Soviet (Russian: sovet; Ukrainian: rada ‘council’). The basic institution of government, with both legislative and executive functions, in the USSR. Soviets controlled all other government institutions at every administrative-territorial level.
The first soviets in the Russian Empire arose spontaneously during the Revolution of 1905 as workers' strike councils. They appeared in the larger industrial cities, including Kyiv, Katerynoslav, and Mykolaiv in Ukraine. The method for choosing their delegates, their internal rules of order, and their powers differed greatly from soviet to soviet. Most leftist political parties were represented in the soviets. Formally the bodies were usually called soviets of workers' deputies.
Within a month after the February Revolution of 1917 about 600 soviets sprang up in the gubernia cities and industrial centers of the empire. Initially they included representatives from a wide range of leftist parties and were usually dominated by Socialist Revolutionaries (especially in rural areas) or Mensheviks. In many instances the soviets acted as alternative parliaments or forums and won considerable popular support. At first the Bolsheviks were a small minority in most soviets and advocated ‘all power to the soviets.’ At the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets, held in June 1917, only 10 percent of the delegates were Bolsheviks. The second congress, held after the Bolshevik coup in November 1917, was taken over by the Bolsheviks after most of the other parties withdrew in protest. This body elected the Bolshevik-dominated All-Russian Central Executive Commitee, which in January 1918 dispersed the All-Russian Constituent Assembly and proclaimed the transfer of all power to the soviets.
In Ukraine the All-Ukrainian Congress of Workers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Deputies, which convened in Kyiv on 17–19 December 1917, endorsed the Central Rada. The Bolshevik delegates rejected this action, however, and left Kyiv for Kharkiv to join an alternate congress of soviets from the Kryvyi Rih Iron-ore Basin and Donets Basin. Calling itself the All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets, this body proclaimed Soviet rule in Ukraine and established the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee (VUTsVK). Ukrainian democratic and nationalist parties generally rejected the soviet system of government on the grounds that it gave too much power to Russian or Russified workers and soldiers at the expense of the peasantry; they advocated a single parliament elected on the basis of universal suffrage. Eventually the Bolsheviks, with the support of the Borotbists and then the Ukrainian Communist party, were able to establish soviet power throughout the cities and towns of Ukraine. At the same time they were able to assert their authority over rural soviets, most of which had been organized and controlled by the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries.
Beginning in 1919–20 an entire system of soviets was constructed in Ukraine. At the base of the pyramid, rural, town, and city soviets were elected by local inhabitants. In 1925 there were 10,314 rural, 155 town, and 70 city soviets. At the higher levels elections were indirect: local soviets sent delegates to raion soviets, which in turn sent delegates to gubernia (to 1925), okruha, and oblast (from 1932) soviets. Even the All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets, the highest legislative body in Ukraine, was elected on an indirect basis by the okruha (later oblast) soviets. Soviet elections were closely controlled by the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine and dominated by workers and soldiers, who were disproportionately represented (in 1920, for every 1,000 soldiers, 10,000 urban workers, and 50,000 peasants the gubernia and city congresses of soviets sent one delegate to the All-Ukrainian Congress). The soviets were required by law to meet for a certain length of time a set number of times a year (usually two). They elected their own executive committees, which had executive authority between sessions of the soviet. Central control over the soviets was assured by the subordination of local soviets and executive committees to their higher counterparts all the way up to the VUTsVK and the All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets. Decisions of lower bodies which were deemed unconstitutional or contradictory could be overturned by higher bodies, and the instructions-circulars and orders of higher bodies were mandatory for lower ones. In the 1920s a degree of decentralization was preserved: the administrative personnel of the soviets was elected (although the Party in practice controlled the process); within their territory and competency local soviets were the highest authority; and the soviets controlled their own assets and budgets, which were set by them and only ratified by the higher bodies.
The 1937 Constitution (see Constitution of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) abolished the indirect electoral system and the unequal vote (although the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ remained a feature of Soviet political theory for many years) and introduced a system of direct elections to soviets at all levels. It also established the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR as the republic's highest legislative body. In 1985 there were 9,431 rural, 121 urban district, 421 town, 479 raion, and 25 oblast soviets in Ukraine, with a total of over 526,000 deputies. Elections to local soviets were held every two and a half years (formerly every two years); the Supreme Soviet was elected every five (formerly four) years. All citizens over the age of 18 were eligible and expected to vote. Candidates were usually nominated by the Party or some allied organization to ensure communist domination. Until the reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, only one candidate per electoral district was permitted.
At every level soviets elected their own executive committees to exercise executive power between sessions of the soviet. In theory the soviets were responsible for certain services in their districts, including housing, social security, public works, food distribution, cultural affairs, and the police. In reality they had very little authority. They were severely restricted by plans and budgets set by the central planners and authorities. Although they could make reports and recommendations to the higher authorities, they had little influence on the planning. Many enterprises and institutions within a local district were directly subordinated to central (Union, Union-republican, and republican) ministries and were beyond the control of the local soviet. In the last few years of the USSR there was a strong demand for decentralization.
Hazard, J.N. The Soviet System of Government (Chicago 1957)
Scott, D.J.R. Russian Political Institutions (London 1958)
[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]
Encyclopedia of Ukraine