This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


When the All-Union Song and Dance Olympiad was held in the summer of 1935 in Moscow, the first prize for dance groups was won by a troupe who would be classed in the capitalist world as convicts. They were sentenced criminals who were still living in Labor Commune Number Two, to which they had been sent for reformation. Their performance of an Ukrainian folk-dance “The Snowstorm” took first place against fifty thousand entrants. To anyone unfamiliar with the Soviet technique for handling criminals, the dancing of the group was less amazing than their free association with other groups of artists in all the local and provincial dance festivals, which brought them at last to Moscow.

The remaking of criminals is only one specialized form of the process of remaking human beings which goes on consciously today in the Soviet Union. Unlike those who justify ancient abuses with the formula, “You can’t change human nature,” the Marxist knows that human nature is constantly changing. The serf of the Middle Ages was a different human being from the highly skilled industrial worker of today, not only in methods of work but in mental outlook, nervous reactions, and even physical motions. Today a remaking of people in greater or less degree takes place across the entire Soviet Union. Illiterate, slow-moving peasants become attuned to rapid work in a collective labor process. Scientists, artists, engineers, doctors, once accustomed to depend upon capitalists for their living, adjust themselves to the new controls of a socialist state as employer. Some welcome the change, others resent it, but in all men the habits derived from the past are at war with the demands imposed by the present, and this struggle changes both the human beings and their environment.

To some the process of change is only half conscious, and therefore bewildering and painful. To the happiest it is a consciously welcomed process. For men in all ages have desired to change, to become in some direction “better.” Moral teachers have urged them to effect this by an emotional decision to be good, honest, industrious. But this is a struggle in the dark with forces which the human being does not understand. His emotional conversion lasts as long as he can focus will and attention. But if the old environment continues, the old habits reassert themselves.

To a limited extent a human being may change himself under any social system, not by efforts of will but by calmly analyzing himself and his environment and placing himself under the impact of other forces which will change him. So much free will man has. But these individual efforts are limited by the social possibilities. Can a prostitute change her environment so that street-walking will become unnecessary? Only if an honest job is somewhere accessible. Can gangsters reform? Only if honesty is really the best policy; for him who would prosper under capitalism there is a time to be honest and a time to steal, and the criminal is the unlucky or stupid person who stole at the wrong time and in the unaccepted manner. Only a social system which insures to ordinary honest labor greater rewards than can be obtained by even the luckiest dishonesty will produce instinctively honest men.

A remarkable tale of the change in social standards is written by a newspaper correspondent from the Ural gold fields. Formerly, according to the writer, everybody admired clever miners who were able to steal nuggets which legally belonged to the private owners of the fields. This attitude persisted long after the mines were owned by the government. But recently at a party given to celebrate a betrothal, the young man in the heat of dancing pulled out his handkerchief and with it a gold nugget which fell to the floor. There was a sudden silence and the party broke up without comment, even the girl turning away from the man thus revealed. “Everyone knew him for an enemy,” wrote the correspondent.

The sharpest test of conscious remaking of human character is found in the Soviet policy for handling law-breakers. The Soviet criminologist holds neither of the theories on which the prevalent systems of prison régime in capitalist countries are based. He does not believe in the existence of “born criminals” whose will must be broken by brutal suppression nor does he rely on emotional appeals to the “better nature” of the criminal, for he knows that this better nature exists as yet only in rudimentary form. “We don’t assume that a man of anti-social habits will be at once reclaimed by gifts of chocolate, nice bathrooms, and soft words,” a leading Soviet penologist told me. “Men are made over by a new social environment and especially by their work done collectively.”

Soviet law aims to make over social misfits while protecting society from their attacks. Punishment as vengeance has no place in such an aim: revenge merely incites revenge in return. To make prisoners sit in solitude and think of their sins produces a fixation on crime. To “break a man’s will” or lessen his human dignity in any way injures him material for a creative socialist society. Soviet justice therefore aims to give the criminal a new environment in which he will begin to act in a normal way as a responsible Soviet citizen. The less confinement the better; the less he feels himself in prison the better. Soviet justice began to fight crime under the harsh conditions of civil war, replying with ruthless measures to counter-revolutionary plots. “We have a double approach” said Attorney-General Vishinsky in an interview. “Active, confirmed enemies of our Soviet power who stick at nothing to injure us must be ruthlessly crushed. But even among these alien elements, among nobles, landlords, tsarist officers, capitalists, whom we had robbed of their private property, we had to be able even there to find those individuals who could be made over into useful workers. We cannot begin with clean hands and fresh bricks to build socialism; we must use even old bricks for the new building. But if we had tried to apply the idea of absolute humanitarianism to bitter enemies we wouldn’t be here today.”

