Soviet Union government

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Союз Советских
Социалистических Республик
Soyuz Sovetskikh
Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik
Soviet union rel 1986.jpg
600px-Flag of the Soviet Union.svg.png
Coat of arms of the Soviet Union.svg.png
Flag Coat of Arms
Capital Moscow
Government Communist
Language Russian (de facto) (official)
President Ivan Silayev (last, 1991)
Area 8,649,538 sq. mi. (1991)
Population 293,047,571 (1991)

The government of the Soviet Union administered the country's economy and society during the period of its existence 1917-1991. It implemented decisions made by the only political institution allowed in the country, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

Government structure and functions

In the late 1980s, the government appeared to have many characteristics in common with Western, democratic political systems. For instance, a constitution established all organs of government and granted to citizens a series of political and civic rights. A legislative body, the Congress of People's Deputies, and its standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, represented the principle of popular sovereignty. The Supreme Soviet, which had an elected chairman who functioned as head of state, oversaw the Council of Ministers, which acted as the executive branch of the government. The chairman of the Council of Ministers, whose selection was approved by the legislative branch, functioned as head of government. A constitutionally based judicial branch of government included a court system, headed by the Supreme Court, that was responsible for overseeing the observance of Soviet law by government bodies. According to the Constitution of 1977, the government had a federal structure, permitting the republics some authority over policy implementation and offering the national minorities the appearance of participation in the management of their own affairs.

In practice, however, the government differed markedly from Western systems. In the late 1980s, the CPSU performed many functions that governments of other countries usually perform. For example, the party decided on the policy alternatives that the government ultimately implemented. The government merely ratified the party's decisions to lend them an aura of legitimacy. The CPSU used a variety of mechanisms to ensure that the government adhered to its policies. The party, using its nomenklatura authority, placed its loyalists in leadership positions throughout the government, where they were subject to the norms of democratic centralism. Party bodies closely monitored the actions of government ministries, agencies, and legislative organs.

The content of the Soviet Constitution differed in many ways from typical Western constitutions. It generally described existing political relationships, as determined by the CPSU, rather than prescribing an ideal set of political relationships. The Constitution was long and detailed, giving technical specifications for individual organs of government. The Constitution included political statements, such as foreign policy goals, and provided a theoretical definition of the state within the ideological framework of Marxism–Leninism. The CPSU could radically change the constitution or remake it completely, as it has done several times in the past.

The Council of Ministers acted as the executive body of the government. Its most important duties lay in the administration of the economy. The council was thoroughly under the control of the CPSU, and its chairman - the prime minister - was always a member of the Politburo. The council, which in 1989 included more than 100 members, is too large and unwieldy to act as a unified executive body. The council's Presidium, made up of the leading economic administrators and led by the chairman, exercised dominant power within the Council of Ministers.

According to the Constitution, as amended in 1988, the highest legislative body in the Soviet Union was the Congress of People's Deputies, which convened for the first time in May 1989. The main tasks of the congress were the election of the standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, and the election of the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, who acted as head of state. Theoretically, the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet wielded enormous legislative power. In practice, however, the Congress of People's Deputies met only a few days in 1989 to approve decisions made by the party, the Council of Ministers, and its own Supreme Soviet. The Supreme Soviet, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and the Council of Ministers had substantial authority to enact laws, decrees, resolutions, and orders binding on the population. The Congress of People's Deputies had the authority to ratify these decisions.

The government lacked an independent judiciary. The Supreme Court supervised the lower courts and applied the law, as established by the Constitution or as interpreted by the Supreme Soviet. The Constitutional Oversight Committee reviewed the constitutionality of laws and acts. The Soviet Union lacked an adversary court procedure. Under Soviet law, which derived from Roman law, a procurator worked together with a judge and a defense attorney to ensure that civil and criminal trials uncovered the truth of the case, rather than protecting individual rights.

The Soviet Union was a federal state made up of fifteen republics joined together in a theoretically voluntary union. In turn, a series of territorial units made up the republics. The republics also contained jurisdictions intended to protect the interests of national minorities. The republics had their own constitutions, which, along with the all-union Constitution, provide the theoretical division of power in the Soviet Union. In 1989, however, the CPSU and the central government retained all significant authority, setting policies that were executed by republic, provincial (oblast, krai, and autonomous subdivisions), and district (raion) governments.

Constitutional authority of government

The political theory underlying the Soviet Constitution differed from the political theory underlying constitutions in the West. Democratic constitutions are fundamentally prescriptive; they define a set of political relations to which their governments and citizens aspire. By contrast, Soviet constitutions have purported to describe a set of political relationships already in existence. Thus, as changes have occurred in the socioeconomic and political systems, the government has adopted new constitutions that have conformed to the new sets of realities.

The 1977 Constitution was generally descriptive; it differed from past constitutions in containing a preamble and a section on foreign policy that were prescriptive in tone. The Soviet Union has been governed by four constitutions, ratified in 1918, 1924, 1936, and 1977, respectively. On the surface, the four constitutions have resembled many constitutions adopted in the West. The differences between Soviet and Western constitutions, however, overshadowed the similarities. Soviet constitutions appeared to guarantee certain political rights, such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religious belief. They also identified a series of economic and social rights, as well as a set of duties that obligated all citizens. Nevertheless, Soviet constitutions did not contain provisions guaranteeing the inalienable rights of the citizenry, and they lacked the machinery to protect individual rights contained in many democratic constitutions. Thus, the population enjoyed political rights only to the extent that these rights conformed to the interests of building socialism. The CPSU alone reserved the authority to determine what lay in the interests of socialism. Finally, Soviet constitutions specified the form and content of regime symbols, such as the arms, the flag, and the state anthem.

The four constitutions had provisions in common. These provisions expressed the theoretical sovereignty of the working class and the leading role of the CPSU in government and society. All the constitutions have upheld the forms of socialist property. Each of the constitutions has called for a system of soviets, or councils, to exercise governmental authority.

Early Soviet Constitutions

In the Civil War in France, 1848-1850, Karl Marx maintained that constitutions ought to reflect existing class and political relationships, not prescribe the nature of such relations. Vladimir I. Lenin adopted Marx's understanding of the role of constitutions in a state. Of certain provisions in the first Soviet constitution, he wrote that they were embodied in it "after they were already in actual practice." Joseph Stalin rejected a prescriptive preamble for the 1936 constitution, stating that the constitution should "register" the gains of socialism rather than prescribe "future achievement." The four Soviet constitutions thus have reflected the changes that government and society have undergone over the course of Soviet history.

The 1918 Constitution

The first constitution, which governed the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, described the regime that assumed power in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. This constitution formally recognized the Bolshevik party organization as the ruler of Russia according to the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The constitution also stated that under the leadership of the Bolsheviks the workers formed a political alliance with the peasants. This constitution gave broad guarantees of equal rights to workers and peasants. It denied, however, the right of social groups that opposed the new government or supported the White armies in the Civil War (1918–21) to participate in elections to the soviets or to hold political power.

Supreme power rested with the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, made up of deputies from local soviets across Russia. The steering committee of the Congress of Soviets - known as the Central Executive Committee - acted as the "supreme organ of power" between sessions of the congress and as the collective presidency of the state.

The congress recognized the Council of People's Commissars (Sovet narodnykh kommissarov, "Sovnarkom") as the administrative arm of the young government. (The Sovnarkom had exercised governmental authority from November 1917 until the adoption of the 1918 constitution.) The constitution made the Sovnarkom responsible to the Congress of Soviets for the "general administration of the affairs of the state." The constitution enabled the Sovnarkom to issue decrees carrying the full force of law when the congress was not in session. The congress then routinely approved these decrees at its next session.

