Russian Justice

Mary Stevenson Callcott


When H. G. Wells was visiting in Moscow the past summer, he is said to have made the following observation to a Russian journalist: “I know, you Moscow people look upon all this with different eyes. You are Robinson Crusoes recreating life upon barren land after a social cataclysm. You are proud that you are manufacturing without the capitalists’ air motors, and reoentgen apparatus which the capitalists before you did not manufacture. You are happy to be doing all this. I understand this. And I should have been happy in your place, but of all your productions, excuse me, I am struck only by one thing. You are making people. It is this that I have come here to see and I see it.”

If they are making people in this Soviet land, and I think it is pretty well agreed by thoughtful persons that they are, the beginning of the process is found in their treatment of children. So much has been said and written on the care of the child in Russia that no elaboration should be necessary here, and in regard to the delinquent it is no less than that given to the normal child. Their attitude toward the child who breaks the law is not that society must be protected, but that the individual may be given an opportunity for developing his own life. His interest is uppermost and practically every branch of government cooperates in his protection and training.


The Geneva declaration has been of special interest to the authorities dealing with this problem in the USSR. They believe with the author of the statement that mankind must give the child the best it has. In many of their publications they quote the main points of that declaration, and it seems of interest to set them down in relation to this chapter. They follow:

(1) The child should be given an opportunity of normal development, materially as well as spiritually.

(2) The starved child must be fed, the sick cured, the retarded pushed ahead, the defective trained, and the orphan taken care of.

(3) The child must be helped first of all during public misfortune.

(4) The child must be prepared to earn his bread, and protected from all types of exploitation.

(5) The child must be trained with the understanding that his best powers must be devoted to his brothers.

For them the application of these points is to all children. The problem of the upbringing of the juvenile criminal is not separable from the general question of juvenile training. And whenever it is possible, the child who has broken the law is sent to schools for his training which in no wise differ from those for the noncriminal child.

Russia’s fight against juvenile crime has been one of its major problems. It is an old story that the Civil War and the Volga famine in 1921 left hordes of wild children wandering over the land. They crowded in the railway stations, they rode the rods from place to place, they congregated in market places, behind billboards, in any places they could find, and were so depraved by street life that they became the most hardened of criminals. At this time, too, men released from the army, with no jobs available, turned in great numbers to banditry, and these children became their associates in their illegal enterprise. In history there is perhaps no picture greatly darker so far as children are concerned, and handling such a situation is not the least of Russia’s achievements. Today there are still a few scattered remnants of that vast number that one sees in railway stations, but the problem is in hand.

At the moment when this condition reached its worst, the government was dealing with the Civil War at its greatest height, giving its attention and energy to the defense of the proletarian state. But it is to its great credit that it found time even then to concentrate its forces to give care to this growing army of homeless waifs and juvenile delinquents. We have at that moment a proposal on the part of the leader of the Cheka, later referred to in detail, which marked the beginning of the system of care given today to young offenders in Russia.

However, there was already machinery in operation for dealing with juvenile criminals or children needing the aid of the state because of some abnormal condition. As early as January 14, 1918, only a little more than two months after the October Revolution, the Council of People’s Commissars issued a decree establishing Commissions for Cases of Minors. These commissions, with their powers greatly broadened, exist today, and are the organs charged to look after the interests not only of delinquent children, but of any child who needs the intervention of the law. During the period when children swarmed everywhere, homeless, starving, some criminal, and others forced by necessity into such an existence, no single force could have been adequate, but these bodies were the official channels through which the cases passed after the GPU or some other agency had first gathered the children in.

The commission is not a children’s court, but is a pedagogical and educational organization. Its chief task is in educating the juvenile offender so that he may become a productive member of society, and with that in view the composition provided for the commission is of professions and persons able to make appropriate contributions. The chairman must be a pedagogue of very high qualifications. He must possess not only an adequate education, but he must have had experience either in work of a pedagogical nature or with home children or with juvenile criminals. In addition to the chairman there is a member representing the local department of public education, a physician from the local health department, a judge from the People’s Court, an investigation educator, a member of the Komsomol (the youth about to enter the Communist Party), a representative of the Children’s Friend’s Society, and a representative of the local trade union organization.

The commission sits in closed session, permitting only the attendance of those connected with the cases. This would include parents, relatives or guardians, or a representative of a public or school organization. Its work is under the jurisdiction of the commissariat of education, and is not connected with the commissariat of justice, such as the children’s court would be. There are, of course, local commissions which take care of the cases for each city or rural district. The procedure before the commission is entirely informal. When a case comes up the chairman takes the proper steps to have the juvenile appear, unless for some reason his presence is thought to be unnecessary. Some of the circumstances under which the child would not appear would be: if the child is under eight years of age; when the child is already known to the commission; when the evidence does not substantiate the charge; when there is no reason for the medico-pedagogical measures to be applied; or when it is thought that the appearance of the minor before the commission might do some harm to him in either a physical or mental way. But in case it is thought his appearance is desirable, the investigator is instructed to take charge of the case. The chairman then proceeds to gather the necessary information, evidence, etc., concerning the child and advise him that his case is to come up. If at that time the youth has reached the age of sixteen, his case is turned over to the courts for trial, since minors between the ages of sixteen and eighteen are subject to the jurisdiction of the court.

