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The "Party-State"

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The one-party dictatorship gradually forged a distinctive political system. In the pre-October period Lenin had repeatedly expressed his conviction in the ability of the masses to run the state directly through soviets. This, in his opinion, would make redundant the civil service, parliamentary institutions, the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers, and many other structures of a democratic system of government. In real life, however, the mass of the working population was immediately restricted in its right to participate in democratic politics.

Not just the “natural enemies” of the new regime—the bourgeoisie, landowners, former tsarist civil servants, and the clergy—were denied political rights. The Bolsheviks were suspicious of the overwhelming majority of the country’s population—the peasantry—and introduced legal restrictions on their voting rights. From the start, the idea of “rule by the people” through soviets was compromised, and the soviets themselves were gradually transformed into a decorative facade masking the party’s power monopoly. In real life, the notions “Soviet power” and “Bolshevik power” converged.

Nevertheless, officially the power was divided between the soviets and the Communist Party. The soviets were, ostensibly, the representative organs of the popular masses, whereas the party “guided” the soviets. In theory, the soviets embodied all state power in the Soviet Union. The voters of every village, town, province, and republic elected representatives, called deputies, to the soviets to serve as representative bodies for each territory. Deputies served on a part-time, voluntary basis and usually met two to four times a year, for a day or two at a time, to hear reports and approve the proposed budget and plan. The large size of the soviets and their infrequent sessions pointed to the ceremonious character of these bodies.

Voting for deputies to soviets was another indication of their ritual and formal function. The “election” was uncontested, as generally only one candidate ran for a given seat. All candidates were vetted and approved by a party committee. The regime went to great lengths to ensure that everyone cast a ballot with a single, preprinted name at a polling station. The massive turnout and near unanimous endorsement of the candidate were treated as signs of the unshakable unity of regime and people. For the authorities, such ceremonies were of great importance, serving to showcase the democratic character of the state, whereas for much of the population, voting in elections was regarded as part of the harmless pageantry of everyday life.

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The Soviet System


Soviet Russia

Understanding the Soviet Period
Russian Political Culture
Soviet Ideology
The Soviet System
Soviet Nationalities
The Economic Structure
The Socialist Experiment
"Great Leap" to Socialism
The USSR in World War II
Stalin's Legacy
Brezhnev's Stagnation
The Economy in Crisis
Political Reform
The USSR's Collapse

Models of Soviet Power

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