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28 August, 2018  ▪  Stanislav Kulchytsky

Elections and the Great Terror

How Soviet citizens ended up voting unanimously in elections

2018 marks the 80th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror and the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor. Few survivors of those tragedies are alive today but Ukraine’s society still suffers from its post-genocidal wounds. 

Whoever wants to part with the horrible past must know it. Among other things, this means knowing the links between events that seemed to unrelated. In 1990, I stumbled upon a remark by dissident historian Mikhail Gefter in Vek XX i Mir (21st Century and the World): “I’m a historian. Still, am I able to understand why what took place in 1937 happened? I have not found a single case in the world’s history where a powerful country at the height of its success eliminated millions of absolutely loyal people! Not as a side effect of eliminating opponents, but just loyal people! What was this?”

Gefter’s remark kept me pondering for many years. As I researched the tragic history of the interwar period, the goals the bloody dictator pursued when he launched the Great Terror were the last thing I thought about. They seemed to lie on the surface: he was conducting a massive purge of society. It was unclear though why the campaign peaked in the last year of the second five-year plan when newspapers were full of reports celebrating economic accomplishments and completed construction of socialism.


Secret voting and the fatal shot

Meanwhile, the gap between the form of the government described as the government of workers, peasants and soviets— councils, and its essence was deepening. This terrified many functionaries who had come to that government from the grassroots level with illusions of it as a perfect government of the people. In front of their eyes, the Communist Party and soviet apparatus were turning into a mafia entity that mandated them to fulfill criminal orders, or to turn into “GULAG dust” if they refused to. 

Their only option for removing Joseph Stalin from the post of the All-Union Communist Party Central Committee Secretary General was through the procedure of the Central Committee election at a party convention. This election had to be secret. By contrast, the election of the Central Committee’s political bureau at the first plenum following such a convention was by show of hands. In order to block Stalin from getting into the Central Committee’s political bureau, he had to be balloted out at the stage of the secret Central Committee voting.

The All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks gathered for its 17th convention in January 1934. Nearly three hundred delegates used that safe option of secret ballot vote to speak against Stalin as Secretary General. Memoirs claim that Sergey Kirov got more votes than Stalin. However, Kirov was murdered on December 1, 1934. This handed Stalin a convenient long-awaited opportunity to justify the launch of his massive terror campaign.

On December 5, the newspaper Pravda published a decree by the USSR Central Executive Committee, dated by the day of Kirov’s death that amended the criminal codes. According to the new rules, cases on acts of terror against representatives of the authorities had to be reviewed in court within ten days. Once transferred to court, they had to be considered in absentiaof the sides while verdicts on capital punishment had to be carried out without delay. These amendments provided the formal framework for the terror campaign on a scale unseen before.

The political framework for that campaign was secured by a secret letter the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party sent to the local party organizations in January 1935. Titled The Lessons of Events Linked to the Treacherous Murder of S. Kirov, the letter declared anyone dissenting with the course of Communist Party’s Central Committee as enemy of the people. Local leaders and directors who did not respond to “anti-soviet acts” properly were branded by the Central Committee as turncoats subject to arrest and isolation.  

This presented the Cheka with an opportunity to clean up its records that had been filled up to the brim with files of dissenters revealed by informers in the previous years. Another goal was to get rid of disloyal staff at the Communist Party soviet apparatus — Lenin’s guard first and foremost.

RELATED ARTICLE: Stalin’s “Surgery”

How the system was designed

Why did the campaign to eliminate the “enemies of the people” from social life take place in 1937? In order to understand this, it’s helpful to draw a line between the amended codes and the developments of 1937 that ensured active involvement of the Communist Party staff in them, thus making the repressions easier to implement — Stalin needed more than security agencies alone to run the country.

I spotted a link between the Great Terror and the developments that proceeded the declaration of the building of socialism complete. That declaration could hardly have been based on economic and cultural accomplishments alone — people had to feel palpable changes in socio-political life as well.

In order to understand the sequence of those developments, it will be helpful to describe the political system that had been constructed by Lenin and survived almost unreformed up until the 1988 constitutional reform. Lenin invented a formula of power that merged structured communities, such as his party, and unstructured ones, such as classes and society. Soviets or councils — the self-governing organizations of the protesting proletariat that first appeared in Russia during the 1906-1907 revolution — were used as a link between these two elements. According to Lenin, the goal was to connect the councils with the party of the Bolsheviks and to transform them from autonomous organizations scattered across the country into a representative body of state authority. 