The commission is competent to deal not only with the cases of all children delinquents between the ages of eight and sixteen (children under eight years of age are never summoned to appear before the commission) but it is also empowered to institute criminal proceedings against any person who is an offender against the child in a manner of demoralization, incitement to crime, or exploitation of minors.

What measures may be taken in the cases of children convicted of some crime before the commission? Here is a list of the more important, although it is not an exhaustive one:

(1) A request for granting assistance, document, certificate, etc., to the child.

(2) Placing out the child in the care of a family.

(3) Placing the child on maintenance and education by public or party organization.

(4) Finding a guardian for the child.

(5) Finding work for the child or apprenticing him.

(6) Sending the child to his birthplace.

(7) Placing the child in an educational institution, school or children’s home.

(8) Sending the child to a medical or medico-pedagogical institution.

(9) Helping the child to enroll in a children’s club.

(10) Talk and exhortation.

(11) Putting the child in the care of parents or other persons with or without supervision by investigation educator.

(12) Putting the child in the care of an investigating educator.

There is one final measure which it is within the power of the commission to use, but it is never resorted to unless all other efforts have failed. That is that the commission may send the child as a final resort to an industrial school of which we will speak later on in the chapter. The list given above constitutes the medico-pedagogical measures and are applied only to those offenders under sixteen years of age who come within the competency of this commission.

The case of the minor between sixteen and eighteen years of age is approached in a somewhat different manner. Originally under the Criminal Code of 1922, the court was given jurisdiction over minors between fourteen and eighteen years of age, and might at that time sentence them to terms of deprivation of liberty, but only to industrial homes set apart for them, and never by any manner of means to a place for adults. This, however, has been changed so that the commission referred to takes care of children up to sixteen years of age, and only the cases of those between sixteen and eighteen are referred to courts. Although the cases of juvenile offenders between sixteen and eighteen are tried by the courts, the measures applied are of a medico-pedagogical nature very similar to those used for the younger children. Only when the circumstances of the crime convince the court that these measures will not be adequate may the minor be sentenced to deprivation of liberty. In fixing the terms, the sentence is to be reduced by one third of what would be imposed on an adult in the same situation, and the maximum term under the USSR is not to exceed one half of that imposed on adults. A death sentence may never be given to either child or minor, and no severe measures may be used.

In the case of trial, a copy of the summons as well as the indictment must be sent to the minor’s legal representative, as well as to the minor himself. And the Supreme Court has especially instructed the lower courts to see that all juveniles under trial be provided with counsel whenever it may be needed. During the hearing of the case, the minor is accorded all the rights that we have already seen are granted to defendants in the Soviet courts.

That the fight waged by the authorities against juvenile crime is being successful is indicated by the steady drop of the percentage to the total convictions in the Union. We find that, in 1928, 36 per cent. of the total number of persons convicted of crime were juvenile offenders. In 1931, this figure had dropped to 28.2 per cent. Also indicative of the achievement in this direction is, as already mentioned, the fact that this army of vagrant youth no longer wanders about in Russia. There are few of such children remaining.

The Soviet government has practically removed from its system all of the homes and colonies for juveniles which it inherited from the Tzarist régime, and has at the present time in their stead the system of institutions operating in an educational manner. The most constructive work being done is in those owing their initiation to the efforts of an agent that we do not usually connect with such activities.

Back in 1921 when the whole place swarmed with homeless and criminal children, and there was despair over the hopelessness of the condition, the GPU came to the rescue with the establishment of places for wholesale care called “collectors.” Children were snatched from the streets, stations, trains, or wherever they were, and were taken to these places where they were bathed, dressed, fed, sorted out, given all sorts of examinations, mental and physical, then turned over to the Commission for the Cases of Minors, and were finally distributed to the various institutions. The institutions, at that time, while educational in nature, were without a definite social goal, and not adequately prepared or equipped to turn a youth into a productive and useful citizen. At the present time the institutions for juvenile offenders are established under the control of the Commissariat of Education, the Commissariat of Justice, and the Commissariat of Home Affairs (formerly the OGPU). In the Commissariat of Education we find a whole network of children’s homes, directly leading the child from training into the industrial life of the country in such a manner that there is no gap through which he can escape into a life of crime. In their early days the task of these homes was simply to house the children, to prevent them from becoming vagrants and criminals, and their program was by no means as constructive as it might have been. But, at present, no effort is spared in delivering the child to society in a state of preparation for his place.

