Human rights in the Soviet Union were severely limited. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state from 1927 until 1953[1][2][3][4] and a one-party state until 1990.[5] Freedom of speech was suppressed and dissent was punished. Independent political activities were not tolerated, whether they involved participation in free labor unions, private corporations, independent churches or opposition political parties. The citizens' freedom of movement was limited both inside and outside the country.

In practice, the Soviet government significantly curbed the very powerful rule of law, civil liberties, protection of law and guarantees of property,[6][7] which were considered examples of "bourgeois morality" by Soviet legal theorists such as Andrey Vyshinsky.[8] The Soviet Union signed legally-binding human rights documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1973, but they were neither widely known or accessible to people living under Communist rule, nor were they taken seriously by the Communist authorities.[9]: 117  Human rights activists in the Soviet Union were regularly subjected to harassment, repressions and arrests.

Soviet concept of human rights and legal system

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights are the "basic [rights] and freedoms to which all humans are entitled."[10] including the right to [life] and [liberty], freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and social, cultural and economic rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education.

The Soviet conception of human rights was very different from international law. According to Soviet legal theory, "it is the government who is the beneficiary of human rights which are to be asserted against the individual".[11] The Soviet state was considered as the source of human rights.[12] Therefore, the Soviet legal system considered law an arm of politics and it also considered courts agencies of the government.[13] Extensive extrajudicial powers were given to the Soviet secret police agencies. In practice, the Soviet government significantly curbed the rule of law, civil liberties, protection of law and guarantees of property,[6][7] which were considered as examples of "bourgeois morality" by Soviet law theorists such as Andrey Vyshinsky.[8]

The USSR and other countries in the Soviet Bloc had abstained from affirming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), saying that it was "overly juridical" and potentially infringed on national sovereignty.[14]: 167–169  The Soviet Union later signed legally-binding human rights documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1973 (and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), but they were neither widely known or accessible to people living under Communist rule, nor were they taken seriously by the Communist authorities.[9]: 117  Under Joseph Stalin, the death penalty was extended to adolescents as young as 12 years old in 1935.[15][16][17]

Sergei Kovalev recalled "the famous article 125 of the Constitution which enumerated all basic civil and political rights" in the Soviet Union. But when he and other prisoners attempted to use this as a legal basis for their abuse complaints, their prosecutor's argument was that "the Constitution was written not for you, but for American Negroes, so that they know how happy the lives of Soviet citizens are".[18]

Crime was determined not as the infraction of law, instead, it was determined as any action which could threaten the Soviet state and society. For example, a desire to make a profit could be interpreted as a counter-revolutionary activity punishable by death.[13] The liquidation and deportation of millions of peasants in 1928–31 was carried out within the terms of the Soviet Civil Code.[13] Some Soviet legal scholars even said that "criminal repression" may be applied in the absence of guilt.[13] Martin Latsis, chief of Soviet Ukraine's secret police explained: "Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror."[19]

The purpose of public trials was "not to demonstrate the existence or absence of a crime – that was predetermined by the appropriate party authorities – but to provide yet another forum for political agitation and propaganda for the instruction of the citizenry (see Moscow Trials for example). Defense lawyers, who had to be party members, were required to take their client's guilt for granted..."[13]

Freedom of political expression

Main article: Soviet political repressions

In the 1930s and 1940s, political repression was practiced by the Soviet secret police services, OGPU and NKVD.[20] An extensive network of civilian informants – either volunteers, or those forcibly recruited – was used to collect intelligence for the government and report cases of suspected dissent.[21]

Its theoretical basis was the theory of Marxism concerning class struggle. The terms "repression", "terror", and other strong words were official working terms, since the dictatorship of the proletariat was supposed to suppress the resistance of other social classes, which Marxism considered antagonistic to the class of the proletariat. The legal basis of the repression was formalized into Article 58 in the code of the RSFSR and similar articles for other Soviet republics. Aggravation of class struggle under socialism was proclaimed during the Stalinist terror.

Freedom of literary and scientific expression

Main articles: Suppressed research in the Soviet Union and Socialist Realism

Censorship in the Soviet Union was pervasive and strictly enforced.[22] This gave rise to Samizdat, a clandestine copying and distribution of government-suppressed literature. Art, literature, education, and science were placed under strict ideological scrutiny, since they were supposed to serve the interests of the victorious proletariat. Socialist realism is an example of such teleologically oriented art that promoted socialism and communism. All humanities and social sciences were tested for strict accordance with historical materialism.