Many social offenses are handled without bringing them into ordinary courts at all. A whole series of “comradely courts,” in factories, schools and apartment houses, try informally people who disturb their neighbors. These courts have the right to fix small fines for the benefit of the local club or library; they refer cases which they cannot handle to the public courts. There are even “children’s courts” in which children judge each other in the presence of interested adults. One such children’s court in an apartment house tried a boy for cruelty in killing a cat, and came finally to the conclusion that the real culprit was the superintendent of the apartment house who persistently failed to provide a place to play. The superintendent, who was present, accepted the decision, and organized with the children a committee to make good the shortcoming.

“Not only in the court but out of the court my job is social protection,” a rural judge told me. “I must prevent court cases when I can.” He told how he had prevented crime at a recent saints’ festival. “Men always drink hard on such occasions; they fight and knife each other. So I called together the presidents of collective farms an the Party members, and we went through the crowd before drinking began and took away the knives and canes. They got drunk later, but nobody was badly hurt.”

I sat he court session which this judge held under the village trees and heard a dozen cases—stealing hay, bootlegging and the like—disposed of in an afternoon. The commonest sentence was “compulsory labor” which did not remove the offender from his home but required him to do without pay some socially useful work, such as road-building, school-construction or even office work in the village soviet. Only one serious case appeared: more than half the calves in a collective dairy had died under circumstances which seemed to implicate the dairy manager of something worse than the criminal negligence charge which had been brought. The judge found that he was “guilty of negligence at least,” but held the case over for further investigation to see whether he was guilty of “something more,” i.e., intentional conspiracy to smash the farm. In that case he would be “sent away” from the village to a labor camp for a period of perhaps three years.

The labor camp is the prevalent method for handling serious offenders of all kinds, whether criminal or political. Most of the old prisons have been abolished; I have found them in rural districts converted into schools. The labor camps have won high reputation throughout the Soviet Union as places where tens of thousands of men have been reclaimed. They have, however, been the center of some of the most spectacular attacks on the Soviet Union in recent years. Allegations of brutal treatment and even of torture have found their way widely into the foreign press. While it is clearly impossible to check every one of these accusations, they are contradicted by every competent observer who has ever seen the camps. Dr. Mary Stevens Callcott, the American penologist who has studied prisons all over the world and who has had the unique experience of visiting the larger part of the Soviet camps, including those for the worst—and for political—offenders, has commented both in her book Soviet justice and in conversations with me personally, on the “amazingly normal” life that differentiates these camps from prisons in any other part of the world.

She notes the freedom of movement over large areas of territory, the very small amount of guarding, the work done under normal conditions—seven hours for ordinary labor to ten for men whose tasks, such as driving a truck, permitted frequent rests during work. She could find no speed-up; laws of labor protection operated as in factories. Wages were the same as those outside, with deductions for living expenses; all above this could be sent by the prisoner to his family, saved or spent as he chose. “No uniforms with their psychological implications, no physical abuse; isolation only in extreme instances. Privileges and special rewards replace the system of special penalties.” Among these special rewards are the two weeks’ vacation in which the prisoner may leave the camp, and the opportunities given for his family not only to visit him but even to live with him for extended periods. Normal human association goes on; men and women meet and may even marry while serving sentence, in which case they are given separate quarters.

What most impressed Dr. Callcott, however, was the type of men in charge of these camps, and the relation they had to the prisoners. She tells of going through the Moscow-Volga Canal camp with its director. Prisoners hailed him with obvious pleasure and informality. A girl rushed up to detain him by seizing the belt of his uniform lest he get away before she could tell him something. A teacher whose term was about to expire expressed a wish to stay on and work under him. There were only five officials in the central administration office of this camp of many thousand prisoners; all the work, including most of the guarding, was done by the convicted men themselves. “In fact,” said Dr. Callcott, “I could never see what kept men in this camp unless they wanted to stay there. No convicts I have known would have any difficulty if they wanted to break away.” Both prisoners and officials, of whom Dr. Callcott asked this question—she talked with prisoners freely without the presence of officials—replied they didn’t run away because if they did, “nobody in my working gang would speak to me when I came back. They would say I disgraced them.” There are, however, a certain number of incorrigibles who run away repeatedly, and these are given somewhat closer guarding for a time. Political prisoners, she noted, were treated like everyone else, except that those who had been persistent and dangerous in their attacks on the government were sent further away from the possibility of connection with their past associates. In all her conversations with these “politicals,” she was unable to find one who had been sentenced merely for expressing anti-Soviet views. All were charged with definite action against the government.

