Refusenik (Soviet Union)

Human rights in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was a single-party state where the Communist Party ruled the country. All key positions in the institutions of the state were occupied by members of the Communist Party. The state proclaimed its adherence to the Marxism-Leninism ideology and the entire population was mobilized in support of the state ideology and policies. Independent political activities were not tolerated, including the involvement of people with free labour unions, private corporations, non-sanctioned churches or opposition political parties. The regime maintained itself in political power by means of the secret police, propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, personality cult, restriction of free discussion and criticism, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror tactics, such as political purges and persecution of specific groups of people.

Soviet concept of human rights

According to Soviet constitution, each individual was guaranteed civil rights, but had to sacrifice them and his/her desires to fulfill the needs of the collective. So, for example, open criticism of the Communist Party could not be allowed because it could hurt the interests of the state, society, and the progress of socialism. The Soviet concept of human rights focused on economic and social rights such as being able to have access to health care, get adequate nutrition, receive education at all levels, and be guaranteed employment. The Soviets considered these to be the most important rights, which were not guaranteed by Western governments.

Criticism of Soviet rights and laws

Critics claim that the Soviet legal system regarded law as an arm of politics and courts as agencies of the government . Extensive extra-judiciary powers were given to the Soviet secret police agencies. According to Vladimir Lenin, the purpose of early socialist courts was "not to eliminate terror ... but to substantiate it and legitimize in principle" . Historian Richard Pipes writes that the regime abolished Western legal concepts including the rule of law, the civil liberties, the protection of law and guarantees of property.. Western legal theory states that "it is the individual who is the beneficiary of human rights which are to be asserted against the government", whereas Soviet law claimed the opposite.

Crime was determined not as the infraction of law, but as any action which could threaten the Soviet state and society. For example, a desire to make a profit could be interpreted as a criminal act done for self interest at the expensive of society, or, in the early period of the USSR, even as counter-revolutionary activity punishable by death. The liquidation and deportation of millions peasants in 1928-31 was carried out within the terms of Soviet Civil Code. Some early Soviet legal scholars even asserted that "criminal repression" may be applied in the absence of guilt.". As Martin Latsis, chief of the Ukrainian Cheka, explained during the civil war:

According to Richard Pipes, the purpose of public trials was "not to demonstrate the existence or absence of a crime - that was predetermined by the appropriate party authorities - but to provide yet another forum for political agitation and propaganda for the instruction of the citizenry. Defense lawyers, who had to be party members, were required to take their client's guilt for granted..."

Political repression

The political repressions were practiced by the Soviet secret police services Cheka, OGPU and NKVD. An extensive network of civilian informants - either volunteers, or those forcibly recruited - was used to collect intelligence for the government and report cases of suspected dissent.

Soviet political repression was a de facto and de jure system of prosecution of people who were or perceived to be enemies of the Soviet system. Its theoretical basis were the theory of Marxism about the class struggle. The term "repression", "terror", and other strong words were official working terms, since the dictatorship of the proletariat was supposed to suppress the resistance of other social classes which Marxism considered antagonistic to the class of proletariat. The legal basis of the repression was formalized into the Article 58 in the code of RSFSR and similar articles for other Soviet republics. Aggravation of class struggle under socialism was proclaimed during the Stalinist terror.


The repressions were conducted in several consecutive waves known as Red Terror, Dekulakization, Great Purge, Doctor's Plot, and others.

During Red Terror and collectivization the entire "ruling classes" have been exterminated, including "rich people", and a significant part of intelligentsia and peasantry labeled as kulaks. The numerous victims of extrajudicial punishment were called the enemies of the people. The punishment by the state included summary executions, torture, sending innocent people to Gulag, involuntary settlement, and stripping of citizen's rights. According to NKVD Orders No. 00486 and No. 00689, wives and family members were also punished if they were seen as being involved with their relative in the supposed crime. In 1941 the secret police forces conducted massacres of prisoners as the Soviets retreated from the German invasion..

After Stalin's death, the suppression of dissent was dramatically reduced and took new forms. The internal critics of the system were convicted for anti-Soviet agitation or as "social parasites". Others were labeled as mentally ill, having sluggishly progressing schizophrenia and incarcerated in "Psikhushkas", i.e. mental hospitals used by the Soviet authorities as prisons. A few notable dissidents, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Andrei Sakharov, were sent to internal or external exile.

Suppression of uprisings

During the Russian Civil War, anti-Bolshevik uprisings, like the Tambov and Kronstadt rebellions, were brutally suppressed by military force. During the Tambov rebellion, Bolshevik military forces used chemical weapons against rebelling peasants hiding in forests. A Committee organized by Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Antonov-Ovseenko "took hostages on enormous scale, carried out executions, and set up death camps where prisoners were gassed" according to Black book of communism

Ethnic cleansing accusations

Entire nations have been collectively punished by the Soviet Government for alleged collaboration with the enemy during World War II.

According to some historians, in legal terms the word "ethnic cleansing" or even "genocide" may be appropriate because specific ethnic groups were targeted. At least nine of distinct ethnic-linguistic groups, including ethnic Germans, ethnic Greeks, ethnic Poles, Crimean Tatars, Balkars, Chechens, and Kalmyks, were deported to remote unpopulated areas of Siberia and Kazakhstan. The ethnicity-targeted population transfers in the Soviet Union led to millions of deaths due to the inflicted hardships. Koreans and Romanians were also deported. Mass operations of the NKVD were needed to deport hundreds of thousands of people.