On one hand, the soviets were to be organizationally separated from the party of the Bolsheviks. On the other hand, they were to guarantee undivided Bolshevik control over the soviet authorities and government bodies on the ground. This meant that the Bolsheviks had to squeeze rival political forces out of the soviets and fill them with the members of their own party and sympathetic non-aligned deputies. 

After that, the party of the Bolsheviks would exist in two forms: as a political force exercising its own dictatorship under the mask of “proletariat dictatorship”, and as the soviets that would have significant administrative functions but would not be a separate political force. Who would run the party, and the commune-state — by Lenin’s definition — with the help of that party? The answer was obvious: vozhdi, the leaders. Unlike other political forces, the Bolshevik party was built on the principle of “democratic centralism”: the party mass had to unquestionably obey their vozhdi. Once they turned into a ruling party after the October revolt, the Bolsheviks immediately purged representatives of other political forces from the soviets with the help of the newly-established Cheka. By taking over the soviets and branding its own dictatorial authority as a soviet government of workers and peasants, Lenin’s party managed to merge with the grassroots public.

The Bolsheviks party thus separated its functions: it preserved political leadership but was relieved from responsibility for daily matters, while the soviets were stripped of political influence but ended up being fully responsible for administrative functions. The term “soviet government” referred equally to both parts of the power tandem. The title of this government had no space for the word “party”, nor did that word appear in the first soviet constitutions. The soviets became the omnipresent force, but that was only because they were merged with the party.

The Communist Party component of the power tandem faced the party members. Because it was built on the ground of “democratic centralism”, its vozhdidid not depend on being elected by grassroots party members. Meanwhile, these grassroots party members regularly elected the party’s administrative bodies in line with statutory requirements. Therefore, the soviet component of the tandem faced the people. Not only did the soviet population elect the staff of soviet bodies — it was also given perfectly real management or control functions. As a result, it was hard to doubt the “people’s” nature of such government — also because it took its top managers from the grassroots level. 


The decisions taken by the party committees were implemented exactly because the authorized representatives of the soviet component of government were party members and subject to severe discipline. In other words, the usurpation of the soviets’ power functions was repeated with every renewal of their staff – that renewal was decided by the voters. Therefore, elections of soviet authorities were always a matter of great importance for the party. It introduced the respective election procedures in order to maintain control over the state.


The building of socialism was, first and foremost, the expropriation of private property from members of society by the state of proletariat dictatorship. This meant that the Bolsheviks could only garner support from urban and rural proletariat that did not own any property. This also meant that there could not be any equality in the election of soviets. As a result, representation norms for workers in Russia were five times higher than the norms for peasants. In the 1919 election campaign in Ukraine, both workers, and peasants had representation norms that were ten times lower than those of the Red Army members. This was because Ukrainian peasants and workers were locals, while members of the Red Army were not, for the most part. Representatives of “alien classes”, including small entrepreneurs and manufacturers, as well as peasants who owned property were stripped of voting rights altogether.  


Factories, institutions, military units and education facilities qualified as election units. Candidates were nominated by party or trade union organizations. The voting was open. The voters who wanted to choose their representatives independently faced different tools of persuasion, including pressure from local administration, a threat of taking away their voting right and more. 


Direct elections were held for local soviets only. All soviet conventions – from regional to all-Union ones – were comprised of deputies from local soviets. The lists of members in executive committees at all levels, including the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union, were meticulously compiled by party committee secretaries.


How it worked

The technique of election campaigns was no secret. A handout spread by socialist revolutionaries among the workers of Dnipropetrovsk in January 1929 had the following paragraph: “The Bolsheviks have imposed on us open voting in elections of soviets. But can we actually choose freely even when we vote openly? Who will dare to vote for an honest non-aligned candidate or lift a hand against a vile communist nominated by the party branch under the supervision of the local party princelings?”


After over a decade of such elections, the soviet party functionaries and citizens across the country had grown used to the election procedures that led “vile communists” to power. Then suddenly on May 29, 1934, Avel Yenukidze, Secretary of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, the highest legislative, administrative and revising body of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, proposed to the political bureau of the Communist Party Central Committee to include a report on amending the Soviet Union Constitution into the agenda of the 7thconvention of soviets. The proposal was approved and Yenukidze was tasked with drafting the amendments. He was not the author of this initiative as proven by his letter to Stalin dated January 10, 1935, with a note explaining why the then-multilayered structure of elections had to be eliminated: “Based on Your instructions on the timeliness of switching to direct elections for soviet governing bodies (from district executive committees to the Soviet Union Central Executive Committee), I present the following report to be discussed by the Central Committee.”