“I did everything I could to destroy this government,” one such man frankly told her, “sabotage of the most serious kind. But the way they have treated me here has convinced me that they are right.”

Another prisoner, who had been in Sing Sing, San Quentin, as well as in jails of England, Spain and Germany, before he was picked up by the Soviets for grand larceny, had been reclaimed by the Baltic-White Sea Canal. He had done a bit of engineering in his youth, and was promptly given a chance to work at this specialty. He won a medal, pursued his studies further, and was doing brilliant work on the Moscow-Volga Canal when Dr. Callcott met him. To her query about his reformation he replied:

“In the other countries they treated me like a prisoner, clapped me in jail and taught me my place. Here they clapped me on the back and said ‘What can we do to make you into a useful citizen?’” Dr. Callcott conversed with many men now high in Soviet industry who had previously been reclaimed by the labor camps. Nothing in their attitude or that of those about them showed any stigma remaining from their prison life. “Of course, when it’s over, it’s forgotten,” one of them said to her. “That,” says Dr. Callcott, “is real restoration.”

Information from many other sources and from my own observation corroborates Dr. Callcott. In August 1935 I visited the town of Bear Mountain, center of the administration of the Baltic-White Sea Canal, which is widely known in the USSR not only as a great construction job but as the place where tens of thousands of men won new lives for old. It is still the distributing center for the labor camps of this district.

The chauffeur who drove me over twenty miles of wilderness without a guard in sight was one of the prisoners. He talked quite freely and said that he didn’t like the north but at least he had a chance to study a trade or become an engineer. A dozen types of industry had been established to utilize and train all kinds of workers. They took pride in their modern equipment and the high quality of goods produced. In the holiday celebration going on in the public square during my visit, one could not always tell who were prisoners, who were free workers and who were “guards.” The atmosphere was that of any new construction job in the country. Such, indeed, was the intention—to establish the atmosphere of normal constructive life, with certain old associations shut out.

What most interested me was the splendid theater, whose director boasted of his production of the opera Eugene Onegin, the Red Poppy ballet, and many of the latest Moscow plays. We learned later that he was a well-known Moscow producer, sent north for a serious crime. The camp authorities at once decided to build a theater, in order to utilize his abilities to the full. The theater cast itself consisted of lawbreakers, government officials, free workers and the families of all of them, mixing in the democratic intimacy of a dramatic performance. One wonders which of all his achievements this director will most boast of in old age, his work in Moscow or the northern theater created in Bear Mountain.

Many former prisoners from the Baltic-White Sea Canal, after receiving freedom together with special prizes and high honors for their good work, went of free choice to help build the Moscow-Volga Canal, another convict-labor job. Here they were especially valued because through their own experience they understood the process through which new prisoners had to go and were especially skilled in helping them make themselves over. As in other Soviet construction camps, the workers on this canal had their art studio under professional direction, their musical circle and literary magazine, and their bureau of inventions through which four thousand proposals to improve the work of the canal have been offered by the prisoners themselves. Several prisoners, given their freedom because of inventions, refused to leave until the canal should be finished.

So well known and effective is the Soviet method of remaking human beings that criminals occasionally now apply to be admitted. I met one such man in Gulin village. Notorious locally as thief and drunkard, he had a dozen convictions to his discredit, till at last he went to the authorities saying: “I’m a man destroyed, but I want to be made over.” They sent him to a labor camp whence he returned a qualified worker. Bolshevo Commune, the most famous “cure” for criminals, can be entered only by application approved by the general meeting of members. Its waiting list is so long that it accepts only the most hardened cases, priding itself on being able to make over persons who cannot become cured in any other institution. Its strength lies in its large membership of intelligent former criminals, who apply to new entrants their intimate knowledge of the criminal mind.