All natural sciences were to be founded on the philosophical base of dialectical materialism. Many scientific disciplines, such as genetics, cybernetics, and comparative linguistics, were suppressed in the Soviet Union during some periods, condemned as "bourgeois pseudoscience". At one point Lysenkoism, which many consider a pseudoscience, was favored in agriculture and biology. In the 1930s and 1940s, many prominent scientists were declared to be "wreckers" or enemies of the people and imprisoned. Some scientists worked as prisoners in "Sharashkas" (research and development laboratories within the Gulag labor camp system).

According to the Soviet Criminal Code, agitation or propaganda carried on for the purpose of weakening Soviet authority, or circulating materials or literature that defamed the Soviet State and social system were punishable by imprisonment for a term of 2–5 years; for a second offense, punishable for a term of 3–10 years.[23]

Right to vote

Main article: Soviet democracy

According to communist ideologists, the Soviet political system was a true democracy, where workers' councils ("soviets") represented the will of the working class. In particular, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 guaranteed direct universal suffrage with a secret ballot.[24] Practice, however, departed from principle. For example, all candidates were selected by Communist Party organizations, until democratization and the March 1989 elections. Historian Robert Conquest described the Soviet electoral system as "a set of phantom institutions and arrangements which put a human face on the hideous realities: a model constitution adopted in a worst period of terror and guaranteeing human rights, elections in which there was only one candidate, and in which 99 percent voted; a parliament at which no hand was ever raised in opposition or abstention."[25]

Economic rights

See also: Property rights, Shortage economy, Second economy of the Soviet Union, and Consumer goods in the Soviet Union

Personal property was allowed with limitations. Real property mostly belonged to the State.[26] Many forms of private trade with the intent of gaining profit were considered "speculation" (Russian: спекуляция) and banned as a criminal offense to be punished with fines, imprisonment, confiscation and/or corrective labor. "Speculation" was specifically defined in article 154 of the Penal Code of the USSR.[27] Health, housing, education, and nutrition were formally guaranteed through the provision of full employment and economic welfare structures,[26] but these guarantees were rarely met in practice. For instance, over five million people lacked adequate nutrition and starved to death during the Soviet famine of 1932–1933, one of several Soviet famines.[28] The 1932–33 famine was caused primarily by Soviet-mandated collectivization,[29] although the famine in part was also caused by natural conditions.[30][31] In response to frequent shortages, massive second economy existed for all categories of goods and services.[32]

Freedoms of assembly and association

Workers were not allowed to organize free unions. All existing unions were organized and controlled by the state.[33] All political youth organizations, such as Pioneer movement and Komsomol served to enforce the policies of the Communist Party. Participation in unauthorized political organizations could result in imprisonment.[23] Organizing in camps could bring the death penalty.[23][need quotation to verify]

Freedom of religion

St. Vladimir's Cathedral in Astrakhan, which served as a bus station in Soviet times.

Main article: Religion in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union promoted Marxist-Leninist atheism and persecuted religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed outright.

Some actions against Orthodox priests and believers included torture; being sent to prison camps, labour camps, or mental hospitals; and execution.[34][35][36][37] Many Orthodox (along with peoples of other faiths) were also subjected to psychological punishment or torture and mind control experimentation in an attempt to force them give up their religious convictions (see Punitive psychiatry in the Soviet Union).[35][36][38][39]

Practicing Orthodox Christians were restricted from prominent careers and membership in communist organizations (e.g. the party and the Komsomol). Anti-religious propaganda was openly sponsored and encouraged by the government, to which the Church was not given an opportunity to publicly respond. Seminaries were closed down, and the church was restricted from publishing materials. Atheism was propagated through schools, communist organizations, and the media. Organizations such as the Society of the Godless were created.

Freedom of movement

January 10, 1973. Jewish refuseniks demonstrate in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the right to emigrate to Israel.

