Russian Justice

Mary Stevenson Callcott


We turn now from theory to fact. Whether or not a state of classless society will be achieved no one can know; but it is certain that at the moment crime and criminals do exist in Soviet Russia. While our concern is with the present program of criminal repression, a review of the situation since the revolution will give us perspective.

Stalin enumerates three basic aspects of the proletarian dictatorship: “First, the utilization of the power of the proletariat for the crushing of the exploiters, for the defense of the country, for the consolidation of ties with the proletariat of other countries, for the development and victory of revolutions in all countries. Second, the utilization of the power of the proletariat for the final separation of the toiling and exploited masses from the bourgeoisie, for the attraction of the masses to the cause of socialist construction, for state leadership of these masses by the proletarian. And, third, the utilization of the power of the proletariat for the organization of forces, for the abolition of classes, for the transition to a society without classes, to a society without state.”

Criminal repression must necessarily be considered in connection with these purposes of the state. It can be seen that there are three main factors involved. There is, first of all, the crushing of the enemies of the state; secondly, the discipline and control of the toiling masses themselves; and, third, the socialist construction. The method used for accomplishing these ends have changed with the various phases of the development of the Communist state.

Considering first the crushing of those who oppose the order of government or hinder its development, we find the methods of coercion varying from leniency and toleration in the beginning of the Revolution, through the frightful years of the Cheka (extraordinary commission to combat speculation and counter-revolution in the early days) reign, to the more severe activities of the OGPU in recent times. Shortly after the October Revolution in May, 1918, all those persons held for political crimes were set free by an act of general amnesty. The results of this liberality were rather serious for the rule of the proletariat, since those released, bitterly determined to overthrow the new and not too firmly seated government, returned to the fight with vigor. Among these was the renowned General Krasnow who organized the White Guard Cossacks and caused no end of trouble to the Soviets.

Such a policy of clemency was bound to end if the Soviet government continued to live. When next they had political prisoners in hand there was a different tale to tell. Whoever of them saw the inside of a prison or place of detention were not released to run back to the fight. We find Stalin defending later severe measures toward these prisoners in an interview with Ludwig in 1932.1 “Soon it transpired that such leniency was only undermining the strength of the authority of the Soviets. We committed a mistake in showing such leniency toward the enemies of the working class. If we repeated this mistake any further, we would have committed a crime toward the working class. We would have betrayed its interest. And this became perfectly clear very soon. It became very sure that the greater our leniency toward our enemies, the greater their resistance.”

Leniency was no part of their program thereafter. History will attest to the fact. Military Communism and the Cheka, agent of superlative revolutionary terror, attended to that. Civil wars are brutal, cruel, and Russia’s was notoriously no exception. The period that followed with its terrorist activities is no bright spot in the history of crime repression of post-revolutionary Russia. Lenin threw the responsibility for the establishment of the so-called Red Terror on their class enemies. He says: “You have yourselves to blame, friends! Do not run away with the idea that the Russian peasants and workers have forgotten about your actions. You challenged us to a fight of the most desperate form in October, and in reply to this we have announced the terror, and the triple terror, and if necessary we will make it even hotter for you, if you try again.”2 They tried again, and yet again, the open fighting of the Civil War giving way to underground methods, not deterred by the worst the Cheka and its successors the GPU could do. But early measures must have quadrupled, for Communism can no longer be considered a mere experiment.

Who were the people against which this repression was directed? The urban bourgeoisie joined by the rural Kulaks formed the great number. There was a tremendous increase of criminals from these two classes in the early years of the proletarian state. In their combined efforts they were able to prove of much hindrance to the Soviet cause, and, aided by those waverers within the toiling class who were able to be influenced to counter-revolutionary activities, they presented a grave menace. Again Lenin, whom the Russians think of in his kindly moods, showed his grim side. “We must exert every effort,” he wrote, “to track down and catch all those highwaymen, all the landlords and capitalists in hiding, in all their disguises, expose and punish them without pity—sly, subtle, experienced, patiently waiting for the opportune moment in hatching their plots; they are saboteurs who will stoop to any crime to do harm to the Soviet rule. With these enemies of the toilers, with the landlords, capitalists, saboteurs, and White Guards, we must be merciless.”3

