Russian Justice

Mary Stevenson Callcott


Sokolniki is a prison, call it by whatever name one will. It is true that the national policy relating to corrective labor and discipline modify its physiognomy, but it still presents the atmosphere of a penitentiary. This statement is not meant as any criticism of either it or its administration, since one can hardly see how that aspect of it could be otherwise as long as criminals do exist who need restraining—and some of such there are bound to be. The fact of its sterner nature is emphasized in the beginning so that the impression will not be given that a place like Bolshevo Labor Commune, described in later pages, would fulfill the requirements for all the elements found among the criminals in the Soviet Union.

Standing outside the wall, just as cold and gray as the usual for penitentiaries, and looking up at the towers at the corners where sentinels armed with rifles keep watch, one has all the feeling of a sinking heart that comes with such a sight. People are shut away there and possibly forgotten by the citizenry from whom they have been separated, perhaps, since it is the customary thing for ignorance to prevail as to prisons and penal methods. One thinks, standing there, wondering about men behind that wall, of a description written in verse by one prisoner some quarter of a century ago. It is sentimental, belonging to an age when emotion was expressed a little more freely than our practice of restraint permits now, but one suspects men still suffer as he did in a good many prison cells such as this writer has seen. Lines of the poem, especially descriptive and appropriate to this subject, speak of “where tongues are mute, and men arise to newborn wrong,” and “where men must fawn or walk with scars.”1

One doesn’t need to tell people who know anything of the penal situation in the United States that conditions make it possible to write lines like that. Of all of our social endeavor, the treatment of men convicted of crime seems the place where we have most signally failed in constructive results. Constructive treatment is, of course, a rare exception rather than a rule. But it seems to this writer that the implications of the verse have a less favorable chance of being true of Soviet prisons.

In the first place there is no prison sentence longer than ten years, and few offenders serve that long. The authorities figure that a maximum ten-year constructive program will fit anybody for proper living unless he is irredeemable. There will be some cases, of course, where there is failure, but the idea is to fit the régime to the majority. Right here there will be the question always forthcoming as to what they would do with our own gangster type. Give them a ten-year sentence? Not at all. They have few of them and for armed robbery one may be sentenced to death. No arguments are listed here for or against punishment by death, but in order to understand the absence of a long prison sentence it is necessary to be informed as to what happens to those who would ordinarily be the recipients of such a term. The fellow who murders in a jealous rage or great anger may find himself in for a long treatment in a place for mental abnormals, or he may, if judged sane, be given a sentence of ten years or less. They do not consider this type of murderer to be, usually, a further social menace.

With those disposed of the formulators of the policy believe that a longer sentence for others is not needed. They see no aid anywhere in having one languish in prison beyond that point where a sentence ceases to have the possibility of being constructive and begins to dull the senses and perspective of the prisoner so that he is worthless anywhere. Some of our penologists have said that it is better to keep a man either a brief period or for his life because after a certain time it is practically impossible for him to fit into a society of which he has no knowledge.

The Soviet system provides measures for keeping a man in touch with society so that he may not feel that entire isolation even though ten years is the maximum of incarceration. In the first place, as we have seen, only those whose term is short or whose character makes it necessary are put in the closed institutions; in the next even those who are there are given vacations of leave if it is thought that they can be trusted not to escape. And in case that has to be denied to an inmate, he still has opportunity for contacts with associates within and friends and relatives without in open, wholesome manner.

Tongues are not mute, either. Prisoners gather where they like, walk together, work together, play together. Nor do they “fawn or walk with scars.” The stated policy is to encourage them to approach and conduct themselves with dignity and no guard may inflict physical punishment on any prisoner. One might say that such a policy is likely not carried out. There may be isolated instances of violation, and one feels sure there are, but the attitude of the men toward the attendants and guards seem to indicate that such regulations are regarded.

Sokolniki is a prison for men who have been sentenced, supposedly, from one to three years. Article 28 of the Criminal Code says, ‘Imprisonment for a period under three years is served in common prisons. Imprisonment for periods of three years and more is served in corrective-labour camps.

