LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN THE SOVIET ERA

LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN THE SOVIET ERA

In the Soviet Union, the republics were governed by unicameral Supreme Soviets with deputies elected to 4 year terms. There were also appointed republic Presidiums, Council of Ministers, Supreme Courts. Legislative, executive and judicial power belonged to the local, regional and district Communist Party organizations. Regional party bosses controlled everything.

In China, local government was made up of People's Councils with representatives elected on the commune, district and province level. But often the most powerful people were regional party bosses appointed by the national government. The Communist Party maintained control nationwide through a network of committees that oversaw the administration of the country's local governments, universities, industries, schools and army units. There were tens of thousands of these committees and virtually every citizen had to answer to at least one. Local officials were usually named by senior officials and claimed by party committees.

The borders of the states and regions of former Soviet Union were often based more on the whims of Stalin and Khrushchev than on the facts of history, demography and economics. The system of local governance was a combination of centralism and federalism, with a certain degree of autonomy granted to local governments. Sometimes central leaders were unaware of what was really happening at the localities through normal bottom-up channels. Each province, city, town, prefecture and county was overseen by a parallel group of local leaders and Communist party officials. Village and towns may have had elected chiefs and mayors but they generally had been nominated by the Communist Party and had little power anyway. Running the show were county governments, under the supervision of Beijing or Moscow. They levied taxes, enforced government policies and had jurisdictions over police that were authorized to crack down on religious and political activity. In cities and provinces the most powerful leaders were not the mayors and governors but were the party secretaries.

The Communist system depended on legions of police, local party and government officials to enforcey Moscow's policies and squash dissent. Local governments were supposed to be controlled directly by Moscow but in reality they were more often controlled by local party officials and were pretty much left up to their own devices in earning revenues and providing services. A lot of effort was put into collecting taxes, bribes and running state-companies to earn revenues.

In many villages, local chiefs and leaders often had the most popular support. They were often prevented from holding office because they were not Communist Party members. Local assemblies were called People's Congresses. They were generally organized on the township level and had traditionally been filled by members appointed by the Communist Party. County government often come under the jurisdiction of nearby city governments which in turn were under the province governments.

Village Governments

In the Soviet era, power was supposed to be in the hands of the village soviet. In reality it was usually in the hands of the local Communist party committee. In China, village chiefs were often selected openly. But real power lay with the Party Secretary who was selected every three years during a closed-door session by local Communist Party members. The selection process was often an exercise in patronage with the process manipulated by township party officials, the next level up from the village. In selection meetings there was little if any talk about platforms and policies. If the township official gave a speech praising every thing the existing party secretary had done, the local members echoed these sentiments in their speeches and the party secretary was re-elected. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker ]

Village governments had a fair amount of power. A typical village council was made up of 18 men and three women members of the Communist Party. Those with the most power were often respected the most by the others and skilled at dealing with higher up officials. In rural areas party membership can protect individual interests or provide opportunities that otherwise would be impossible. People in a village that had business interests often join the party to protect those interests. Typical village meetings included self criticism sessions and the reading of long jargon-filled passages from government documents.

Local officials were usually given a heads when officials from Moscow made an inspection tour and usually had enough time to apply fresh coats of paint, coerce local people to be on their best behavior and fix whatever problems the officials had come to investigate.

Neighborhood Committees

On a local level the Communist Party bureaucracy was made up of millions of neighborhood committees which had to answer to the next level up, the street or village committees. In the cities, several street committees made up a district committee which in turn were under the jurisdiction of the municipal government or the regional government. All of these committees followed guidelines laid out by the national government. To keep their members in line, the local committees often used social pressure in the form of face-losing criticism.

Neighborhood committees in urban areas had made sure the poor were fed, the elderly were looked after, petty crimes were brought to justice, one-child polices were adhered to, and family disputes were settled. For the most part the streets in cities were safe.

A typical neighborhood committee controled three blocks and contained about 1,000 households. The leader and his or 30 or so "group leaders" were in charge of hanging party propaganda posters, leading weekly meetings of the local party cell, where new polices and rules were announced. Retired women often held the job. They were sometimes called "bound feet detectives" because of their shuffling feet and busybody attitude. [Source: Wall Street Journal]

Neighborhoods were kept in line with “building bosses” and their helpers, “door watchers," who kept an eye on what was going on in almost every house. Informers were everywhere. In China one Communist-era proverb went: "One Chinese watches a thousand; a thousand Chinese watch one."