A. Shestakova in her article Principles of Organization of Correctional Labor Institutions for Children tells us that in the first days of these homes the children were taught to make shoes and footstools, to bind books, and how to read and write; and slightly how to adjust themselves in life. But she says that the homes were inadequate to attack the basic problems of turning those sent to them into a specifically trained group, sufficiently equipped with industrial knowledge and social culture, prepared to enter a factory or other center in such a manner as to evolve into useful citizens. The misfit was unfortunate in two ways. Not only were the children unprepared as to basic industrial knowledge or other means of adjustment to their new life, but the state itself was deprived, because of this inadequacy, of the services of many young citizens.

A new economic policy had given way to the five-year plan with its tremendous program of industrial development and agricultural collectivization, and there was need for every available trained workman. Because of this urgent need of the country those in charge of juvenile offenders were given an extra instrument for their purpose. With definite ends in view, with specific jobs to fill, training took on an additional purpose. Here was a definite challenge to the places of training of those juvenile offenders to teach them so that they might make their contribution to the economic plan, and that they might thereby gain the satisfaction of having work which they could do well.

It was not enough that education be directed only toward keeping the child busy with some elementary task, but that it concern itself with the possibility of active participation in the nation’s economic development. To accomplish this task the children’s homes were merged with the factory apprenticeship schools which were attached to factories in towns, and to the peasant youth schools connected in like manner with state farms and rural localities, by which merging they now afforded places for training skilled workers.

As now organized the direction of these homes is in the hands of the Commissariat of Education, and children are sent by the Commission of Cases for Minors. They are not limited to the training of delinquents but also have the task of educating the children of workers and peasants from the general population. No coercive methods are used. There are of course no wardens or guards, and their express task is to “combine teaching with productive labor upon such basis that the whole social productive labor of the pupils was to be subordinated to the academic and educational aims of the school.”

The inmates of these homes are given preference of admission to the factory apprenticeship schools, and to peasant youth schools next to the children of workers. From this training they move straight into the stream of factory workers and, almost without knowing it, take their place in the productive life of the nation. By the time they have gone through these schools of apprenticeship and the factory, or the state farms, they have forgotten that they ever were attached to a life of crime and are removed from the environment so effectually that they have no temptation to return. This describes the treatment given to the cases of those children not classified as habitual criminals. Even in this category of the 8-16 group coming under the direction of the Commissariat of Education, there is an occasional child who requires more restrictive treatment, and measures of a severer nature may then be resorted to.

For this type, who have become habitual criminals, or who have committed more serious crimes that require a term of deprivation of liberty, we have a second kind of institution. It is important to note that this set of establishments is connected with the Commissariat of Justice, and not with the Department of Education. There has been a period of evolution of these institutions in which much study has been given to methods to be used, and experiments of a bold nature tried with regard to some of them.

On July 11, 1918, there was published the Order for the First Russian Reformatory where juvenile offenders of this type were to be detained, and there were consequently organized industrial homes for these offenders which were intrusted with the duty of teaching to minors “skilled trades, to widen their mental horizon by means of general and vocational education, and to transform them into active citizens conscious of their rights and obligations, giving them at the same time a physical and health education by means of gymnastics, sports and hygiene.”

These institutions, although of the educational type referred to, were inadequate for any serious training. Arts and crafts constituted the principal type of labor, and practically no attention was given to the higher and more skilled trades. We have already spoken of the demands made by the reconstruction period for more skilled workers, and of the notable inadequacy of places for juvenile offenders to turn out young people who filled such a need. The program needed a decided reformation, and in 1930 the All-Russian Central Executive Committee set up a commission for specific remedy of the situation.

The commission was created for two definitely assigned tasks: the first was to institute an investigation of the work of the fight against juvenile criminals and minors, and of the organization of factory communes and corrective labor organizations, using for this purpose the equipment of the People’s Commissariat of Justice. Secondly, it was to work out and to hand to the presidium a project of administrative and practical measures, with due attention being given to the experiment of the Izhorsk plant in the North Caucasus. The result of the investigation was that in 1930, the Commissariat of Justice decided to reconstruct these institutions into factory apprenticeship schools for juvenile offenders which were to be attached to large factories and mills. It must be noted here that these schools differed from those just discussed in that they were for offenders only and liberty was restricted, whereas in the first there were no guards of any nature and noncriminal children attended along with the criminal ones.

In these schools they were to create a cultural and social condition conducive to drawing the inmates into social work, and to this end, bars, locks, and prison régime, and all prison atmosphere was to be resolutely banished from them.

