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The first Soviet constitutions, self-determination and the right to secession


Forthcoming in the SCRSS Digest, No 3, Autumn 2017 issue

Professor Bill Bowring, President of SCRSS, Birkbeck College; International Secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers

This short article examines the central core of the first constitutions of Soviet Russia and of the USSR, and its continued relevance. Its predecessor, the Tsarist Russian Empire, was a multi-national, multi-ethnic empire whose components had varying degrees of autonomy, from Finland, which was a Grand Duchy with its own parliament, laws and Lutheran religion, to Poland which had been incorporated into the empire as a result of the 19th century Partitions, to the Baltic territories conquered from Sweden in the Great Northern War, and the former Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan conquered by Ivan the Terrible, in the 16th century, and the Khanate of Crimea, annexed by Catherine II in 1783. And many more.

Lenin had campaigned from before the outbreak of World War I for the destruction of the Tsarist (and other) Empires, and for the principle of the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, on which he wrote a substantial book. He drew from the writings of Marx and Engels from the second half of the 19th century, as they fought for the right to self-determination of Ireland, of Poland, of Algeria, of India and many others. Lenin’s opponents included Rosa Luxemburg, the Austro-Marxists, Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, and the revolutionary Jewish Bund, all of whom opposed the break-up of their respective empires and regarded the right of nations to self-determination as a surrender to bourgeois nationalism. Their aim was to achieve socialism over the whole existing territories of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

The first constitutional document of Soviet power following victory in the October Revolution was the Declaration Of Rights Of The Working And Exploited People (the Declaration), drafted by Lenin on 3 January 1918, and published in Izvestiya on 4 January. On 12 January it was approved by the Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets and subsequently formed the basis of the Soviet Russian Constitution of 1918. According to Chapter 1, Article 1: “Russia is hereby proclaimed a Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. All power, centrally and locally, is vested in these Soviets.” This was immediately followed by Article 2: “The Russian Soviet Republic is established on the principle of a free union of free nations, as a federation of Soviet national republics.”

The phrase “free nations” was crucial.

Thus, Chapter 3 welcomed the proclamation of “the complete independence of Finland, commencing the evacuation of troops from Persia, and proclaiming freedom of self-determination for Armenia.”

All these were put into practice forthwith. On 6 December 1917, the Finnish Diet adopted a declaration of Finland’s independence, and the Council of Peoples Commissars, on 18 December 1917, issued a decree on Finland’s independence. At that meeting Lenin personally handed the text of the decree to Finnish Prime Minister Pehr Evind Svinhufvud. On 9 December 1917 in conformity with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty between Soviet Russia on the one side and Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria on the other, Soviet Russia and Persia worked out a common plan for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Persia. And on 29 December 1917 the Soviet Russian government issued the Decree on Turkish Armenia.

The next step was the Constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR), which was adopted by Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets on 10 July 1918. The Declaration, together with the Constitution constituted a single fundamental law of the RSFSR. Altogether, the Declaration and Constitution contained 90 articles, covering all constitutional aspects of the new socialist republic.
For the purposes of this article, the following provision was of particular importance:

“11. The soviets of those regions which differentiate themselves by a special form of existence and national character may unite in autonomous regional unions, ruled by the local congress of the soviets and their executive organs. These autonomous regional unions participate in the RSFSR upon a Federal basis.”

These were principles as to which Lenin was uncompromising. In 1919 the three Baltic Republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became independent, despite their bourgeois governments, as did Poland, despite the war between it and Soviet Russia. In 1922, towards the end of his life, Lenin came into sharp conflict with Stalin as to whether Georgia should have the right to independence, albeit under a Menshevik government.

On 31 December 1922 Lenin wrote, in his Testament :

“It is quite natural that in such [Stalin’s actions in Georgia] circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is… I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious “nationalist-socialism” played a fatal role here.”

Lenin died on 21 January 1924.

On 31 January 1924 the Constitution of the USSR was approved by the II Congress of Soviets of the USSR. This formalised the December 1922 Treaty on the Creation of the USSR between the Russian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, the Byelorussian SSR, and the Transcaucasian SFSR to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

It started with a Declaration, Part 1, which included: “It is only in the camp of the Soviets, only under the conditions of the dictatorship of the proletariat that has grouped around itself the majority of the people, that it has been possible to eliminate the oppression of nationalities… The will of the peoples of the Soviet Republics recently assembled in Congress, where they decided unanimously to form the USSR, is a sure guarantee that this Union is a free federation of peoples equal in rights, that the right to freely withdraw from the Union is assured to each Republic…”

It was on this that Lenin had insisted in 1922. Articles 4 and 6 proclaimed:

“4. Each one of the member Republics retains the right to freely withdraw from the Union.
6. The territory of the member Republics cannot be modified without their consent; also, any limitation or modification or suppression of Article 4 must have the approval of all the member Republics of the Union.”

Lenin’s principled position remains highly controversial in Russia.

As early as 1991, the year of the collapse of the USSR, Vladimir Putin denounced Lenin, and was filmed doing so. A YouTube clip contains a number of such statements by him over the years. On 25 January 2016 Mr Putin accused Lenin of placing an ‘atomic bomb’ under Russia. In Mr Putin’s opinion Lenin was responsible both for destroying, with German money and backing for his travel from Switzerland to Russia in 1917, the great Russian Empire; but also of preparing the destruction of the great USSR. Thus, Mr Putin was particularly critical of Lenin’s concept of a federative state with its entities having the right to secede, saying it had heavily contributed to the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. He added that Lenin was wrong in his dispute with Stalin, who, in Mr Putin’s words, advocated a unitary state model. For Mr Putin, Stalin was in the line of great Tsars, from Ivan IV, to Peter I, to Catherine II.

Mr Putin also said that Lenin’s government had whimsically drawn borders between parts of the USSR, placing Donbass under the Ukrainian jurisdiction in order to increase the percentage of proletariat, in a move Mr Putin called “delirious”.

When the USSR collapsed in late 1991, the 15 Union Republics, all of which had the right to secede under the 1978 Constitution of the USSR, duly became independent states, to the horror of Mr Putin and his fellow-thinkers. In 1990-1991 many federative components of the RSFSR sought to gain the status of union republics, so as to have the right to secede. Several, including the Republics of Chechnya, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, declared sovereignty. Chechnya suffered two bloody wars from 1994 to 1997, and from 1999 to 2009; Tatarstan was granted special treaty status by President Yeltsin which it has only recently lost. Under the 1993 Russian Constitution there are 21 ethnic republics in the Russian Federation with until recently their own presidents, state languages in addition to Russian and other privileges, although no right to secede. Mr Putin is working hard to reverse Lenin’s policy of federative relations.

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