National Question: How Stalin Guaranteed Equal Rights to All Peoples of the USSR

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


In February, 1917, the disintegration of the Russian State began on national and territorial grounds. There is reason to say that this disintegration was supported by the temporary government of Kerensky, who was carrying out the will of the West.

But in 1918-1921, questions were raised about the entry of the Republics and autonomous regions into the structure of the RSFSR, and about the conclusion of bilateral agreements between the Republics and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR).

And on March 12th, 1918, the capital of the RSFSR was transferred from Petrograd to Moscow, where it also was before the reign of Peter I, who transferred the capital of the Russian State from Moscow to St. Petersburg, appropriating to Russia the name of the Russian Empire, and to himself – the title of emperor.

Moscow became over time the capital for all citizens of the Soviet Union, which contributed to the unification of the country. The transfer of the capital of the Russian State also pointed to a choice by Russia of its own way other than that of the West, and strengthened the safety of the State, as the capital was moved to the east, far away from the aggressive West.

Policy provisions on the national question determined the equality of all peoples and nationalities, the right of peoples to self-determination up to secession, regional (territorial) autonomy for the peoples who didn’t wish to secede, and proletarian internationalism.

The provisions were implemented practically: Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which were a part of the imperial Russian Empire, gained independence. The other Russian territories were united by mutual consent according to the above provisions. The existing general economic and cultural ties and an ambition to ensure common external security contributed to the unification.

In 1920-1922, all Soviet Republics formed on the territory of the former Russian Empire (RSFSR – Belarusian, Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, the Georgian SSR, and also the Bukhara, Khorezm and Far East Republics) concluded among themselves agreements on a military, economic, and diplomatic alliance.

In March, 1922, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (TSFSR) emerged, which included Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. On the agenda there was a question of on what basis to unite the Republics. On this matter the opinion of I. V. Stalin and V. I. Lenin didn’t coincide: the first was afraid that the unification of the Republics won’t pass the test of time, and the second – that returning to an actually unitary State will lead to ethnic wars. The proposal of Lenin was approved, with which Stalin also agreed.

It is necessary to recognize that during the revival of the Russian State in the form of the USSR, the most bloody ethnic and religious wars in the territory of the former Russian Empire were successfully avoided. The draft agreement on the formation of the USSR was discussed and approved at all levels of republican leadership, and also at the congresses of Councils.

And on December 30th, 1922, the first All-Union Congress of Councils of workers, peasants, and Red Army deputies adopted the declaration on the formation of the USSR. The agreement was signed by four Republics: RSFSR, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, and Transcaucasian SFSR (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan). The documents proclaimed the voluntariness of the association, the equality of the Republics in the Union, the right to exit from the Union, and the right of access in it of other Republics.

In 1924 the Constitution of the USSR was adopted, which didn’t contradict the Constitution of the RSFSR of July 10th, 1918, but legislatively designed the voluntary unification of the equal Soviet Socialist Republics in the USSR Union. The introduction into action of the Constitution of the USSR – the fundamental law of the Soviet Socialist multinational State – was an event of great importance.

Representatives of all Union Republics actively participated in the development of the constitution. Drafts of the constitution were discussed in republican party organizations and at sessions of the central executive committees. The constitution of the USSR was a result of the collective creativity of the representatives of Union Republics.

It was specified in the Constitution: “The sovereignty of Union Republics is restricted only in the limits specified in the present constitution, and only on the matters within the competence of the Union. Out of these limits each Union Republic exercises its State authority independently. The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics protects the sovereign rights of Union Republics”.

The high supreme government body of the USSR was the All-Union congress of Soviets, and the highest executive and legislature in between congresses of Soviets – the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, which consisted of two chambers: Soviet of the Union and Soviet of Nationalities. The Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR was elected by the Central Election Commission of the USSR and was responsible in front of it in its work.

Due to the adoption of the constitution, the Presidium of the Central Election Commission of the USSR published on July 14th, 1923, addressed “all peoples and governments of the world”, in which it stated the purposes and problems of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union.