Crime today is rapidly diminishing in the Soviet Union. From 1929 to 1934 sentences for murder decreased by one-half while sex crimes fell off to one-fourth. The cause is found in the growing strength of the Soviet environment to remake human beings; the penal policy is only a supplementary force. A striking example of the play of both causes may be found in the figures of prostitution. Pre-war Moscow had 25,000 to 30,000 prostitutes; these sank by 1928 to about 3,000,1 diminution clearly due to economic causes. In 1931, after the Five-Year Plan -had abolished unemployment, the number sank still further to about eight hundred. To reclaim the more habituated, prophylactoria were established. These rose to the number of thirty-four in the whole USSR in 1934, and then swiftly declined to nineteen as their work was done. They are still declining for want of inmates; only one of the original five is left in Moscow. No woman was ever compelled to go to a prophylactorium; the chief punishment for breaking rules was to be put out. Nine-tenths of those who entered left cured both of physical disease and of old habits and were accepted without comment into the normal working life of the city.

An eventual disappearance of crime is expected by Soviet authorities as the mental habits produced by a socialist system become established in Soviet life. For crime, in the Marxian view, arises from the conflicts of a class-exploiting society and will follow classes and exploitation into oblivion. In the first years of the new system, the sharp conflict with classes from whom it took privileges led to a decided increase both in crimes and in the repressive measures used by the state. Kulaks committed arson, cattle-killing, murder, and were exiled in large numbers; anti-Soviet engineers and officials sabotaged and were sent to labor camps. Today the kulaks have been amnestied, not only because many of them have recovered their civil status by honest labor, but also because the collective farms in the villages are strong enough to withstand their attack and absorb them. The labor camps which supplanted prisons are themselves diminishing, partly because they have “cured” their inmates, and still more because the normal free life of Soviet society is becoming strong and prosperous enough to have a direct regenerative influence on those social misfits that remain.

In unforgettably lyric language the Soviet writer Avdeyenko, who a few years ago was by his own confession 2 “two-legged beast of prey,” told the Congress of Soviets, to which in 1934 he was a delegate, the story of the degrading of a youth into a criminal and the subsequent remaking of the criminal into an honorable and famous man. “In 1926,” he said, “under one of the cars of the Moscow-Tashkent express, lay two little passengers, myself and my comrade, voyagers making our way closer to the sun, searching for good people who would not be offended when we robbed them.” He tells how the conductor threw them out on the damp earth, how they wandered in rain and sleet, seeking warmth and light, thrown out everywhere till exhaustion turned to anger, anger to despair, despair to a great hatred for mankind. In this hatred they fired a haystack set against a house. “A warm, calm feeling filled my heart. Tears of joy and vengeance came into our eyes. We embraced, laughing and crying, and spent the rest of the night in a public toilet, pressing against the warm wall to warm first our backs and then our chests till we fell asleep standing.

“I was destined to live many years—one—fifth of my life—with the feelings of hatred, malice, revenge that were born in me at that station. After that I robbed and threatened without remorse.” He tells how he stole fur coats and jars of butter, robbed drunkards in dark alleys, hooked vagrants off freight cars to steal their clothing, till he gradually became “a human beast, that most fearful two-legged blood-thirsty species without love or goodness or feeling or pity. Today it is frightful for me even to remember such a person.

“Today in this historic hall, I stand on the tribune, a member of government. I am a citizen with full rights. I am strong. I cherish the best human feelings: love, devotion, honesty, self-sacrifice, heroism. I write books. I dream of creating an unforgettable production. I love a girl unselfishly. I am continuing my race—it will be a happy one.

“I am happy, full of the joy of life, unshakably exuberant. I go to sleep with regret, I awake with joy. I shall live a hundred years. I can fly to the moon, go to the Arctic, make a new discovery, for my creative energy is not trod on by anyone.

“Today I recall my past for the last time. In filling out my application blank, under ‘places of work,’ I wrote: “Till 1931 socially harmful activity. I begin the story of life from 1931’ And they answered: ‘So be it.’ So you see I am four years old, the youngest here.”

Avdeyenko gives the stories of other former law-breakers who have been made over. He traces the source of their anti-social past to the heritage of capitalist exploitation; he finds the force that redeemed them in the new socialist industries and the life that arises around them. “All of you know the institutions where such people are re-educated. But our whole Soviet system is one big workshop for re-educating men. I know people of two generations whose lives were no better than mine. We are engineers, writers, aviators, journalists, machinists, administrators of cities, scientists, Arctic explorers. The industries of our country remade us, and the industries were established by the Stalinist policy of industrializing the country. Comrade Molotov spoke of the newly created factories, cities and whole industrial regions, but he did not refer to the giving of life, human life, to the two-legged beasts of prey I have described.”


1.  Material from Dr. V. Bronner, head of Institute of Venereal Diseases, Commissariat of Health.

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