Russian Justice

Mary Stevenson Callcott


The full name of this institution is Moscow Novinsky Women’s Isolator. There is another such prison at Orenburg, and these are the only two in the RSFSR. There were many things about this place that compared unfavorably with Sokolniki, chief of which was a lesser liberty of action. That was explained to us as being necessary because fifty per cent. of the population are there awaiting trial, which means that they stay only for a brief time. This makes a constructive program more difficult, since it is not possible to undertake for a yet unconvicted person the same type of treatment as would be accorded one actually sentenced. They must be kept separately, and with the small outdoor space available it is quite a problem to handle the question of freedom and recreation.

The capacity of the place is 375, but at the time of our visit it had only 360 in both classes; that is, those sentenced by the court and those awaiting trial. There are more problems connected with a women’s prison than with one for men. Children must be thought of, both those about to be born and small ones who depend on the mother and for whom there is no other care. There is a small hospital for ordinary cases in this prison, but a pregnant woman is taken out to a proper place for the birth of her child. It is emphasized that she is entitled to the same treatment as any other mother in the land, and that by virtue of her being a prisoner, she is not to be deprived of the best medical aid.

One comes up to this prison suddenly, without warning. Around a corner from a wide avenue and up a cobbled street for a block and the building is there before you. One enters the prison straight from the street into a small hallway, such as is found dividing the two front rooms of a residence. All the guards are women and they stand with guns to which are attached bayonets. They seemed much more severe than the men guards at other prisons, but perhaps that is because one is not accustomed to seeing them. Others wearing revolvers were about in the hallway and at other points in this entrance building. Their uniform consists of white blouse and dark skirt, with the gun belt acting in the place of a normal one, and military-looking caps. They are businesslike and, one feels sure, equal to an emergency. However, we were assured that none arises. The action of the comradely court takes care of the majority of whatever disciplinary problems there might be.

Our first pause was in the office where we were received by the director and told some few points about the prison. However, we were reminded that a tour of it would be worth more than a lecture, and since that seemed a logical statement to us, we started out. Across the hall from the office in which we had been sitting was the visiting room. Every six days each prisoner may see visitors. There is no screen through which they must talk; the contact is direct; but there is a long counter behind which the prisoners sit. A guard is present in the room at all times, but takes care not to listen to the conversation. That is regarded as the person’s private affair. Mail may be censored but mere words are not restricted, so we were told.

Passing through this room, we found ourselves in a court around which the buildings form a hollow square. This institution was a prison in Tzarist days, and a gloomy spot it must have been according to descriptions. Now, there are many windows which are large and admit plenty of light and air. We visited next the wing used as a dormitory and found there somewhat more space than in Sokolniki. One room was particularly large, about fifty feet long. Beds are fairly well spaced; there is a small cabinet for each woman, and the ventilation is good. A girl with a guitar was furnishing entertainment for others who sat on their respective cots and listened. She stopped playing loudly as we entered but continued to strum. We were told here, as at all other places we visited, to talk to any whom we wished, to ask any question we would. The superintendent seemed eager to emphasize that we were free to see or know anything. She had heard the prevalent story that in Russia one never sees things. She begged us to feel free to look and to question. No one would listen to what we said to the prisoner nor she to us. We talked to an old woman who wore the headdress of a peasant. She sat aloof on her cot and we were moved by her lonely appearance. What had she done? She stole bread, she told us, and for that she had a ten-year sentence. The same prosecutor who was with us at Sokolniki was listening at this moment. His face was full of sympathy. A person, whatever he might have on his conscience, could scarcely find him forbidding to talk to. He began to question and discovered that this was no ordinary theft of bread but a widespread attempt to defraud the state. A written note went into his pocket before he turned away and one wonders whether the ten-year sentence which might possibly not be served anyway, would be reduced.

