Constitution of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

Constitution of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Basic law of the Ukrainian Soviet state. The first constitution of the Ukrainian SSR was adopted on 14 March 1919 by the Third All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets. The congress met in Kyiv during the second Bolshevik campaign against the Ukrainian National Republic. The Constitution of the Ukrainian SSR was modeled on the Constitution of the Russian SFSR, adopted on 10 July 1918, which was to define ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ in legal terms. According to this constitution, the soviets of workers', peasants', and soldiers' deputies in towns and villages were to be the principal government bodies. The All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets was the highest governing authority, and the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee was its intersessional legislative-administrative agency. The Council of People's Commissars of the Ukrainian SSR was selected by the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee and constituted the administrative branch of the government. In the larger territorial units (gubernias, counties, rural districts) the administrative agencies were executive committees elected at conferences of the soviets within the given units.

There were different categories of voters, with unequal representation, in the soviets and their congresses. Proportionally, the workers had the most representatives (town soviets sent one representative per 100 voters, while other classes of ‘working people’ sent one per 300). Under this system of unequal and indirect (to the higher levels of the Soviet system) elections, the representatives of the overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian population—the peasantry—constituted a minority in the ruling bodies of the Soviet government. Furthermore, the so-called non-working classes were deprived of the right to vote. (See Elections.)

The constitution formally guaranteed the ‘working people’ civil rights and freedoms, but the authorities were in control of the practical implementation of these rights and freedoms. The constitution did not formally establish a one-party regime, but all political parties except the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine were liquidated by 1924. The state system was based on the principle of democratic centralism, that is, the complete subordination of lower bodies to higher ones. In spite of having broad formal powers, local soviets were not self-governing bodies, for they were subordinated directly to higher executive committees and congresses of soviets.

The Constitution of the Ukrainian SSR of 1919 did not define Ukraine's relationship to the Russian SFSR. This was formulated in separate laws enacted by both states. On 1 June 1919 a resolution of the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee established a military and economic alliance between the two Soviet republics. On 30 December 1920 these ties were formulated in the Workers' and Peasants' Alliance Treaty between the RSFSR and the Ukrainian SSR. On 30 December 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was created, which finally united the ‘sovereign’ Soviet republics into one ‘federal state.’ The Constitution of the USSR, which was confirmed on 31 January 1924, consisted formally of a declaration on the formation of the USSR and a treaty of union which defined the new relations between the Soviet republics as ones based on the principle of federalism. This agreement and later Ukrainian-USSR constitutions confirm the right of the Ukrainian SSR to secede from the Union, but under the actual Soviet political system this right had only a theoretical significance. The 1924 constitution merged the following political and economic spheres: foreign relations, trade, the armed forces, roads, postal and telegraph services. To administer these areas, all-Union agencies were formed. In various other spheres the Union agencies were empowered to set general policies, but the republican agencies (called Directive People's Commissariats) were responsible for their execution. Only some spheres (internal matters, agriculture, education, justice, social security, health care) were under the autonomous prerogatives of the republics. But even in these areas the Union agencies retained the right to set ‘general principles’ of legislation and administration.

In 1925 a new version of the constitution of the Ukrainian SSR was adopted. It made some changes in connection with Ukraine's membership in the USSR. On 15 May 1929 the Eleventh All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets adopted the second constitution of the Ukrainian SSR, which in form and content was more like the constitutions of other Soviet republics.

On 10 January 1937 a new constitution, based on the constitution of the USSR of December 1936, was adopted by the Extraordinary Congress of Soviets of the Ukrainian SSR. The main features of the 1937 constitution were as follows: (1) it defined the foundations of a ‘socialist’ social order; (2) it introduced direct general elections of all soviets through an equal and secret vote; (3) the soviets were the organs of authority at every level. The highest legislative body was the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR. The oblast, raion, town, and village governing bodies were the soviets of working people's deputies, which elected their respective executive committees to run the administration. The constitution theoretically guaranteed broad civil rights, but at the same time legitimized a one-party system (art 106).

Since 1937 the text of the constitution underwent many changes, mainly to reflect changes in the text of the USSR constitution. These changes had to do primarily with such matters as the structure of state agencies, the number and names of the ministries (no longer called people's commissariats after 1946), local government agencies, and the administrative-territorial division. Amendments introduced on 1 February 1944 and after 1953 were more important. In 1944 the Ukrainian SSR was granted the right to establish direct relations with foreign countries and to maintain its own armed forces. The first right was implemented to a limited extent (eg, through membership in the United Nations). The second remained unrealized. After Joseph Stalin's death, the powers of the government of the Ukrainian SSR were increased in the process of full decentralization. In May 1957 most of the industrial ministries were abolished, and from 1960 the Ukrainian Council of the National Economy and the State Planning Committee of the Ukrainian SSR ran industry, but under the control of the State Planning Committee of the USSR and the USSR Council of Ministers. The practical management of industry was in the hands of regional economic councils. After 1962 and Nikita Khrushchev's fall, the former, centralized system was reinstated.