The 1924 Constitution

The 1924 constitution legitimated the December 1922 union of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Republic, the Belorussian Republic, and the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This constitution also altered the structure of the central government. It eliminated the Congress of Soviets and established the Central Executive Committee as the supreme body of state authority. In turn, the constitution divided the Central Executive Committee into the Soviet of the Union, which would represent the constituent republics, and the Soviet of Nationalities, which would represent the interests of nationality groups. The Presidium of the Central Executive Committee served as the collective presidency. Between sessions of the Central Executive Committee, the Presidium supervised the government administration. The Central Executive Committee also elected the Sovnarkom, which served as the executive arm of the government.

The 1936 Constitution

The 1936 constitution, adopted on December 5, 1936, and also known as the "Stalin" constitution, redesigned the government. The constitution repealed restrictions on voting and added universal direct suffrage and the right to work to rights guaranteed by the previous constitution. The constitution also provided for the direct election of all government bodies and their reorganization into a single, uniform system.

The 1936 constitution changed the name of the Central Executive Committee to the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. 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 exercised the full powers of the Supreme Soviet between sessions and had the right to interpret laws. The chairman of the Presidium 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.

The 1977 Constitution

On October 7, 1977, the Supreme Soviet unanimously adopted the fourth constitution, also known as the "Brezhnev" Constitution, named after CPSU general secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev. The preamble stated that "the aims of the dictatorship of the proletariat having been fulfilled, the Soviet state has become the state of the whole people." That is, according to the new Constitution, the government no longer represented the workers alone but expressed "the will and interests of the workers, peasants, and intelligentsia, the working people of all nations and nationalities in the country." Compared with previous constitutions, the Brezhnev Constitution extended the bounds of constitutional regulation of society. The first chapter defined the leading role of the CPSU and established principles for the management of the state and the government. Later chapters established principles for economic management and cultural relations.

The 1977 Constitution was long and detailed. It included twenty-eight more articles than the 1936 constitution. The Constitution explicitly defined the division of responsibilities between the central and republic governments. For example, the Constitution placed the regulation of boundaries and administrative divisions within the jurisdiction of the republics. However, provisions established the rules under which the republics could make such changes. Thus, the Constitution concentrated on the operation of the government system as a whole.

Amendments to the 1977 Constitution

In October 1988, draft amendments and additions to the 1977 Constitution were published in the Soviet media for public discussion. Following the public review process, the Supreme Soviet adopted the amendments and additions in December 1988. The amendments and additions substantially and fundamentally changed the electoral and political systems. Although Soviet officials touted the changes as a return to "Leninist" forms and functions, citing that the Congress of People's Deputies had antecedents in the Congress of Soviets, they were unprecedented in many respects. The position of chairman of the Supreme Soviet was formally designated and given specific powers, particularly leadership over the legislative agenda, the ability to issue orders (rasporiazheniia), and formal power to conduct negotiations and sign treaties with foreign governments and international organizations. The Constitutional Oversight Committee, composed of people who were not in the Congress of People's Deputies, was established and given formal power to review the constitutionality of laws and normative acts of the central and republic governments and to suggest their suspension and repeal. The electoral process was constitutionally opened up to multiple candidacies, although not multiple-party candidacies. A legislative body - the Supreme Soviet - was to convene for regular spring and fall sessions, each lasting three to four months. Unlike the old Supreme Soviet, however, the new Supreme Soviet was indirectly elected by the population, being elected from among the members of the Congress of People's Deputies.

Amendment Process

Adoption of the Constitution was a legislative act of the Supreme Soviet. Amendments to the Constitution were likewise adopted by legislative act of that body. Amendments required the approval of a two-thirds majority of the deputies of the Congress of People's Deputies and could be initiated by the congress itself; the Supreme Soviet, acting through its commissions and committees; the Presidium or chairman of the Supreme Soviet; the Constitutional Oversight Committee; the Council of Ministers; republic soviets; the Committee of People's Control; the Supreme Court; the Procuracy; and the chief state arbiter. In addition, the leading boards of official organizations and even the Academy of Sciences could initiate amendments and other legislation.

Soviet constitutions have been frequently amended and have been changed more often than in the West. Nevertheless, the 1977 Constitution attempted to avoid frequent amendment by establishing regulations for government bodies in separate, but equally authoritative, enabling legislation, such as the Law on the Council of Ministers of July 5, 1978. Other enabling legislation has included a law on citizenship, a law on elections to the Supreme Soviet, a law on the status of Supreme Soviet deputies, regulations for the Supreme Soviet, a resolution on commissions, regulations on local government, and laws on the Supreme Court and the Procuracy. The enabling legislation provided the specific and changing operating rules for these government bodies.

Constitutional Rights

Like democratic constitutions, the Soviet Constitution included a series of civic and political rights. Among these were the rights to freedom of speech, press, and assembly and the right to religious belief and worship. In addition, the Constitution provided for freedom of artistic work, protection of the family, inviolability of the person and home, and the right to privacy. In line with the Marxist–Leninist ideology of the regime, the Constitution also granted certain social and economic rights. Among these were the rights to work, rest and leisure, health protection, care in old age and sickness, housing, education, and cultural benefits.

Unlike democratic constitutions, however, the Soviet Constitution placed limitations on political rights. Article 6 effectively eliminated organized opposition to the regime by granting to the CPSU the power to lead and guide society. Article 39 enabled the government to prohibit any activities it considered detrimental by stating that "Enjoyment of the rights and freedoms of citizens must not be to the detriment of the interests of society or the state." Article 59 obliged citizens to obey the laws and comply with the standards of socialist society as determined by the party. The regime did not treat as inalienable those political and socioeconomic rights the Constitution granted to the people.

Citizens enjoyed rights only when the exercise of those rights did not interfere with the interests of socialism, and the CPSU alone had the power and authority to determine policies for the government and society. For example, the right to freedom of expression contained in Article 52 could be suspended if the exercise of that freedom failed to be in accord with party policies. Until the era of glasnost, freedom of expression did not entail the right to criticize the regime. The government had the power to ban meetings by unsanctioned religious groups, and violations of the laws limiting the right to freedom of religious expression were severely punished under the republics' criminal codes.

The Constitution also failed to provide political and judicial mechanisms for the protection of rights. Thus, the Constitution lacked explicit guarantees protecting the rights of the people, contained in the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. In fact, the Supreme Soviet has never introduced amendments specifically designed to protect individual rights. Neither did the people have a higher authority within the government to which to appeal when they believed their rights had been violated. The Supreme Court had no power to ensure that constitutional rights were observed by legislation or were respected by the rest of the government. Although the Soviet Union signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Accords), which mandated that internationally recognized human rights be respected in the signatory countries, no authority outside the Soviet Union could ensure citizen rights and freedoms. The government generally has failed to observe the provisions of this act. In the late 1980s, however, realigning constitutional and domestic law with international commitments on human rights was publicly debated.

Role of the Citizen

Article 59 of the Constitution stated that citizens' exercise of their rights was inseparable from performance of their duties. Articles 60 through 69 defined these duties. Citizens were obliged to work and to observe labor discipline. The legal code labeled evasion of work as "parasitism" and provided severe punishment for this crime. The Constitution also obligated citizens to protect socialist property and oppose corruption. All citizens performed military service as a duty to safeguard and "enhance the power and prestige of the Soviet state." Violation of this duty was a betrayal of the motherland and the gravest of crimes. Finally, the Constitution obligated parents to train their children for socially useful work and to raise them as worthy members of socialist society.

