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921; (2) cancellation of the NEP in 1928 and resumption of a socialist program; (3) Stalin’s article “Dizziness from Successes” in March 1930; and (4) the unexpected liberalism of the 1936 Constitution and then the turn to mass repression. Such consistent inconsistency cannot be attributed solely to personal whims or the dishonesty of the leaders or revolutionary chaos. The cause of such duality was fundamental and structural. Such radical policy changes resulted from the incompatibility of the Bolsheviks’ utopian ambitions with the pressures of reality. The resulting strains were aggravated by voluntarism,55 maladministration, the dogmatism and intransigence of the leadership, and the breakneck speed of transformation. Not only Soviet constitutionalism but also Stalinism as a whole was so contradictory because policymakers were guided by the socialist ideal, yet at the same time had to cope with the “imperfections” they saw on the ground - a backward population and economy, unmanageable local officials, and a frightening international environment. Implementing the socialist project, speculative and detached from reality, too often caused unexpected and unintended results (like mass migration after collectivization) that required adjustments, which in turn produced zigzags and multidirectional politics (like legal reform in 1934-1936 and simultaneous extralegality in urban purges).
The supremacy of representation in the construction of Soviet social reality was not entirely new. It had old historical roots. Since Peter the Great, Russia had “pretended to be something it was not.”56 Alexander Sokurov ponders Russian preoccupation with the theatricalization of reality back to the eighteenth century in his movie Russian Ark. With the tradition of Potemkin villages and a historical pattern of simulating European civilization,57 Stalin’s socialism-building belonged to just such a “catch-up discourse” and compensation for “the old Russian trauma of inadequacy vis-à-vis Europe.”58 Evgeny Dobrenko highlights the purely representational character of socialism as a whole in his retrospective of an older Russian proclivity toward representationalism at the expense of realism. The advent of socialism in 1936 belonged to discursive accomplishments, described as “the spectacle of socialism” by Dobrenko, and as a performance by Alexei Yurchak and Jeffrey Brooks.59
The dichotomy of Soviet life has been examined by many scholars from various angles. Terry Martin and Michael David-Fox60 discussed modern versus neotraditionalist elements in policies. S. Fitzpatrick, R. Suny, and L. Viola emphasized the need to distinguish the level of intentionality, with its hyperplanning, from
Nominal democracy in Stalinism 267 the unexpected consequences and the uncontrollable chaos on the ground (in our case, the idealistic Constitution versus a frustrated and divided society).
While ideological claims departed from practice, commonsense citizens tried to come internally to terms with the incongruity between anticipation of the promised bright socialist future and the hardships of every day. That is why the expression “in principle” was so common in the language. Coping with this dichotomy, in order to survive and remain sane, citizens learned to speak Bolshevik and to display politically correct behavior, which took precedence over the content of their inner values,61 interpreted as double-thinking by observers. Alexei Yurchak reasons that this gap between performance and content widened in late post-Stalin socialism.62 It produced cynicism in society, which together with other factors finally eroded the communist edifice that had failed to keep its promises. Notably, this dual pattern persists today. Post-Soviet sociological studies undertaken by Western and Russian scholars evaluating the attitudes of Russian citizens toward democracy during the 1990s and 2000s evidence that while a big majority of Russians regard democracy as ideal, they increasingly support V. V. Putin’s undemocratic political practices.
Again, it would be simplistic to see official representationalism only as a pure and intentional deception, despite the obvious Machiavellianism of Soviet polity. Close reading of historical documents produces an impression that Stalinists succumbed to self-deception about the success of socialism as Stalin seems to have sincerely believed in the power of will or words to realize the Marxist project: “The role of so-called objective conditions has been reduced now to a minimum, while the role of the Party has become crucial.” He insisted, for example, that "realization [of the first five-year plan] depends exclusively on ourselves, on our ability and our will to use the very rich possibilities we have.”63 Because Stalin was the main architect of the policies, his mentality was an important factor in the representation of Soviet democracy. The scholars who tried to peek inside the dictator’s mind pointed to his wishful thinking, among other characteristics.64 Richard Sakwa argues: “Stalin remained something of an idealist in the sense that for him ideas (schemas) could take on an almost material reality.”65 Merab Mamardashvili called this phenomenon “logocracy”: “A sort of magical mindset where it was thought that words constituted reality itself. ... If something has no name ... we cannot grasp it.”66 Numerous of his utterances provide evidence that Stalin firmly believed in the power of words and their potential to shape reality, which Sarah Davies and James Harris called logocentrism.67 In the 1920s, the idea that one could change a person’s mind by using the right words was quite influential - the idea that “language can serve as the ultimate vehicle for the kind of transformation sought by revolution.”68 The successor of the Enlightenment, Stalin thought that words of education and propaganda, whether Party propaganda or “kulak agitation,” were omnipotent in their ability to change personality and its psychology. Consequently, he saw rival ideologies and texts as “equivalent to political rebellion.”69 Desired norms were imposed on society via rhetorical tools like assigning names (“democracy,” “socialism,” “kulak,” “enemy of the people”), monopolizing the power of naming and producing political ideas,70 or inculcating speech, behavior, and thinking patterns to enforce the state’s agenda. Discursive strategies structured social reality by encouraging language patterns in line with official ideology, such as “achievements of socialism,” and discouraging “wrong” patterns. The words “famine,” “repressions,” and “peasants’ revolts” were excluded from the official public agenda and therefore hidden, becoming “nonexistent,” replaced by the euphemisms “food difficulties” and “kulak sabotage.” Such a mentality predetermined Stalinists’ annoyance with the lag of reality behind desideratum.