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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Civil society in a Soviet straitjacket

7 October, 2008 - 00:00
Sketch by Anatolii KAZANSKY from The Day’s archive

(Conclusion. For Part Two, see issue No. 28)


The well-known American historian of Russia and communism, Richard Pipes, defined the essence of Soviet power thus: “In the Soviet Union state power was formally in the hands of the hierarchically organized and democratically elected soviets. In reality, the latter were a facade concealing the true sovereign, the Communist Party.”

Pipes ignores the fact of the party “trickling down” to the soviets. Facade is not the right word either, because the soviets were the same party, but in another form. Did it matter that not all soviet deputies were party members? The truth is that party committees selected deputies on the basis of their norms of the representation by communists, non-party members, social strata, women, young people, and national minorities.

Vladimir Lenin created the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) (RCP (B)-the governmental system of soviets-which was a far more perfect structure than the one with a fake facade. Its elements (party committees and executive committees of soviets) in every hierarchical segment performed different functions: the party committees exercised dictatorship, while the soviet executive committees were vested with managerial duties. This division of functions allowed the party to carry out political leadership and, at the same time, be free of responsibility for current affairs.

The soviets, although stripped of political clout, had a whole range of executive functions. The term “Soviet power” applied to both elements of the power-sharing tandem, not to the soviets alone. The soviets became an all-penetrating and all-embracing authority that merged with the party’s organizational structure and added governmental status to it. Yet there was no such thing as a “state party” in the Bolsheviks’ political lexicon.

The power-wielding tandem used its Communist Party segment to appeal to its party members. Since the party rested on the principles of “democratic centralism,” the leaders did not depend on the choice of rank-and-file members, although the latter would regularly elect the top bodies according to statute requirements. The tandem used its soviet part to appeal to the populace. The population of the country not only could elect members of the soviet bodies, but it was also vested with viable administrative or supervisory functions.

These two separate but mutually-penetrative verticals embodied the form and essence of power. In its constitutional form, it was the power of the workers and peasants. It was also undoubtedly a people’s power because it drew its leading cadres from the “lower strata.” According to its inherent essence, Soviet power was a totalitarian regime independent of the will of the people.

In creating a dictatorship, the party could not do without a power agency with the functions of a political police. This kind of body emerged in December 1917: the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage (VChK, or Cheka for short). Chekists were authorized to conduct investigations, hand down sentences, and execute them, including capital punishment.

Formally, Cheka bodies were considered part of the gubernia executive committees and the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. In fact, they were totally self-sufficient in operational matters. Party leaders controlled them only at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. This sub-vertical cannot be considered either as one that exists independently or is patterned after the party structure. It was nothing more than the materialized embodiment of the dictatorial function of the party committees.


We must give the Bolsheviks their due: they managed to draw both young and old people into an active social life. The population of the “Country of Soviets” seethed with political activity. The impression was that society was passing judgment on any topic, and it would become the last word. Even the foreign ministry functioned to the accompaniment of mass rallies and demonstrations — the “people’s diplomacy.” “I do not know of any other country where a person breathes so freely” — this line from a Russian song could be heard everywhere, and even today it is music to the ears of the older generation.

Paradoxically, however, in 1937 tens of millions of people trembled in their communal apartments every night for fear of being arrested. But every day the same millions of people enthusiastically discussed the world’s most democratic — no sarcasm intended! — Constitution of the USSR, indignantly branding imperialists and domestic enemies of the people, who were conspiring to undermine their happy lives.

We can see that the state and society struck a very original relationship. How did all this work? Through mass recruiting, the leaders turned the party into a millions-strong body — what they called a “drive belt” between the leadership and the masses. There were other drive belts, such as the hundreds of thousands of soviet deputies, the Komsomol (Young Communist League), trade unions, artists’ unions, women’s councils, Young Pioneers, as well as various cultural, sports, and other organizations.

The Cheka sub-vertical also had a specific drive belt — hundreds of thousands of secret informers (seksoty) who reported on the actions, moods, and thoughts of the populace. Every secret police operative had a network of informers at his disposal, which was continuously expanded by means of blackmail, administrative coercion, or material incentive.

All organizations were patterned after the party on the principles of “democratic centralism,” which ensured the omnipotent power of the “upper stratum” and the absolute wretchedness of the “lower strata.” That was “civil society,” Soviet style.

Nikolai Bukharin was correct in noting the colossal increase in the influence of the state apparatus on everyday life in the Western developed countries. But in those countries the clout of bureaucratic structures grew concurrently with that of independent institutions of civil society. In contrast with Western democratic countries, where the state depended on society, and even in contrast with totalitarian countries, where the state imposed its dictatorship on society, the Soviet Union incorporated the state into society by means of those drive belts.” It is not accidental that the Soviet power attached its name to the country, the people, way of life, and culture. With the iron hand of terror, propaganda, and education, the Kremlin succeeded in cementing the state and society into an organic whole — a kind of state-society.