The Constitution and other legislation protected and enforced Soviet citizenship. Legislation on citizenship granted equal rights of citizenship to naturalized citizens as well as to the native born. Laws also specified that citizens could not freely renounce their citizenship. Citizens were required to apply for permission to do so from the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which could reject the application if the applicant had not completed military service, had judicial duties, or was responsible for family dependents. In addition, the Presidium could refuse the application to protect national security. However, the Presidium could revoke citizenship for defamation of the Soviet Union or for acts damaging to national prestige or security.

State Symbols

The Constitution specified the state flag and the arms of the Soviet Union. The flag had a red field, the traditional color of proletarian revolution. On the flag was a gold hammer and sickle, which represented the workers and the peasants, respectively, and the red star, which symbolized Soviet power, bordered in gold to contrast with the red field. The arms had a hammer and a sickle superimposed on a globe, with rays of the sun radiating from below, surrounded by sheaves of wheat. The rays of the sun represented the dawn of a new world, and the sheaves of wheat symbolized the economic plenty that was to be created in Soviet society. The inscription "Proletarians of all countries, unite!", from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's The Communist Manifesto, was written on a red banner wound around the sheaves of wheat. The arms and flags of the republics carried the same visual themes, underscoring the unity of all the republics in the federation.

The Constitution specified that the state anthem be selected and confirmed by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. In 1989 the anthem was the Anthem of the Soviet Union, which had been composed under Stalin and contained fulsome praise of the dictator. After Stalin's death, the Presidium removed the offensive lyrics.


Soviet political and legal theorists defined their government as a parliamentary system because in principle all power in the government emanated from the Congress of People's Deputies. In addition, according to the Constitution the Supreme Soviet elected both its own leadership and that of the all-union administrative and judicial agencies, which were responsible to it. In fact, the congress was too large to effectively exercise power, and it met only for short periods every year. When in session, the congress ratified legislation already promulgated by the Council of Ministers, the ministries, and the Supreme Soviet or its Presidium, and it discussed domestic and foreign policy. It also set the agenda for activities of the Supreme Soviet.

The lines separating legislative from executive functions were rather blurred. Thus, in addition to administering the government and the economy, the Council of Ministers could promulgate both resolutions that had the force of law and binding administrative orders. (The Supreme Soviet, however, had the ability to repeal such resolutions and orders.) Individual ministries—the chief administrative organs of the government—had the power to make laws in their respective fields. Thus, the legislative authority in this system was highly dispersed. In the late 1980s, some officials criticized law making by organs other than the Supreme Soviet and called for further amendments to the Constitution to give the Supreme Soviet greater authority over law making.

The CPSU effectively exercised control over the government. Leaders of the government were always party members and served on such party bodies as the Politburo and the Central Committee (see Central Party Institutions, ch. 7). In their role as party leaders, government officials participated in the formation of political, social, and economic policies. In addition, these officials were subject to the norms of democratic centralism, which required that they carry out the orders of the CPSU or face party discipline. Equally important, as part of its nomenklatura authority, the party had appointment power for all important positions in the government hierarchy. The party also exercised control through the commissions and committees of the Supreme Soviet, which were supervised by Central Committee departments and commissions in their respective fields. Each ministry contained its own primary party organization (PPO), which ensured that the staff of the ministry daily adhered to party policies. In fact, the party, not the ministerial and legislative system, was the leading political institution in the Soviet Union.

Administrative Organs

Article 128 of the Constitution named the Council of Ministers as the "highest executive and administrative body of state authority" in the Soviet Union. Although the members of the council were subject to ratification and change by the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People's Deputies, in 1989 they were actually appointed by the party. However, the council was too large to act as an effective decision-making body. The Council of Ministers Presidium, made up of the most influential economic administrators in the government, had the power to act in the name of the full council when it was not in session. The chairman of the full Council of Ministers, the equivalent of a prime minister, acted as head of government and chief economic administrator. In 1989 the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, sat on the Politburo.

Below the central institutions stood the ministries, state committees, and other governmental organs, which carried out regime policies in their respective fields subject to strict party control. The ministries managed the economic, social, and political systems.

Council of Ministers

The Council of Ministers and its agencies carried out the following tasks of government: internal and external security of the state; economic development, management, and administration; and ideological instruction and education. The council enacted the decisions of the party and therefore administered, through its bureaucratic regulatory and management arms, every aspect of Soviet life. As its primary task, however, the council managed the economy.

The Supreme Soviet ratified council membership as submitted by the chairman of the Council of Ministers. However, the actual selection of council ministers was made by the party leadership as part of its nomenklatura authority and was only later confirmed by a vote of the Supreme Soviet. Until recently, the Supreme Soviet endorsed such decisions unanimously and without debate. In mid-1989, however, Ryzhkov was forced to withdraw some candidates for ministerial posts because some of the committees of the Supreme Soviet objected that the candidates were unqualified, thus forcing him to submit alternative candidates.

The Council of Ministers had the power to issue decrees, which carried the same force of law as legislative acts of the Supreme Soviet. The Supreme Soviet or, indirectly, the Congress of People's Deputies, could annul a decree if it found the decree to be in violation of the Constitution or an existing statute (perhaps upon the recommendation of the Constitutional Oversight Committee). Orders of the Council of Ministers on administrative matters technically did not carry the force of law, but they were binding on the ministerial apparatus. Although some decrees were published, most remained secret.

In 1989 the Council of Ministers had more than 100 members, including the ministers, the heads of government bureaus and state committees, and the chairmen of the councils of ministers of the fifteen constituent republics. Soviet scholars maintained that the Council of Ministers met "regularly," but reports in the press indicated that full meetings occurred only quarterly to hear and ratify a plan or a report from the chairman. In reality, the Council of Ministers delegated most of its functions to its Presidium or to the individual ministries.

Chairman of the Council of Ministers

The Constitution placed the chairman of the Council of Ministers at the head of government. As such, the chairman acted as the prime minister and therefore was responsible for enacting party decisions and ensuring that their implementation conformed to the intentions of the party leadership. Three party leaders have served concurrently as the chairman of the Council of Ministers. Lenin chaired the Sovnarkom when he was the de facto head of the party. Stalin, who was the party's first general secretary, became chairman during World War II and remained in that position until his death in 1953. In March 1958, Nikita S. Khrushchev, who had been first secretary since 1953 (the title changed to first secretary after Stalin's death and reverted to general secretary in 1966), took over the position of chairman of the Council of Ministers also. After Khrushchev's ouster in 1964, in order to avoid too much concentration of power, the party established a policy that the positions of chairman of the Council of Ministers and first (general) secretary of the party had to be filled by two different persons.

Because of the heavy involvement of the government in economic administration, chairmen of the Council of Ministers since Khrushchev have been experienced industrial administrators rather than political decision makers. Although the chairman occupied a seat on the Politburo and thus had a voice in decision making at the highest level, this official was obliged to defer to other leaders in matters not pertaining to the economy. Thus, the chairman of the Council of Ministers had less power than the general secretary and perhaps less power than party secretaries who were members of the Politburo.

Council of Ministers Presidium

The Constitution stipulated that the Council of Ministers form a Presidium as the "standing body of the Council of Ministers" to coordinate its work. The Presidium had the power to act on questions and speak for the government when the council was not in session. Apart from a few references in the Soviet literature indicating that the Presidium provided top-level guidance and coordination for the economy, little was known about the Presidium. In the words of American Sovietologist Jerry F. Hough, it was "a most shadowy institution."

