Russian Justice

Mary Stevenson Callcott


Criminal repression in the Soviet Union is bound up with the whole social program which the state has been developing. A good many of us had thought of the Soviet’s welfare work as more of a hit-or-miss arrangement, gathering up a few threads here, omitting to notice some quite as important in other places, but as the work is examined in its entirety, it gives evidence of more than usually comprehensive planning.

In making an evaluation of the present situation in regard to any of its phases of development, it is not sufficient merely to consider standards as they now exist, but it is also, of course, necessary to take into account the distance traversed in the brief time and the difficulties surrounding the accomplishment.

The important thing, let us say for an example, in child care, is to see that ten or twelve years ago thousands upon thousands of children were wandering in wild gangs, all over the country, thieving, plundering, killing even, unfed and unclothed, and that today they are, with few exceptions both clothed and fed, being trained and cared for in institutions or at home, and that the period of distress and acute exigency is over. If that had extended to children alone we might understand that with all the forces available the authorities could handle such a situation, but it was a larger thing than that, and the fact that in the face of what seemed an undertaking of impossible dimensions the authorities were able to come through, and with a program so constructive that it has revolutionized their treatment of offenders against the law, seems something of a miracle. Or again, it is of great significance, especially to such a study as this, that the banditry and roving lawlessness on the part of men in 1922, has been reduced so sharply that this form of crime is pretty well under control. So, it is the distance revolutionary Russia has come, the rapidity of her pace, that are more significant than the actual standards in practice. That is not to say, however, that her present standards always need a defense. Her achievement in treatment of prisoners, for example, which is the subject of this book, does not suffer by comparison with that of western nations.

In the pages that follow attention is given to treatment and to standards, but for the moment, assuming that advances have been rapidly made in the repression of crime, let us focus our interest on other factors that have contributed to this progress. For us it is important to discover, if we can, what factors are responsible for the one-third decrease in the number of criminals which authorities say has been effected since the beginning of the Revolution. Even if their estimate of the reduction seems high, it is still apparent to a student of the situation that a real decrease, perhaps smaller, has been made. The united front with which the nation has attacked its social problems on all sides has, as would be expected, exerted great influence in the handling of the crime problem. Prevention has resulted in a large way from the development in the various phases of social welfare that have gone on simultaneously, and as one begins to consider the relationship that exists there appears that whole pattern, referred to earlier, which leaves few phases of social and economic life untouched.

The care of children has already been spoken of. It is clear that one of the big problems, among the horde that have puzzled and challenged the group who have had chief responsibility in steering the government, was juvenile delinquency. While authorities gathered these young offenders together and put them in places for care, they were at the same time preparing and carrying out a program for their youth that would prevent others following in the footsteps of the delinquents.

In the preventive program that was now first in interest, the item of education stood at the head of the list. No doubt in the early days of the proletarian state, schools were woefully inadequate, but children were at least placed under the guidance of people who gave them the elements of an education as well as taught them something of how to work. But the nation appears to have a mania for the education of its masses and a point has now been reached where there is university study in sight, with a stipend attached for those who attend, for all those able to take advantage of it. Juvenile delinquency rates have steadily decreased and the development of the school system has obviously contributed largely to this reduced figure.

Health programs are, of course, directly related to crime repression. There is a book on the socialized medicine of Russia, written by Sir Arthur Newsholme of England and Dr. Kingsbury of our own country, that should be read for full information on this subject, but it can be said that the scope of the program is wide and the extent far-reaching. Beyond the broad development of curative medicine there is the preventive program in which physical culture activities figure largely. As an illustration of the results achieved in this work, a demonstration staged in Moscow in the summer of 1934 was very impressive. The author along with a good many other Americans and other foreign visitors witnessed the parade in which a hundred thousand physical culturists, with their canoes, paddles, tennis racquets, flowers, and other things suggestive of health and enjoyment of life, passed in excellent order, so well disciplined that one group followed another without a break in ranks. There is, of course, a great significance to that when it is considered on a national scale. With every factory and farm providing such a program for its workers there should be a rapid diminution in the number of weaklings who turn to crime.