At first the RCP(B) retained certain vestiges of democracy that are typical of political parties. But its Central Committee (CC) strove to guide the party’s life by the same dictatorial methods that it used to rule the country. On Lenin’s initiative, the 10th Congress of the RCP(B) passed the resolution “On Party Unity,” which banned factions and groupings. This resolution empowered two-thirds of the members of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission to expel dissenters. This undermined the sovereign right of party congresses to decide on the membership of the Central Committee.

The creation of the Politburo and the Organizational Bureau essentially reduced the importance of the CC RCP(B) in the system of power if only because the regularity of the latter’s sessions (plenums) was severely curtailed. The post of Secretary-General, instituted in 1922, was supposed to possess, in Le­nin’s words, “unbounded power.” It turned out, however, that the power that Joseph Stalin wielded once he was appointed to this position was by no means unlimited. It became so much later, after Stalin gained control over all the structures of the state-society.

It is stretching the point to say that there was a party dictatorship in the USSR. The party was really a skeleton that bound all other organizations, both governmental and societal. But it was divided into an internal and an external party. The millions-strong external party, like all other organizations, was just a drive belt from the leaders to the masses. The internal party consisted of top functionaries, who wielded essential power ex-officio. They may be called the conductors of the dictatorship, rather than its bearers. All political and economic power was concentrated in the Central Committee whose members enjoyed identical rights.

The CC as an integral corporation expressed a decisive opinion only on two occasions: once, when most of the Presidium (Politburo) members “rebelled” against First Secretary of the CC Nikita Khrush­chev in 1957, and a second time, when the CC plenum dismissed him in 1964. In both cases, a certain external force gathered the far-flung CC members at the proper moment and shaped their collective opinion in contrast to the position of the majority of the Presidium or the secretariat.

From its inception in March 1919, the Politburo was never considered a self-sufficient agency that existed separately from the Central Committee. It is this factor that allowed its members to pass resolutions that would automatically (without being approved by the entire CC at a plenum) become CC resolutions.

The congress was considered the apex of the power pyramid, but it proved to be such only in the early years, after the party acquired the status of a state structure. Later, the CC’s bureaucratic apparatus, led by secretaries, took into its own hands everything that was necessary to organize a congress: preliminary selection of delegate candidates, election of delegates, selection of those who would deliver speeches at a congress, verification of the texts of reports and speeches, and the drafting of resolutions.

A new CC was elected at every congress by secret ballot because only this procedure could make what was in fact a state structure look like a political party. Yet the secretariat also knew how to form the composition of the Central Committee.

The Politburo was the body that wielded real power in the state from its inception until the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s constitutional re­form. The “all people’s” ow­nership of the means of production, which ensured the functioning of state bodies and day-to-day life of citizens, was in reality private ownership by oligarchs. A small number of dissidents suffered as a result of this, when they were stripped of job opportunities as a punitive measure. After the abolition of the GULAG and the solemn oaths that there were no more political prisoners in the Soviet Union, the struggle against dissidence was mostly conducted by economic methods.

The principle of the equality of CC members also applied to the Politburo, as it was part and parcel of the CC. Politburo members were supposed to make decisions by a majority of votes. However, the democratic principle of decision-making ran counter to the essence of dictatorship, which always requires an individual bearer — a dictator. The Constitution of the USSR, which was basically aimed at regulating power relations, proved to be powerless here because it ignored the existence of a state party in the country.

It was the 1936 Soviet Constitution that mentioned the party in a context that had nothing to do with the regulation of power relations. One clause simply declared that Soviet citizens had the right to form civic organizations, and the most active and conscientious of them could be admitted to the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) (AUCP(B)), the vanguard of the working people and the leading nucleus of civic and state-run organizations.


The oligarchical system of government was unstable by definition. The problem of real leadership could only be resolved through a struggle or by arrangement. This problem did not come up when Lenin was still alive because nobody dared issue a challenge to the founder of the party, and the state and soviet system. Lenin’s departure from the Kremlin sparked a six-year-long struggle in the party leadership (1923-28). Stalin defeated his rivals one by one, replacing them with his own proteges, and finally established one-man rule.

A struggle similar in its ferocity lasted for more than four years after the death of Stalin. As for Khrush­chev, he was dismissed from office with the agreement of the majority of the CC members. The principle of arrangement was also adhered to when the succeeding CC secretaries-general were elected. This kind of arrangement was always reached in behind-the-scenes fighting.

