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The Law of the Soviet Union—also known as Soviet Law, or Socialist Law—was the law that developed in the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution of October 1917; modified versions of it were adopted by many Communist states (see below) following the Second World War.
Soviet Law had some of the characteristics of civil law systems, including some similar rules of procedure and legal methodologies. However, it introduced major differences:
- while civil law systems have extensive legislation dealing with private property, Soviet law upheld state ownership of the means of production and national economic planning
- the lack of a distinction between civil and criminal law;
- the practical lack of civil rights and separation of powers, the lack of recourses against government;
- the idea that the underlying purpose of the law was to aid in the restructuring of society and advancing towards communism under the supervision of the Communist Party.
History and influence of Soviet Law
The legal system of the Soviet Union was the principal model followed by other members of the Soviet family of legal systems (Mongolia, the People's Republic of China, the countries of eastern Europe, Cuba and Vietnam being the most notable). This legal system was developed after the Russian Revolution and based on traditional Western civil law, with many elements originating in the Russian legal tradition (going back as far as the 10th century Kievan Rus) and influences from Byzantine secular and canon law.
In 1917, the Soviet authorities formally repealed all Tsarist legislation and began to establish a socialist system with the final aim of reaching communism. The vast majority of Marxist theory concerned itself with matters of politics, economics and sociology, not legislation, and thus "socialist law" had to be built from scratch, using mostly non-Marxist legal theory. A few general guidelines were laid out. First, the new legal system should eliminate the political power and dominance of the bourgeoisie; second, law should be the instrument of the state and the people, not a restriction to policy-makers; third, law should establish rules of public order which ease the state's transition into socialism and eventually communism; and fourth, law should educate citizens in how they can help to build a communist social system. This is the basis on which Soviet Law was constructed.
The Structure of a Soviet Court
Soviet Law did not use an adversary system, in which a plaintiff and defendant argue before a neutral judge. Instead, court proceedings in the Soviet Union included a judge, a procurator, a defense attorney and two people's assessors , and allowed for free participation by the judge. This same system was used for all cases, due to the aforementioned lack of distinction between civil and criminal law.
Judges kept legal technicalities to a minimum; the court's stated purpose was to find the truth, rather than to protect legal rights. Other aspects of Soviet Law more closely resembled the Anglo-Saxon system. In theory, all citizens were equal before the law—defendants could appeal to a higher court if they believed their sentence to be too harsh. However, the procurator could also appeal if he/she considered the sentence to be too lenient. Soviet Law also guaranteed defendants the right to legal representation, and the right to be tried in their native language, or to use an interpreter. Although most hearings were open to the public, hearings could also be held privately, if the Soviet Government deemed it necessary.
The Soviet internal police had a long history, with roots dating back to the Tsarist period. Although the Tsarist political police were ruthless, the police organs established by the Bolsheviks in 1917, known as the Vecheka, far surpassed their predecessors (this was a result of fighting in the civil war). Eventually, the Stalinist police apparatus was created, which many consider the classic historical example of totalitarianism. To suppress opposition, Joseph Stalin drastically increased the scope and powers of the secret police (first the NKVD, then the GPU, then the KGB). Millions perished at the hands of the secret police controlled by Stalin. However, after Stalin's death, the terror ended abruptly. Nikita Khrushchev initiated legal reforms and reorganized the police apparatus, the political police were brought under the control of the Communist Party, and the gulag was dismantled. Still, even in the era of glasnost ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev nearly 30 years later, the organs of internal security still had a key role to play in protecting the Soviet regime from internal and external threats.
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