Deaths from famines

According to some historians, "the systematic use of famine as a weapon" was a "particular feature of many Communist regimes" and the deaths of 5 to 7 million people during the Soviet famine of 1932-1933, including the Holodomor in the Ukraine, were caused by confiscating food from peasants and blocking the migration of starving population by the Soviet government. The overall number of peasants who died in 1930–1937 from hunger and repressions during collectivisation (including in Kavkaz and Kazakhstan) was at least 14.5 million, according to historian Robert Conquest.

More recent estimates, based on actual archival data, indicate that 2 to 3.5 million died in Ukraine during the Holodomor. Historians R. Davies and S. Wheatcroft estimate that, overall, 5.5 to 6.5 million Soviet people died due to famine in the 1930s. According to them, the famine was an unintentional result of erroneous state policies in implementing collectivization combined with natural causes.

Loss of life

The number of people who died under Joseph Stalin's regime, including the famines, in the Soviet Union has been estimated as between 3.5 and 8 million by G. Ponton, 6.6 million by V. V. Tsaplin, 9.5 million by Alec Nove, 20 million by The Black Book of Communism, 50 million by Norman Davies, and 61 million by R. J. Rummel. The Guinness Book of Records claims that, overall, 66.7 million people were killed in the Soviet Union by state persecution from October 1917 through 1959 - under Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev.

The numbers of victims are inconsistent because they are determined using different criteria and methods and counted during different periods of time. Most recent publications are probably more reliable than estimates made during the Cold War, since after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, researchers gained access to Soviet archives.

Freedom of expression, literature, and science

According to Soviet Criminal Code, Article 70, agitation or propaganda carried on for the purpose of weakening Soviet authority, circulating materials or literature that defamed the Soviet State and social system were punishable by imprisonment for a term of 2-5 years and for a second offense, punishable for a term of 3-10 years.
Censorship in the Soviet Union was pervasive and strictly enforced. This gave rise to Samizdat, a clandestine copying and distribution of government-suppressed literature.

Art, literature, education, and science were placed under a strict ideological scrutiny, since they were supposed to serve the interests of the victorious proletariat. Socialist realism is an example of such teleologically-oriented art that promoted socialism and communism. All humanities and social sciences were tested for strict accordance with historical materialism.

All natural sciences had to be founded on the philosophical base of dialectical materialism. Many scientific disciplines, such as genetics, cybernetics, and comparative linguistics, were suppressed in the Soviet Union during some periods, condemned as "bourgeois pseudoscience", and replaced by real pseudoscience, such as Lysenkoism. Many prominent scientists during Stalin's rule were declared to be "wrecklers" or enemy of the people and imprisoned. Under Stalin, some scientists worked as prisoners in "Sharashkas", i.e. research and development laboratories within the Gulag labor camp system.

Every large enterprise or institution of the Soviet Union had First Department run by KGB people responsible for secrecy and political security of the workplace.

Right to vote

According to communist ideologists, the Soviet political system was a true democracy, where workers' councils called "soviets" represented the will of the working class. In particular, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 guaranteed direct universal suffrage with the secret ballot. However all candidates had been selected by Communist party organizations, at least before the June 1987 elections. Historian Robert Conquest described this system as

Property rights

Personal property was allowed, with certain limitations. All real property belonged to the state and society. Unauthorized possession of foreign currency was forbidden and prosecuted as criminal offense.

Freedoms of assembly and association

Freedoms of assembly and association did not exist. Workers were not allowed to organize free trade unions. All existing trade unions were organized and controlled by the state. All political youth organizations, such as Pioneer movement and Komsomol served to enforce the policies of the Communist Party.

According to Soviet criminal code participation in an anti-Soviet organization was punished in accordance with Article 64 -treason punishable up to Death penalty

Freedom of religion

The Soviet government promoted atheism. The stated goal was control, suppression, and, ultimately, the elimination of religious beliefs, which were seen as backward and disuniting. Atheism was propagated through schools, communist organizations, and the media. Movements, such as the Society of the Godless, were created. All religious movements were either prosecuted or controlled by the state and KGB. Nonetheless many still did practice religion, especially in the Asian republics.

Freedom of movement

Emigration and any travel abroad were not allowed without an explicit permission from the government. People who were not allowed to leave the country are known as "refuseniks". According to the Soviet Criminal Code, Article 64. flight abroad or refusal to return from abroad among other offenses was Treason that was punishable by imprisonment for a term of 10-15 years with confiscation of property or by death with confiscation of property.

Passport system in the Soviet Union restricted migration of citizens within the country through "propiska" (residential permit/registration system) and use of internal passports. For a long period of the Soviet history peasants did not have internal passports and could not move into towns without permission. Many former inmates received "wolf ticket" and were allowed to live only at 101 km away from city borders. Travel to closed cities and to the regions near USSR state borders was strongly restricted. Illegal exit abroad was punishable by imprisonment for a term of 1-3 years.

Human rights organizations and activists in USSR



  • Applebaum, Anne (2003) Gulag: A History. Broadway Books. ISBN 0-7679-0056-1
  • Conquest, Robert (1991) The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-507132-8.
  • Conquest, Robert (1986) The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505180-7.
  • Courtois, Stephane; Werth, Nicolas; Panne, Jean-Louis; Paczkowski, Andrzej; Bartosek, Karel; Margolin, Jean-Louis & Kramer, Mark (1999). The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-07608-7.
  • Khlevniuk, Oleg & Kozlov, Vladimir (2004) The History of the Gulag : From Collectivization to the Great Terror (Annals of Communism Series) Yale University Pres. ISBN 0-300-09284-9.
  • Pipes, Richard (2001) Communism Weidenfled and Nicoloson. ISBN 0-297-64688-5
  • Pipes, Richard (1994) Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. Vintage. ISBN 0-679-76184-5.
  • Rummel, R.J. (1996) Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1-56000-887-3.
  • Yakovlev, Alexander (2004). A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10322-0.

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