Russian Justice

Mary Stevenson Callcott


The problem of crime in the United States is one of our most serious social questions. Within recent years the activities of the gangster and the kidnapper, the increasing number of young criminals whom we do not know how to treat so that they are re-established in life, have brought alarm not only to the social worker and others who try to meet the situation, but to the ordinary citizen as well. Not only is our penal system failing to reform the lawbreaker, but our social conditions are breeding others. The delay in our courts, the influence of politics, and the swaying of sentimental or incompetent juries by artful criminal lawyers without social conscience, are familiar to our citizens. Confronted by all this, we ask ourselves what we might do in order to fulfill our duty in protecting society and at the same time in aiding the transgressor to become a useful citizen.

One thing we can do is to examine closely any system that seems to work in other countries. Russia, with her broad social program, gives much attention to her problem of crime and criminals. Sherwood Eddy, a student of Russia for a long time, has included the humane treatment of prisoners as one of the things which we might profitably get from that country. He might have added also that the simplicity of court procedure by which they arrive at justice has some commendable virtues.

I have visited prisons in many parts of our country as well as in several others and have sat through criminal trials in almost as many places, so in my visits to courts and prisons in the USSR I had an experience that made observation intelligent. There is no doubt that we may learn something from the Russians about the restoration to society of those who contravene the law. Whether one sympathizes with or condemns the political faith of this country, one must admire and respect a people who are able to put ideals into works as they do. They know what they want of the man who is their criminal and they set to work to teach him how to fit into their society.

There are shortcomings in this phase of their work, mostly on the physical side, but they know that as well as we do and are correcting them as rapidly as possible. They have often had to use old buildings because in the short space of years of the new nation they have not had time to build enough modern ones; but they have reformed such gloomy spots as the Women’s Prison of Moscow is said to have been in Tzarist days, into a place of considerable light and more livable conditions. There are also some old cells in the Serbsky Psychiatric Institute of much too little ventilation but this building is to be replaced within a short time. Most of the buildings of this institute are already in good condition.

In the United States we have been so led away with preparing better buildings (we still have some of the worst in the world) that we have often forgotten the spiritual side. There are some penal institutions, such as the New Jersey Prison for Women at Clinton, N. J., where an excellent spirit certainly prevails, but even in our best prisons I think that we do not overcome that feeling on the part of the prisoner that he or she is permanently set aside from normal society. It is the exceptional individual case where this is not true. In the Russian institutions, especially those where there is great freedom, one is struck by the atmosphere that prevails among the prisoners of still being a part of society.

In undertaking to give to the American public in general a picture of the situation in Soviet Russia in regard to crime and its repression certain usual questions have been kept in mind. Interested inquirers, both in this country and abroad, have repeatedly asked me, “What are the courts really like?” “What kinds of crime are committed?”’ “Who commits them?” and “What is the punishment given?” The answers are found in the pages of this book. Since it is intended to reach the layman as well as the social worker, the student of criminology, the lawyer, and the legislator, an informal approach has been used. It is hoped, however, that this will not tend to detract from the authenticity of the work. No effort has been spared to give as accurate an account as possible, both by means of research over a period of years in connection with my Criminology class and by recent visits to courts and penal institutions.

Gratitude for help must be expressed to many people whom I cannot enumerate here. I am especially indebted to the Assistant Attorney General of the USSR, Prof. A. J. Vishinsky, who gave valuable time for appointments, to Mr. C. S. Smith of the Associated Press who aided me in many ways, to Director Shlaposnitchov of the Institute of Criminal Policy, to Professor Brusilovsky for conferences and appointments he both arranged and participated in and for lectures which was permitted to attend, to S. Golunsky, of the Commissariat of Justice, who in addition to such services as were rendered by others, has contributed the further service of reading and criticizing the manuscript. Finally, to my two young countrywomen, Miss Margaret Moore and Miss Margaret Ross, who gave up parts of their vacation in Moscow to contribute typing to the project.

M. S. C.

New York City

October, 1934

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