Economically, the first period was one of distribution of goods without production. Its aftermath was famine and unemployment and Lenin and Trotsky were at odds over a policy of alleviation. Trotsky, impatient at delay over a program of more complete state ownership, advocated immediate action against all private possession of property. Lenin considered a starving people no advantage in furthering a socialist construction, and was besides a humanitarian. He wanted his people fed. The result was the institution of NEP, the New Economic Policy, which permitted private ownership within limits, and brought about the eventual political annihilation of Trotsky.

The policy of fighting the class enemy remained practically the same even through the era of NEP. There was some let-up in the counter-revolutionary activities on the initiation of NEP, as it had been hoped by those opposed to Communism that this probably indicated the return to Capitalism, but activities of an anti-Communistic nature were still sternly repressed.

N. Krylenko, prosecutor of note and now Commissar of Justice of the USSR, writes in defense against a criticism of mildness toward the enemies of the government at this time: “The form of the dictatorship of the proletariat changes in the different stages of the proletarian revolution. For instance, in the first period of the October Revolution the suppression of the resistance of the exploiters was the most conspicuous feature . . . during the transition to the NEP, the peaceful, cultural, organizational work of the dictatorship of the proletariat was most conspicuous, but this again did not mean that the importance of overcoming the resistance of the exploiters had receded in the least.”

The chief agent of “resisting the exploiters” was now the GPU (later, as it became the joint organization of all the republics, the OGPU), the full title of which is the United State Political Administration. There seems no doubt that their midnight arrests and executions were an effective weapon against any counter-Soviet efforts even as the activities of their predecessors, the Cheka, had been before.

The method now undergoes an important change. Note this from Lenin.4 “To the extent that the basic purpose of authority becomes not military crushing but administrative, the typical manifestation of crushing and coercion will become not the method of shooting on the spot, but trial in court.” Not in love himself, apparently, with methods such as he felt they had to use, he seized the first opportunity afforded by an end of Civil War to advance a revolutionary legality which his party had already been trying to establish.

The Criminal Code was written in 1922, as was also the Code for Criminal Procedure, and the way was paved for an enlargement of orderly court procedure. The provisions of the code gave not greater leniency but legalized measures that had already been practiced. The step of importance, however, was that “tried in court” replaced “shooting on the spot.”

The history of violence against the Kulaks, the most startling of all violence used by the USSR in establishing itself, was entering now a modified phase. Nerves were settling somewhat, and panic beginning to clear away. Legal guarantees, so nearly obscured through years when “crushing” was regarded as necessary at any price if the proletariat was to stay in authority, might now begin, at least, to emerge.

Along with this a new idea was put into practice which presents a happier side to the study of crime repression in this country. Since the state could not kill all of its class enemies and certainly would not find it profitable to fill innumerable prisons with them, there developed a new approach to the problem. It is not accurate to say that the idea was new, because it had been present since the earliest days of the Revolution. The Civil War, however, had so disrupted the development of any program that this influence was not properly felt until later.

This new approach was by means of educating and training these offenders so that they might be turned out again as useful workers in a state so greatly in need of all the man power it could muster. Authorities built their plans on the belief that even a class enemy might reform and see his way to becoming a member of the new society if properly guided. And as for the convicts from among the loyal masses, any program for crime repression must have as its fundamental object the training of these as useful citizens. The theory of how it might be done has turned out to be a practical one. Its translation into government policy was a most significant development and leads straight to the constructive attitude one finds in present-day treatment of prisoners in the USSR.

Most of us, it seems, have had the impression that during the days of the Civil War there were no legal guarantees in the state, but such an idea is not correct. One thinks of courts as suspended, but there were orderly trials even in the darkest days of military Communism when non-judicial bodies like the Cheka were at their height. This was possible, of course, almost entirely for those members of the toiling masses themselves and not for enemies of the proletarian authority.

