This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“Soviet Power is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic.”

Step by step the Soviet Union fights forward towards that complete democracy which has never yet existed anywhere on earth. For democracy is neither absolute nor static. It varies in type, extent and intensity. It may grow or diminish. In the Soviet Union it grows.

What are the functions of government in the Soviet Union? How wide is the participation of the people? How much of their life can they control? Whence come the ideas that are followed in the land? What initiative and creative energy is expressed? Who rises to high posts and by what means? All these questions must be considered in determining what kind of democracy exists.

Let us take first the formal facts of voting, though this is far from exhausting in the Soviet citizen’s participation in government. The Soviet Union has today the largest body of voters any where in the world. Moreover a larger percentage of them come out to elections than in any other country; they give more time to their elections and decide a greater variety of questions.

All “toilers” over the age of eighteen may elect and be elected; the word is interpreted to include students, housewives, old people who have passed the age of work as well as those more formally known as workers. Voting thus extends to a younger age than is common elsewhere, and there are no disqualifications for transient residents, paupers, migratory workers, soldiers, sailors, such as exist in most countries; even non-citizens may vote if they work in a Soviet industry. There are no restrictions for sex, creed or color, nor even for illiteracy. The only significant restriction relates to “exploiting elements,” but the steady decrease of privately owned enterprises has cut the disfranchised to 2.5 per cent of the population in the 1934 elections; by 1937 it is expected that all will have the vote. In the 1934 elections 91,000,000 people were entitled to vote, and of these 77,000,000, or 85 per cent, actually participated, which is double the proportion found in most countries.

Let us take a motion picture of a Soviet election. In December 1934 the Moscow streets were thronged with processions, continuing for several days. Special street-cars, gay with banners, carried people to meetings. Men and women gathered in side streets, formed in line with merry chatter and went with bands and flags to the building secured for their election meeting.

All over the country for more than a month elections had been going on in far-away factories and villages. Soviet elections do not take place on a single day but are determined by local convenience within a period of several weeks prior to the convening of an All-Union Congress. Localities choose dates which will enable their outgoing governments to finish their business, and give the incoming governments time to prepare demands for the All-Union Congress. These candidates and demands had been subjects of much discussion. But the attitude to the elections expressed itself rather in action than in talk. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were joining collective farms “to break with the past and enter the elections as collective farmers.” Factory workers were energetically completing new models of locomotives, turbines, inventions, to send as presents to the coming congress. There were, in fact, so many of these presents that the sending of most of them was ordered confined to reports.

In wooded mountains of Siberia the dark-skinned Oirots announced proudly: “We have abandoned the wandering life of wigwams; we have raised our literacy rate from 6 to 89 per cent; we enter these elections as educated farmers, settled on our own soil.” From the Turkoman Republic they were matching this claim with another: “Our once suppressed women have increased the proportion who turn out to elections from 2.5 per cent to 73 per cent in these eight years.” The historic city of Kiev was boasting: “Half our elected deputies are women. We lead the Soviet Union in the proportion of women elected to office; this means that we lead the world.” But their boast was matched by the textile city Tver, now renamed Kalinin, which has fully as many.

Young Pioneers were reciting poems to urge on their elders:

That we may build more firmly,
Advancing more confidently to victory,
We choose to our Soviets firm, tested fighters,
Close-welded, the best of our best.

On the southern Kazak steppe an aged yellow-skinned herdsman, dying, sent a last message to his son who had been village president and who was now elected delegate to the All-Union Congress: “All the years of my life were dark with toil and hunger. But I lived to see the new day. Take care of the Soviet power, my son; it is our power, our happiness.”