See also: Passport system in the Soviet Union and Population transfer in the Soviet Union

Emigration and any travel abroad were not allowed without explicit permission from the government. People who were not allowed to leave the country and campaigned for their right to leave in the 1970s were known as "refuseniks". In the Soviet Criminal Code, a refusal to return from abroad was treason, punishable by imprisonment for a term of 10–15 years, or by death with confiscation of property.[23]

The passport system in the Soviet Union restricted migration of citizens within the country through the "propiska" (residential permit/registration system) and the use of internal passports. For a long period of Soviet history, peasants did not have internal passports, and could not move into towns without permission. Many former inmates received "wolf tickets" and were only allowed to live a minimum of 101 km away from city borders. Travel to closed cities and to the regions near USSR state borders was strongly restricted. An attempt to illegally escape abroad was punishable by imprisonment for 1–3 years.[23]

Human rights movement

Main article: Human rights movement in the Soviet Union

Human rights activists in the Soviet Union were regularly subjected to harassment, repressions and arrests. In several cases, only the public profile of individual human rights campaigners such as Andrei Sakharov helped prevent a complete shutdown of the movement's activities.

A more organized human rights movement in the USSR grew out of the current of dissent of the late 1960s and 1970s known as "rights defenders (pravozashchitniki).[40] Its most important samizdat publication, the Chronicle of Current Events,[41] circulated its first number in April 1968, after the United Nations declared that it would be the International Year for Human Rights (20 years since Universal Declaration was issued), and continued for the next 15 years until closed down in 1983.

A succession of dedicated human rights groups were set up after 1968: the Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR went public in May 1969 with an appeal to the UN Human Rights Committee;[42] the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR was established in 1970;[43] and a Soviet section of Amnesty International appeared in 1973. The groups variously wrote appeals, collected signatures for petitions, and attended trials.

The eight member countries of the Warsaw Pact signed the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975. The "third basket" of the Final Act included extensive human rights clauses.[44]: 99–100  In the years 1976–77, several "Helsinki Watch Groups" emerged in the USSR, to monitor the Soviet Union's compliance with the Helsinki Final Act.[45] The first group was the Moscow Helsinki Group, followed by groups in Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia and Armenia.[46]: 159–194  They succeeded in unifying different branches of the human rights movement.[44]: 159–166  Similar initiatives began in Soviet satellite states, such as Charter 77 in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

Over the next two years the Helsinki Groups would be harassed and threatened by the Soviet authorities and eventually forced to close down their activities, as leading activists were arrested, put on trial and imprisoned or pressured into leaving the country. By 1979, all had ceased to function.

Perestroika and human rights

Main article: Perestroika

The period from April 1985 to December 1991 witnessed dramatic change in the USSR.

In February 1987 KGB Chairman Victor Chebrikov reported to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that 288 people were serving sentences for offenses committed under Articles 70, 190-1 and 142 of the RSFSR Criminal Code; a third of those convicted were being held in psychiatric hospitals.[47] Most were released during the course of the year, spurred on by the death in prison of veteran dissident Anatoly Marchenko in December 1986.[48] Soon ethnic minorities, confessional groups and entire nations were asserting their rights, respectively, to cultural autonomy, freedom of religion and, led by the Baltic states, to national independence.

Just as glasnost did not represent "freedom of speech", so attempts by activists to hold their own events and create independent associations and political movements met with disapproval and obstruction from Gorbachev and his Politburo. Early in December 1987 Shevardnadze, Yakovlev and Chebrikov reported on a proposed human rights seminar to be held in Moscow on 10–14 December 1987 with guests from abroad, and suggested ways of undermining, restricting and containing the event organised by former Soviet dissidents.[49] The reaction to a similar proposal seven months later was much the same.[50] As they conceded more and more of the rights over which the Communists had established their monopoly in the 1920s, events and organisations not initiated or overseen by the regime were frowned on and discouraged by the supposedly liberal authorities of the brief and ambivalent period of perestroika and official glasnost.

In the remaining two and a half years the rate of change accelerated. The Congress of People's Deputies held its second autumnal session in 1989 during a nationwide miners' strike. One consequence was the abolition in March 1990 of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution (1977), which had explicitly established the primacy of the Communist Party within the Soviet State, a hitherto unspoken but all-pervasive dominance of the system.