One finds himself on the defensive at the mention of more liberal divorce laws, but such a provision may actually lessen criminal acts. Since a woman who finds her husband wholly incompatible and wants to remarry some more congenial person has only to indicate her wish in order to be free, she is not nearly as likely to poison her husband or work herself into a state from which some expert psychiatrist will have to untangle her. When the system was first initiated in the Soviet Union we were told that there was a great rush of those who wished to benefit, but that since the first period exhausted the number of those eager for separation, there has been a noticeable decrease. One meets a great number of people who have been married a long time! Such an authority as Vishinsky attributed much of the decrease in criminal acts to these liberal laws.

The rapid industrialization of the country has made for less crime except in the case of offenses against the state. In that period just before the installation of NEP when farmers and others discharged from the army could find no work, when distribution without production had left the nation in starvation, banditry flourished, but when the five-year plan began to make demands for more workers than could be furnished, a halt was called in the advance of ordinary crime. Also, with work plentiful, there is no problem of providing jobs for those discharged from prisons. With the system of training which gives a skilled trade to every man capable of assimilating the instruction and mastering the tasks, and of giving instruction also to the unskilled type who are thereby enabled to fill some job well, there is no question of work for discharged prisoners. How long this condition will hold depends, of course, on the time it will take for industrialization to reach its zenith and for the population to catch up and exceed the ability of the system to absorb them. However, there is an encouragement of birth control and that may manage the question somewhat better than has been done in other countries gone on before with their industrialization program. Since Russia sits down with pencil and paper and makes her plans of production, perhaps she can do something in the nature of requirements for population increase!1

Housing is, of course, one of the biggest problems in Soviet Russia. They are building with feverish rapidity but one suspects it will be some time until they catch up to the need. It is popular to correlate bad health, crime, and most other social evils with congested housing, and one feels sure that much of the blame attached to it is well placed. If Russia can eliminate this condition she will have done much in exercising control of those situations that are supposed to be the major causes of crime. She has her own theory of cause which another chapter discusses, but optimistic socialists believe she is in a fair way to remove that also. Russians know well enough of their shortage of housing and they know the social significance of that shortage, but one cannot rebuild an entire nation in the few short years since their social cataclysm. There had to be a gap somewhere and both lack of trained workers and of material accounts for its existence.

Training for taking part in government affairs, such as elections and jury service, is also conducive to securing law observance. The writer’s visit was so taken up with courts and prisons that other angles of investigation were neglected and any ideas as to government practices in democracy are secured second-hand. However, some of those Americans who live there and observe intelligently state that there is a steady progress toward greater participation by the people themselves in government. As education prepares the way, participation becomes more real.

Any mention of fight against crime in this country ought to take into account the establishment of the new culture of this society. At the close of the October Revolution, Russia had as its chief asset a great many millions of people whose rights the leaders had sworn to establish and protect, and who were unlettered, superstitious and without social understanding. Educating children was a small task compared to what they must do with those adults, and in the period when the old culture had come to an end with the last efforts of the civil war and the new had not well begun, crime swelled into large numbers of convicted. But these peasants and workers have many of them learned, at evening classes, at conferences, and in trade unions of various sorts, something of what this order stands for. A new social consciousness that makes the individual feel responsible for the law and order of the country has arisen and makes itself felt even in such small offenses as the case of some thoughtless individual throwing paper in a park which is certain to be otherwise immaculate, or of a more delinquent one climbing on a street car at the front in the hope of not being detected.

The freeing of the people from hardships of the pioneer stage of the new civilization is also beginning to be felt. There is much attention to beauty which I am told was not evident as recently as two or three years ago. Natural yearnings are being satisfied and a broader life is opening; the labor pains of the rebirth of a nation are about over. All this relieves tension and tends to establish a normality of living such as results in a more settled order.

