Politics of the Soviet Union

Politics of the Soviet Union

The political system of the Soviet Union was characterized by the superior role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the only party permitted by Constitution. As authorized by Constitution, the Soviet government, called the Council of People's Commissars until 1946 and the Council of Ministers of the USSR afterwards, executed decisions of CPSU pertaining primarily to economy but also to security affairs and social issues. Constitutionally highest organ of legislative authority was the Congress of Soviets until 1936 and the Supreme Soviet from 1936 to 1989. But it met only a few days annually, while its Presidium managed affairs throughout the year. [ [http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+su0008) Soviet Union: POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT] the LOC Country Studies]


The Bolsheviks who took power during the October Revolution, the final phase of the Russian Revolution, were the first Communist Party to take power and attempt to apply Marxism (to be more specific, the Leninist variant of Marxism) in a practical way. Although they grew rapidly during the Revolution, from 24,000 to 100,000 members, and had some support, 25% of the votes for the Constituent Assembly in November, 1917, the Bolsheviks were a minority party when they seized power in Petrograd and Moscow. Their advantages were discipline and a platform supporting the broad based movement of workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors who had seized factories, organized soviets, appropriated the lands of the aristocracy and other large landholders, deserted from the army and mutinied against the navy during the Revolution.

Karl Marx made no detailed proposals for the structure of a socialist or communist government and society other than the replacement of capitalism with socialism, and eventually communism, by the victorious working class. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, had developed the theory that a Communist Party should serve as the "vanguard of the proletariat", ruling in their name and interest, but, like Marx, had not developed a detailed economic or political program. The new Communist government of the Soviet Union faced daunting concrete problems: extending practical control beyond the major cities, combatting counter-revolution and opposing political parties, coping with the continuing war, and setting up a new economic and political system.

Despite their relative discipline, the Bolsheviks were not of one mind, the Party being a coalition of committed revolutionaries, but with somewhat differing views as to what was practical and proper. These diverging tendencies resulted in lively debates within the Party over the next decade, followed by a period of consolidation of the Party as definite programs were adopted.

oviet state

Communist Party

"Main article: Communist Party of the Soviet Union"


The CPSU controlled the government apparatus and took decisions affecting economy and society. The Comunist Party followed the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and operated on the principle of democratic centralism. The primary CPSU bodies were the Politburo, the highest decision-making organ; the Secretariat, the controller of party bureaucracy; and the Central Committee, the party's policy forum. CPSU membership reached more than 19 million (9.7 percent of the adult population) in 1987, and was dominated by male Russian professionals. Party members occupied positions of authority in all officially recognized institutions throughout the country.

Single party rule, combined with democratic centralism, which, in practice, consisted of a hierarchal structure which with the aid of a secret police organization enforced decisions made by the ruling party as well on the personnel of all governmental institutions, including the courts, the press, cultural and economic organizations and labor unions. The Soviet Union is considered by many to have been a totalitarian state for much of its existence. Critics include Western authors such as Robert Conquest and Russian critics such as Alexander Yakovlev.


Education and political discourse proceeded on the assumption that it was possible to mold people using collectivist institutional forms into an ideal Soviet man or woman. The validity of ideas, public discourse, and institutional form were evaluated in terms of the official ideology of Marxism-Leninism, as interpreted by the Communist Party.


As authorized by the 1977 Soviet Constitution, the fourth since 1918, the government executed decisions of the CPSU pertaining primarily to the economy but also to security affairs and social issues. The Congress of People's Deputies created in 1988 by amendment to Constitution was the highest organ of legislative and executive authority, consisting of 2,250 deputies, about 87 percent of whom were CPSU members or candidate members and some of whom were elected in the first multicandidate (although not multiparty) elections since the early Soviet period. It was slated to meet once a year for a few days. It met for the first time in May 1989; deputies openly discussed issues, elected a chairman, and selected about 542 deputies from among its membership to constitute a reorganized, bicameral Supreme Soviet, a standing legislature slated to remain in session six to eight months annually. Prior to 1989, the former Supreme Soviet was constitutionally the highest organ of legislative and executive authority but met only a few days annually; its Presidium managed affairs throughout the year. The Council of Ministers administered party decisions, mainly regarding economic management, by delegating authority to its Presidium; the chairman of Council of Ministers also sat on CPSU Politburo.

Ministries of Soviet Union

Judicial system

"Main article: Soviet law."

The Supreme Court, the highest judicial body, had little power, lacking authority to determine constitutionality of laws, to interpret laws, or to strike laws down.

A large secret police organization monitored public activities closely; substantial efforts were made to discover expressions of dissent especially by government employees and Communist Party members and their families using a network of informers. Control over overt expressions of dissent was achieved through imprisonment, commitment to mental hospitals, and especially during establishment of the regime by death. During the first decades of the regime an extensive system of labor camps was maintained, the Gulag. The judicial system was controlled by the Party. Travel was tightly controlled with borders closed to both entrance or exit.

All publications and electronic media were censored, use of copying machines was rigidly controlled, imports of written material tightly controlled, foreign electronic media jammed. Access to government documents and press archives was strictly limited.

Internal politics

"Perestroika" and "glasnost"

In the final years of the Soviet Union attempts were made by the Politburo under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev to reform the political system (first instigated by Yuri Andropov, successor of Leonid Brezhnev). Calls were made for "glasnost" (transparency or openness) and "perestroika" (rebuilding), which also included economic reforms. A somewhat representative legislative body was created, the Congress of People's Deputies, and major reform of the executive branch of the government and the economy attempted. These reforms were resisted by conservative forces within the Communist Party and interrupted by an attempted coup, followed by the outlawing of the Communist Party and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

External politics

Diplomatic relations with majority of world's nations. Main foreign policy objectives as determined by CPSU Politburo: enhance national security, maintain presence in Eastern Europe, continue "peaceful coexistence" with free world democracies, and seek increased influence in Third World.

The regime maintained close relationships on a world wide basis with revolutionary parties continuing support for an international movement to supplant capitalism with communism. It saw itself as subject to attack by developed capitalist countries and maintained massive defensive forces over many decades in anticipation of war.

International agreements and memberships

Dominant partner in Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) and Warsaw Pact. Active participant in United Nations and its specialized agencies. Signatory to Final Act of Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Accords) and many other multilateral and bilateral agreements.

ee also

*Economy of the Soviet Union
*History of the Soviet Union
*USSR Heads of State

Further reading

* Alexander N. Yakovlev, Anthony Austin, Paul Hollander, "Century of Violence in Soviet Russia", Yale University Press (September, 2002), hardcover, 254 pages, ISBN 0-300-08760-8


*loc - [http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sutoc.html Soviet Union]

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