The authorities formed units of riot police OMON to deal with the mounting protests and rallies across the USSR. In Moscow, these culminated in a vast demonstration in January 1991, denouncing the actions of Gorbachev and his administration. The demonstrations in Lithuania, Tbilisi, Baku and Tajikistan have been suppressed resulting in deaths of many protesters [51][52]

See also


  1. ^ "totalitarianism | Definition, Examples, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-01-03.
  2. ^ Rutland, Peter (1993). The Politics of Economic Stagnation in the Soviet Union: The Role of Local Party Organs in Economic Management. Cambridge University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-521-39241-9. "after 1953 ...This was still an oppressive regime, but not a totalitarian one.".
  3. ^ Krupnik, Igor (1995). "4. Soviet Cultural and Ethnic Policies Towards Jews: A Legacy Reassessed". In Ro'i, Yaacov (ed.). Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-714-64619-0. "The era of 'social engineering' in the Soviet Union ended with the death of Stalin in 1953 or soon after; and that was the close of the totalitarian regime itself.".
  4. ^ von Beyme, Klaus (2014). On Political Culture, Cultural Policy, Art and Politics. Springer. p. 65. ISBN 978-3-319-01559-0. "The Soviet Union after the death of Stalin moved from totalitarianism to authoritarian rule.".
  5. ^ "Закон СССР от 14 марта 1990 г. N 1360-I "Об учреждении поста Президента СССР и внесении изменений и дополнений в Конституцию (Основной Закон) СССР"". 2017-10-10. Archived from the original on 2017-10-10. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  6. ^ a b Richard Pipes (2001) Communism Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-64688-5
  7. ^ a b Richard Pipes (1994) Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. Vintage. ISBN 0-679-76184-5., pages 401–403.
  8. ^ a b Wyszyński, Andrzej (1949). Teoria dowodów sądowych w prawie radzieckim (PDF). Biblioteka Zrzeszenia Prawników Demokratów. pp. 153, 162.
  9. ^ a b Thomas, Daniel C. (2005). "Human Rights Ideas, the Demise of Communism, and the End of the Cold War". Journal of Cold War Studies. 7 (2): 110–141. doi:10.1162/1520397053630600. S2CID 57570614.
  10. ^ Houghton Miffin Company (2006)
  11. ^ Lambelet, Doriane. "The Contradiction Between Soviet and American Human Rights Doctrine: Reconciliation Through Perestroika and Pragmatism." 7 Boston University International Law Journal. 1989. pp. 61–62.
  12. ^ Shiman, David (1999). Economic and Social Justice: A Human Rights Perspective. Amnesty International. ISBN 978-0967533407.
  13. ^ a b c d e Richard Pipes Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, Vintage books, Random House Inc., New York, 1995, ISBN 0-394-50242-6, pages 402–403
  14. ^ Mary Ann Glendon (2001). A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York. ISBN 9780375760464.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  15. ^ Mccauley, Martin (13 September 2013). Stalin and Stalinism: Revised 3rd Edition. Routledge. p. 49. ISBN 978-1-317-86369-4.
  16. ^ Wright, Patrick (28 October 2009). Iron Curtain: From Stage to Cold War. OUP Oxford. p. 342. ISBN 978-0-19-162284-7.
  17. ^ Boobbyer, Philip (2000). The Stalin Era. Psychology Press. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-415-18298-0.
  18. ^ Oleg Pshenichnyi (2015-08-22). "Засчитать поражение". Retrieved August 23, 2015.
  19. ^ Yevgenia Albats and Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia – Past, Present, and Future, 1994. ISBN 0-374-52738-5.
  20. ^ Anton Antonov-Ovseenko Beria (Russian) Moscow, AST, 1999. Russian text online
  21. ^ Koehler, John O. Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police. Westview Press. 2000. ISBN 0-8133-3744-5
  22. ^ A Country Study: Soviet Union (Former). Chapter 9 – Mass Media and the Arts. The Library of Congress. Country Studies
  23. ^ a b c d e Biographical Dictionary of Dissidents in the Soviet Union, 1956–1975 By S. P. de Boer, E. J. Driessen, H. L. Verhaar; ISBN 90-247-2538-0; p. 652