Members of the council's Presidium represented the government's major planning and production organizations. Although Soviet sources had differing opinions on its membership, they always pointed to the council's chairman, first deputy chairmen, and deputy chairmen as members. Deputy chairmen and first deputy chairmen usually served as the head of the State Planning Committee (Gosudarstvennyi planovyi komitet—Gosplan); the chairmen of the state committees for science and technology, construction, and material and technical supply; and the permanent representative to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Deputy chairmen could also act as high-level planners in the major sectors of the economy, known as industrial complexes. These planners served as chairmen of the Council of Ministers' bureaus and commissions for foreign economic relations, the defense industry, machine building, energy, and social development. Some Soviet sources included the minister of finance, the chairman of the Committee of People's Control, and the CPSU general secretary as members of the Presidium of the Council of Ministers. Thus, the membership of the Presidium indicated that it functioned as the "economic bureau" of the full Council of Ministers.

Ministerial System

Ministers were the chief administrative officials of the government. While most ministers managed branches of the economy, others managed affairs of state, such as foreign policy, defense, justice, and finance. Unlike parliamentary systems in which ministers are members of the parliament, Soviet ministers were not necessarily members of the Supreme Soviet and did not have to be elected. Soviet ministers usually rose within a ministry; having begun work in one ministry, they could, however, be appointed to a similar position in another. Thus, by the time the party appointed an official to a ministerial position, that person was fully acquainted with the affairs of the ministry and was well trained in avoiding conflict with the party. Until the late 1980s, ministers enjoyed long tenures, commonly serving for decades and often dying in office.

Two types of ministries made up the ministerial system: allunion and union-republic. All-union ministries oversaw a particular activity for the entire country and were controlled by the allunion party apparatus and the government in Moscow. Republic governments had no corresponding ministry, although all-union ministries had branch offices in the republics. Union-republic ministries had a central ministry in Moscow, which coordinated the work of counterpart ministries in the republic governments. Republic party organizations also oversaw the work of the unionrepublic ministries in their domain.

The Constitution determined into which category certain ministries fell. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a unionrepublic ministry, reflecting the republics' constitutional right to foreign representation. Although the republics had foreign ministries, the central Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow in fact conducted all diplomacy for the Soviet Union.

All-union ministries were more centralized, thus permitting greater control over vital functions. Union-republic ministries appeared to exercise limited autonomy in nonvital areas. In practice, the central government dominated the union-republic ministries, although in theory each level of government possessed equal authority over its affairs.

Union-republic ministries offered some practical economic advantages. Republic representatives in the union-republic ministries attempted to ensure that the interests of the republics were taken into account in policy formation. In addition, the arrangement permitted the central ministry to set guidelines that the republics could then adapt to their local conditions. The central ministry in Moscow also could delegate some responsibilities to the republic level.

The internal structures of both all-union and union-republic ministries were highly centralized. A central ministry had large functional departments and specialized directorates. Chief directorates carried out the most important specialized functions in larger ministries. Specialized functions included foreign contracts, planning, finance, construction, personnel, and staff services. The first department of any ministry, staffed by personnel from the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti—KGB), controlled security.

State committees and government agencies similarly were categorized as all-union and union-republic organizations. State committees oversaw technical matters that involved many aspects of government, such as standards, inventions and discoveries, labor and social issues, sports, prices, and statistics. Other agencies, such as the news agency TASS (see Glossary) and the Academy of Sciences, oversaw affairs under their purview.

Ministries and state committees not only managed the economy, government, and society but also could make laws. Most ministries and state committees issued orders and instructions that were binding only on their organizations. Some ministries, however, could issue orders within a legally specified area of responsibility that were binding on society as a whole. These orders carried the same force of law as acts of the Supreme Soviet. For example, the Ministry of Finance set the rules for any form of foreign exchange.

Party Control of the Ministerial Apparatus

The ministries and state committees operated without the appearance of party control. Nevertheless, the party ensured its authority over the government through several mechanisms designed to preserve its leading role in society.

Considerable overlap between the memberships of the Council of Ministers and leading party bodies facilitated both policy coordination between the two organizations and party control. The chairman of the Council of Ministers normally occupied a seat on the Politburo, which gave him additional authority to ensure the implementation of his decisions. In 1989 the first deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, Iurii D. Masliukov, was promoted to full-member status on the Central Committee, and both he and deputy chairman Aleksandra P. Biriukova were candidate members of the Politburo. In early 1989, Viktor M. Chebrikov, the head of the KGB, and Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the minister of foreign affairs, were also Politburo members. In addition, most ministers and chairmen of state committees were either full or candidate members of the Central Committee. Thus, the norms of democratic centralism obliged council members to adhere to party policies.

Within the Council of Ministers and the ministries, the party used its nomenklatura authority to place its people in influential positions. Nomenklatura refers both to the positions that the Central Committee apparatus of the party has the power to fill and to a list of people qualified to fill them. Approximately one-third of the administrative positions in the council bureaucracy, including the most important ones, were on the nomenklatura list. Occupants of these positions well understood that the party could remove them if they failed to adhere to its policies.

Finally, in what is known as dual subordination, the staff of each ministry was required to respond to orders and directions from its primary party organization (PPO), as well as to the ministries' hierarchy. Party members on the staff of the ministry were bound by the norms of democratic centralism to obey the orders of the secretary of the PPO, who represented the CPSU hierarchy in the ministry. The secretary of the PPO ensured that CPSU policies were carried out in the day-to-day activities of the ministries.

Congress of People's Deputies

In 1989 the Congress of People's Deputies stood at the apex of the system of soviets and was the highest legislative organ in the country. Created by amendment to the Constitution in December 1988, the Congress of People's Deputies theoretically represented the united authority of the congresses and soviets in the republics. In addition to its broad duties, it created and monitored all other government bodies having the authority to issue decrees. In 1989 the Congress of People's Deputies, however, was largely a ceremonial forum meeting only a few days a year to ratify and debate party and government decisions and to elect from its own membership the Supreme Soviet to carry out legislative functions between sittings of the congress. Other responsibilities of the Congress of People's Deputies included changing the Constitution, adopting decisions concerning state borders and the federal structure, ratifying government plans, electing the chairman and first deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and electing members of the Constitutional Oversight Committee.

In the elections that took place under the 1988 law on electing deputies to the Congress of People's Deputies, several candidates were allowed to run for the same office for the first time since 1917. Nevertheless, no party except the CPSU was allowed to field candidates, and a large bloc of seats was reserved for CPSU members and members of other officially sanctioned organizations. In the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian republics and to a far lesser degree in the Belorussian Republic, however, popular fronts, which were tantamount to political parties, fielded their own candidates. The regime maintained that these elections demonstrated that the Soviet people could freely choose their own government.

The Congress of People's Deputies that was elected in March through May 1989 consisted of 2,250 deputies—1,500 from the electoral districts and national-territorial electoral districts and 750 from officially sanctioned organizations, including the CPSU. In all, 5,074 individuals were registered as candidates. A main election was held in which 89.8 percent of the eligible voters, or 172.8 million people, participated. Following the main election, runoff elections were held in districts in which a candidate failed to obtain a majority of the votes cast in the main election. Runoff elections took place in 76 out of 1,500 electoral districts. Repeat elections were also held in 198 electoral districts where less than one-half of the eligible voters in the district voted. Official organizations also held elections in which 84.2 percent of the eligible voters, or 162 million people, participated. Five repeat elections were for organizations. Of the 2,250 deputies elected, 8.1 percent were newly elected to the legislature.