Work Units

Most people in Communist society also had had to answer to "community units" or "work units" in their place of work, whether it be a factory, hospital, commune or public works project. In the old days, these organizations exerted control on almost every aspect of an individual's life: they gave out ration cards, arranged day care, supplied train tickets, chose which doctors and hospitals people wented to, decided who gets housing, set salaries and recruited party members. The lives of some people were still controlled by work units but not as many as before.

Work units were often the main channels for distributing social benefits and exerting social control. Even today they keep files on their members and often had to be consulted about personal matters such as travel or children, and were able to pressure people by reducing wages and bonuses, by denying promotions and transfers, or by taking away the job completely.

In the old days, work units and neighborhood committees controlled marriages, divorces, pregnancies and birth control. To get married, a couple needed permission from a local board and a letter from an employer stating that a person was single. In some cases, employers would use their authority to solicit a bribe or demand some concession before the form was submitted. In most cases the employers provided the paper work but the couples felt inconvenienced and embarrassed asking for permission.

Neighborhood committees and work units no longer exist or exert the control on people's lives they once did. Their powers began to diminish in the 1980s in rural areas with the rapid collapse of communes and the giving of land and decision-making power to farmers. Work units began collapsing in the cities in the 1990s as state-owned industries began going bankrupt or were shut down or restructured.

Where neighborhood committees still exist, cadres are paid around $250 a month and perform duties like helping the unemployed find jobs, organizing anti-crime efforts, keeping track of childbearing women, and helping married couples stay together. In some places there is now some discussion about making the neighborhood committees small welfare agencies and hiring college graduates instead of retired women.

Bureaucracy in the Soviet Era

In the Soviet era citizens were controlled through an elaborate system of internal passports, informers and checkpoints. The Soviet system was dominated by “time servers, ideologues and incompetents.” In the background were some capable people. The worked quietly and capably and kept the system functioning. They didn’t try to stick out to much out of concern of showing up their Communist Party superiors.

The day-to-day operations of the country were overseen by the Council of Ministers, a huge bureaucracy controlled by the Communist Party and headed by a Premier. Through it hierarchy of ministries and agencies, the Council of Ministers carried out the directives of the Politburo.

The Council of Ministers, which included the Premier and his deputies, was the highest executive organ. It was also appointed by the Supreme Soviet and was comprised of a chairman, three first deputy chairmen, eight deputies ad some 70 minorities or heads of organizations of ministerial rank. It's chairman was the Premier.

The powerful Council of Ministers was the highest administrative body. It made proposals to the Standing Committee of the Politburo and took care of the day-to-day operations of the country. It was a huge bureaucracy controlled by the Communist Party and headed by the Prime Minister. Through its hierarchy of ministries and agencies, the State Council carried out the directives of the Politburo. Among the agencies were the Ministry of Truth and a Department of Propaganda.

Participation in the bureaucracy was limited to members of the Communist Party and led by the party elite. It operated under a command system of specified ranks called nomenklatura in which everyone knew his place, his role, and what he was supposed to do, think and say. Bureaucrats have traditionally been resistant to changes because in many cases change would make them obsolete and unnecessary.

Cadres and Nomenklatura

Common terms used to describe Communist members included appartchik, a petty bureaucrat; cadre, a group or a member of a group of Communist loyalists; and commissar, a personnel officer responsible for morale and discipline. Commissar was a word used to describe leadership positions in the Lenin government. Lenin and Stalin were chairmans of Council of People's Commissars, the effective leaders of the Soviet Union. Trotsky was the Commissar of War

Nomenklatura was the communist party's system of appointing reliable party members to key government positions and other important organizations. It also refers to the individuals as a social group. Nomenklatyra ("Lost of nominees") was a system of specified ranks. It often was used to describe the Soviet-era party elite, the bureaucratic class. The new nomenklatura is an unofficial network of powerful bureaucrats, former powerful party members an military officers.

Communist officials were known as cadres. A cadre is defined by the Oxford University Press Dictionary as “a small group of people trained for a particular purpose or profession." Senior cadres were overwhelmingly male. The party and government cadre system was the rough equivalent of the civil service system in many other countries, The term cadre referred to a public official holding a responsible or managerial position, usually full time, in party and government. A cadre did no necessarily have to be a member of the Communist Party, although a person in a sensitive position almost certainly had to be a party member."Source: Library of Congress]

Every leader at virtually every level had to be appointed, approved or otherwise sanctioned by the Communist Party. The goal for ambitious politicians and officials was to win a place on the Central Committee, with this leading to a governorship of a province or a post as a regional party secretary, with the aim of ultimately making it to the Politburo. The central authorities "most effective instrument" was "the power to appoint and dismiss governors, party secretaries and regional army commanders." Maintaining power was often a balancing act between rival factions A Communist ruler must lead as a first among equals. "He can't just issue edicts," one diplomat told Time magazine. "he has to marshal a consensus."

