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The human rights in the Soviet Union have been viewed differently by the communist ideology adopted by the Soviet Union and by its critics. The Soviet Union was established after a revolution that ended centuries of Tsarist monarchy. The emerging Soviet leaders sought to establish a new order and understanding of equality based on the Marxist-Leninist ideology. The Communist Party ruled the country and mobilized the entire population in support of the state ideology and policies. As a result civil and political rights were limited. The emphasis was placed on the principles of guaranteed economic and social rights.


Soviet concept of human rights and legal system

According to Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights are the "basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled."[1], including the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and social, cultural and economic rights, including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education.

The Soviet conception of human rights was different from conceptions prevalent in the West. According to Western legal theory, "it is the individual who is the beneficiary of human rights which are to be asserted against the government", whereas Soviet theory states that society as a whole is the beneficiary.[2]. Within the Soviet Union emphasis was placed on economic and social rights such as access to health care, adequate nutrition, education at all levels, and guaranteed employment.[3] The government of the Soviet Union considered these to be the most important rights, without which political and civil rights were meaningless.[3]

It was argued in the West that the Soviets rejected the Western concept of the "rule of law" as the belief that law should be more than just the instrument of politics; the Soviet view on rights was criticized for considering the Marxist-Leninist ideology above natural law.[2]

Freedom of political expression

In the 1930's and 40's the political repressions were practiced by the Soviet secret police services Cheka, OGPU and NKVD.[4] 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.[5]

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.[citation needed] 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.

Freedom of literary and scientific expression

Censorship in the Soviet Union was pervasive and strictly enforced.[6] 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 have 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". At one point Lysenkoism, which many consider a pseudoscience, was favored in agriculture and biology. In the 1930s and 1940s, many prominent scientists were declared to be "wrecklers" or enemy of the people and imprisoned. 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.[citation needed]

According to Soviet Criminal Code, 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.[7]

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 "a set of phantom institutions and arrangements which put a human face on the hideous realities: a model constitution adopted in a worst period of terror and guaranteeing human rights, elections in which there was only one candidate, and in which 99 percent voted; a parliament at which no hand was ever raised in opposition or abstention."[8]

Economic rights

Personal property was allowed, with certain limitations. All real property was considered state or socialist property.[9]

Health, housing, education and nutrition were guaranteed through the provision of full employment and economic welfare structures implemented in the workplace.[9] The economic protection was also extended to people of old age and the disabled through the payment of pension and extra benefits.[10]

Freedoms of assembly and association

Freedoms of assembly and association were limited.[citation needed] Workers were not allowed to organize free trade unions. All existing trade unions were organized and controlled by the state.[11] All political youth organizations, such as Pioneer movement and Komsomol served to enforce the policies of the Communist Party. Participation in non-authorized political organizations could result in imprisonment or even the death penalty.[7]

Freedom of religion

Temple of St Vladimir. It was turned into bus station in Soviet time.

The Soviet Union promoted atheism. The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion.[citation needed] Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed.

Some actions against Orthodox priests and believers along with execution included torture, being sent to prison camps, labour camps or mental hospitals.[12][13][14][15] Many Orthodox (along with peoples of other faiths) were also subjected to psychological punishment or torture and mind controlexperimentation in order to force them give up their religious convictions (see Punitive psychiatry in the Soviet Union).[13][14][16][17]

Practicing Orthodox Christians were restricted from prominent careers and membership in communist organizations (the party, the Komsomol). Anti-religious propaganda was openly sponsored and encouraged by the government, which the Church was not given an opportunity to publicly respond to. Seminaries were closed down, and the church was restricted from using the press. Atheism was propagated through schools, communist organizations, and the media. Organizations such as the Society of the Godless were created.

Freedom of movement

January 10, 1973. Jewish refuseniks demonstrate in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the right to emigrate to Israel

Emigration and any travel abroad were not allowed without an explicit permission from the government. People who were not allowed to leave the country and campaigned for their right to leave in 1970s were known as "refuseniks". According to the Soviet Criminal Code, a refusal to return from abroad was Treason punishable by imprisonment for a term of 10–15 years or death with confiscation of property.[7]

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 only allowed to live at least 101 km away from city borders. Travel to closed cities and to the regions near USSR state borders was strongly restricted. An attempt to illegally escape abroad was punishable by imprisonment for 1–3 years.[7]

Human rights movement in the USSR

  • Action Group for the Defence of Civil rights in the USSR was founded in May 1969. The organization petitioned on behalf of the victims of Soviet repressions. It was dissolved after the arrest and trial of its leading member Peter Yakir.
  • USSR's section of Amnesty International was founded on October 6 1973 by 11 Moscow intellectuals and was registered in September 1974 by the Amnesty international Secretariat in London.
  • The Moscow Helsinki Group was founded in 1976 to monitor the Soviet Union's compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 that included clauses calling for the recognition of universal human rights.


  1. ^ Houghton Miffin Company (2006)
  2. ^ a b Lambelet, Doriane. "The Contradiction Between Soviet and American Human Rights Doctrine: Reconciliation Through Perestroika and Pragmatism." 7 Boston University International Law Journal. 1989. p. 61-62.
  3. ^ a b Shiman, David (1999). Economic and Social Justice: A Human Rights Perspective. Amnesty International. ISBN 0967533406. 
  4. ^ Anton Antonov-Ovseenko Beria (Russian) Moscow, AST, 1999. Russian text online
  5. ^ Koehler, John O. Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police. Westview Press. 2000. ISBN 0-8133-3744-5
  6. ^ A Country Study: Soviet Union (Former). Chapter 9 - Mass Media and the Arts. The Library of Congress. Country Studies
  7. ^ a b c d Biographical Dictionary of Dissidents in the Soviet Union, 1956-1975 By S. P. de Boer, E. J. Driessen, H. L. Verhaar; ISBN 9024725380; p. 652
  8. ^ Robert Conquest Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000) ISBN 0-393-04818-7, page 97
  9. ^ a b Feldbrugge, Simons (2002). Human Rights in Russia and Eastern Europe: essays in honor of Ger P. van den Berg. Kluwer Law International. ISBN 9041119515. 
  10. ^ A Study of the Soviet economy, Volume 1. International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. 1991. ISBN 9264134689. 
  11. ^ A Country Study: Soviet Union (Former). Chapter 5. Trade Unions. The Library of Congress. Country Studies. 2005.
  12. ^ Father Arseny 1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. Introduction pg. vi - 1. St Vladimir's Seminary Press ISBN 0-88141-180-9
  13. ^ a b L.Alexeeva, History of dissident movement in the USSR, in Russian
  14. ^ a b A.Ginzbourg, "Only one year", "Index" Magazine, in Russian
  15. ^ The Washingotn Post Anti-Communist Priest Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa By Patricia Sullivan Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, November 26, 2006; Page C09
  16. ^ Dumitru Bacu, The Anti-Humans. Student Re-Education in Romanian Prisons], Soldiers of the Cross, Englewood, Colorado, 1971. Originally written in Romanian as Piteşti, Centru de Reeducare Studenţească, Madrid, 1963
  17. ^ Adrian Cioroianu, Pe umerii lui Marx. O introducere în istoria comunismului românesc ("On the Shoulders of Marx. An Incursion into the History of Romanian Communism"), Editura Curtea Veche, Bucharest, 2005
  18. ^ Museum of dissident movement in Ukraine


  • 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.

External links

See also


For other articles on the topic see


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