The legal system of the Soviet Union
The Soviet legal system is typically classified within Civil Law, and often as it’s own subset of Soviet law or a part of Socialist Law.
Said shortly, while the Bolsheviks were skeptical of law initially, socialist rhetoric was pretty quickly used to justify establishing necessary legal systems, one that would be quite familiar in substance to a bourgeois lawyer. In general, most of what we say in this comment will not be accurate for the whole Soviet period, mostly the post-WW2 system.
Before we talk about the lawyers, we do have to talk a bit about the system and what Soviet justice is, especially the courts.
There were several systems of courts or dispute resolution. While the Soviet Union didn’t have corporate or commercial law in the way we think of it, they did have disputes between enterprises or other state organizations within the state planning of production and had to set up dispute-resolution mechanisms to resolve these.
That was primarily done through arbitration, in-state arbitration (gosarbritrazh), and departmental arbitration (vedomstvenny arbitrazh), depending on whether the parties belong to the same ministry or not. There were also geographical divisions within the arbitration. These served the function of commercial courts.
Their goal was for the parties to find an agreement, but the arbiter could decide the case if one was not found. The procedure was conducted according to the civil code and parties used in-house jurists, later also lawyers, for their arguments, so it was very much a legal proceeding.
A problem with this type of arbitration was what an arbitration conclusion really could do. The problem for state enterprises was often just bottlenecks in production (i.e. problems with the central planning). Receiving monetary damages from winning arbitration didn’t resolve that, so contacting someone to try and get the bottleneck fixed or cooperate to just avoid arbitration could sometimes be better. A good example of the limitations of arbitration and Soviet commercial law is this case:
Two organizations, a bread factory, and a food base were located next to each other. The base stored flour for shipment to the bread factory. Under the terms of the contract, the bread factory was required to return the flour sacks to the base. The two adjoining organizations were separated only by a wall and linked to each other by a conveyor belt, but this only worked one way and didn’t allow for sending the sacks back, and the factory had no truck to drive them back, something the ministry had refused. Thus the factory kept failing its obligations to deliver the sacks.
The factory was forced to pay enormous fines to the base, totally frustrating its effort to meet its financial plan. Every quarter the arbitrator was forced to impose fines ranging from 28,000 to 37,000 roubles; for that sum, the factory could have purchased two or three trucks. But the ministry refused to grant the factory permission to buy a truck, and fines were continuously imposed
There also existed general civil courts for ordinary disputes, here people would take their housing disputes or illegal firings and your ordinary stuff. It was supposedly widely used, but the types of tort or contract cases we are used to would be rarer. A difference in Soviet civil law was that public interests were emphasized even more than in other civil law countries (already a difference between some civil and common law countries), even in disputes between private parties.
Malone describes the process of a citizen seeking legal help like this:
A citizen needing legal advice visits the legal collective of his choice regardless of its location. Usually, he will go to the collective in the area of the city in which he resides. He may ask for any lawyer on the staff who may be personally known or recommended to him. Otherwise, his case is assigned to one of the lawyers on duty
And of course, there was a system of criminal cases, also pretty recognizable after some initial experiments. The focus was on the objective evidence for the elements of the crime and intent or moral guilt. However as the system was civil law, judges were inquisitorial and the goal was to find the truth, not the adversarial anglo-American system where judges are more neutral arbiters. Judges thus had wide discretion over the procedure and substance of a case. Not a problem in itself, but it can make interference easier.
The Procuracy (prosecutors, but they also had a supervisory role like ombudsmen) was another very important legal institution in the Soviet system. They obviously oversaw investigations and prosecuted criminal cases, but also had some supervisory and other powers over civil cases and the right to supervise how ministries, enterprises, and others upheld the law, giving the procuracy pretty wide and extensive powers.
The procurators also exercised quite large influence (formal and informal) on court proceedings and outcomes, so should not be confused with just a “party” to a case like the prosecution in other countries would typically be. Rates of acquittal in the later Soviet union were very low, and the power of the prosecution is probably part of why that is.
So there was a court system and judicial institutions not too unfamiliar from the west. However, the Soviet Union did not have judicial independence, all branches were under the communist party. Interference in individual cases was quite common if the case was of some importance.
Lawyers in the Soviet Union
The Soviet system for lawyers would be very recognizable to most modern students of law. They had a general legal education for all legal jobs, in which you became a jurist (yuristy). However, what your title was depended on your future job and job training.
The Soviet Bar (Advokatura) had mostly survived (in a changed form) since the Tsarist days, and a jurist who was admitted to the bar would be allowed to represent as a lawyer (Advokat), aside from special restrictions on which advocates could defend in political trials.
The political controversy could also get an advocate disbarred, as the bar was controlled by the party, even if the bar had some autonomy. There seems to have been more room for advocates to participate in the public sphere after the Stalin-period.
Advocates worked in Legal Consultation Bureaus, which were mostly controlled by communist party members and organized on a regional level. Many would also be party members themselves, but this was not at all a requirement.
These LCBs operated as work units that fulfilled state goals, like providing legal aid, which was free to some categories of people and training future advocates. Individual advocates had some flexibility but would be assigned most of their cases by their managers.
