From the series: Debunking Myths about the Soviet Union
Since they first seized power, Soviet leaders have claimed their “democracy” to be the best in history. However, their understanding of democracy differs significantly from that of the United States and other Western nations.
This second piece of a series addressing myths about the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) will focus on the country’s strange legacy on democracy and minority rights.
Was the USSR democratic?
The book Soviet Democracy was published in 1947 by Harry Frederick Ward Jr, an American Methodist minister and political activist who identified himself with the movement for Christian socialism. He is best remembered as the first national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Ward’s book aims to defend and legitimize democracy in the USSR to an American audience. Employing various narrative and argumentative techniques, it portrays Soviet democracy as distinct from Western democracy while asserting its merits.
Ward attempted to justify the differences between the two democratic models by emphasizing the unique growth trajectory of Soviet democracy. Throughout the book, he denies the existence of repression, concentration camps, and the police state in the USSR, attributing such beliefs to propaganda.
He argued that both American and Soviet democracies pursue the same goal of freedom and equality, albeit through different means. Furthermore, Ward asserts that Soviet democracy is the rightful inheritor of the principles of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Another argument put forward in favor of Soviet democracy is the existence of the actual Soviets. (The term “Soviet” in Russian translates to “council.”) The Soviet system aimed to provide a platform for every working-class member to have a voice in shaping their destiny.
At the local level, factories and villages formed their own soviet groups and elected representatives. These representatives would then move up the hierarchy, from town to region to province, and ultimately to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
In the 1940s, approximately one million of the USSR’s citizens participated in the Soviet System, with the potential for anyone to ascend to the Supreme Soviet. The system was designed to be a representative government where local Soviets communicated their needs and desires to the higher levels of government.
Soviets had autonomy over their jurisdictions and could use available resources, as long as their choices aligned with the nation’s interests. They also had the power to recall and replace their representatives if they were dissatisfied with their performance.
For a deeper understanding of eight important myths about the Soviet Union, be sure to check out our video:
Theory vs. practice
Although the concept of the Soviet system may sound appealing — indeed, it does sound democratic — the reality was different. The Supreme Soviet, the highest governing body, rarely convened, entrusting their authority largely to the Presidium of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Soviet Union operated under a sole (legal) political party: the Communists.
The leaders of the Communist Party, such as Joseph Stalin, held immense power, and their interests aligned with the national agenda. Consequently, anyone who opposed them was viewed as opposing the national interest, which often resulted in severe consequences. Dissenters, along with their families, faced the grim prospect of torture and execution.
So in practice, it was the central leaders of the Communist Party who held the true power, rather than the Soviets themselves.
The Soviet concept of democracy
Since their rise to power, Soviet leaders have proclaimed their version of “democracy” as the pinnacle of achievement.
For the Soviets, Western models of democracy were seen as incompatible with Soviet culture and internal affairs. Any dissent or perceived anti-regime sentiment was viewed as a threat to the Communist Party’s interests, which led to the suppression of freedoms such as speech, independent thought, and protest.
While the Western concept of democracy emphasizes a government by and for the people, Lenin introduced a new interpretation of democracy during his leadership of the Bolsheviks in 1917-1918. Rejecting the prevailing Western notion of democracy, he proposed an alternative based on his interpretation of Marxist doctrine.
As Lenin wrote in The State and the Revolution in 1917:
“In a capitalist society, we have a democracy that is curtailed, wretched, false, democracy only for the rich, for the minority. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will for the first time create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority. Communism alone is capable of providing really complete democracy, and the more complete it is, the sooner it will become unnecessary and wither away of its own accord.”
In the Soviet Union, democracy was redefined by the leaders as a government that necessarily provided for the people, rather than subservient to the people. This justification served to establish an authoritarian state under the guise of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
However, in reality, the government prioritized the Communist Party’s interests over those of the people, undermining the true meaning of democracy.
Were minorities protected in the USSR?
Protection of minorities is, supposedly, one of democracy’s hallmark accomplishments. So if the Soviet Union’s brand of government truly was a bastion of equality for minority groups, as it’s been called, that would argue for its definition as “democratic.”
However, beneath the facade of inclusivity, a more nuanced reality emerges. By examining historical evidence and narratives, we can debunk misconceptions and reach a clearer understanding of the actual experiences of minorities in the Soviet Union. Two in particular stand out.
Despite the Kremlin’s vocal criticism of Western imperialism, the Soviet Union itself emerged as one of the largest colonial empires in the 20th century, with numerous “national minorities” within its borders.
The Soviet leadership recognized the challenges posed by these minority groups and resorted to extreme measures in their efforts to suppress their influence. This included instances of genocide, physical destruction, and forcible removal of certain minority populations, leaving a dark mark on the Soviet Union’s history.
During the Second World War, the Soviet Union executed a systematic process of deporting non-Russian minorities from regions such as the Volga, the Caucasus, and Crimea.
This involved rounding up individuals and families, transporting them in cattle cars, relocating them to inhospitable areas, and exploiting them economically. The scale of these deportations was immense, affecting over two million people.
In 1938, the Soviet government made the Russian language a compulsory subject in all non-Russian schools. This decision aimed to promote the spread of the Russian language as a means of sharing Soviet civilization.
Additionally, the Communist Party implemented a new policy that superimposed Russian over native tongues, establishing a clear approach toward suppressing the identity of minorities.
- Homosexuality in the Soviet Union
In 1934, an anti-sodomy statute was introduced to the Soviet criminal code under Stalin’s rule, marking a shift from the initial absence of criminal sanctions during the early Soviet regime.
Despite some participation in the international movement for sexual reform in the 1920s, Soviet courts had already repressed LGBTQ+ people even before homosexuality was legally considered a crime. Repression continued throughout the Soviet period, resulting in numerous arrests and imprisonments.
It was only in April 1993 that male homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia — albeit with no amnesty for those still imprisoned at the time.
Homophobic legislation was even reinforced during the de-Stalinization period, and any discussion of reform during Perestroika was met with resistance from the Interior Ministry.
In summary, minorities were most certainly not protected in the Soviet Union.
On the whole, the evaluation of “democracy” in the USSR reveals a disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Harry Frederick Ward Jr.’s defense of Soviet democracy clashes with the centralized power of the Communist Party, while the treatment of minorities and the repression of LGBTQ+ people challenge the proclaimed ideals of inclusivity and equality.
The Soviet claim to democracy was ultimately a tailored narrative to serve the interests of the Communist Party rather than a reflection of any genuine democratic principles.
For further reading on this theme, be sure to check out the content below:
‘Don’t be fooled, life in the Soviet Union was awful,’ focusing on myths around poverty and inequality in the Soviet Union.
‘Socialism is immoral. This Soviet refugee tells us why,’ for a more philosophical take on why socialism is not only a bad idea because it doesn’t work, but also because of fundamental moral failings.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.