It was a bare year after the October Revolution (November 6-9, 1918) that the Emergency Congress of the Soviets was held in Moscow. And if ever emergency existed in political affairs, it did so then for the Soviets. Civil War was at its highest point, the White Guards aided by Czecho-Slovaks, were in possession of Siberia, the English were pushing to the north and the French to the south. It is surprising that a party at the helm of the ship of state could take its mind even for a moment from such an international and military situation to think of admonishing a people to observe law. But we find Kursky, then Commissar of Justice, rising gravely to remind the Congress and the people that “during the year of revolutionary activity the working class of Russia has elaborated the basic laws of the RSFSR which must be faithfully observed in order to develop and strengthen the authority of workers and peasants,” and the Congress, after listening to his speech, resolved unanimously, “to appeal to all citizens of the Republic, to all organs and all officials of Soviet authority, to observe most strictly the laws of the RSFSR and the rules, regulations and orders issued and to be issued by the Central authorities.” A significant effort that was, and one whose importance was momentous to a people struggling through a chaos that must have all but obscured any semblance of order.

To forestall the high-handed measures which they must have seen would be forthcoming as a result of the counter-revolutionary work during the Civil War, they surrounded such action with certain safeguards. It was resolved that “(a) Exact, formal ascertaining by the Soviet institution or official concerned as to the presence of conditions necessitated a departure from the limits of the law; (b) Immediate written notification to the Council of People’s Commissars, with a copy for local and interested authorities, should be provided.” In the midst of violence and excesses these efforts to establish revolutionary legality were significant.

In March, 1919, the Communist party adopted as a distinctive feature of its program a plank reading: “Our courts have already led to a cardinal change in the character of punishment, resulting on a large scale in conditional sentences, introducing public censure as a measure of punishment, substituting compulsory labor with retention of liberty for imprisonment, replacing the prisons by educational institutions, and allowing the possibility for the factor and time by comradely courts. The Communist party, while urging further development of the court in this direction, should aim for the ultimate substitution of the system of punishment by a system of measures of educational character.”

As early as December, 1917, Lenin sent instructions to the Revolutionary Tribunal, in which he urged that repressive measures take the form of corrective labor tasks, and that the harmful element be dealt with in a reformative way. Shooting was abolished by a decree dated October 28, 1917, and Decree No. 3 of July 20, 1918, provided that one sentenced to a three-month period should be sent to compulsory social labor and should not be guarded while serving. In the Ural region and Siberia prisons were replaced with working homes where study was combined with work.

Various other decrees were adopted, furthering this principle of reformation through education and discipline. In 1919 one such established a distribution committee composed of people of special equipment, by psychiatrists, educators, etc., who were to determine by a study of background, personality, and physical condition of the convict what prison would be best suited to him.5

A decree of 1920 dealt with the organization of provincial detention points, and in the main ones there was to be established a university with courses in the sciences—applied, natural and technical—in history and the arts. An attempt was also made to have prisoners trained not just in crafts of their small villages but in factory and larger industrial work, and in spite of Civil War and shortage of shops, the number given such training was raised from 214 per cent. in 1919 to 10 per cent. in 1920.6

To refer again to the volume edited by Vishinsky, we find on page 20 a statement that any penal treatment tending to degrade the prisoner was forbidden by a decree of July 23, 1918, to be practiced. This principle is now incorporated in the Criminal Code, Article 9, which reads: “Measures of social defense may not have for their purpose the infliction of physical pain or the degradation of human dignity, as they do not contemplate the purposes of retribution and penalty.”

The present-day approach to crime repression in the USSR is, then, through educational and correctional labor. The extreme penalty of death is given now in only three cases: crimes against the state, military crimes, and armed robbery in which death occurs. A. J. Estrin in his book, The Development of Soviet Criminal Policy, a 1933 publication, gives a table on page 229 containing the percentages of persons sentenced to different forms of repression, and from 1926 to 1930 the percentage sentenced to death is less than 0.1. For all others the educational program holds even for political prisoners. The author can give no first-hand information on the latter, but official reports indicate that this is true.

