Soviet Penal Policy

I’ve been to the closing down sale of a second-hand bookshop today and one of the books I bought is titled “Soviet Penal Policy”. [1] It is by Ivo Lapenna and was published in 1968.

A preliminary reading of it leads me to think that the Soviet conception of crime is a little odd. And by odd I mean massively repressive and dangerous.

Quoted in this book is a passage from Kudryavtsev’s Dictionary of Legal Terms describing the Soviet view of crime:

Unlike the formal, politically empty, definitions of the concept of crime supplied by the bourgeois criminal codes (“a crime is an act forbidden under threat of punishment”), the definition of crime contained in Soviet criminal legislation is material, i.e. it reveals the class-political nature of those socially dangerous actions or omissions which are recognised as criminal and punishable by crimes.

This definition of crime meant that without transgressing any law your actions could be deemed to be “socially dangerous” and you could be punished accordingly. A “socially dangerous” action was one which conflicted with the advancement of the dictatorship of the proletariat (the Soviet State). Scary and it seems largely arbitrary stuff.

There were those that questioned the above definition. In 1921 the Institute of Law issued a draft of the criminal code endorsing the material conception of crime but insisted that there could be no crime without a law being transgressed. However, this was not included in the 1922 Criminal Code.

The reforms of 1958 seemed to improve matters somewhat – fewer salt mines and more de jure if not de facto legal protections. For example in 1958 the Soviet Union introduced a number of reforms that would be recognisable in any liberal democracy:

No innocent person shall be prosecuted or convicted; prosectution only on the basis of and in accordance with the law; inviolability of the person; inviolability of domicile and secrecy of correspondence; administration of justice only by courts and according to the principle of equality of citizens before the law and courts; independence of judges and their subjection only to the law; publiciity of hearing with the exception of cases involving a state secret or againt minors under sixteen years of age [in 1958 the age of criminal responsibility was raised from fourteen to sixteen -LO], or sexual offences or offences involving the intimate life of the parties in the case; the presumption of innocence and the objective examination of the circumstances of the casel guarantees regarding the rights of the defence.

It seems like the circumstances of the Soviet citizenry did somewhat improve following the introduction of the 1958 reforms. It should be fairly clear that the nadir of horror under Stalin was not reached again but a large number of retrograde steps eroded most of these freedoms described above.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of this book, I am unsure if the Soviet Union is going to come out of this one smelling of roses.

[1] Also purchased were Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Tacitus’s The Histories, Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and MArriage in England 1500-1800, the Oxford Book of Political Anecdotes and an edited volume from J H Bettey of English Historical Documents 1906-1939 (including original material discussing the introduction of Pensions and the causes and consequences of the General Strike) all for £4.50, what a bargain.