Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Unconstitutionality of the Deportation of the Volga Germans and the Liquidation of the Volga German ASSR

A large number of prominent scholars vehemently deny that the USSR was guilty of racial discrimination or genocide in part because the 1948 Genocide Convention and the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination did not exist yet during World War II. They therefore claim it is anachronistic to hold the Soviet government accountable to these international legal standards. People like Francine Hirsch have argued that we should seek to understand what the Soviet government "thought" it was doing within its own officially stated ideological conceptions and terms and not what the objective results of its actions were as measured against later scholarly and legal understandings of the concept of racial discrimination (Hirsch, pp. 40-41). Of course nobody makes such excuses for Nazi Germany or South Africa under apartheid. It is only the USSR that is still blessed with such stalwart defenders in the western academy against the charges of racism.

There, however, can be no doubt that the Soviet deportation of the Volga Germans and the liquidation of the Volga German ASSR was illegal under Soviet constitutional law as established by the 1936 USSR, 1937 RSFSR, and 1937 Volga German ASSR constitutions regardless of the underdeveloped nature of international law at the time. Collective punishment was clearly illegal under article 102 of the 1936 constitution which assigned sole responsibility for determining the guilt of an individual to the Soviet courts rather than administrative decree. Thus Soviet constitutional law required individual charges and trials in order to make any finding of guilt regarding violations of Soviet law and the meting out of punishment. This prohibition on arbitrary administrative punishment was even more forcibly articulated in article 93 of the constitution of the Volga German ASSR which required that all punishments be sanctioned by the appropriate courts and procurators. There were no trials or individual charges brought by any procurator against the vast majority of the more than 370,000 men, women, and children forcibly expelled from the Volga German ASSR and dispersed across Siberia and Kazakhstan. Assigning collective guilt to whole nationalities as the 28 August 1941 decree by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (Ukaz 21-160) did also violated article 123 of the all union constitution which prohibited all forms of discrimination both direct and indirect on the basis of race or natsional'nost. The deportation itself with its massive confiscation of personal property clearly did not accord with article 10 of the USSR constitution which guaranteed the protection of "the right of personal ownership by citizens of the proceeds of their labor and savings, personal homes and auxiliary holdings, and objects and amenities of personal consumption." This right is reinforced in article 94 of the Volga German ASSR constitution. The special settlement restrictions contravened articles 21 and 123 of the 1936 Soviet constitution (articles 18 and 127 of the 1937 RSFSR constitution) establishing a single Soviet citizenship for all Soviet citizens in which all of them enjoyed the same civil rights regardless of geographic location or nationality. The liquidation of the Volga German ASSR on 7 September 1941 by decree from the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow had no legal basis under Soviet constitutional law. Article 16 of the 1937 RSFSR constitution required that all territorial changes within it be first approved by its highest organs. Likewise article 15 of the Volga German ASSR constitution also required approval from its own organs before any changes could be made to its borders (Shadt, pp. 287-296 and Skuchaev, p. 94).

There has long been a school of thought that the systematic and blatant violations of the 1936 Soviet constitution were so great that discussion of the matter in legal terms was superfluous since the document was violated far more than it was observed. There is validity to this opinion. But,  a number of scholars argue that Stalin's mass crimes against various citizens of the USSR had not yet been outlawed by international law and were therefore legal. This argument can not be allowed to stand. Crimes such as the deportation of the Volga Germans were illegal under existing Soviet law. The position of Stephen Wheatcroft that Stalinist repression unlike Nazi killings was "legal" completely falls apart upon even the most superficial reading of the 1936 Soviet, 1937 RSFSR, and 1937 Volga German ASSR constitutions (Wheatcroft, p. 1321, p. 1335, and p. 1348). It is clear that Stalinist repression including the deportation of the Volga Germans violated a great number of articles of the 1936 Soviet and 1937 RSFSR constitutions and can in no way be deemed to have been "legal" under the fundamental laws of the USSR. If it were not for people like Wheatcroft minimizing Stalin's crimes by claiming they were "legal" we could dispense with noting the legal protections provided on paper by the Soviet, RSFSR, and Volga German ASSR constitutions were explicitly and repeatedly violated by the Soviet government. After all the moral wrongness of mass deportations, theft, denial of national self-determination, racial discrimination, and genocide do not depend on what is written in any particular document.


Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics 1936 (Moscow: CO-Operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers, 1936).

Francine Hirsch, "Race without the Practice of Racial Politics," Slavic Review, vol. 61, no.1 (spring 2002), pp. 30-43.

Konstitutsiia [Osnovnoi Zakon] Avtonomnoi Sovetskoi Sotsialicheskoi Respubliki Nemtsev Povolzh'ia 1937 reproduced in V. Auman and V. Chebatoreva, Istoriia rossiiskikh nemtsev v dokumentakh (1763-1992 gg.) (Moscow: MIGUP, 1993), pp. 141-156.

A. Shadt, "Pravoi status rossiiskikh nemtsev v SSSR (1940-1950-e), in A. German, Nemtsy v SSSR v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny: Poslevoennoe desiatletie, 1941-1955 gg. (Moscow: Gotika, 2001), pp. 287-312.

O. Skuchaev, "K voprosu o prichinakh i pravovykh osnovaniiakh deportatsii nemtskogo naseleniia iz Povolzh'ia," in A. German (ed.), Grazhdanskaia identichnost' nemtsev v gody Velikoi Otchestvennoi Voiny i v istoricheskoi pamiati potomkov (Moscow: Gotika, 2001), pp. 88-97.

Stephen Wheatcroft, "The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repressions and Mass Killings, 1930-45," Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 48, no. 8, (Dec. 1996), 1319-1353.


Tanja Nyberg said...

The author of the soviet Constitution 1936, Nikolay Bukharin was executed on 15 March 1938.The Great Terror 1937-1938 was not only a mass murder, it was anti-constitutional putsch. 1917-1937 there was a dictatorship of one political party, or as Communists called it dictatorship of proletariat,democratic centralism -a form of government, which they have in China now. Stalin established a dictatorship of a single person,something like an absolute monarchy. Stalin sold out his own party, betrayed and killed his own comrades and friends. The name "Stalin" and the word "legal" are antagonistic.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Tanja: Of course I agree, but I can not tell you how many peer review reports I have gotten claiming I can't say Stalin was guilty of crimes against humanity because those treaties and conventions did not exist yet. But, the fact that the Soviet government blatantly violated its own constitutional laws shows that it knew what it was doing was morally wrong. Something that many Western academics still haven't figured out.