According to the Economist, "Communist Party officials function as a ruling class. They are a self-selected group accountable to nobody. They oversee government and industry, courts and parliaments." Elections are allowed for 'people's congresses'’so long as the party does not object to the contestants."

Describing a typical Communist official, Rudolph Cheleminski wrote in Smithsonian, "Bright, confident, well-spoken but still bearing that indefinable air of defensiveness when...encountering Westerners. Milling, ironical, circumlocuting with practiced rhetorical skill, prodding, rebutting when there was no call for rebuttal, answering questions with questions, he fenced more than he participated in an interview."

Central Organization Department and the Communist Party Bureaucracy in China

The Central Organization Department was the party's vast and opaque human resources agency. Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post: “It has no public phone number, and there is no sign on the huge building it occupies. Guardian of the party's personnel files, the department handles key personnel decisions not only in the government bureaucracy but also in business, media, the judiciary and even academia. Its deliberations are all secret. [Source: By Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, July 25, 2010]

If such a body existed in the United States, Richard McGregor wrote in his book “The Party” it "would oversee the appointment of the entire US cabinet, state governors and their deputies, the mayors of major cities, the heads of all federal regulatory agencies, the chief executives of GE, Exxon-Mobil, Wal-Mart and about fifty of the remaining largest US companies, the justices of the Supreme Court, the editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the bosses of the TV networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities, and the heads of think-tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation." [Ibid]

Foreign policy is ultimately crafted not by the foreign ministry but the party's Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, and that military matters are decided not by the defense ministry but by the party's Central Military Commission. These and other party groups meet in secret.

In “The Party” McGregor described the existence of a network of special telephones known as "red machines," which sit on the desks of the party's most important members. Connected to a closed and encrypted communications system, they are China's version of the "vertushka" telephones that once formed an umbilical cord of party power across the vast expanse of the Soviet empire. All governments have their own secure communications systems. But China's network links not just ministers and senior party apparatchiks but also the chief executives of the biggest state-owned companies---businessmen who, to outside eyes, look like exemplars of China's post-communist capitalism.

Local Administration

The state institutions below the national level were local people's congresses— the Party Congress’s local counterparts—whose functions and powers were exercised by their standing committees at and above the county level when the congresses were not in session. The standing committee was composed of a chairman, vice chairmen, and members. The people's congresses also had permanent committees that became involved in governmental policy affecting their areas and their standing committees, and the people's congresses held meetings every other month to supervise provincial-level government activities. Peng Zhen described the relationship between the Standing Committee and the standing committees at lower levels in China as "one of liaison, not of leadership." Further, he stressed that the institution of standing committees was aimed at transferring power to lower levels so as to tap the initiative of the localities for the modernization drive.

The administrative arm of these people's congresses was the local people's government. Its local organs were established at three levels: the provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities; autonomous prefectures, counties, autonomous counties, cities, and municipal districts; and, at the base of the administrative hierarchy, administrative towns. The administrative towns replaced people's communes as the basic level of administration.

Bureaucrats had traditionally been resistant to changes because in many cases change would make them obsolete and unnecessary. On the bureaucratic elite of was the Communist Party, George Yeo, Singapore's foreign minister, wrote in Global Viewpoint, “When working properly” the bureaucracy “was meritocractic and imbued with a deep sense of responsible of the whole country." Yeo told Global Viewpoint, “The core principals of a bureaucratic elite holding the entire country together was not likely to change. Too many state functions affecting the well-being of the country as whole require central coordination.”

Communist Bureaucrat Behavior

The Communist bureaucracy functioned under a rigid hierarchy and often acted to serve its own self interests and unresponsive to the needs of the people it supposed to serve. It was described as a “multiplicity of competing ministries and bureaucratic levels” defined by “the constant distractions of interdepartmental buck-passing and turf wars."

A meritocracy it wasn’t. Local officials were often promoted even though they had miserable records. They often advance using “framing, fawning, stealing and sneaking” and seeking their self interest. Under a system of patronage, officials received appointments from above in return for remuneration from below. And people who collected taxes and other payments kept some for themselves and passed on the rest to their superiors.

Bureaucrats went through great lengths to make sure they didn't make any mistakes or anger a superior. High-level officials made the decisions behind the scenes and mid-level cadres carried out the decisions. One environmentalist told The New Yorker, “In all the bureaus everybody was just thinking about how to say the right thing to please his boss. Instead of real information, there's a lot fake information. Finally, everyone just cares about what he can get for himself. The goal becomes personal survival."