The CPSU has used several means to exercise control over the activities of the legislative system. Since 1964 the chairman of the Supreme Soviet's Presidium has been a member of the Politburo, and other members of the Presidium have sat on the party's Central Committee. In addition, since 1977 CPSU general secretaries have usually held the post of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, although Mikhail S. Gorbachev, at first, did not hold this post. Also, the party has had a large role in determining which of the elected deputies would serve as deputies in the Supreme Soviet. As part of their own nomenklatura authority, local party organizations have selected candidates to run in the elections. The commissions and committees, which had some power to oversee government policy, have accepted direction from the CPSU's Central Committee departments and their chairmen, and a large proportion of their memberships has consisted of CPSU members. In the Congress of People's Deputies elected in 1989, about 87 percent, or 1,957 deputies, were members or candidate members of the CPSU.

Elections to the Congress of People's Deputies

In 1989 three categories of deputies were selected to the Congress of People's Deputies: those representing the CPSU and officially recognized organizations; those representing the population as divided into residential electoral districts; and those representing the population as divided into national territories. In 1989 one-third (750) of the deputies were elected in each category. Quotas for deputies were assigned to the various official organizations, electoral districts, and national-territorial electoral districts. The largest organizational quotas were reserved for the CPSU, trade unions, collective farms, Komsomol, veterans, retired workers, and the Committee of Soviet Women. Minor but officially sanctioned groups such as stamp collectors, cinema fans, book lovers, and musicians were also represented. Because individual voters belonged to several different constituencies, they could vote in elections for several deputies.

In principle, voters in nationwide elections had the freedom to vote for the party-endorsed candidate or for other candidates on the ballot (if any), to write in the name of another candidate, or to refrain from voting. In the early 1989 elections, some of the candidates officially endorsed by the CPSU were rejected by the voters, including high-level party officials, such as Iurii Solov'ev, the party secretary of Leningrad.

The regime considered voting a duty rather than a right. Citizens age eighteen and older voted in soviet elections, and those age twenty-one and older were eligible to be elected to the Congress of People's Deputies. Persons holding governmental posts, however, could not be elected deputy to the soviet that appointed them. Citizens had the right to participate in election campaigns and the right to campaign for any candidate.

Deputies and Citizen Involvement

Deputies to the Congress of People's Deputies represented a cross section of the various economic and professional groups in the population. According to the official Credentials Commission report, in terms of occupation 24.8 percent of the deputies to the congress were "workers in industry, construction, transport, or communications," 18.9 percent were in agriculture, and of both these groups 23.7 percent were ordinary workers and peasants. Managers in industry and agriculture made up 6.8 percent and 8.5 percent of the deputies, respectively. Party secretaries at various levels made up 10.5 percent of the deputies. Military officers made up 3.6 percent of the deputies. In terms of age, 88.6 percent were under age sixty, while 8.3 percent were under age thirty. Regarding level of education, 75.7 percent possessed complete or incomplete higher education, and 6.2 percent were full or corresponding members of the central or republic academies of sciences. Nevertheless, selection procedures underrepresented some segments of society. Only 15.6 percent of the delegates were women, and just seven of the deputies (0.003 percent) were religious leaders.

Supreme Soviet

The Supreme Soviet served as the highest organ of state power between sittings of the Congress of People's Deputies. The Supreme Soviet formally appointed the chairman of the Council of Ministers, ratified or rejected his candidates for ministerial posts and supervised their work, and adopted economic plans and budgets and reported on their implementation. Through its chairman, the Supreme Soviet represented the country in formal diplomacy. It also had the authority to appoint the Defense Council, confer military and diplomatic ranks, declare war, ratify treaties, and repeal acts of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and the Council of Ministers.

The Supreme Soviet has traditionally delegated its powers to the government bodies it has elected and nominally supervised. The Supreme Soviet reserved the right to review and formally approve their actions, and in the past it always gave this approval. Actions of other government bodies elected by the Supreme Soviet became law with force equal to the Supreme Soviet's own decisions. The commissions and committees have played a minor role in ensuring that the language of legislation was uniform. In 1989 they took an active role in judging the qualifications of candidates for ministerial bodies and in questioning governmental operations.

Organs of the Supreme Soviet

The Supreme Soviet has functioned with the help of several secondary organs. The Presidium has acted as the steering committee of the Supreme Soviet while it was in session. In 1989 both chambers of the Supreme Soviet—the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities—met either individually or jointly in sessions planned to last six to eight months. Each chamber had commissions and committees that prepared legislation for passage, oversaw its implementation, and monitored the activities of other governmental bodies. In 1989 the Supreme Soviet also had fourteen joint committees, and each chamber had four commissions.


In 1989 the Presidium, as designated by the Constitution, had forty-two members. The Presidium was made up of a chairman, a first vice chairman, fifteen vice chairmen (who represented the supreme soviets of the fifteen republics), the chairmen of the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities, the chairman of the Committee of People's Control, and the twenty-two chairmen of the commissions and committees of the Supreme Soviet. Only a few members regularly resided in Moscow, where the Presidium has always met. Before 1989 the Presidium membership served a symbolic function through the inclusion of twenty-one at-large members, made up of factory workers, peasants, scientists, professionals, and leaders of professional organizations. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, was the most prominent of these at-large members. The purpose of this broadened membership was to show that all strata of society participated in the state's leading organ. In addition, some high-level party figures who were not members of the government sat on the Presidium as a symbol of CPSU authority in the legislature. For instance, General Secretary Gorbachev sat on the Presidium as an at-large member from 1985 to 1988.

Prior to 1989, the Presidium was the leading legislative organ between sessions of the Supreme Soviet, which met only a few days a year and held formal sessions only once every two months. Announcements of Presidium decrees, however, appeared in the press nearly every day, which indicated that the Presidium's staff worked full-time. Presidium decrees, issued over the signatures of the chairman and the secretary, merely certified and legitimated decisions made by the CPSU. Nevertheless, decrees issued in the Presidium's name demonstrated wide-ranging powers to supervise the government bureaucracy.

The 1988 amendments and additions to the Constitution reduced the powers of the Presidium by making it more of an agenda-setting and administrative body. According to Article 119 of the Constitution, the Presidium was authorized to convene sessions of the Supreme Soviet and organize their preparation, coordinate the activities of the commissions and committees of the Supreme Soviet, oversee conformity of all-union and republic laws with the Constitution, confer military and diplomatic ranks, appoint and recall diplomats, issue decrees and adopt resolutions, and declare war or mobilize troops in between sessions of the Supreme Soviet, among other duties.


The office of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet before 1989 was little more than a ceremonial and diplomatic convenience. The chairman had the formal authority to sign treaties and to receive the credentials of diplomatic representatives. The power of the person occupying the office stemmed from other positions that person may have held. In the past, CPSU general secretaries who also served as chairmen of the Presidium have given priority to their party duties rather than to the ceremonial duties of the chairmanship. Taking this consideration into account, the 1977 Constitution provided for the office of first deputy chairman to relieve the chairman of most ceremonial duties. When the chairmanship has been vacant, the first deputy chairman has acted in his place, as Vasilii Kuznetsov did after Brezhnev's death and before Iurii V. Andropov assumed the chairmanship. Gorbachev assumed the office of chairman in October 1988. The 1988 amendments and additions to the Constitution retained the post of first deputy chairman in recognition of its usefulness in relieving the legislative burden on the person occupying the positions of general secretary of the party and chairman of the Supreme Soviet.