Along the Arctic coast the autumn herring run began a few days before the date set for local elections. The fishermen went to sea. Some of the election commissioners held elections in the absence of a considerable number of voters and were roundly denounced for it by Pravda, central organ of the Communist Party. “A gross violation of Soviet democracy! What right have commissioners to hold elections when workers cannot come? We are glad to note that many of the fishermen had a better sense of their obligations. Many crews held their own meetings and sent deputies ashore with their instructions. But they should not have been forced to this irregularity. The proper course was found by those commissioners who held regular election meetings on the boats and thus combined enthusiastic work for a good herring catch with the collective decision of what to do with it.”

All of this, taken together and multiplied by millions, makes plain the essence of the Soviet election. It is an act of joint owners deciding what to do with their production, how to build a good life on the proceeds. The task of officials is not to enforce some precedent but to find ways of adjusting election machinery to voters. “The hottest elections we ever had,” they bragged of the 1934 elections, proud of the increasing popular participation in government, which is relied on to check bureaucracy and make state enterprises efficient.

The basic unit for government is the working institution, the factory or office; in rural districts it is the village. Deputies are chosen to the local government, the village or city soviet.1 The basis of representation and size of the local soviet depends on the size of the community: Gulin village, whose election I visited, has one deputy for every forty voters and a village soviet of thirteen members. Moscow city elects one deputy for fifteen hundred voters and has more than two thousand members in its city soviet. These local deputies meet soon after election to form the new government. They divide among themselves the various departments, which range from the five sections of Gulin village—farming, livestock, culture, roads and finance—to twenty-eight sections, each with over forty deputies, through which Moscow city does business. Besides the more commonly known functions, these local governments own and manage local industry, which in a large city like Moscow includes many municipally owned factories, the street-cars, subway, lights, water, and housing. They receive revenue from public properties, but their budgets may also be augmented by taxes and state loans. Some cities actually bring in revenue—it will be remembered that they get all the house rents; others need help from the higher governments.

On these local governments is built up the whole structure of central government.2 Local soviets elect deputies to a congress of soviets; the township congress elects to the province, and so on up to the All-Union Congress of Soviets, the highest body in the country. Each of these congresses elects its executive committee and the heads of its various departments; for the highest government these are the great Commissariats of heavy and light industry, finance, health, and so forth. Local departments are both horizontally and vertically controlled, by local governments and by the corresponding department in the higher government. Thus a township health department is responsible both to the township executive committee and to the provincial health department. If orders clash, if a local soviet takes the hospital for some other use, its health department appeals to the provincial health department which brings pressure on the local soviet through the provincial government in the interests of public health.

The greater part of this intricate yet unified system of government is carried on by unpaid work. Elected deputies, whether to village or the All-Union Congress, receive no salaries of office. They draw their usual wages from the factory or institution which sends them and in which they keep on working, except insofar as they may be “released from production” for the needs of government; this varies with the importance of the work they do. There is thus no hard and fast line between the citizen and the man in office. Deputies are a link between the collective life of the factory and the larger collective life of the country. Any worker may approach them conveniently any day in their place of work to ask about the fulfillment of instructions given by the voters. They may be recalled by their constituents at any time simply through a factory meeting.

If voters thus constantly call on their deputies, the deputies are equally entitled to call on the voters for help in carrying out the election program they have voted. A deputy is no substitute for the people, no ruler; he is the representative who organizes them in their own tasks of voluntary government work. Millions of citizens take active part in the sections of the government—housing commissions, school commissions, taxing commissions, labor inspection and so on. Those who develop a taste for running public affairs will be chosen at some election for more continuous and responsible work. Those who specialize in some field, such as health, courts, housing, may be sent on pay for some months or years of study and become full-time civil servants in these departments.