As Stalin transferred Yenukidze’s report to the Central Committee’s political bureau, he formulated more radical proposals for amending the Constitution. “In my view, the issue of the Soviet Union Constitution is more complex than what it seems to be at first sight,” he wrote. “First of all, the system of elections needs to be changed not in terms of its multilayered structure alone. It needs to be changed in terms of switching from open to secret voting.” 


Stalin’s proposals signaled the abolition of the soviet election system and a transfer to another one earlier referred to as “bourgeois”. Everyone then remembered the “bourgeois” election of the Constituent Assembly that took place after the October 1917 revolt: the Bolsheviks lost that election bitterly and disbanded the newly-elected deputies so that they could stay in power. Now, the February 1, 1935 plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee instructed the Soviet Union convention of soviets, based on Stalin’s order, to amend the Constitution in order to “further democratize the election system by replacing the elections that are not equal with equal elections. This means going from the multilayered to direct elections, and from open to secret voting.” 


On February 5, the 7th convention of Soviet Union soviets supported that formula without any changes and decided to hold the next election of soviet authorities based on the new election system. On February 7, the All-Union Central Executive Committee established the commission to draft the new USSR Constitution. Secretary General Stalin intended to make the new Constitution the most progressive one, following the model of Switzerland, the country with the longest-standing traditions of democracy. 


The new Constitution of the Soviet Union was drafted and discussed against the backdrop of a campaign against the “enemies of the people”. Soviet party functionaries found themselves caught between the rock and the deep blue sea — threatened by Stalin-controlled state security bodies from one side and by elections in which alternative candidates could be nominated, from another. 


Stalin explained the prospects such elections brought to the nomenclature, including in an interview with American journalist Roy Howard: “Our new election system will push all entities and organizations to improve their work. General, equal, direct and secret voting in the Soviet Union will be a whip in the hands of the population against poorly performing government entities. The lists of candidates will be nominated by the Communist Party, as well as all kinds of civic organizations. We have hundreds of those.” On August 27, 1939, the political bureau of the Communist Party Central Committee approved the voting ballot with the following instruction for the voters: “Leave ONE candidate you vote for in your election ballot, cross out the others.” 


In order to obtain support from the soviet communist apparatus, Stalin threatened its representative with the prospect of losing power. He presented himself as the only person who, in control of the state security apparatus, could divert the threat of new people appearing at all levels of the soviet machine. Well aware of this, the apparatchiks had to unite around Secretary General and stand united against the threat coming from the new Constitution. They all realized that the only tool the Cheka could use to help them conduct elections safely was its conventional terror. As a result, they gave Stalin a green light to repressions of any scale. Those who did not agree to act within the framework programmed by the Secretary General were to be swallowed by the terror campaign.

RELATED ARTICLE: The roads of underground capitalism in the USSR


On December 5, 1936, when the extraordinary 8th convention of the soviets approved the Constitution, it announced that the election of the Soviet Union Supreme Council would take place “in the near time”. Eventually, that election took place on December 12, 1937. The year-long delay was used to impose fear on the voters through massive terror. The authorities had to make sure that the voters elected only the people proposed and tested by the party committees.  


Any talk of nominating alternative candidates was hushed in the run-up to the election. Election commissions were forced to register just one candidate for every deputy seat from the bloc of communists and non-aligned candidates. A mere thought of nominating a candidate that was independent from the party was declared anti-soviet. 


In a free election, even when the ballot has just one name, the voters can express their opinion about the candidate in writing by choosing “I support” or “I don’t support” the given candidate. The organizers of the 1937 election simplified the ballot text by just indicating the candidate and the community that nominated him or her. That meant that the voter did not have to leave any marks on the ballot. Only those who intended to cross out the name of the candidate nominated by the bloc of communists and the non-aligned had to go into the voting booths. 


Armies of agitators were recruited for every category of voters from their environment. This ensured special discipline among the agitators — all of them dependent on the state economically as they worked at factories and institutions. Corralled into soviet farms and nationalized collective farms, the rural voters had grown dependent on the state as well. Agitators were personally responsible for making sure that all of their “subjects” voted. 

Other people were responsible for making sure that the subjects voted properly: security agencies played the key role in creating the atmosphere of an all-union approval for proposed candidates in the election. To do that, they killed hundreds of thousands in repeated terror campaigns while tens of millions were destroyed morally by forced collaboration with the security agencies — in public condemnation of “enemies of the people” or giving false testimony against their colleagues, friends or family. The population received the voting ballots only after it had been driven to a necessary condition by the terror campaign. As the repressions raged on, they left few daredevils willing to go into that booth and cross out the candidates nominated by the bloc of communists and the non-aligned. 

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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