No matter who the next secretary-general was — a dictator or a coordinator, — truly unlimited power was concentrated in his hands. Yet it was totally different from the power of the European absolute monarchs or Russian autocrats, which was legitimized by origins, reinforced by historical tradition, and sanctified by religion. This was ex-officio power, and each of its bearers confirmed his mandate from time to time, going through an election process along party and state lines. The person in power could always direct the election process into the desired channel. However, the Khrushchev episode showed that it was possible to lose the highest post in this system of government.

Unlike Khrushchev, Stalin was very well aware of the specific nature of the political regime that Lenin had created. He therefore removed any threats to his personal power without too many scruples. A profound economic and political crisis erupted in the USSR in 1932, which was caused by the breakneck speed of capital construction (and the resultant disproportions in the national eco­nomy), as well as by the policy of maximum expropriation of material agricultural resources.

Later, Stalin called this course “whipping up” and was forced to discontinue it. Judging by secret police reports, a social explosion was looming against the backdrop of the crisis in famine-stricken Ukraine. The previous spontaneous explosion, which took place in the first months of 1930 in a union republic bordering on Europe, took Stalin unawares and forced him to suspend the policy of total collectivization for six months. New large-scale spontaneous disturbances threatened to remove Stalin’s team from power. In order to avert the loss of his personal power, in January 1933 Stalin expropriated almost all food supplies from the Ukrainian peasants and doomed millions of people to death by starvation.

The complete penetration of the state into society and the maximum centralization of public administration turned the peoples of the Soviet Union, the millions-strong party, the party and soviet nomenklatura, and even the well-ramified secret police into an inert mass that was completely dependent on the will of each new supreme leader (if he was a dictator) or of all the CC Politburo members (if he was a coordinator).

Khrushchev’s rule was a transition period from a one-man dictatorship, which was born in the conditions of mass terror, to that of oligarchs. Khrushchev considered himself as a dictator out of inertia, while the oligarchs, irrespective of the personnel lineup (the number of CC members remained unchanged from 1957 to 1964, and besides the First Secretary, the only members who were left from the old membership were Anastas Mikoian and Mikhail Suslov), wanted to see Khrushchev as a coordinator, not a dictator. The conflict was resolved by accusing the First Secretary of voluntarism and dismissing him from office.

The members of the CC RCP(B)-AUCP(B)-CPSU, who according to their status were the aggregate and formal bearers of power, could show themselves as such only during a political crisis caused by the confrontation between the leader and the oligarchy. The ironclad stability of power in Leonid Brezhnev’s era may be explained by the fact that the Soviet leader not only excluded voluntarism in his dealings with the Politburo members, but also established permanent working contacts with each CC member. At the same time, he ignored the rights of the Central Committee as a power corporation. The CC convened plenums once every quarterly period, if not less frequently. The course of their proceedings, as well as that of party congresses, was controlled minute by minute.


Under Lenin and Stalin, mass terror was the chief method of public administration. Lenin’s idea of a commune state could only be implemented by terror methods. It was terror that ensured the stability of Soviet power.

In the course of communist construction, all the existing islets of a genuine civil society were destroyed or transformed. The state placed all the weight of its bureaucratic structures on society. But even during the period of Stalin’s one-man dictatorship, it had to reckon with society’s needs to some extent. Launching a new communist onslaught in 1929, Stalin still allowed blue— and white-collar workers to freely choose their place of employment. Aware of the peasantry’s fierce resistance to the policy of creeping communization in 1930, he agreed to one vestige of private rural property: the personal homestead. Perceiving the explosion of religious feelings in society during the first, unsuccessful, stage of the war against Nazi Germany, he also radically changed the state’s attitude to the Orthodox Church.

Those who led the party after Stalin could no longer resort to mass terror in public administration. To maintain their grip on power, they had to ensure their popularity in the eyes of the populace. Whereas in the Stalinist state-society the drive belts transmitted impulses mainly from top to bottom, in the following decades, bottom-to-top impulses began seriously affecting the formation of the government’s course. For the first time Soviet power assumed some semblance of a human face. After the 20th Congress of the CPSU it succeeded rather effectively in “purging” itself of the many Stalin-era crimes, laying the blame for them, with ample grounds, on Stalin himself.

Undoubtedly, the crimes of Stalin bore the imprint of his own personality. Yet they were of an institutional nature. Neither Stalin nor any other dictator in his place would have caused the deaths of tens of millions of people if they had not wielded the levers of unlimited power, the inalienable attribute of the Leninist commune state.

The Soviet-type “civil society” had no horizontal links. The tens of thousands of different organizations that incorporated practically every citizen were just the drive belts of a vertical structure. In fact they did not unite society but atomized it, leaving every Soviet person face to face with the omniscient, omnipotent, and merciless state.

The first generation of citizens of the USSR lived during the first three decades of Soviet power. This was a period of internal and external wars and the construction of the Leninist commune state. Quite a few people still remember Winston Churchill’s comments about his Soviet counterpart: “Stalin came to Russia with a wooden plow and left it in possession of atomic weapons.” To replace all those who people who had perished, Stalin had to ban abortions.