Bureaucratic Hassles and Red Tape

Because legal codes were often confusing and contradictory, bureaucrats could interpret them to suit their purposes. Getting approval for something was often a search for the right person with the authority, open-mindedness, desire and will to approve it. One architect told the New York Times , “You go to one person who says yes and then another person says no, We were almost there, and the person died of a heart attack, and we had start all over again with a new person. No one wants to be responsible."

Describing an effort to secure a document of approval for a scheduled meeting, marketing consultant Michael Dinner wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “Arriving at the government office, your assistant finds two men, a woman and a roomful of silence. Two were gazing at newspapers splayed out on their desks, while the third takes a long pull on his cigarette. The men face each other across worn wooden tables piled with papers. Your assistant still needs an official approval for tomorrow's meeting. In China, that means getting an official “chop” on a number of documents."

“The documents first goes to Number Two, who makes sure all the papers were complete and correct. He lays his imprint on the stack and directs your assistant to the woman. The woman makes her own careful review and adds her chop, before redirecting your assistant to Number One, the Party member. Number One leans forward, puts out his cigarette, and starts reading. "Are you in a hurry?”, he asks, as he motions you assistant to sit down on a stool by a desk."

Achieving success required skill of navigating through the messy tangle of governmental bodies---national, provincial, city, county township, and even village and neighborhood---and dealing with a certain amount murkiness and not asking a lot of unnecessary questions such as where the money came from.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Executive say government and party officials demand payments and abuse their power to award contracts and issue permits. Companies that lowball or otherwise anger officials learn quickly that the most routine inspection can turn into a nightmare. Though cash was straightforward, executives said gifts of department store and restaurant vouchers were more difficult to trace, as were artwork and stock, paid “study” trips, prostitutes or paying overseas tuition of officials’ children."

Bureaucracy and Ordinary People

In most Communist countries citizen at all times were required to carry identity cards that contained the holder's photograph, ID number, name, sex, birth date and addresses and lists of dependents and relatives. Many also listed the person’s religion and contained information about his work history (including the reason why the person lost his job if he was unemployed).

People also carried residence permits, which gave them permission to live in a certain place. Without this permit they faced eviction not only from their house but from an entire city. Papers and documents were also needed to get apartments, and receive ration cards and other necessities and benefits. Visas were required on internal passports to travel from one town to another; and when they arrived at their destination hotel guests were required to register with the police.

Doing simple things like buying a train ticket or shopping for meat could turn be bureaucratic nightmares. Permission and documents were needed for the most basic things and people of authority inevitably said go and see someone else.

Thomas Hammond, a history professor at the University of Virginia, found out that even getting books from a library was no easy task. First he needed permission to use the library he wanted. When he was given permission "in principal" he then he he needed to give the archivist time to gather his materials. Every week he went to check on the books he requested. Every time he was told "in a few days." After 3½ months of this he was told to read some books he had already read in the United States. When he returned home to Virginia there was a letter in his mailbox that said his books were ready.¤

Soviet-Era Social Security and Welfare

The "social umbrella" of the Soviet Union's socialist system nominally guaranteed all citizens employment, health care, child care, pensions, and universal, high-quality education. It guaranteed everybody food, housing and social benefits and ate up as much as 30 percent of the national budget. The benefits were especially good for people who worked directly for the state. Many people have held on to low-paying government jobs since the collapse of Communism not so much for the salaries but for the benefits.

The cradle-to-grave social security system of the state provided free education, low-rent housing, after school recreation; guaranteed lifetime jobs, pensions, worker's holiday camps and free medical and dental care. Women were given a year's paid maternity leave, access to free day-care centers and free abortion on demand.

The government subsidized theaters and concerts; factories and hospitals organize tours and trips and provided workers with homes, kindergartens, sports stadiums, holiday centers, summer camps for children, cultural centers, sports facilities, and rest and rehabilitation spas with whirlpool baths, massages, bee-sting acupuncture, oxygen cocktails, and drinks enriched with glucose, vitamins and pure oxygen. Private charity was forbidden in the Soviet Union because the state was supposed to be able to meet all the workers needs.

Under the Soviet social security system neither entrepreneurship or hard work were rewarded. By the 1980s, many of the more than 200 million citizens covered by the umbrella began receiving fewer benefits or benefits of lesser quality. The Soviet education and health systems, which offered top-quality service only to the country's political, scientific, and cultural elite, were undermined by the infrastructural and organizational failures inherent in such centrally planned systems. The Soviet concept of guaranteed employment eroded the national economy by encouraging slipshod labor and malingering. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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