Russian Justice

Mary Stevenson Callcott


The concluding remarks of most books on Russia begin with a discussion of class distinction. In this case it would be further stated that it showed not only in court action but was likewise felt in the fact that while the OGPU as an arresting agent turned the ordinary prisoner over to the courts, it acted in the capacity of a judicial organ for those of the opposition class. A few months ago that would have been true. With the transforming of that agent into the Commissariat of Home Affairs and the stripping from it of all judicial powers, one more step has been made toward the disappearance of class lines in the administration of criminal law.1

However, the distinction does exist. But in this final evaluation of the present situation in regard to crime repression in the USSR the treatment of political prisoners is not considered. While the method as developed is used for both classes it naturally shows to its best advantage in the treatment of the prisoners from among the workers, and it ought to be judged on that score. It is to be hoped that not many years hence class distinctions will disappear to the extent that machinery for justice will furnish equal measures for all.2 When that happens the treatment of all prisoners will be of the kind that is found so admirably used today in places where discipline and industry are taught to those of the working class.

The Russians claim no Utopia. When on one occasion the writer expressed admiration to Assistant Attorney General Vishinsky for what they had achieved, he quickly and positively responded, “I warn you of its shortcomings.” Well, of course, they are there, plenty of them. They can be found in the administration of justice, too.

It seems though that one who wishes to see actually how the matter stands would find it effective to take first the policy of the state, the standards it sets and the goal at which it aims, then see not only how fully that aim is achieved, but what progress is made year by year toward the goal.

Take whatever phase of criminal repression one will, and one finds progress and a pretty good practice of policy. Judges in the beginning, one supposes by the Soviet’s own records, woefully inadequate at finding out what justice might be in a case, are now much more fully qualified; jurors for a time without any qualifications except as to vote are now selected with more care and given some training for the task before them. How fully adequate are they? It would take a firsthand survey of the nation’s tribunals to be able to say, but to judge by a fair sample the author believes them to be fulfilling their duty in a high degree and with more than average competence. Their attendance to work and their conscientious effort to get at the straight of the affair before them is pronounced. They seem in general to feel the responsibility of being the agent for administering justice to their own toiling class.

In the prisons and places of deprivation of liberty one sees more evenness of tone. The personality of those in charge of these places strikes one as indicating fitness for the job. Members of staffs were observed closely by the writer and with one single exception they seemed well selected for handling the work. Vishinsky, in the Introduction of the book edited by him, states that one of the shortcomings of the prison system is the need for more trained persons who will understand what this policy really is and help put it into practice. One would expect that to be true, since it is so universally a fact with regard to prison workers. It would be indeed a Utopia that provided an adequate staff for penal places. But it seems to the author, by comparison, that he is better off than he thinks he is.

However, the appearance these staffs make may be due in part to the fact of close supervision from above. There is another factor, too, which ought to help. Responsible authorities have a good picture in mind of what a man needs to be in order to fit into their scheme of living. Their society makes definite requirements of its members and training is provided to make the misfits fit. To do that thing which they see clearly they have developed a policy that merely trains a man, both to discipline himself if possible, and do some work that will be of economic benefit both to himself and to the country, while punishment is forgotten. One of their chief tasks is to teach him to prefer the “Life of Labor,” and by instilling in him, or encouraging the spark if it is already there, the joy of creation, they manage in most cases to do it—if their statistics on recidivism are anywhere near correct.

Another advantage is that they have one very definite policy and every superintendent of penal places knows what that policy is. It is, as stated in their codes, to educate and to train without doing anything to degrade, to build up a personality, a self-respect, and to do nothing that could hinder such development. With that knowledge in hand it is easier to put the program into practice, and they can develop plans for carrying it out. An understanding of psychological principles enters here, not only in expression of policy as found in the Criminal Code but in the actual practice as one finds it. In doing away with handcuffs, with solitary confinement, with any type of corporal punishment, and with any prison garb, the enunciation of policy does its part, but in the approach of the immediate staff to the inmates there is seen a wholesomeness that no code could account for.

The attitude of the authorities toward violations on the part of officers is another indication of their sincerity of purpose in this work. In their zeal to put their policy into action they not only provide that the Observation Commission shall be in close touch with all that goes on in the Institution, and impose on them much responsibility for the régime, but they also back them up by providing a penalty for the man who violates the regulations. A guard who strikes a prisoner is in danger of arrest himself, and since there are official records of such cases, one is sure that an attempt is made to put the policy into practice. It must be true that in isolated instances some such things happen and go unpunished, but it is the stated policy of the authorities to discourage in every way possible the committing of these acts.

Central authorities, as we have seen in discussing administration of these prisons, have made repeated efforts year by year to see that the Observation Committee keeps in close touch with all the life of the Institution and thereby effects better parole and release work as well as brings up the level of work done in the place.

Another indication of progress in putting the government’s policy into practice is the speed with which they have built open agricultural colonies, institutions of semi-closed type, and labor communes such as Bolshevo so that prisoners might be taken out of the old type of places. Judging from past accomplishment, there should in a very few years be left only those who demand restriction. In addition they are year by year adding to the number of those sentenced to compulsory labor without deprivation of liberty.

Here, then, is a system that deserves to attract the attention of those genuinely interested in a better approach to effective crime repression. It has without doubt made a distinct contribution in this field of social endeavor.


1.  Again there has been the following comment from an authority on the Administration of Criminal Law in the USSR, in regard to this statement: “The class line in the criminal justice can disappear only when the classes themselves disappear. So long as the classes exist, so long as the struggle between them goes on, it is absolutely impossible to avoid the class character of criminal justice You may keep silent about that, you may try to disguise it, but you cannot make it disappear. We don’t find it necessary to disguise the class character of our courts, as the bourgeois science of law and the bourgeois legislation does, because the class whose interests our courts defend, is the overwhelming majority of all the people. With the bourgeois criminal justice it is quite the opposite. Of course, as I have already stated, the victory we have gained over our class enemies here has enormously changed our policy, but this policy remains a class policy, because it remains the policy of the proletariat struggling for socialism. The first aim of this policy does not change, only the methods of its practical accomplishment. If you build a railway, the forms of your work will be different in a plain or in mountains, but the final aim will be the same. “Our final aim is to build a classless society. When this task will be accomplished, not only the class line in the criminal law will disappear, but the criminal law itself will become useless and will die as well as the criminal courts. “But so long as those courts do exist, they cannot go on without an open or a hidden class policy.”

2.  The following explanation is supplied. “By this time criminal justice will become something quite different from what we are accustomed to. It will become a system of medical and pedagogical measures, which will take their place among other radical and educational institutions. Till then criminal justice will serve the interests of the ruling class as it has always done.”

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