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Treaty on the Creation of the Soviet Union – Signed, Sealed, and Delivered?

The following is a guest post by Peter Roudik, Director of the Global Legal Research Center and a specialist on the laws of Eastern European and former Soviet Union jurisdictions.

In previous posts, my colleagues have discussed different types of laws from various countries.  These have included unusual laws, little-known laws, and laws that were never implemented.  It is now my turn to talk about an interesting legal document—one that became valid and was strictly enforced for 69 years, but that was never actually formally passed in its final form.  This was the Treaty on the Creation of the Soviet Union, which was adopted 90 years ago on December 30, 1922, by representatives from Belarus, Russia, Transcaucasian SFSR (Transcaucasia, aka South Caucasus), and Ukraine.

As Norman Davies writes in his recently published book Vanished Kingdoms, “many myths and misunderstandings persist about Soviet history.”  One such myth is that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) immediately succeeded the Russian Empire.  But this was not the way the USSR was established.

As soon as the Bolsheviks came to power in St. Petersburg in November 1917, numerous independent nation states were created on the periphery of the former empire.  Some of them were able to prolong the fight for their independence for many years; but in Ukraine, Belarus, and the South Caucasus satellite governments associated with Moscow, known as the Council of People’s Commissars, were put in place.  These three then-independent communist countries joined Soviet Russia in the aim of creating a common state.

Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, 1932. Site of the first Congress of Soviets of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13138 / CC-BY-SA.)

After heated debates about the form of the union, all four republics agreed on establishing a federation.  This was a compromise between a confederation model proposed by the joining republics, and a unitary Russian state with some autonomy for the annexed territories.  In December 1922, delegates from all four countries assembled in Moscow for a joint session of the Congress of Soviets.  The purpose of this gathering was the enactment of seminal documents and the declaration of the creation of a new state.  There, they unanimously adopted the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR.  Afterwards, on January 1, 1923, the major Russian newspaper Izvestiia, which provided official coverage of the session, came out with a headline that read “Creation of the Soviet Union is a New Year’s Gift to the World Proletariat.”

The passage of the founding treaty, however, was more complicated.  On November 29, 1922, the heads of national delegations met for a conference and agreed on major principles for the treaty.  Basically, the treaty would define the structure and jurisdiction of federal authorities and government institutions of the constituent republics.  It also introduced a federal judiciary, regulated the distribution of budgetary funds among the republics, and established a unified Soviet citizenship.  Joseph Stalin, who at that time was the Commissar of Nationality Affairs, reported the outcome of the conference to the full Congress on December 30, 1922.  He ended his speech asking the delegates to approve the treaty “immediately and unanimously as it is usually done by the communists.”  (Pravda, Dec. 31, 1922, No. 298, at 2.)

The cover of the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR, 1924. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The delegates, however, were not ready to vote for the treaty.  Instead, they supported the idea, suggested by the head of the Ukrainian delegation, that the treaty ought to be adopted as a basic concept and be sent to the legislatures of the constituent republics for further discussion.  The Ukrainian representative also proposed that the final ratification of the treaty be postponed until the next session of the Congress the following year.   He stated that “this way seems to be longer but we have to take into consideration that the process we started is extremely important, and we have to work more than one or two months in order to get better results.”  (Izvestiia, Jan. 1, 1923, No. 1, at 1.)   This proposal was reflected in the resolution of the Congress, which stated that while the concept of the treaty was accepted and the Soviet Union established, the approval of the treaty’s final version would be included in the agenda of the next session.

However, the treaty was never discussed again.  The next Congress, which met in January 1924, confirmed the first USSR Constitution already enacted by the Soviet authorities.  The author of the amendment to Stalin’s version of the treaty resolution died suddenly in 1925 during a routine medical procedure, which he submitted to at the strong recommendation of Stalin.  The treaty, though never finally passed by the Congress, remained in force until December 1991, when the USSR constituent republics denounced the treaty and dissolved the USSR.  The dissolution was based on article 26, which provided for the right to leave the Union.

Those interested in learning more about the treaty and other Soviet legal acts will find a large number of resources at the Library of Congress.  Our collection of Soviet legal materials includes all legal acts officially issued by Soviet authorities as well as collections of other political documents.  The Library has a complete set of two main Soviet newspapers, Pravda and Izvestiia, in which all major laws and political acts were published.  An electronic archive of these two publications was also recently acquired and is available to researchers in the Law Library’s Reading Room.

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