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In the address it was said: “The Union State was created in such a way on the basis of brotherly cooperation of the peoples of the Soviet Republics of the Union State aimed at the preservation of peace with all peoples…”

The Constitution of the first-ever socialist multinational State was a document of great value. And on January 31st, 1924, the 2nd congress of Councils of the USSR finally approved the text of the constitution, having finished the registration of the Soviet State. Cooperation of the Soviet Republics was given a closer, systematic, and constant character. The constitution promoted the fight against ethnic strife, great-power chauvinism, and nationalism. The unification of the Soviet Republics into one united State had a huge value for the successful development and safety of the peoples of the USSR.

Summarizing the aforementioned, it is necessary to emphasize that the constitution of 1924 contained a section about the national State system of the USSR. The constitution established the State Emblem, the flag, the anthem, and the capital of the USSR.

Under the Constitution of 1924, the Union of the SSR represented a federation of equal sovereign Republics that had the right to a free exit from the Union. At the same time it is necessary to note that State power was concentrated in the structures of the Communist Party, which rigidly operated from a single center. The Communist Party joined together spaces and peoples of a huge multinational country. The State system of the USSR was defined by the task of building a strong socialist State, the creation of an effective system of governance in the country, large-scale purposes of economic development, an increase in defense capability, and offering competition to the leading capitalist countries.

In 12 years the new Constitution of 1936 was adopted, which besides small differences kept the national-State system of the USSR as defined by the Constitution of 1924. The adoption of the specified main legislation of the country was one of the main events of the pre-war time.

The Central Election Commission of the USSR in the autumn of 1935 created the constitutional commission and 12 subcommittees. And on June 12th, 1936, the draft constitution was published and discussed during the next six months at all levels. More than half the adult population participated in the discussion, the commission received 154,000 proposals, amendments, and additions.

I. V. Stalin directly took part in the work on the text of the constitution. The Constitution of 1936, on the plan of its authors, had to reflect an important stage in the history of the Soviet State – the building of socialism.

75 million people participated in the discussion of the Constitution of 1936, 1.5 million proposals, additions, amendments published in periodicals were made. But none of the amendments violating equality or infringing on the existing rights of the Republics were adopted.

Concerning the amendment to the 17th article, the chairman of the commission I. V. Stalin said the following: “I think that this proposal is wrong and that’s why it mustn’t be adopted by Congress. The USSR is a voluntary union of equal Union Republics. To exclude from the constitution the article about the right to a free exit from the USSR means to violate the voluntary character of this union. Can we take such a step? I think that we can’t and shouldn’t take this step. It is said: ‘But in the USSR there is no Republic that would want to exit the structure of the USSR, and so article 17 has no practical value’. That we have no Republic which would like to exit the structure of the USSR, is, of course, true. But from this it doesn’t follow at all that we shouldn’t record in the constitution the right of Union Republics to a free exit from the USSR. In the USSR there is also no such Union Republic that would like to suppress other Union Republics. But from this it doesn’t follow at all that the article concerning equal rights of Union Republics should be excluded from the constitution of the USSR”.

I. V. Stalin also didn’t support the proposal about the transformation of Autonomous Republics into Union ones: “I think that it isn’t necessary to adopt it. It is wrong not only because of its contents, but also because of its motives. It is impossible to motivate the transfer of Autonomous Republics to the category of Union Republics by their economic and cultural maturity, just as it is impossible to motivate the leaving of this or that Republic on the list of Autonomous Republics because of their economic or cultural backwardness. It would be neither a Marxist or Leninist approach. The Tatar Republic, for example, remains autonomous, and the Kazakh Republic becomes a Union one, but it doesn’t mean yet that the Kazakh Republic from the point of view of cultural and economic development stands above the Tatar Republic. The situation is just the opposite. The same should be said, for example, about the Autonomous Republic of Germans of the Volga region, and about the Kyrgyz Union Republic, the first of which in a cultural and economic sense stands above the second, although it remains an Autonomous Republic”.