We talked next with a pretty black-haired girl whose eyes sparkled with mischief. No one was near to listen. For robbery, she told us frankly, she had been sent for five years of deprivation of liberty. One hopes that not even a prison can dim that gayness which seemed to cause her to bubble over. Was she getting along all right, she was asked? Fine! She laughed with us, talked animatedly for several minutes. Did she feel resentful? No, because she was learning there and she shouldn’t have stolen anyway. How will she get a job when she gets out? There were more jobs than people she told us as if she had learned a lesson. Was she sure? we asked. All the people who leave here get work at once. She knew that to be true. Why shouldn’t they? They were good workmen, she added. We left them to visit other rooms, and down the hall past two or three we came to one with spreads on the beds, with white covers on the tables, with a framed picture here and there and other personal belongings in place. It was the room occupied by the shock-brigaders. Russia honors its Udarnicks, whether in prison or out, for their efforts are such as send the nation bounding on its way. In this room, the honor spot of the dormitories, a young woman, perhaps twenty-one, sat at a desk with her back to us. She is the chairman of the comradely court, we were told, and she smiles at us with great pride. It is evidently an achievement which carries satisfaction.

She had stolen continuously since she was fifteen, her case read, but by means of the approach they use here they have been able to aid her. The superintendent assured us that her whole character had undergone a change, that she was trusted and valuable to the institution, and supervised with ability the court that was responsible for discipline within the prison. We talked to others, one a middle-aged woman, who did exceptionally good work. She was proud of her ability and the praise she had won.

We went to the nursery. A mother sat in a small room beside it, nursing her child. We noticed the position of her foot, the way she held her baby, and were reminded that some one gave instruction in such points in a way that would meet the best approval. Cribs were lined up along the sides of the nursery and a trained woman, not a prisoner, was in charge. She was assisted with the children by inmates themselves. There were about twenty beds but only a few children. The others had already been taken to the play-yard. We took time to observe before we left that the room was well ventilated and well kept and the woman in charge briskly businesslike. As we descended again to the court we passed a small room back of the stairway where women were washing their clothes. Each must do her own, and a room equipped with tubs was provided for the purpose.

The children are kept up to four years of age, then disposed of among the other state institutions for children or dismissed with the mother, or possibly, if she must stay longer, sent to some of her family. In the yard, a grassy spot with shrubbery, the children were having a gay time with all sorts of apparatus and a playhouse. Like the children in other Russian centers, they wore no clothes except light cotton trunks.

They looked healthy and well cared for and showed, it seemed to us, less of physical abnormalities than one usually notices in children of imprisoned women.

We visited the school room and were told that compulsory education is provided up to the seventh year and opportunity given for work beyond, by means of university evening courses. There is at the same time the usual political education, the clubs, and physical education that characterizes all penal places, and a radio in every room for additional education and entertainment.

We came out into the court again to go to the wing containing the shops. Some of the informal attitude which we had noticed at Sokolniki now began to show itself. There were groups who leaned out of their windows and shouted to us, and some of the younger girls talked to us in the court. Three of them begged us to tell them about the prisons in America, much as three children would waylay one and insist on being told tales. We gave them some information, and then tried to answer questions about New York and life in the United States. No, they didn’t think they would like America because people did not have jobs there, while here when they got out, they would be assured of work. We asked if they felt certain of that. Of course. The patron factory of this institution gives preference to those released from here. They boldly hailed the prosecutor now, to tell him that they wanted their sentences reduced. The law gives them the right to complain to the prison management, to the Commissar of Justice, or to the prosecuting attorney, but they are not offering a complaint of the sentence. It is only that they are ready to be good and work like faithful citizens. Another note is thrust into the prosecutor’s coat pocket. What was done with them we did not know but since the inmates seemed to expect that procedure it must be a general practice, and the fact that he definitely refused some and made no note seemed to indicate that the others had real significance. We were told that each case so noted would be checked. The approach to official channels is evidently quite easy.

There were no shops in this prison in Tzarist days, and the women did not work. Now the wing which has been newly built is thrust out in such a way that it is long and narrow, with windows on both sides. There is plenty of ventilation and light. The women were cutting and sewing shirts and other garments from the same material we had seen the men making at Sokolniki. There were long tables with good working space and as we walked about various women showed us finished articles with pride. The sewing machines had all the latest equipment, and the operatives worked rapidly. The products of their shops are turned over to the cooperatives and sold where needed.