The 1988 amendments and additions to the Constitution substantially altered the status of the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet by making him also chairman of the Supreme Soviet and having him elected by the Congress of People's Deputies. By designating a formal chairman of the Supreme Soviet, the Constitution changed the status of the head of state from a collective Presidium to a single chairman. Also, the Constitution for the first time listed responsibilities of the chairman of the Supreme Soviet. These responsibilities included the exercise of leadership over the preparation of agendas of the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, the signing of laws and treaties, the negotiation of treaties, the submission of reports on domestic and foreign policy, and the submission of candidates for first deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet, members of the Constitutional Oversight Committee, chairman of the Council of Ministers, and other candidates for leading government posts. The Constitution also stipulated that the chairman of the Supreme Soviet head the Defense Council, a body that determined broad military policy and funding.

Soviet of the Union and Soviet of Nationalities

The two chambers that made up the Supreme Soviet—the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities—were selected from among the membership of the Congress of People's Deputies at the beginning of a convocation by a general vote of the deputies. The members of the Soviet of Nationalities were selected by each republic's delegation to the congress (in actuality by the republic's party officials) on the basis of eleven deputies from each union republic, four deputies from each autonomous republic, two deputies from each autonomous oblast, and one deputy from each autonomous okrug. The members of the Soviet of the Union were selected on the basis of the population of the union republics and regions. One-fifth of the membership of each chamber was changed each year from the pool of congress deputies.

The two-chamber system has attempted to balance the interests of the country as a whole with those of its constituent nationalities. The Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities could meet either separately or jointly. Officials elected from each chamber could preside over the sessions. Either chamber could propose legislation. Legislation passed by majorities in each chamber did not need to be referred to joint session. If the two chambers met in joint session, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet presided. If the chairman was absent, the first deputy chairman presided. Disagreements between the two chambers, if they occurred, could be referred to a conciliation commission, then back to the chambers sitting in joint session. If still unresolved, the question would be decided by the Congress of People's Deputies.

The two chambers of the Supreme Soviet have exercised equal powers and have shared equal status, although they theoretically served different purposes. The Soviet of the Union, established in 1924, grew out of the system of workers' councils at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. It has been the primary venue for discussion of issues on socioeconomic development of the country as a whole, the rights and duties of citizens, foreign policy, defense, and state security. The Soviet of Nationalities, also established in 1924, ostensibly represented the interests of the national minorities in the central government. Because of its limited power, however, its significance remained more symbolic than real. Its sphere of authority included only issues of national and ethnic rights and interethnic relations. Nevertheless, the regime has traditionally pointed to the existence of this body as proof that the country's nationalities had an equal voice in decision making and policy formation.

Sessions of the Supreme Soviet

Until 1989 the Supreme Soviet was convoked for five-year terms but met in session only for a few days twice a year. Thus, each five-year convocation had ten or more sessions. The Supreme Soviet elected to a five-year term in early 1989 was the twelfth convocation. According to the 1988 amendments and additions to the Constitution, the Supreme Soviet was slated to meet daily, holding two sessions a year, with each lasting three to four months.

Councils of elder members, meeting briefly before sessions, have traditionally helped organize the meetings of both chambers. The staff of the Presidium has assisted in the preparatory paperwork. At the twelfth convocation in 1989, the two councils of elders met in a joint session chaired by Gorbachev to discuss procedures for opening the session, the leadership of the chambers, the agendas, and the composition and functions of commissions and committees. The councils have scheduled meetings of the two chambers in separate session—one after the other—in the same semicircular amphitheater of the Presidium building in the Kremlin, although joint sessions of both chambers have taken place in the Great Hall of the Palace of Soviets. The oldest deputy has opened the sessions. The two chambers then have elected chairmen and two vice chairmen on the recommendations of the councils of elders. The chairmen has set speaker lists and ensured the observance of the established schedule. Until the next session, when they faced another election, the chairmen of the two chambers worked with the Presidium and the chairman of the Supreme Soviet.

The sessions have followed a standard sequence of events. The Supreme Soviet first approved changes in the Council of Ministers and changes in its own membership. It then heard regular reports on the actions taken by the Council of Ministers and by its own Presidium since the last session. Debate and approval of these actions followed. The two regular sessions of the Supreme Soviet in the spring and fall have served different purposes. The spring session traditionally has heard reports from government bodies and its own commissions. It then has passed legislation based on these reports. The second session has approved the budget for the following year. The fall sessions have also ratified the annual and five-year economic plans of the government.

Commissions and Committees

Commissions and committees, each made up of some thirty to fifty members, have been important because they have prepared and proposed legislation for formal approval by the Supreme Soviet and monitored activities of ministries and other government bodies. Each chamber of the Supreme Soviet had fourteen committees, which had jointly shared functions, and four commissions, which had unique functions. In 1989 the commissions and committees were tasked by the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet with examining myriad issues, among them ethnic strife, economic autonomy for the republics, the draft economic plan and budget, efficiency in agriculture, social policy, legal reform, and the conformity of various laws to the Constitution. The commissions and committees also evaluated decrees issued by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet that had been rejected by the Supreme Soviet and sent to the commissions and committees for reworking.

In the 1984-89 convocation of the Supreme Soviet, 1,200 deputies served on the commissions (as the committees were called at that time), and 800 worked on the draft economic plan and the draft budget for the following year. In the 1989-94 convocation, 320 deputies served on the commissions and 616 served on the committees. About one-half of the deputies serving on the commissions and committees of the Supreme Soviet were deputies to the Congress of People's Deputies but were not members of the Supreme Soviet. One-fifth of their membership has usually been replaced each year by other deputies of the Supreme Soviet or the Congress of People's Deputies.

In making assignments to commissions and committees, the preferences and expertise of the deputies were taken into account; deputies have included party leaders, scientists, educators, agricultural specialists, and foreign policy experts. This variegated membership not only has obtained contributions of experts on legislation but also has permitted the party to communicate its policies to important segments of society.

In 1989 the four commissions in each chamber that had functions unique to the chamber included, among others, planning, budgeting, and finance; labor, prices, and social policy; transportation, communications, and information sciences; and nationalities policy and interethnic relations. The fourteen committees in each chamber that had jointly shared functions covered such areas as foreign affairs, ecology, women and family, veterans and invalids, youth, glasnost', economic reform, agronomy, and construction, among others. In addition to drafting legislation, the commissions and committees monitored the activities of the ministries and other government bodies. Their oversight of the government included evaluating candidates for ministerial posts and questioning ministerial personnel while preparing legislation. In 1989 the committees of the Supreme Soviet rejected several candidates nominated by the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Ryzhkov, forcing him to submit other, more qualified candidates for the posts. Candidates approved by the committees were subject to questioning by deputies on the floor of the Supreme Soviet. To monitor compliance with existing law, the commissions and committees heard ministerial reports and requested materials and documents from the ministries and other government bodies. Government bodies were required to consider the recommendations on government operations of the commissions or committees and to report implementation measures to them.

Prior to 1989, the commissions of the Supreme Soviet had been instruments by which the CPSU controlled legislation and supervised the Supreme Soviet and the ministries. In 1989 the CPSU remained an important influence over the work of the commissions and committees because the vast majority of members were party members, and influential party leaders either chaired the commissions and committees or served as members. The departments of the party's Secretariat watched over commissions and committees that monitored work under their purview. Although by law government officials were not permitted to serve on the commissions and committees, this ban did not apply to party officials, so that the membership on the commissions and committees was able to overlap with that of the party's departments. Through this overlap, party officials were thus able to ensure that the Supreme Soviet adhered to party decisions. For example, prior to 1989 the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission (present-day Foreign Affairs Committee) of the Soviet of the Union was usually the secondranking member of the Politburo. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Soviet of Nationalities was normally the head of the CPSU International Department. The deputy chairmen and secretaries of the two commissions were also deputy heads of the party's International Department or the Liaison with Communist and Workers' Parties of Socialist Countries Department. Party leaders used these roles to conduct diplomacy on behalf of the Soviet Union. Thus, during his 1984 visit to Britain, Gorbachev acted in his capacity as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Soviet of the Union. As of 1989, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee (formerly the Foreign Affairs Commission) of the Soviet of the Union was no longer a major party figure but was still a party official.