The growth of democracy in the Soviet Union thus depends directly on the extent to which citizens can be interested in taking part in operations of government. This interest is in part assured by the fact that government is so clearly the direct organizing of all aspects of the citizen’s life. In a million matters the citizens give direct instructions during the election. They order the increase of school-houses or sound films, the improvement in the quality of bread, the increase of retail stores, the transport of goods in big cities by night; they demand the breaking-up of housing trusts into smaller co-operatives, or the introduction of a less specialized education in the schools. All of these were part of some 48,000 instructions issued directly by Moscow voters to their city government, which reported within three months on the fulfillment of many hundred demands and on the disposition made of all. When instructions clash, as when some citizens want an odorous industrial plant removed from their neighborhood while others want it to stay, commissions are formed which try to satisfy not merely the majority, but as nearly as possible everybody, not through a showing of hands in opposition, but through various adjustments to the suggestions made by all. Capitalist ownership of private property limits the citizen’s participation, in government to an approval or rejection—expressed in conflict—of general policies. Socialist ownership causes government policies to grow directly and naturally from the correlated demands of millions of people, all of whom are interested in improving the country’s wealth.

The interest of citizens in government is also consciously promoted by the Communist Party which stirs up wide competitions between factories, villages, cities, as to the extent and energy of their participation. An industrial plant where less than 95 per cent of the workers come to the election hangs its head in shame as an institution lacking in civic consciousness. Candidates never make speeches or election promises; this would be considered highly indelicate. But the voters pride themselves on picking deputies whose previous work has been notable and who therefore give promise of being widely useful. They select a fellow worker, not an outside politician. Students choose a student, auto-workers choose an auto-worker, the Moscow Grand Opera elects a famous singer. The future task of these deputies is to extend on a wider scale the type of work for which they are already known. The opera singer will organize connections between the Moscow Grand Opera and the villages, sending out artists to help rural singing classes. The printer on the Peasants’ Gazette who mechanized its mailing list of two million subscribers was elected to the Moscow city soviet with instructions to help mechanize all the newspapers of the city. A textile worker who helps organize a good day nursery in her factory will be elected by her fellow workers to help improve the city’s day nurseries, and will choose to work on the health section of the local government.

The operation of Soviet democracy is thus so intimate, continuous and organic that the observer fresh from capitalist politics hardly recognizes it as government. Where is the debate? Who determines general policies? Can the people throw out the upper officials? Can they throw out Stalin? The Communist Party? The Soviet voter, when asked these last questions, replies in a puzzled way: “Why should we want to?” The questioner thinks he has been evaded. But all elections presuppose an existing economic system, which voting is powerless to change. Voters in America cannot change Rockefeller’s method of operating oil companies for private profit. Similarly no Soviet election raises the issue of returning public properties to private hands: this was settled by the Revolution, and forms the foundation beneath the whole government.

Barring that question, there is nothing whatever that Soviet voters cannot change. They actually do change thousands of officials at every election, and as their acquaintance with the wider problems of the country grows, the forms of democracy are being widened to include direct control of the highest officials. Stalin’s chief post is not in the government, but as general secretary of the Communist Party, which would certainly remove him if his policy and actions should ever discredit him with the people; at present he is by far the most popular man in the country. To throw out the Communist Party bodily would be to throw out all the leading and organizing elements in all factories, farms, schools and enterprises; it could clearly be done only by upheaval leading to chaos. But the citizens are constantly at work changing the very membership of the Party, any member of which may be “cleaned out” on protest of his non-Party associates that he is too dictatorial, too rough towards workers, or merely not a fit leader.3

Several elections which I attended will show concretely how soviet democracy functions. Four election meetings were held simultaneously in different hamlets of Gulin village, which had no assembly hall big enough for all. One of these meetings threw out the Party candidate, Borisov, because they felt that he neglected their instructions; they elected a non-Party woman who had displayed energy in improving the village and were praised by the election commissioner—himself a Party member—for having discovered good government timber which the Party had neglected. The central meeting in Gulin expected 235 voters; 227 appeared and were duly checked off by name at the door. There ensued personal discussion of every one of nine candidates, of whom seven were chosen. Mihailov “did good work on the roads.” The most enthusiasm developed over Menshina, a woman who “does everything assigned her energetically; checks farm property, tests seeds, collects state loans.” Dr. Sharkova, head of the Mothers’ Consultation, was pushed by the women: “We need a sanitary expert to clean up our village.” The incoming soviet was instructed to “increase harvest yield within two years to thirty bushels per acre, to organize a stud farm, get electricity and radio for every home, organize adult education courses, football and skiing teams, and satisfy a score of other needs.