“In exceptional cases, when the court recognizes that the person condemned to three or more years’ imprisonment is obviously unfit for physical labour or owing to the degree of his social danger need not be sent to the corrective-labour camp, the court has the right to substitute a common prison for a camp by specially decreeing so in its sentence.” (May 20, 1930.2)

There are therefore a number serving sentences of longer periods than the three years who, because of physical condition, can not be sent to the labor camp to which they should be assigned, or because they need the restraint, perhaps, of these stronger walls. At the time of the writer’s visit there were a few more than eleven hundred prisoners in Sokolniki. The prison’s capacity is said to be something more than that, but it seemed then to be more crowded than was good for adequate treatment. However, one must remember that the housing situation in all of the USSR is acute and especially is that true of the cities where industrialization has required the assembling of more persons than can comfortably be housed. It is to be expected that prisons might share in this shortage.

The Soviet system uses the collective dormitory system rather than the single room standard. This is in keeping with their idea of community living and we were told at the women’s prison that it is preferred by the prisoners themselves who like being with others and have no wish to be shut off. They use it also in student dormitories where beds are placed eight or ten to a large room. That, however, they wish to remedy. Their aim is a room for every worker and every student but that will require much more building.

Because Sokolniki is a well-known prison it will perhaps be interesting to set down a detailed description of it. The Soviet picture, The Road to Life, shown in this country, was made there, we were told.

In arriving at Sokolniki, which is not far outside the city limits of Moscow, one comes to a closed door in the stone wall, some fifteen feet high, already mentioned. There must, of course, be an appointment just as there must be for entering a penitentiary in our own country. There is a bell and after it is rung the door is opened by an armed guard. The visitor is then in a small entrance room where there are other guards and which leads into a large court back of and around which the prison buildings form a square. There are other guards scattered in places about the court and near a large gate through which automobiles and trucks enter when they have business there.

As we went through the court to the first building we were to see, about a hundred feet away, two men sat at the door of a side building, peeling potatoes. They were talking and laughing as they worked, evidently enjoying themselves. This was the first glimpse of the informal atmosphere that prevailed throughout, and which caused us to look in some amazement at occasional scenes such as that encountered as we entered the auditorium where a good pianist was playing and other men stood beside him or leaned on the piano, at ease and absorbed in the music.

We had now left all the armed guards behind and there were no others in evidence until we came to depart. There were attendants, supervisors of work, etc., but there were no weapons among them. We went through shops and factories, observing the men at work. They wore any sort of clothes that they happened to own, mostly of the poor peasant type, since prisoners in Russia are never put in uniform.

The spinning and weaving shops were interesting. They were well lighted, had good ventilation except in one room where neither was very adequate. As we went by the men talked to each other in a normal conversational manner, watched us, both amused and curious. Also, we talked to them as we wished. Others, not then at work for some reason (we were told that every man in the prison works, but it was late in the day when we went and some had ended their shift), followed us about good naturedly, enjoying our curiosity.

A prosecuting attorney was our guide and he stopped to talk to various ones among them. Also as we went along men occasionally stopped him with requests, some with complaints, and he noted them on paper. At times he good naturedly refused what was asked, but any came who wanted to, informally, and without permission from any source.

The attitude of the convicts toward labor may be explained by several things which have already been mentioned. There is no feeling of punishment about the work since the prison factories are placed on the same basis as others in the country. They have an eight-hour day, they receive pay (from 20 to 50 rubles per month) which they are permitted to spend as they like and which often goes to the support of a family at home, and they have the knowledge that the work they do is counted in the regular plan so that even while they serve their sentence they are actively helping in the nation’s economic life. At any rate, these men did not appear depressed as they worked, nor in bad spirits. We watched an older inmate pleasantly talking to a young fellow beside him while he manipulated a loom, apparently telling some interesting story for he used his hands occasionally in quick gestures, but he kept his eyes on his work, and he seemed to take pride in his job.

From the shops we went to the dormitories and saw not one room only, but a number of them. As has already been intimated these rooms were too crowded. The cots were quite close together, even using the center of the room, and there was not enough space left for walking about. However, the men are not in a great deal of time. They go outside as they wish, walk when they care to, read in the library, exercise on the outside gymnasium apparatus, and are in the work shops at other times. Also, as already said, the problem of space is one that is occupying Soviet authorities extensively at present and they will require time to remedy the situation.

We were asked to enter the room and sit down on the cots. The prosecuting attorney with us led the way. We were somewhat slow in following and one of the men, sitting on his cot in the center of the room, said, “Come on in. The beds are clean.” His invitation was accompanied by a smile and we quickly entered. By this time our presence had become known about the place and a great number had gathered in the corridor outside the room we were visiting, talking volubly. We were told to speak to any one we wished, to ask any question. We did so freely and were answered frankly. One prisoner told us that he was displeased with his sentence, that it was his first offense, that he had stolen a hat, and had been given a five-year term. “Impossible,” exclaimed the prosecutor, and promptly sent a messenger to the office to get the papers in the case. Some time later, when we were in the auditorium the records came and the man was sent for. He was a little chagrined but not greatly disturbed when his record showed robbery, not once but several times, with even the use of firearms. “Well,” he said nonchalantly, not too much put out that he hadn’t got away with his story, “it was too much anyway.”

