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The constitutional process in Russia 

historical background

Hopes for a constitution (1800–1917)

The constitutional process in Russia has its origins in the beginning of the nineteenth century. By this time, the democratic constitution of 1787 was already in effect in the United States and Britain had built up its own experience of constitutional regulation of the state through a body of statutes that acted as a constitution though were not united as a single document. With the ascent of Tsar Alexander I to the Russian throne, the idea of reforming Russia’s political system through creating a constitution that would guarantee citizens their personal freedom and civil liberties became increasingly popular. The first results of this process were seen in the Kingdom of Poland, to which Alexander I granted a constitution that provided for the creation of a  two-chamber parliament, a system of local government and freedom of the press. At the same time, work continued on a draft constitution for Russia itself, which culminated in the 1820 “Founding State Document of the Russian Empire.” Adoption of this document was postponed indefinitely, however, and Poland too ended up losing its constitutional privileges in 1830.

Russia came close to adopting a constitution during the reign of reformist Tsar Alexander II. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 and steps to establish a local government system in the towns and the countryside gave rise to hopes in society that the country would get a constitution. In 1881, however, just before he was due to sign a manifesto opening the way to broad economic and administrative reform, Alexander II was killed by a terrorist. This barbaric act of violence interrupted the constitutional process in Russia.

Constitutional reform in Russia began in earnest with the manifestos issued by Tsar Nicholas II. The “Manifesto on Improving the State Order” of October 17, 1905, proclaimed “the foundations of civil liberties based on genuine personal inviolability, freedom of conscience, speech, meeting and association”. This manifesto also declared the unshakable principle that no law could take effect without the approval of the State Duma and that the elected representatives of the people would have the effective possibility of taking part in supervision of the conformity with the law of the authorities’ actions.

The “Fundamental State Laws” of April 23, 1906, developed the manifesto’s provisions but at the same time also ensured the tsar kept firm control over all these processes. The fundamental laws established a two-chamber parliament (the State Duma and the State Council), but the tsar also retained far-reaching powers and no law could come into effect without his approval. The Council of Ministers was transformed into a permanently functioning body appointed by the tsar and accountable to him alone. The tsar retained complete control over setting government policy, especially in the areas of foreign policy and military affairs. Voting rights were introduced for electing the State Duma. This gave broad sections of the population the right to take part in elections, though in unequal conditions. The State Duma was to be elected for a five-year term and had the right to pass all laws, though laws could also be passed by the tsar, with the approval of both houses of parliament.

Although the reformist plans that arose from time to time in tsarist Russia paved the way for considerable transformation, their implementation was constantly postponed due to numerous internal and external circumstances, above all the lack of consensus in society about their necessity and expediency.

The Soviet constitutions (1917–1993)

The Constitution of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) of 1918, adopted at the fifth All-Russian Congress of the Soviets on July 10, 1918, was very noticeably class-based in character. It reflected the slogans proclaimed by the Bolsheviks as they prepared the way for and carried out the 1917 coup. All power was given to the Soviets, private land ownership was abolished and certain social groups had their political rights restricted.

The constitution’s authors did away with virtually all the democratic principles of the representative system of power that had been developed by that time. The new constitution gave no place whatsoever to parliamentary institutions, an accountable government, recognition of opposition rights, the rule of law and so on. The issue of overstepping or abusing authority had not even been raised, and so the principle of division of powers was deemed superfluous.

In 1924, following the formation of the USSR, the Soviet constitution was adopted. This constitution reproduced in large part the provisions of the 1918 constitution. In accordance with the provisions of the 1924 Soviet constitution, a new draft of the RSFSR constitution was adopted in 1925. This new constitution, unlike the previous version, no longer contained provisions about crushing the exploiter classes and pursuing world revolution. One of the main issues it dealt with was the delimitation of powers between the Soviet authorities and the RSFSR.

On December 5, 1936, the VIII Extraordinary Congress of the USSR Soviets adopted a new constitution that aimed to strengthen the foundations of socialism and lay the basic guidelines for further work on building communism. In particular, the new constitution cemented the principle of the Communist Party’s leading role. The constitution also set out the basic economic principles of socialism: the abolition of private property, the predominance of the socialist economic system and socialist ownership of the means of production, and the establishment of state economic planning that would determine the country’s entire economic life.