The character of the training was educational just as it had been in the others, but in the case of this more hardened type it was necessary to detain the juvenile forcibly while he was subjected to the program. However, pupils in these schools now enjoy vacations, take part in regular group hikes, and go out to camps in the summer, in the same manner as other pupils do. The term of sentence is from two to three years, and the arrangements as to schedule, life, and discipline, organization and labor, are taken care of by the usual self-government organization. The schedule of the work is arranged in such a manner that the children are never left entirely to their own devices, but are constantly with those who guide and direct them. Four hours of industrial training are followed by four hours of study, and the latter is again followed by three hours devoted to public activity organizations.

In 1931, 4,000 juvenile offenders were trained in these schools and 500 industrial workers were graduated from the industrial establishments. In 1933, the aim was to put all the juvenile offenders into these schools from which it was expected there would be turned out 2,400 highly skilled workers.

It is interesting to notice here what happened to those released from these schools. Figures for the years 1931 and 1932, giving percentages of distribution for those released, show that 63.2 per cent. went into industrial undertakings. This would indicate a high degree of success in the passage of the trained youth from schools to industry. The next largest percentage, 19.7 per cent., found a place in the building trade. The third highest, 9.3 per cent., was released to the parents with supervision on the part of the school. 4.7 per cent. were placed on Soviet farms; 1.2 per cent. found a location in the factory labor and technical communes and 0.6 per cent. were released to parents and relatives but continued under the supervision of the schools.1

The most important training given in these schools is for metal work and work on wood. In addition to that the inmates are taught tractor handling, animal husbandry, vegetable garden work, and field work. The health and physical training require that the workers take a month and a half to two months’ camp trip in the country. Because of the inconvenience attached to these trips, when the institution is located in a city, the First Moscow School was moved to a small village a short distance out, so that country places would be more accessible for health training.

The chief problems now attached to this education, according to A. Shestakova, are the building up of the physical health, an establishing of self-discipline, and the introduction of these delinquents to methods used in other camps, to a life of such neighboring activities as the collective or state farms. The prize agricultural schools among all of those at present existing in the Soviet Union are Saratov, which now has first place in the contest for these schools; Serpooh, in second place; the First Moscow School in third place; and in the fourth, the First Leningrad School.

We come finally to the third type of establishment. These are incorporated into the system of the organization of the GPU, in the Commissariat for Home Affairs. There is something incongruous to most of us in the supervision of children by an agent that is avowedly for terroristic purposes. However, the labor communes, organized by this body for juvenile offenders of the worst type, are one of the outstanding developments in the care of the children in Soviet Russia, and set a standard that few if any institutions in other lands manage to reach.

The inhabitants of these communes are young people with long criminal records, who have been up repeatedly before the Commission for Cases of Minors, before the courts, who have served many terms of deprivation of liberty in various juvenile institutions. The cases seemed hopeless, and the experiment, so bold and unique, was tried in an effort to give a new viewpoint that would induce a complete break with the former criminal type of life. One of these communes, the largest both as to number and scope of development, is described in detail in the next chapter. In this place we only mention the general plan and underlying principles.

The main difference between the apprenticeship school and these labor communes of the OGPU is in method and not in principle. The labor commune is organized around large labor work, where both sexes contribute, while in the apprenticeship schools the emphasis is on education, on the preparation for industrial work. One of the basic principles in the labor commune is complete freedom as to movement, while in the schools restriction of movement is naturally required since the program is compulsory in its nature. In the apprenticeship schools there is also segregation of the sexes in the matter of residence; the boys and girls meet together in theatres, on excursions, in museums, on walks, and other places, but live in separate homes. It seems inconsistent to state that the labor commune is made up of those more habituated to crime, since it enjoys greater freedom, while the schools are composed of the less criminal; but this is nevertheless true. When one remembers, though, that the commune is the result of a desperate move to save a great number of habitual criminals, whereas the schools are merely for training those of even younger years, the situation is more easily understood.

In the schools the age group is from 15-18 years. The sources from which they come are, (a) those sent on court order, and (b) those sent by the Commission for Cases of Minors, and all other authorities empowered to commit them. If the term is up before the training of the child is completed, the pedagogical commune may retain him, provided the entire term does not exceed three years.2

In the communes, the age group, although in the beginning limited to those of 13-17, is now composed of those of 16-24. The satisfaction of the authorities with the achievement of the First Labor Commune (Bolshevo) led to the establishment of others, and at the present time several thousand former criminals, some of them committing the worst sort of crimes, are being trained and educated while they participate in community life.


1.  Article by A. Shestakova, “Principles of Organization of Correctional Labor Institutions for Children,” from Vishinsky, op. cit. p. 348.

2.  Section 42 of the Correctional Labor Code of 1933.

Table of contents

previous page start next page