After we had visited a number of the dormitories we went to the yard. Several hundred prisoners were with us then. In the center of a bunch of them, we remembered again that here were some of the worst criminals in the country. They gathered all around to ask us about prisons in the United States or any other questions they could think of. One particularly intelligent man talked freely of conditions in Sokolniki, of his own sentence, and of his outlook on life. He had been a teacher before he had been caught in some sort of speculation, but he was teaching in the prison as well as doing some shop work. We continued questioning, now in French, now in German, more often through the Russian interpreter. The attendants were among them, talking also. There seemed to be no feeling of restraint in their presence, but on the contrary an existence of comradeship showed, especially on one occasion when one of the men had been asked a question he could not answer and turned to a guard for information. Such an attitude was apparent often, particularly as we went to the auditorium. As we were leaving the yard an incident happened that impressed us greatly. From the flower garden, one of the men came with an arm full of flowers that he wished to present to a member of the party who had passed some cigarettes around. He did it with the air of one who brings a bouquet from a prized garden of his own.

We stopped to look at the dining room next. It was an ordinary room of almost square dimensions with long tables, seating two hundred and fifty at a time, and immaculately clean. From there we went through a small hall and upstairs to the auditorium where we were told to ask any questions on points of either policy or practice about which we still would like information. We were not sparing but every query was answered with great patience and detail. Then, as we were about to go, the prosecutor suggested to the superintendent who had been with us that we might like to hear the orchestra play. A messenger was sent and eventually a few musicians were rounded up but as there were not, enough to give a very good account of themselves, they tried the drama and dancing group with better luck. These hastily summoned the stage director, the curtains to the stage were drawn, a splendid pianist among their number who had discontinued some piece he was playing as we went in, now entertained us while preparations went on. In the meantime both men and attendants were crowding into the auditorium, messengers from among the prisoners were darting in and out with stringed musical instruments, and an informal atmosphere prevailed that it would be hard to give an impression of. The men talked in low excited tones, the music continued, the prosecutor and the prison director leaned against the piano. An attendant near to us carried on an excited conversation with a group of prisoners with him. It was difficult to believe that this was indeed a prison of a more serious type. It had all the earmarks just then of a community affair of local talent about to start.

The program was given with zest and enjoyment. It lasted an hour and consisted of dances, singing, a reading, most of which they had written and produced themselves under the direction of the specialists who are in charge of that type of work in the prison. The results they got with the scant attention they gave to costuming was interesting. They used only a kind of high-throated long white tunic over whatever trousers they happened to have on, because they had no time for further preparation, but there was a uniform effect which was appropriate to the selections they gave. We were reluctant to have the entertainment end but we had undoubtedly kept them from their supper for the time, and their graciousness reminded us that we too must be considerate. We thanked them, said goodbye, and went upstairs for a visit to the library.

Here was a long light room with bookshelves across the farther end and with reading tables and chairs nearer the door. At the side as we entered was the atheist corner, so-called, which is found in nearly all the institutions and which is devoted mostly to evolution. A large picture of Darwin was prominently placed among the exhibits. There were also pictorial illustrations of the lower stages through which man has come and such other things as one would expect to find in a geological or anthropological display. Science, in their new culture, is designed to replace religion in so far as state recognition is concerned.

Out again in the yard some of the prisoners demonstrated their athletic ability and performed gymnastic feats on bars. We noted their carefree attitude, the interested passive participation of their comrades, but the wall was there again just across from us reminding that after all there was restriction—deprivation of liberty. And that, after all, is the chiefest of punishment. On top of the towers at the corners of the wall the men with long rifles looked down at us. No matter what the correctional labor policy, how designed to be constructive of character, certain men have to be restricted and the program forced on them. But it is to be doubted whether there is often achievement of a spirit like that in the prisons of many other countries and even in case it does exist, it is likely to be in some isolated place where an exceptional warden has been able to achieve it, possibly in a lesser place, one suspects, and not a major penitentiary.


1.  Stell and Null, Convict Verse, Ft. Madison, Iowa, 1908.

2.  Collection of Acts, 1930, No. 26, Article 344.

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