A condition that ought soon to make for a decrease in crime against the state by the so-called class enemy is the fact that the government is now established. We are so accustomed to use the phrase “the Russian experiment” that it is hard for one to give it up; but, it is no longer much of an experiment. The author remembers a gentle reproof given to her when she remarked that since this sort of thing had never been tried before, it was difficult to see how it might work. There was a smiling rejoinder of “We have tried it and it does work.” Surely there will be a cessation in “crimes against the state” when it is clearly seen that efforts against the order of government will not be of avail.

Emphasis ought, of course, to be put on the social planning that gives security for old age and removes fear of illness and unemployment. It would be impossible to estimate how much crime is due to a feeling of insecurity in society, but there is no doubt that it is a large percentage. Provisions looking toward the elimination of this insecurity have already been effective enough to have a part in the reduction of the number of those driven to crime because of fear of such economic woes.

One point on which observers agree that we need to imitate these people is in the humane treatment of prisoners. It ought to be understood here that “humane” is not synonymous with “coddling.” Some of us who do not distinguish have grown shy of that word but in these pages it is used in its proper meaning. Prisoners are given a “man to man” treatment, held to a strict régime just as if they worked in a factory outside. There is discipline in industry and they are prepared to meet that condition, to learn to discipline themselves, but the approach is one of dignity, with any thought of humiliation put far away. It is only when one thinks of the prisoner as suffering undignified imprisonment, degraded by acts of physical or verbal abuse on the part of guards who ought themselves to be in prison, that one stoops to pity and “feels sorry for him,” but when a man is subjected only to a constructive training such as it might be a privilege to get, one’s sympathy is hardly needed.

The question of how much one can see in a limited time always comes up when one writes of foreign conditions, and cognizance of it should be taken in this Introductory Chapter. The answer, of course, depends on the preparation of the person for the task. It seems too obvious even to remark that one can live in a country for years and know considerably less about specialized subjects than one trained observer who merely visits the institutions. The book on Red Medicine by Sir Arthur Newsholme and Dr. Kingsbury has already been referred to. One would naturally rather trust the judgment of such authorities even though they visit briefly than that of others, unfamiliar with this field, who have resided there for years on end.

The author trusts her own judgment in regard to prisons and courts. She has been seeing both for years, and in many places. Physical equipment is not all that one looks for. There are signs that give things away. There are glances that indicate a whole policy. If a warden tells a visitor of a wholesome approach to his men, and that person then sees the inmates fall away and look up from lowered eyes as he goes through, he knows what to think. If a superintendent says, as one did to the writer, that he does not really enforce the silent system, and one watches the men a while, talking through the side of a twisted mouth as a guard half turns his head and never speaking normally during the entire time of the visit, one knows again that representations are not in accord with practice. Prisoners do not put on acts for visitors, and members of a staff would probably be letting themselves in for trouble with any suggestion that they do so.

The writer expresses no opinions on conditions outside her own field of special investigation, except on obvious points. Other institutions were visited only in a casual way, but a great deal of life itself was seen. There were long walks in all sorts of places. Groups of children were played with and workmen of all kinds talked to, usually through an interpreter; but there were those with whom the conversation was carried on directly in French, German or sometimes English. All of this formed a background for any conclusions, and years of working with people in a social work relationship had also prepared the writer again for significant observation.

However, the major portion of the book is concerned with research, and that has been thoroughly checked for accuracy of statement by a member of the Commissariat of Justice in Moscow.


1.  The following comment is offered by a Russian authority: “That is something like the Malthusian theory. We don’t believe in it. We are sure that at present, and for a very long time in the future there can be no real over-population. If sometimes something like that seems to happen in the capitalistic countries, it is an illusion. It is the result of the social conditions of those countries. Our social system makes it possible for us to use any quantity of labour and there can be no question of over-population for us. Therefore the question of something like State birth control does not even arise.”

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