The basic principles of the state and social order remained unchanged. They were elaborated in the constitution of the USSR and were incorporated almost verbatim into the constitution of the Ukrainian SSR. According to art 20 of the USSR constitution, a law of the Ukrainian SSR that conflicted with the laws of the USSR could not be valid.

The Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR could change or supplement the constitution with a two-thirds-majority vote (art 127). In practice, changes were introduced by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and the Supreme Soviet merely confirmed them.

The constitution since 1978. The last constitution of the Ukrainian SSR was adopted by the Seventh Extraordinary Session of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR, which convened on 20 April 1978. It was drafted in accordance with the USSR constitution of 7 October 1977. This constitution was prepared by a special commission headed by the first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky. The new constitution basically retained the former political, economic, social, and ideological principles and the former state structure of the USSR and Ukrainian SSR. It differed merely in its more precise formulation of certain resolutions and in its broader ideological-programmatic additions, based on the 1961 program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The structural and institutional changes were insignificant.

Whereas the preamble of the constitution of the USSR declareed that ‘for the first time in history a socialist society has been created,’ the preamble to the constitution of the Ukrainian SSR emphasized that in the USSR ‘for the first time in history the nationalities question has been solved.’ Both documents spoke of a ‘new historical community—the Soviet people,’ of which the people of the Ukrainian SSR considered themselves an inseparable part. The constitution described the Ukrainian SSR as ‘a socialist people's state, which expresses the will and interests of workers, peasants, and the intelligentsia, and of the republic's working people of every nationality’ (art 1), in contrast to the 1937 statement ‘the Ukrainian SSR is a socialist state of workers and peasants.’

As a Union republic the Ukrainian SSR was called ‘a sovereign Soviet national state’ (art 68), while the USSR is ‘one, federal, multinational state.’ Unitary Union citizenship was consistently stressed. Ukrainian citizenship no longer existed; it was reduced to the designation of residency.

The Ukrainian SSR retained ‘the right of free secession from the USSR’ (art 69), and yet the state structure and government powers resembled those of a unitary state ruled consistently according to the principle of democratic centralism. At the same time, the principle of socialist democracy (increased citizen participation, initiative from below, etc) was emphasized more than before.

The chapter on basic civil rights, freedoms, and obligations of Soviet Ukrainian citizens was greatly enlarged. Political and other rights were guaranteed in accordance with the interests of the people ... [and] the goals of building communism.’ Most of the human rights mentioned in the Universal Declaration and in international agreements were listed here. A citizen's obligations were enumerated as well (see Civil rights).

According to the 1978 constitution of the Ukrainian SSR, the republic's Supreme Soviet (see Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR) was elected for five years and consisted of 650 delegates. Local soviets were elected every two-and-a-half years. The distinction between Union-republican ministries and republican ministries was retained, but the ministries were no longer listed: changes in government structure were left to ordinary legislation. The Presidium of the Council of Ministers, a smaller body of the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian SSR that had existed before without being mentioned in the constitution, was defined. The government agencies of the Ukrainian SSR were fully subordinated to the government of the USSR. Articles on the participation of the Ukrainian SSR in the formation of the state agencies of the USSR were lacking, although such articles could be found in the USSR constitution. The 1978 constitution did not mention Ukraine's right to its own military formations.

As an official language of the Ukrainian SSR, Ukrainian was relegated to a subordinate status by a number of articles: the right to education (art 43) provided merely for ‘the opportunity for instruction in one's native language’ (the 1937 constitution required ‘school instruction in one's native language’); legal proceedings in the Ukrainian SSR were conducted in Ukrainian or in the language of the majority in a given locality (art 157) (the previous constitution stated that legal proceedings in the Ukrainian SSR were to be conducted in Ukrainian, although non-Ukrainians had the right to use their own language [art 90]).

The chapters on state planning (chap 16), the people's deputy (chap 11), and the four introductory chapters were new. A number of constitutional provisions left the detailed regulation of various matters to special legislation. The 1978 constitution had 171 articles, divided into 10 chapters. The 1937 constitution had 127 articles. In general the 1978 constitution was more clearly formulated. It codified some changes that had previously been put into practice and introduced many ideological and programmatic statements. Yet, this constitution was merely a declarative document that could not be interpreted in isolation from the whole system or from the unwritten but practiced constitution, according to which the Party was in control (art 6 describes the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as ‘the leading and directing force in Soviet society, the nucleus of its political system,’ without saying a word about the Communist Party of Ukraine).

The final articles of the constitution dealt with the emblem, flag, anthem, and capital of the Ukrainian SSR, as well as the procedures for constitutional amendments. The Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR had the power to change or amend the constitution by a two-thirds- majority vote.

Taranov, A. Istoriia konstytutsiï URSR (Kyiv 1957)
Konstytutsiia Ukraïns'koï RSR 1919 r. (Odesa 1962)
Konstytutsiia (Osnovnyi zakon) URSR (Kyiv 1967)
Konstytutsiia (Osnovnyi zakon) URSR (Kyiv 1978)

Vasyl Markus, Oleksander Yurchenko

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]

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