Stalin singled out three characteristics that give the grounds for the transfer of Autonomous Republics to the category of Union Republics.

“Firstly, it is necessary that the Republic is suburban, and not surrounded from all directions by the territory of the USSR. Why? Because if the Union Republic keeps the right to exit the Union of SSR, it is necessary that this Republic, after becoming a Union one, has the opportunity logically and actually to raise the question of its exit from the USSR. And such a question can be raised by such a Republic that, for example, borders any foreign State and, thus, isn’t surrounded by the territory of the USSR from all directions.

Secondly, it is necessary that the nationality that gave to the Soviet Republic its name represents in the Republic a more or less compact majority. Take, for example, the Crimean Autonomous Republic. It is a suburban Republic, but the Crimean Tatars have no majority in this Republic, on the contrary, they represent the minority there. So, it would be incorrect and illogical to transfer the Crimean Republic to the category of Union Republics.

Thirdly, it is necessary that the Republic is not really small in relation to the quantity of its population, that it has a population, for example, of no less, but at least more than one million. Why? Because it would be wrong to assume that the small Soviet Republic, having the minimum quantity of population and an insignificant army, could count on independent State existence. It is hardly possible to doubt that imperialistic predators would vividly appropriate it,” he said.

The Constitution of the USSR of December 5th, 1936, approved the existence in the USSR of two friendly classes: workers and peasants. It specified that the political basis of the USSR is made by Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, and an economic basis – socialist system of economy and socialist property of tools and means of production. The constitution provided two forms of socialist property – State (national property) and collective farm-cooperative.

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The land, its subsoil, waters, woods, plants, factories, mines, pits, railway, water and air transport, banks, means of communication organized by the State large agricultural enterprises (State farms, machine and tractor stations, etc.), and also municipal enterprises and the main housing fund in the cities are State ownership, i.e. national property. The land was assigned to collective farms for free and unlimited use, forever. Along with the socialist system of economy, which is the dominant form of economy in the USSR, the constitution allowed the small-scale private enterprise of individual peasants and handicraftsmen based on personal labor and excluding the exploitation of others work.

The constitution guaranteed legal protection of the personal property of citizens of the USSR acquired on labor income and savings, a house, a subsidiary smallholding, objects of a smallholding and their usage, personal consumption, and also the right to inherit personal property. The constitution adopted a provision stating that the economic life of the country is regulated by the State national economic plan.

According to the main law, work in the USSR was an obligation and a point of honor of each citizen, capable of working, on the principle “who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat”. In the constitution it is written that in the USSR the principle of socialism is carried out “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work”.

The constitution obliges the State to provide each able-bodied citizen of the country a place of work. It should be noted that really since the beginning of the 1930 until 1991 (the year of the dissolution of the USSR) unemployment in the USSR was absent. Each Union Republic also had its constitution, which was in accordance to the Constitution of the USSR.

The supreme body of power in the USSR was the Supreme Council. The Supreme Council of the USSR consisted of two chambers: Soviet of the Union and Soviet of Nationalities. Both chambers of the Supreme Council of the USSR – Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities – were equal.

Laws were considered as adopted if they received a simple majority of votes in both chambers. The supreme body of power during the period between sessions of Supreme Council of the USSR was accountable to the Presidium, elected at a joint meeting of both chambers. It was allocated a big circle of powers and rights. For example, to cancel the resolutions of the Council of People’s Commissars (i.e. Council of ministers, to make a referendum on its initiative or at the request of one of the Union Republics, to appoint people’s commissars (ministers) of the USSR, to carry out pardons, to appoint and replace the high command of the Armed Forces of the USSR, and a set other rights. The deputy of the Supreme Council of the USSR couldn’t be brought to judicial responsibility or be arrested without the consent of the Supreme Council of the USSR.

The ministries of the USSR were either all-Union, or Union Republicans. The Supreme Court of the USSR was elected by the Supreme Council of the USSR for a period of five years. In their posts Chairmen of the Supreme Courts of Union Republics were a part of the Supreme Court of the USSR.