Legislative Process

The legislative process has worked in a very formalized manner. For example, the Ministry of Finance, Gosplan, and other institutions submitted economic planning documents to the Soviet of the Union's Planning, Budgeting, and Finance Commission and to other Supreme Soviet commissions and committees and to republic representatives. Deputies of the various commissions and committees of both chambers and other individuals met to review the documents, hear expert testimony, make amendments, and submit the economic plan to the Supreme Soviet. The minister of finance and the chairman of the Council of Ministers submitted their own reports as well.

The Supreme Soviet, after debate, traditionally disposed of the plan with a resolution and a law. The resolution noted reports on the plan delivered by the chairman of Gosplan and the minister of finance. It evaluated the work of the Council of Ministers in fulfilling the previous year's plan and instructed the Council of Ministers to examine proposals prepared by the commissions and committees and those comments made by deputies in the debate and then to take appropriate action. The Law of the Plan formally ratified the plan, taking into account the work of the commissions and committees and setting out in detail budget and plan targets for the following year.

Party Controls

The CPSU has exercised control over the activities of the Supreme Soviet in a variety of ways. Most important has been the extent of party membership among the delegates. In the first eleven convocations of the Supreme Soviet, party membership averaged about 75 percent. Another 15 percent of the delegates were members of the Komsomol. At the twelfth convocation beginning in 1989, party membership in the Congress of People's Deputies amounted to 87 percent, and Komsomol membership amounted to 5.9 percent. The party caucus, which received its instructions directly from the CPSU's central apparatus, was led by party members and controlled legislative procedures.

Leadership positions in the Supreme Soviet were under the nomenklatura of the Politburo. Thus, members of the Presidium, all but one of whom were usually party members, abided by the decisions of the party leadership or risked losing their positions. Members of the Presidium, as well as rank-and-file party members who were elected delegates, were subject to the norms of democratic centralism.

The party controlled the selection process for ordinary deputies as well. Local party organs supervised nominations and elections. Party officials carefully selected delegates either to ensure the selection of party leaders and party stalwarts in the arts, literature, the military, and the scientific and scholarly communities, or to reward rank-and-file members for long years of service to the party and government. In the event that delegates proved uncompliant, the Constitution granted the party the power to initiate a recall election. Recalls have been rare, however. Out of 7,500 deputies elected between 1960 and 1985, only 12 have been recalled, mainly for serious personal failings.

Control Organs

The term control (kontrol) referred to a system of government and public monitoring of every sphere of production, trade, and administration. Through the government's control organs, the party ensured that the government and society functioned in compliance with the interests of socialism. The Supreme Soviet nominally formed and directed the three kinds of control organs: the court system, the Procuracy, and the Committee of People's Control. These control organs administered a system of law that derived from the Russian Empire, whose system of law was in turn based on Roman law.

Court System

Article 151 of the Constitution and the Law on the Supreme Court specified the composition of the Supreme Court but assigned it few duties and little power. The Supreme Court lacked the authority to determine the constitutionality of legislation, to strike down laws, or to interpret the law. Unlike the United States Supreme Court, the Soviet court did not have the power to establish norms of law. The Supreme Court and the lower courts only applied legal principles established by the Constitution or interpreted by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

The Supreme Court was at the apex of a pyramid of lower courts. Cases came to the Supreme Court on appeal from these lower courts. The lowest-level court, called the people's court, was presided over by a professional, elected judge and two people's assessors (lay judges) who were also elected. Provincial soviets and republic supreme soviets elected judges between the district level and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also has created a separate series of military tribunals. The Supreme Soviet supervised the application of the law in all these courts to ensure uniform standards.


The Procuracy (Prokuratura) functioned like a cross between a police investigative bureau and a public prosecutor's office. It investigated crimes, brought criminals to trial, and prosecuted them. The Procuracy also supervised courts and penal facilities within its jurisdiction.

The Supreme Soviet appointed the procurator general of the Soviet Union for a five-year term. Like other leading positions in the Soviet government, the position of the procurator general was on the nomenklatura of the central party apparatus. In turn, the procurator general appointed each officer of the Procuracy, known as a procurator, who served at the republic, provincial, district, or city level. Procurators at all levels theoretically answered to the Supreme Soviet for their actions. Moreover, they derived authority from the procurator general and thus exercised their authority independent of any regional or local government body.

The Procuracy, as well as the Supreme Court, ensured the strict and uniform observance of law by all government bodies, enterprises, and public institutions. The Procuracy also reviewed all court decisions in both civil and criminal cases. A procurator could appeal decisions considered flawed to higher courts. The Procuracy was therefore responsible for ensuring the uniform application of law in the courts.

The Procuracy supervised investigations conducted by other government agencies. A procurator could file protests in the court system when evidence indicated an agency acted illegally. In theory, these rights of supervision extended to the KGB and other security agencies. In practice, however, the KGB often operated outside the law.

Committees of People's Control

The 1979 Law on People's Control established the committees of people's control in each republic under the supervision of the central Committee of People's Control. These committees had the authority to audit government and economic administration records. Officials found guilty of illegalities could be publicly reprimanded, fined for damages, or referred to the procurator for prosecution. In the late 1980s, the committees of people's control had been an invaluable instrument in Gorbachev's efforts at reform and restructuring.

The committees of people's control extended throughout the Soviet Union. In 1989, of the more than 10 million citizens who served on these organs, 95 percent were volunteers. General meetings of work collectives at every enterprise and office elected the committees for tenures of two and one-half years. The chairman of the Committee of People's Control and a professional staff served for five years. The chairman sat on the Council of Ministers.


Lacking a common-law tradition, Soviet law did not provide for an adversary system in which the plaintiff and the defendant argued before a neutral judge. Court proceedings included a judge, two people's assessors, a procurator, and a defense attorney and provided for free participation by the judge in the trial. The same courts heard both civil and criminal cases. Although most cases were open to the public, closed hearings were legal if the government deemed it necessary. Judges kept legal technicalities to a minimum because the court's stated purpose was to find the truth of a case rather than to protect legal rights.

Other aspects of Soviet law more closely resembled the AngloSaxon system. In theory, all citizens were equal before the law. Defendants could appeal convictions to higher courts if they believed the sentence was too harsh. Yet, the procurator could also appeal if the sentence was considered too lenient. The law also guaranteed defendants legal representation and the right to trial in their native language or to the use of an interpreter.

Territorial Administration

The central government in Moscow and the governments of the fifteen republics - consisting of fourteen soviet socialist republics and the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic - were joined in a theoretically voluntary union. The republic constitutions and the Soviet Constitution established the rules of the federal system.

The Constitution specified the relationship of the central government to the republics. Article 73 of the Constitution limited the central government to the administration of matters requiring central leadership of the country as a whole: national and internal security and the economy. In entering the union, the republics ceded these responsibilities to the central government bodies.

