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  • Soviet Democracy and Repression in the Late 1930s
  • Olena Palko
Samantha Lomb, Stalin’s Constitution: Soviet Participatory Politics and the Discussion of the 1936 Draft Constitution. 177 pp. New York: Routledge, 2018. ISBN: 978-1315194004 (e-book). Open access.
Olga Velikanova, Mass Political Culture under Stalinism: Popular Discussion of the Soviet Constitution of 1936. 260 pp. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. ISBN 978-3319784427. $109.00.

In late January 1934, the leaders and members of the Communist Party, inspired by the results of the First Five-Year Plan, gathered in Moscow to celebrate the victory of socialism in the Soviet Union. The 17th Party Congress, dubbed the “Congress of the Victors,” highly praised the socialist achievements that included, among others, the success of the collectivization campaign and progress toward a modernized, industrialized country. The party leaders also announced their objectives for the Second Five-Year Plan—to overcome the remaining capitalist elements and class divisions in society and to mold all laborers into conscious and active citizens. Thus the narrow sectarian and class-based approach of the previous decades as reflected in the Soviet Constitution of 1924 became obsolete. A new social contract needed to be adopted, reflecting these dramatic changes in the social sphere.

The draft of the new constitution was submitted to public discussion on 12 June 1936. By the end of the six-month all-union debate, more than 43 million people had taken part in its discussion, with some 43,000 suggested changes submitted. Although most of these comments were ignored, Stalin’s Constitution, adopted on 5 December 1936, was regarded as the most democratic in the world. It anticipated a classless, socialist society and promised [End Page 201] universal suffrage and secret elections. It guaranteed personal freedoms and recognized many social rights, including the rights to work, rest and leisure, health care, housing, and education. Most importantly, by inviting the public to participate in the discussion of the draft constitution, the party declared its trust in the Soviet populace, recognizing their decisive role in socialist construction. These personal freedoms and civil rights, however, became a dead letter once the unprecedented campaign of political repression was unleashed by People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) Order no. 00447 of 30 July 1937.

The two books under review examine popular opinion regarding the draft constitution. Both scholars follow the same line of argument and, as such, complement each other. Olga Velikanova draws on sources from the central archives to reflect on the broader phenomenon of Soviet political culture of the 1930s, whereas Samantha Lomb shifts readers’ attention away from the party headquarters in Moscow to the local level and examines the discourse between central state leadership and citizens about the new Soviet social contract in the Kirov region. Despite a similar research focus, argument, and scarce scholarship on the popular discussion of the 1936 Constitution, it is noteworthy that neither of the scholars seems to be aware of each other’s work; there are no references to or “communication” between their approaches in their books.1

For Velikanova, the public discussion of the 1936 Constitution serves as one of the parameters to measure mass political culture under Stalin. She focuses on examining the evolution of society’s mindset—the thoughts, beliefs, and opinions of Soviet people. Perhaps this focus on political culture in transition explains her lengthy digressions into the entirety of Soviet social and economic history, with abundant references to Putin’s Russia in addition. With such a broad historical context to cover, the author unsurprisingly relies heavily on secondary literature. Thus many parts of Mass Political Culture under Stalinism resemble a literature review. Those parts that do deal with the 1936 Constitution and its popular reception utilize, as the author herself has admitted, previously studied primary sources from central party and secret services archives.2 Both studies build upon J. Arch Getty’s conclusions, [End Page 202] outlined in his 1991 seminal article on state and society under Stalin. Based on his research in the central party archives, Getty saw “a genuine extension of popular participation” as a primary motivation behind adoption of the new constitution and its public discussion union-wide. The unsatisfactory outcomes...

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