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According to the constitution, national courts were elected by citizens of the region for a period of three years. All other links of the judicial system were elected by the relevant Councils for a period of five years. The constitution consolidated important principles: independence of judges and their submission only to the law, hearing of cases in all courts with the participation of people’s jurymen (except the cases that are specially provided by the law), open trial of affairs (because the law didn’t provide exceptions), ensuring the right of the accused to a defence, acquaintance with the case materials through a translator, and also the right to appear in court in the native language.

The highest supervision over the exact implementation of laws by the people’s commissariats (ministries) and agencies, officials and citizens, was placed by the Constitution on the Prosecutor of the USSR.

The constitution of the USSR affirmed the basic rights and freedoms of the citizens of the USSR, and the constitutions of Union Republics – the citizens of Union Republics. Citizens of all Republics of the USSR had the right: to work, to rest, to material security in old age, to education, and other rights.

In the constitution it was emphasized that the equality of citizens of the USSR, irrespective of their nationality and race, in all areas of economic, State, cultural and socio-political life is the immutable law. Any direct or indirect restriction of the rights or, on the contrary, establishment of direct or indirect privileges of citizens depending on their racial and national identity, as well as any preaching of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and neglect, are punishable by the law.

The constitution provided to citizens of the USSR inviolability of person. Nobody can be subjected to arrest differently than under the resolution of the court or by the sanction of the prosecutor. Also the constitution guaranteed the inviolability of the houses of citizens and the secrecy of correspondence.

Along with rights, the constitution also contained obligations for the observance of the constitution, implementation of the law, observance of labour discipline, service in the Armed Forces of the USSR, and others.

The constitution renamed Councils of workers, peasants, and Red Army deputies into Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, and cancelled restrictions on the electoral right for persons who in the past exploited others’ labour.

Certain authors write that the 1936 Constitution of the USSR was the most democratic constitution in the world at its time. As far as its provisions were realized in political practice – that’s another question. Constitutions always to some extent serve as the declared ideal, a reference point, and the adoption of precisely those, and not other declarations, of course, is important. In general, the political development of the USSR after the extraordinary period of the Great Patriotic War and the restoration of a national economy corresponded to the reference points set by the Constitution of 1936 – in the framework of precisely that type of society which the USSR was.

It is exactly from that time that a modern concept and viewpoints of the constitution as the main law developed. Also. V. Stalin noted: “The constitution isn’t a code of laws. The constitution is the main law, and the only main law. The constitution doesn’t exclude, but assumes the current legislative work of future legislature. The constitution gives a legal base for the future legislative activity of such bodies”.

During 1937, on the basis of the 1936 Constitution of the USSR, the constitutions of Union Republics were adopted. The Constitution of the RSFSR was approved by the XVII All-Russian congress of Councils on January 21st, 1937.

The 1937 Constitution of the RSFSR set in stone the administrative-territorial division of the Republic. Each Autonomous Republic had its constitution, which took into account its specificities and the corresponding Constitutions of the RSFSR the USSR, which became the basis not only for the Constitution of 1977, but also the modern Constitution of the Russian Federation.

By 1940, 16 Union Republics were a part of the USSR: Uzbek, Turkmen (1923–1924), Tajik (1931), Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani (1936), Kyrgyz, Kazakhstan (1936), Lithuanian, Estonian, Latvian, Moldavian (1939), Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, Karelian-Finnish (1940), which in 1956 was transformed into the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic as a part of the RSFSR. Also, new autonomous formations were established in the Union Republics themselves. In the Constitution of 1977, equality and the rights of the Republics were confirmed. Thus, it is possible to unambiguously claim that equality of the Soviet Republics was legislatively set in stone by the Constitution of the USSR.

Unfortunately, over the ocean the history of the USSR is based not on facts, but on invented-there images supported with various forgeries. However, the Constitutions of 1924, 1936, and 1977 are the facts that lead to the conclusion that such constitutions can’t be born in a country where arbitrariness reigned and the colonizer policy was pursued. The image of such a USSR that is created in the West shatters itself on the articles of the constitutions.

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