In the treatment of criminals, Vishinsky speaks of the indispensable part the state apparatus must play in the realization of their program.7

“Within the system of the institutions of proletarian dictatorship,” he says, “the corrective labor institutions play a great and serious part, because through them, in effect, is realized the entire judicial policy. These institutions with their entire force of live human relationships, with all their methods and means with the help of which these relations are built, define the reality or falsity of the judicial verdict as they define also the extent of achieving of the genuine aim of the problem posed before these institutions.”

Soviet jurisprudence is thus based not on restrictive measures alone but on corrective, educational, and cultural ones. The authorities seek to use labor that is constructive as to character and useful economically, and not the kind that brings indignity and resentment when resorted to as punishment or disciplinary measures.

The sentence is designed to be as brief as possible. In the USSR it is not necessary that a prisoner serve more than one-third of his sentence in order to be re- leased on parole, but his release is based solely on the condition of his fitness for return to society. The Observation Commission, whose duty it is to determine the time of such release is required by law to inform itself in intimate detail of the condition of training and education of the prisoners, of the personal characteristics and attitude toward society of each individual. It is thus likely to be able to judge to a higher degree when a prisoner is ready for release. If the figures they give on recidivism with 18 per cent. for men and 21 per cent. for women are accurate then they may be said to judge well indeed.

The policy of re-educating the “enemy,” or winning him over to the aid of the state, is still more marked in the treatment of the working masses themselves. Repressive measures must necessarily be used for the discipline of cases among the workers. While penalties are still severe and a decree of August 7, 1932, providing for the protection of state possessions, attaches the death sentence for those who steal or pilfer public property, the measures designed for those of the working population who transgress the law are in general more liberal.

This is to be expected. It has already been stated that the Russians acknowledge the class nature of their administration of criminal law. The content of the criminal code is directed almost entirely toward the forced subjugation of those elements who would not voluntarily be subjected to the dictates of the ruling class or the proletariat. As a matter of policy they manage this subjugation by the use of such corrective measures as the construction of the White-Sea Baltic Canal when it is possible. Such other provisions as the code contains may be made to apply to the workers, but discrimination is openly observed between the classes.

To refer back for a moment to the decree of August 7, 1932 already mentioned, we may note the indication of the sharpening of the class struggle. The state intensified its program of collectivization in 1928, and launched into a broad program intended to crush the Kulaks and extend Socialism into the villages. The Kulak antagonism immediately became more pronounced, and if we consult a table on page 80 of M. N. Gernet’s Crime Abroad and in the USSR we see the results tabulated in a sudden jump of crimes against the state.

Cattle were killed, farm machinery was destroyed or put out of order, and plans were hampered in any way possible. There was also organized theft of state property to such an extent that severe measures were considered necessary. Thus the provision by this decree four years later of the death sentence for these offenses. In the meantime the necessity for such a measure was taken care of by the judicial powers and authority of the OGPU.

While this decree is necessarily directed against the definite enemy class, it applies also to the workers themselves who are bribed or otherwise used as tools by the urban bourgeoisie or Kulaks. This, however, is outside the program of treatment of the ordinary criminal, and in no wise is it to be understood that the death penalty is always applied even for those considered to be class enemies. The author personally heard a trial in court in which the indictment was for organized theft, and on appeal the death sentence was commuted to a ten-year sentence. For the more serious offenses, however, such as those involving sabotage in factories, the death sentence is usual, at least for those most responsible.

The program of compulsory education provided for those from among the toiling element who are imprisoned is the chief weapon of the fight against crime by the state. The prisons are equipped (as will be seen in later pages) with all sorts of devices for carrying out this work. The whole criminal law reflects this attitude toward crime repression on the part of the Communist party. The evolution of this code since its establishment in 1922, by a multitude of amendments and two almost new writings, reflects the needs and purposes of the state in various phases of its development in a most interesting manner. It is divided into a general and a special part, and although the general part is appended to this book, it seems of interest here to speak of its various divisions.

The first section is devoted to the purposes of criminal legislation. The second deals with the extent of operation and the limits of action of the code. Section three is concerned with the general principles of the penal policy. Section four deals with the measures of social defense applied to persons committing various crimes. The fifth concerns the manner in which social defense measures of correctional character are applied, and the sixth deals with conditional sentences and release on probation.