  24. ^ Stalin, quoted in IS WAR INEVITABLE? being the full text of the interview given by JOSEPH STALIN to ROY HOWARD as recorded by K. UMANSKY, Friends of the Soviet Union, London, 1936
  25. ^ Robert Conquest Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000) ISBN 0-393-04818-7, page 97
  26. ^ a b Feldbrugge, Simons (2002). Human Rights in Russia and Eastern Europe: essays in honor of Ger P. van den Berg. Kluwer Law International. ISBN 978-90-411-1951-3.
  27. ^ "Статья 154. Спекуляция ЗАКОН РСФСР от 27-10-60 ОБ УТВЕРЖДЕНИИ УГОЛОВНОГО КОДЕКСА РСФСР (вместе с УГОЛОВНЫМ КОДЕКСОМ РСФСР)". Retrieved 2020-05-02.
  28. ^ Davies and Wheatcroft, p. 401. For a review, see "Davies & Weatcroft, 2004" (PDF). Warwick.
  29. ^ "Ukrainian Famine". Ibiblio public library and digital archive. Retrieved 2011-04-21.
  30. ^ Davies, Robert W.; Wheatcroft, Stephen G. (2009). The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture 1931–1933. Palgrave Macmillan. p. xv. doi:10.1057/9780230273979. ISBN 9780230238558.
  31. ^ Nove, Alec (1952). An Economic History of the USSR 1917–1951. Penguin Books. pp. 373–375.
  32. ^ Vladimir G. Treml and Michael V. Alexeev,"The Second Economy and the Destabilization Effect of Its Growth on the State Economy in the Soviet Union: 1965-1989" (PDF), BERKELEY-DUKE OCCASIONAL PAPERS ON THE SECOND ECONOMY IN THE USSR, Paper No. 36, December 1993.
  33. ^ A Country Study: Soviet Union (Former). Chapter 5. Trade Unions. The Library of Congress. Country Studies. 2005.
  34. ^ Father Arseny 1893–1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. Introduction pg. vi–1. St Vladimir's Seminary Press ISBN 0-88141-180-9
  35. ^ a b L.Alexeeva, History of dissident movement in the USSR, in Russian
  36. ^ a b A.Ginzbourg, "Only one year", "Index" Magazine, in Russian
  37. ^ Sullivan, Patricia (2006-11-26). "Anti-Communist Priest Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2020-11-24.
  38. ^ Dumitru Bacu (1971) The Anti-Humans. Student Re-Education in Romanian Prisons Archived 2007-09-27 at the Wayback Machine, Soldiers of the Cross, Englewood, Colorado. Originally written in Romanian as Piteşti, Centru de Reeducare Studenţească, Madrid, 1963
  39. ^ Adrian Cioroianu, Pe umerii lui Marx. O introducere în istoria comunismului românesc ("On the Shoulders of Marx. An Incursion into the History of Romanian Communism"), Editura Curtea Veche, Bucharest, 2005
  40. ^ Horvath, Robert (2005). "The rights-defenders". The Legacy of Soviet Dissent: Dissidents, Democratisation and Radical Nationalism in Russia. London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon. pp. 70–129. ISBN 9780203412855.
  41. ^ A Chronicle of Current Events (in English)
  42. ^ An appeal to the UN Commission on Human Rights", A Chronicle of Current Events (8.10), 30 June 1969.
  43. ^ "The Committee for Human Rights in the USSR", A Chronicle of Current Events (17.4), 31 December 1970.
  44. ^ a b Thomas, Daniel C. (2001). The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691048598.
  45. ^ "A new public association", A Chronicle of Current Events (40.13), 12 May 1976.
  46. ^ Thomas, Daniel C. (2001). The Helsinki effect: international norms, human rights, and the demise of communism. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691048581.
  47. ^ Bukovsky Archive, KGB report to Gorbachev, 1 February 1987 (183-Ch).
  48. ^ "Release of a large group of political prisoners", Vesti iz SSSR, 1987 (15 February, 3.1) in Russian.
  49. ^ Bukovsky Archive, report by Shevardnadze, Yakovlev and Chebrikov, 4 December 1987 (2451-Ch).
  50. ^ Bukovsky Archive, Kryuchkov to Politburo, 27 July 1988 (1541-K).
  51. ^ Подрабинек, Александр (30 March 2011). Буковский против Горбачева. Не юбилейные показания [Bukovsky vs Gorbachev. Non-jubilee testimonies] (in Russian). Radio France Internationale.
  52. ^ Bukovsky Archive, Moscow Party committee to CPSU Central Committee, 23 January 1991 (Pb 223).