The first generation of Soviet people died without leaving memories that could draw their own children into a conflict with the authorities. Children who were already been born in this state considered it normal because they didn’t know anything else. When mass terror was ended, the commune state showed a lot of positive traits. Suffice it to recall the residential neighborhoods that were built in Khrushchev’s era so that people would no longer have to huddle together in communal apartments. In the Brezhnev era, the government did its utmost to keep people well-fed because the collective farm system had finally exhausted itself.

People from the older generation remember all this and are drawing their own conclusions. They cannot understand that the market-economy mechanism is a good regulator of demand and supply, whereas a command economy can even cause a shortage of sand in the Sahara.

Let’s face it: while the Soviet Union existed, it inspired respect in the world not only because of its powerful nuclear missiles. Some acclaimed Western thinkers then began talking about the likely convergence of the two opposing socioeconomic systems. But it turned out that the satirist Mykhailo Zhvanetsky was right when he created his immortal monologue on the state. Without the help of any foreign or domestic enemies, but simply as a result of the complete absence of public support, the commune state failed to respond to the challenges of the postindustrial era and collapsed. All its residents had to adjust to the world of market relations.


What was going on in the late 1980s and early 1990s should be called an anticommunist revolution. It resembled only one of the revolutions — the communist one. Its essence was the self-destruction of the socioeconomic and political institutions that Soviet power had established in the first decades of its existence. Since the Soviet system was not a product of natural development but an intellectual concept implemented by force, all it left behind was a scorched wilderness. People had to build a new life almost from scratch. The experience of the past years shows that it takes more time to bring the post-Soviet countries back to the paths of development than to build a commune state.

Without attempting to define the laws governing the formation of civil societies in the post-Soviet countries, I will only focus on the question of what and how that strange phenomenon that should be called state-society became a thing of the past.

This process may be dated exactly: on Gorbachev’s initiative, the January 1987 Plenum of the CC CPSU opted for the “further democratization” of the party’s internal life. Delegates to party congresses and conferences were now to be elected by secret ballot on a competitive basis. The reformers strove to improve the system of government, hoping that the reformed system could overcome the all-out crisis of Soviet power, which was becoming increasingly dangerous with every passing year. But they were clearly unaware of what would happen to the state-type party after “further democratization.”

The relaxation of the party code of conduct had an immediate effect on the entire sociopolitical life. All kinds of civic associations suddenly began to mushroom. They were dubbed “informal” — not only on the grassroots level but also in the official parlance of governmental bodies. Those were the first living sprouts of a civil society, which did not need any permission from a party committee or a KGB office.

In July 1988 the 19th All-Union CPSU Conference approved the concept of constitutional reform, and it was passed the following December at an extraordinary session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. In his speech, Gorbachev thus defined the goal of the future reform: “Through the democratization of all aspects of life, we should unite the interests of the individual with those of the collective and the entire society, to really establish the working man as a key figure in industry, society, and the state, and to place him at the center of the entire political process” (M. S. Gorbachev, On the Sovereignty of the Soviets and the Formation of a Socialist Rule-of-Law State, Moscow, 1988, p. 5 — in Russian).

The Secretary-General of the CPSU said that the working man should be placed at the center of the political process. But where had this man been during the seven decades of “the workers’ and peasants’ power?”

The constitutional reform of 1989 may be regarded as the beginning of the formation of a civil society in the Soviet Union. The same period (and this is not just a coincidence) also saw the beginning of the anticommunist revolution of self-disintegration.

Gorbachev’s reform established, in his own words, “the sovereignty of the soviets.” In other words, the reform cut the umbilical cord linking the soviets with the party committees. Now the CPSU had to play its “leading and guiding role” in sociopolitical life in a different way — via the election of party functionaries to soviets and their work in the omnipotent executive committees of soviets. The “party committees-soviet executive committees” tandem, hitherto the embodiment of the party’s dictatorship at the institutional level, was liquidated. Therefore, the party lost the status of a state structure and ended up becoming totally superfluous. The Communist Party nomenklatura hurriedly elbowed its way to the soviets.

The party dictatorship’s power field was held by the inner (Union republics) and outer (Central and Eastern European states) belts of the empire. Therefore, the collapse of the socioeconomic system triggered the downfall of the party and the Soviet empire.

Today, the post-Soviet and post-communist countries are overcoming the consequences of Lenin’s experiment in different ways. As long as there is no dictatorship in these countries, civil society will develop there. Accordingly, its development will be an obstacle to the establishment of a dictatorship. The populations of these countries were inoculated in the 20th century against irresponsible politicians urging people to follow them in the name of a “radiant future.” But a new generation is growing up and needs to be told about the past.