Since the code’s adoption in 1922 there have been two important amendments aside from the many year by year. In 1926 when numerous changes were made, the chief feature was a more lenient application of penalties. This was at the time of reconstruction, when the development of the socialist state took on greater emphasis and education in the matter of penal treatment was held to be one of its chief tools. By the change of 1928, deprivation of liberty was limited to sentences of one year or more. Previous to this time sentences of even one day might carry with them deprivation of liberty. The aim now in short sentences is that the convicted person may retain his liberty, but have supervision in his place of work.

In the 1926 edition of the Criminal Code, the whole concept of punishment is abolished. Although, according to Assistant Attorney General Vishinsky, there are certain survivals of old methods and ideas among a few of those connected with penal administration, the official thought is not of retribution or any infliction of pain or even of “just reward.” From this time on, the term used is a “measure of social defense” and, as nearly as one can judge both from records and from actual visits to their institutions for criminals, the change has been not only in terminology but in actual practice.

"The measures of social defense now provided by the Criminal Code are divided into three categories: first are the measures of judicial and correctional character; second, measures of social defense of medical character; and third, measures of social defense of medical and pedagogical character.

The measure of social defense of judicial and correctional character are enumerated as follows:

(a) The offender is proclaimed enemy of the toilers and is at the same time deprived of the citizenship of the constituent republic and thereby of the citizenship of the Union of USSR and must be necessarily expelled from its confines.

(b) Imprisonment in corrective labor camps in remote localities of the Union of the USSR.

(c) Imprisonment in common prisons.

(d) Compulsory labor without confinement.

(e) Forfeiture of political and separate civil rights.

(f) Removal from the confines of the Union of the USSR for a certain period.

(g) Removal from the confines of the RSFSR or from the territory of a specified locality with compulsory settlement in other localities or without same, or coupled with the prohibition to reside in definite localities, or without such prohibition.

(h) Dismissal from office coupled with prohibition of occupying a certain post or without any such prohibition.

(i) Prohibition to engage in certain activities or industry.

(j) Public censure.

(k) Confiscation of property—complete or partial.

(l) A fine expressed in money.

(m) Imposition of the duty to make good the damage caused by the culprit.

(n) Warning.8

There is in addition the use of public censure as a repressive measure which is a “public expression of condemnation in the name of the court.” It must be published through the press and may be either the only penalty assessed or be added to another. The use of warning is also provided for by Article 43 of the Criminal Code and is practiced in cases where the accused is acquitted but by his conduct gives “every reason to fear commitment of crimes by him in the future.” By this means an effort is made to prevent his committing some criminal act in the future.

In the present Criminal Code there is a division of repressive measures into the basic and the supplementary. To the basic measures of declaring one a class enemy with the consequences such a decision carries, deprivation of liberty and compulsory work without deprivation of liberty, are added the other enumerated measures, with the exception of confiscation of property. This is also a supplementary measure but it can be used only in the cases specifically mentioned in the special section of the code.

In summary it might be said that while severe measures still exist and are used in regard to counter-revolutionary activities or crimes against the state, the emphasis in the penal program is decidedly upon educational measures for re-establishing the criminal as a useful member of society in the socialist state. While the beginnings of this policy are almost obscured by the activities of the Cheka and the OGPU (whose judicial powers have by the Decree of July 10, 1934, been withdrawn and turned over to the courts) and the extra-legal activities of the Civil War days, yet the germ was there from the beginning of the Revolution and its development is one of the marked achievements of the Soviet government.


1.  P.7.

2.  Lenin, Vol. XXVII, p. 175.

3.  Lenin, Vol. 24, XXIV, p. 434.

4.  Vol. XX, p. 460.

5.  Assistant Attorney General A. J. Vishinsky, (Ed.) From Prisons to Educational Institutions, Moscow, 1933, p. 31.

6.  Vishinsky, op. cit. p. 29.

7.  Op. cit. p. 7.

8.  May 20, 1930, Collection of Acts 1930, No. 26, Item 344.

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