One of the 1936 constitution’s major objectives was to act as the democratic facade for Soviet power. Thus, the constitution contained some elements of a division of powers based on a declarative independence of the Soviet “parliament”, government and judicial system from each other. The constitution moved away from the earlier restrictions of political rights for certain groups and proclaimed equality of rights for all citizens. For the first time in the history of the Soviet state, the constitution referred to political and individual rights and freedoms and socio-economic rights. Unfortunately, these constitutional provisions were not reflected in the country’s life. Moreover, the adoption of the 1936 Soviet constitution and the new RSFSR constitution, adopted on January 21, 1937, coincided with a new and ruthless wave of Stalinist repression. Among the particularities of the 1937 RSFSR constitution were provisions establishing the right of the RSFSR to withdraw from the Soviet Union.

The construction of a new communist society did not proceed as rapidly as had been hoped and these delays were reflected in a new Soviet constitution proclaiming the construction of a “developed socialist society.” The constitution was adopted by the USSR Supreme Soviet on October 7, 1977. It went even further in extending Soviet citizens’ rights and freedoms, in particular, enshrining the right to housing and to healthcare. This seeming  development of civil rights and liberties in the Soviet Union had little in common with international standards, however, for it was still completely subject to the aims of “building communism” under the control of a totalitarian state headed by the Soviet Communist Party, which in accordance with article six of the Soviet constitution and article six of the RSFSR constitution of April 12, 1978, was the “leading and guiding force in Soviet society and the core of its political system and state and public organisations”. The basis for the Soviet Communist Party’s existence as enshrined in the constitution was that it “exists for the people and serves the people”.

Over the fifteen years of its existence, the 1978 RSFSR constitution underwent radical transformation that concerned not just individual provisions but the document’s very essence. Beginning in the second half of the 1980s, the constitution reflected a gradual renunciation of building communism, the leading role of the Communist Party and the Soviet system. At the same time, it began to give greater priority to human rights, private property and the principle of division of powers. In 1991, the post of President was introduced in Russia. The Declaration of Human Rights and Civil Liberties in the Russian Federation, adopted on November 22, 1991, was incorporated into the constitution. New opportunities arose to freely create political parties and public organisations and all this had a significant impact on the country’s political life.

The Russian Constitution of 1993

With the collapse of the Soviet Union it became clear that Russia would need a new constitution free from the layers of the past. Work on a new constitution began at the beginning of the 1990s amidst broad public discussion and resulted in several different drafts being prepared. The main ones  were the draft constitution drawn up by the Russian Supreme Soviet’s Constitutional Commission and the draft prepared by the Constitutional Conference convoked by decision of the President. The Constitutional Conference’s draft reflected many of the provisions in the Constitutional Commission’s draft and was adopted as the basis for further work to draw up a final draft constitution. The Russian regions, deputies, specialists and working groups were all involved in this process. The result was a draft constitution submitted by the President to the nation in a referendum. The referendum was held on the basis of the Provision for a Referendum on the Draft Constitution of the Russian Federation. 

A total of 58,187,755 voters, or 54.8 percent of the registered voters, took part in the referendum on the new draft constitution on December 12, 1993. Of this total, 32,937,30 voters, or 58.4 percent of those who took part in the referendum, voted in favour of the draft constitution and it was adopted. It officially came into force on December 25, 1993, at the moment of its official publication.

The 1993 constitution considerably changed the way the state power system is organised and made a lot of progress toward improving Russia’s federal structure. For the first time in Russia’s history, the constitution’s provisions have direct application. This means that any person can defend their rights based on the constitution’s provisions, and when examining cases and settling disputes, the courts and other state bodies must base themselves above all on the constitution’s provisions. The constitution represents the highest law in the country and so all other laws must conform to its provisions. This is achieved in particular through a system of judicial constitutional control.

Unlike in the past, the 1993 constitution does not proclaim a predetermined unified economic system based on state ownership, but gives equal protection to all forms of ownership and guarantees the freedom and development of civil society.

The Constitution forms the country’s legal foundation, proclaims the President of the Russian Federation the head of state and lays upon him the responsibility for defending the Constitution, human rights and civil liberties, safeguarding Russia’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and ensuring the coordinated functioning and cooperation of the state bodies of power. 


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