They, too, work on the same basis as do factory workers of the land, with the exception (as in the case of all prisoners) that because they are supplied with their upkeep they are not paid normal wages. At the time we were there some of them were not at work, due, the directress told us, to a shortage of material. The supervisors are not prisoners but come in from the outside to teach and direct the inmates.

Already in the chapter on “What Crimes Are Committed and Who Commits Them” we referred to the acts committed by women. In this prison the records showed that theft came first and robbery a close second, but in cases with whom we talked, the theft often turned out to be some act involving state property which carried a severe penalty. For that reason one was surprised at first to find long sentences attached to what appeared to be less serious crimes. But, in view of the provisions of the law of August 7, 1932, such larceny is sternly dealt with, even though the act is committed by a person from among the peasants or toiling class. One stealing from her neighbor would get a much lighter sentence. This is where the class nature of punishment shows up very strongly and unbalances the scales of justice that otherwise seem to work with such fairness. An example of the difference was very clear in two cases. One girl had been in prison nine times for theft and her present sentence was for two years only. Another had committed her first offense by stealing from a collective farm, a tool apparently of some “class enemy,” and her sentence was ten years. The “measure of social danger” accounts for the difference, and while it is easy to see that the authorities are confronted by a real problem of deep seriousness, one wonders whether something more of justice1 might not in the long run make for better feeling as well as a more ethical foundation for their socialist state. It is contradictory to their usual administration of justice among their own masses. One hopes that, as the conflict recedes, “pure justice” in so far as such is possible will replace “socially dangerous” measurements now in practice.

Again we were in the court preparing to leave. A girl of some eighteen or nineteen years, with thick golden braids hanging to her waist, was at the window above us shouting laughingly down to the superintendent. One of our party had a camera and she wished her picture made. It was all right, we were told, and the picture was snapped, and she was promised one as soon as it could be developed. Others were calling to us, too, setting up a din, with their comments and questions. Such an informal atmosphere can hardly be described. A group stood about like girls let out of school, talking, watching us curiously, unrestrained by the presence of attendants or directress. One feels that so long as there is no attempt to escape, and no running afoul the comradely court, one can do about as she likes—play volley ball when she pleases, if she is free from work, listen to the radio, read in the library, or gossip with her neighbor. She also has a good atmosphere in which to learn that labor and happiness are pretty close companions.

The parting word from our hostess was, “I wish I might visit a prison in America with the same freedom with which I have shown you this.”

What a western observer would feel first in these prisons is a lack of physical equipment such as his own best might boast. There was such criticism expressed. But this is not an adequate standard with which to measure their success. It is true that in these closed prisons of a penitentiary type their equipment, while much better than that in our worst, is not nearly so good as that in our best, but the fact that without this equipment they are able to achieve the attitude and cooperation they do on the part of the prisoners is all the more significant.

There is also the point that the aim of Soviet penal authorities is to remove as rapidly as possible every person whose character will permit into the open or semi-closed correctional labor institutions and discontinue the use of the closed types except for the most incorrigible cases. Because of that, they are devoting all possible attention to the development and improvement of the labor institutions. And one finds different conditions in these places. They would not suffer very much by comparison with our best. A description of Bolshevo Labor Commune, in a later chapter, will indicate that.

In the meantime they create that constructive businesslike atmosphere, among the women as well as the men, that gives genuine hope of equipping these people for a place in social life.


1.  This statement by the author has caused Mr. Golunsky of the Commissariat of Justice in Moscow to offer the following explanation. “The word ‘justice’ in the USSR has another meaning than in the writings of the bourgeois sociologists. Criminal repression is not expiation of the crime. We don’t feel it just to shoot a man who has committed a murder only in order to punish him. Instead of one murder that would make two. But we call it just, if by means of shooting such a murderer, we can prevent a score of other murders. The construction of Socialism is our greatest task. Everything that helps the achievement of it is just, everything that hinders it is unjust. That is the point of view in every criminal case and I don’t suppose that we shall ever change it. But of course the methods of our fight for Socialism change at every stage of Socialist construction, and today they are other than they were five years ago.”

Table of contents

previous page start next page