In the Moscow Architectural Institute where 1,500 men and women are qualifying to become architects, every class in the school held three sessions on the elections, discussing first the shortcomings of the outgoing government, then instructions to the new government, and lastly candidates. The fourteen hundred instructions sent in by the students included more and better draughting pencils, evening schools in drawing, more money for students’ excursions to see new architecture, more exhibitions of foreign architecture, fruit trees to beautify Moscow, artists to be held responsible for designs of state-made texiles, township architects to be appointed to advise the new construction on farms. Similarly the 1,500 voters of the Peasants’ Gazette turned in 1,500 proposals, which were carefully worked over by committees, published in a special newspaper issued for the voters, and given to their deputy to put through with their help. These included adequate textbooks for all pupils in the schools, an increase in the number of children’s theaters, strengthening the fight against hooliganism, closing the sale of liquor on Suchevski Street opposite school Twenty-two—the latter being the common form of the fight against alcohol.

Instructions thus adopted become the program of incoming governments, which they use as a weapon to get what they require from provincial and central authorities. Some of the demands can be put through by the electors themselves with the help of their deputy; others need central assistance. When the All-Union Congress meets it knows how many villages are demanding air-dromes, sound films, textbooks, electrification. These demands, correlated by engineers and economists, form the content for future development of the life of the country in the direction its citizens choose. But the citizens themselves expect to work to accomplish it. If villagers ask for a seven-room school or a landing field for farm airplanes, they expect deputies to investigate possible fields, make recommendations, get the needed machines from some central authority; but they themselves expect to haul the timber or pay the men who haul it with labor days credited against the joint harvest.

Democracy in Soviet life is not confined to government. Trade unions organize many aspects of workers’ life; collective farms and co-operatives organize production and distribution for the farmers. Their organization is separate from that of government; it is also democratically controlled. In the past two years democracy has become more intimate and decentralized in both these directions. The administration of social insurance, which in 1936 will have eight billion rubles for hospitals, day nurseries, diet kitchens, invalid benefits, old-age pensions and the like, was two years ago given over to the trade unions, as was also the inspection of factories and of workers’ food stores. Similarly the whole organization of collective farming, including the relation between fields operated jointly and plots individually worked by farm members, is today in the hands of the farmers themselves, decided by the general meeting at which not less than two-thirds are present. Thus democracy grows more flexible, the intermediate apparatus is lessened, and the various functions of government are handled by those whom they most directly concern.

The extension of social ownership into the farms and the growth in the intelligence of the entire electorate has made possible a third extension of democracy. A new constitution is being drafted by the collective labor of thousands of people in all parts of the land. Economists and historians are studying the constitutions of all countries and considering every detail of democratic technique; their reports will be further discussed in every factory and farm of the country before the constitution takes final form. It is known, however, that it will include direct election, secret ballot, and equal representation for all citizens, replacing the inequality which hitherto obtained between city workers and peasants. At is also expected to abolish all disfranchised classes, since by 1937 social ownership will be universal and all citizens will belong to one toiling-owning class.

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” was said once of the democracy of capitalist society whereby small private owners protected their rights. But socialism demands more than vigilance. Eternally co-operating human energy is the price of socialism and of that complete democracy which operates jointly owned means of production for the expanding life of all. This is the final stage towards which the present Soviet democracy struggles and grows.


1.  The word “soviet” means “council.” City soviet is city council.

2.  A new constitution is in preparation which will change many details, but it will hardly change the principle of close connection between local, state and central bodies in one system.

3.  This is discussed in Chaps. 1 and 5.

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