The governmental system below the central level appeared complicated because it was organized according to the two often contradictory principles of geography and nationality. The administrative subdivisions of a republic, oblast (roughly equivalent to a province), and district (raion) were based primarily on geography. The larger republics, such as the Russian and Ukrainian republics, were divided into oblasts. But smaller republics (the Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Armenian, and Moldavian republics) did not have an oblast administration between the republic and the district levels. In addition, six large, thinly populated regions in the Russian Republic have been designated by the term krai. A krai could contain an autonomous oblast or an autonomous okrug inhabited by a national minority. About 300 large cities and approximately 3,000 rural and urban districts (raiony) made up the next lowest government level. In turn, the large cities were divided into urban districts, or gorodskie raiony. Approximately 40,000 village centers made up the rural districts.

The Russian Republic and some of the other republics also contained administrative subdivisions with boundaries drawn according to nationality or language. The three kinds of such subdivisions included twenty autonomous republics, eight autonomous oblasts, and ten autonomous okruga.

Republic Level

In theory, the fifteen republics entered into a free and voluntary union of sovereign states when they joined the Soviet Union. The Constitution granted the republics the right to secede; nonetheless, as of 1988 the republics had exercised very little sovereignty. In 1989, however, the Lithuanian, Estonian, Moldavian, and several other republics sought greater national autonomy (see Manifestations of National Assertiveness, ch. 4).

Legal Status

Long-standing practice has established three nonconstitutional requirements for republic status. First, as stated by Stalin in supervising the writing of the 1936 constitution, the republics had to border on territory outside the Soviet Union, enabling them to exercise their theoretical right to secede. All republics met this requirement. Second, the national minority that gave its name to the republic was supposed to make up a majority of its population and to number more than 1 million people. In 1989 the Kazakhs, however, did not constitute a majority of the Kazakh Republic's population, constituting about 40 percent of the republic's population of 16.5 million people. Third, republics were supposed to have the potential to be economically viable states, should they secede from the union.

Over the course of Soviet history, the Supreme Soviet has created new union republics within the territory of the Soviet Union. In 1922 the Soviet Union comprised four republics: the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Republic, the Belorussian Republic, and the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The Soviet government elevated Turkmenia (also known as Turkmenistan) and Uzbekistan to republic status in 1924, and Tadzhikistan split from the Uzbek Republic in 1929 to form a separate republic. Kazakhstan and Kirgizia became republics in 1936. (Turkmenia, Uzbekistan, Kirgizia, and Kazakhstan had been part of the Russian Republic.) In 1936 the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic split into the Armenian, Azerbaydzhan, and Georgian republics.

As the Soviet Union gained territory, the Supreme Soviet created new republics. Territory taken from Finland was joined in March 1940 with the Karelian Autonomous Republic to form the Karelo-Finnish Republic. (In 1956 this republic, which had never had a majority of the nationality whose name it bore, was demoted to the status of an autonomous republic and was renamed the Karelian Autonomous Republic.) Moreover, in 1940 Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were incorporated into the Soviet Union as republics. Finally, in 1940 Bessarabia, taken from Romania, was joined with the Romanian-speaking portion of the Moldavian Autonomous Republic in the Ukrainian Republic to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.


The union republics and the autonomous republics shared the same basic principles of government. As in the central government, in theory the republic congresses of people's deputies exercised authority. In practice, the congresses delegated their power to the presidiums of their supreme soviets and to the republic councils of ministers, and the first secretary of the republic party organization set policy for the republic as a whole (see Republic Party Organization, ch. 7). Between supreme soviet sessions, the presidium and its chairman exercised the legislative powers of the republic. By custom, the chairman was a member of the republic's dominant nationality, a practice that highlighted the theoretical sovereignty of the republics and the influence of their dominant nationality on policy making.

The council of ministers administered the government of the republic. The chairman of the council headed the republic but deferred in all matters to the first secretary of the republic's party organization. The council of ministers included unionrepublic ministries and republic ministries. The latter, which had no counterpart in the central government, administered local public services and light industry. Both kinds of ministries functioned under dual subordination: they were responsible to the central party organization and government and to the republic's party organization and government.

Provincial and District Levels

Below the union-republic level of territorial administration, subdivisions were complex, varied with each republic, and included the following categories: autonomous oblast, autonomous okrug, autonomous republics, krai, oblast, and raion. Only the Russian Republic had all categories of subdivision. Western specialists often termed the administrations of the autonomous subdivisions, kraia, and oblasts generically as provincial and that of the raion as district. Provincial and district governments shared the same structure. For example, oblast and district soviets - single chambers elected for two and one-half years - exercised all legislative authority. These soviets met up to four times a year for one-day sessions. Between sessions, each soviet delegated its authority to an executive committee (ispolnitel'nyi komitet—ispolkom), which combined the functions of a council of ministers and a presidium. Ispolkom chairmen were the chief executives in the oblast and in the district. These officials normally sat on the party bureaus at these respective hierarchical levels.

The ispolkom lacked decision-making authority. Although members of the ispolkom headed departments that managed oblast and district services such as education, health, and culture, the central government controlled the more important tasks of the administration of justice, the budget, and economic planning and heavy industry. In addition, a substantial number of other social services were controlled by industrial enterprises and were thus beyond the control of local governments. Finally, the party first secretaries exercised power at both the oblast and the district levels. These officials, not the ispolkom chairmen, were obliged to answer to the party for the economic performance of their domain of authority.

The approximately 52,500 soviets at the provincial and urban and rural district levels had little power. These soviets, however, were important as vehicles for large-scale citizen participation in the government. The size of these soviets ranged from 200 deputies in rural areas to more than 1,000 in large cities. Thus, more than 2.3 million people served on local soviets at any one time, and, given the high turnover rate, more than 5 million citizens served on the local soviets each decade.

Although sessions of the full soviets at the provincial and district levels were strictly ceremonial, their commissions had some influence. The constituencies of these commissions were small, enabling them to respond to the needs of the people. Practical expertise often determined assignment to these commissions. For example, a teacher could serve on an education commission. Deputies served as channels for criticism and suggestions from constituents, and the deputies' expertise could qualify them as problem solvers on issues that confronted the commission.


In theory, citizens selected the candidates for election to local soviets. In practice, at least before the June 1987 elections, these candidates had been selected by local CPSU, Komsomol, and trade union officials under the guidance of the district (raion) party organization. Elections took place after six weeks of campaigning, and the candidates, until 1987 always unopposed candidates, had usually received more than 99 percent of the vote.

Despite the party's historic control over local elections—from the nomination of candidates to their unopposed elections—the citizens used the elections to make public their concerns. They sometimes used the furnished paper ballots to write requests for particular public services. For example, the 1985 elections to an Omsk soviet included instructions to move the airfield farther from the city center, construct a new music center, and build parking facilities for invalids. Subsequently, the Omsk soviet took steps to provide these services, all of which had the approval of the relevant party authorities. Thus, citizen demands that were reconciled with the interests of the party apparatus have been met through election mandates.

In June 1987, under Moscow's guidance, multicandidate local elections took place experimentally in less than 5 percent of the districts. Presented with a paper ballot listing more candidates than positions, voters indicated their choices by crossing off enough names so that the number of candidates matched the number of positions. Although generally opposed by local administrators, who could no longer assume automatic election, this reform found strong support among the general public. In early 1989, steps to limit the power of official organizations over the nominating process also came under discussion.

Nevertheless, the outcome of efforts to democratize the local election process remained far from certain in 1989. On the one hand, public anger over the autocratic and sometimes arbitrary styles of local leaders, their perceived incompetence, and their inability to provide needed goods and services forced some reforms. On the other hand, opposition by government and party bureaucrats, combined with the lack of a political culture—that is, experience in self-government—obstructed and diluted reforms of the government's structure and functions, as advocated by Gorbachev in the late 1980s.