The Advocates were paid on a “fee-for-service” basis, with rates set by the Ministry of Justice (Minyust), which gave rise to some competition between advocates. The fee system functioned by clients paying set fees to the general office and the advocates rendering a bill to the office each month for their services (on a set rate). It was apparently not uncommon to pay a side-fee (mikst) as well, though of course not allowed.
For a general illustration of some of the points, an excerpt from the 1939 law for the advokatura:
For the purpose of providing legal assistance to the population (…) there shall be organized (…) colleges of advocates.
The organization of the Colleges of the Advocates and their general guidance shall be the function of the People’s Commissariat of Justice (…).
The Colleges of Advocates(…) shall perform the tasks imposed upon them of providing legal assistance to the population, agencies, organizations and enterprises, by means of:
a. giving legal advice through consultation (advice, questionnaires,explanations, etc.);
b. preparing affidavits, complaints and other documents at the request ofcitizens,agencies, organizations and enterprises;
c. providing advocates to participate in court proceedings as defense attorneysfor theaccused, and as representatives of the interests of defendants,plaintiffs and otherinterested persons
Advocates were free to make legal arguments, as long as they avoided arguments that were too political in nature. An advocate’s role in a criminal trial would be, as one would be used to, to defend the defendant – in addition, the advocate also had a social role in pointing out failings in the criminal procedure. Such a view on the dual role of the advocate as both a partisan and social agitator, in other words of both having a responsibility to the client and to society, seems to be the norm.
To become an advocate and a full member of the bar you had to be an apprentice in an LCB for two years with satisfactory performance. As far as we understand, internships or apprenticeships were also regulated on the same regional level as the LCBs themselves, so the LCBs (or higher-ups) would be the ones to accept applications from apprentices.
Jurists also had other choices of jobs, most of the standard ones: in-house counsel (Iuriskonsulty) for enterprises or others, judges, prosecutors/procurators, investigators, and legal scholars. For most of the Soviet Union, aside from some of the early period, these jobs would have required a legal education. Other than Iuriskonsulty being supposedly unpopular (desk job, low job security, low wage), we don’t know much about what a student would prefer.
In regards to iuriskonsulty, these would be your main “corporate lawyers” as they were the ones representing enterprises in the commercial arbitrations. They are most similar to in-house jurists in the west.
Their main responsibilities were ensuring that the law is upheld in organizational operations, improving the economic indicators of their enterprise, and providing legal assistance to employees of their organization and its trade union. They were indented to be independent personnel who served the need of both management and employers while working to ensure the economic interests and functions of their organization.
Shelley comments on their work within a firm like this:
“Both legal and extralegal means are used to ensure that plans are met. Most contractual disagreements are resolved by legal means; however, since compliance with the law can result in costly fines that damage the financial plan of an organization, managers with or without their lawyers collude to avoid the consequences of arbitration. Paradoxically, these violations of the law often benefit the state. (…)
An organization can meet its economic goals if it obtains the necessary raw materials on time and in sufficient quantities, gets prompt service from the railroads, stems major losses of goods through spoilage or theft, and creates an environment in which workers labor effectively. The lawyer can influence all of these conditions. Suing suppliers or railroads if they fail to supply needed goods or provide timely service, by helping to ensure punishment for those who violate the law, and by promoting good labor relations, the lawyer is addressing the problems that may otherwise hinder economic objectives”
They also have a role in ensuring their own company had good contracts and could not themselves be sued. An aggressive and good in-house jurist could ensure partner-enterprises prioritized meeting their obligation to that firm, and good negotiations could avoid suits and arbitrations altogether.
We’ll end with an example-case from Shelley:
A Ukranian iuriskonsult’s factory received a claim (pretenziia) asserting that inferior wine had been shipped to a trade base in Riga. Because the fines faced by an organization for delivering substandard goods are especially severe, the director of the wine factory asked his iuriskonsult to help resolve the conflict. The wine sent to Riga had some sediment left in the bottle from its previous contents. The wine in these bottles had no value and could not be sold. In the words of the lawyer involved in the negotiations, “I went to Riga to convince them not to send us back the wine, but I had no hope of success. But in reality, all was much easier than I anticipated. I suggested to the trade base that the wine be sold in bulk and not by the bottle. They agreed”.
2. Gorlizki, Yoram (2018): Communism and the Law in Pihlajamäki, Dubber & Godfrey (eds. 2018): The Oxford Handbook of European Legal History Oxford University Press
3. Johnson, E. L. (1959): Commercial Arbitration in the USSR since the Decentralization of Industrial Management Soviet Studies 11(2): 134-142
4. Jordan, Pamela (1998): The Russian Advokatura (bar) and the State in the 1990s Europe-Asia Studies 50(5): 765-791
5. Malone, Albert C. (1961): Soviet Bar Cornell Law Review 46(2): 258-289
6. Pomeranz, William E. (2019): Law and the Russian State London: Bloomsbury
7. Shelley, Louise (1981): Law in the Soviet Workplace: The Lawyer’s Perspective Law & Society Review 16(3): 429-454