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Labor Action, 18 July 1949


Robert Magnus

The Legal Face of Stalinism from Official Sources

Anti-Labor Despotism in Stalin Legal Code


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 29, 18 July 1949, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Out of Their Own Mouths ...

The documentary material presented on this page is trom official Russian sources ONLY – the official decrees ot the USSR and the official press, reporting official announcements. Out of their own mouths shall they be judged.

There is here no question of a complete analysis of Russian criminal practices. The terrible Russian reality is only partially and sporadically reflected in what gets put on the books. Seven-eighths of it, like the well-known iceberg, is hidden out of sight – in the slave labor camps, in the actual practice of the secret police (MVD or GPU) who recognize no law, not even the restrictions written into the books. But the one-eighth which shows above water – part of which is here presented – may help to indicate the rest.

The picture which is presented is that of Stalinism, the regime which carried through a counter-revolution in Russia, which destroyed the workers’ state established by the great Russian Revolution of 1917, which murdered and wiped out a whole generation of the old Bolsheviks, the comrades of Lenin and Leon Trotsky, in order to thrust the working masses back into a slavery even worse than the hated czarist autocracy.

This regime and its system has not the slightest resemblance to socialism. The apologists of the Kremlin butchers point to it as “socialism*’ (echoing their masters) in order to conceal the truth from the dupes of the Communist Party in this country. The apologists for capitalism point to it as “socialism” in order to use the black brush of Stalinism in order to smear the real fighters for a socialist democracy and socialist freedom and abundance.

Independent Socialists present this expose so that American workers may learn that Stalinism, with its Communist Parties, is not labor’s alternative to the injustices of a decaying capitalism. Independent Socialists fight for the democratic alternative to capitalism, the socialist alternative to Stalinism.

Just as some workers turn to the Stalinist Russian “utopia” in revulsion against the evils of capitalism which are so plain and evident today so others think they must reconcile themselves to these capitalist evils in revulsion from the horrors of the Moscow dictatorship. They feed on each other’s crimes – these two rotten exploiting systems that ara waging their cold war over the backs of the people of the world.

Independent Socialism is the banner of those who refuse to give up their fight against both camps of exploiters, in the name of the Third Camp of the oppressed working people whose class struggle and militant fighting spirit is the only road to socialist emancipation.


Between the publication in 1926 of the first Soviet Criminal Code and the republication in 1947 of its emasculated successor lies a period of 20 years of profound change.

The bureaucratized workers’ state has become the totalitarian bureaucratic-collectivist state. Everything is turned on its head as the fundamental class composition of the Soviet republic changes. Slave labor on a grand scale is introduced in the ’30s, along with its reflection in the political field – the Moscow Trials and the final destricution of the Bolshevik

The period between the opening of the first Five Year Plan in 1929 and Hitler’s attack on Russia in 1941, a period of over a decade, had seen the most kaleidoscopic and fundamental changes in all realms of Russian life. It is precisely in this period, with the victorious counter-revolution in full swing, that the most vicious and backward class legislation was passed. A long series of ukases came out of Russia beginning in the early ‘30s, each one worse than the last, each one testifying to the utter bankruptcy of a government which hysterically spit on its own past, which attempted to control and administer the results of its own mistakes in the interest of the rising ruling class.

The Criminal Code of 1926 reflected in all of its parts the contradictions and conditions of a backward country rapidly declining from its own past history. Any kind of a workers’ state must, to begin with, have a criminal code. Any workers’ state, even if victorious in the most highly developed capitalist country, is left with a gigantic heritage of inequality and barbarity in every field. Basically. under any society, criminal law merely reflects, on the one hand, the fundamental sociological conditions, including class conflict, in that society; and, on the other hand, attempts to confine that conflict within the fundamental property relations established in the society.

In the Russia of 1926 class conflict and inequality had not been abolished. Far from it. Nevertheless, the criminal code was the most progressive (or among the most progressive) of its time.

There was a serious attempt to carry out the principle that crime was not a natural result of the evil nature of man, but that it was the product of social conditions and contradictions. Crime could only be wiped out by wiping out the causes of crime. From this idea followed the principle of, looking at a “criminal” as someone to be cured, not punished. Under ideal material conditions, criminals should be sent to hospitals, not jails. This doctrine, of course, went out with the victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution.

Changes in the Criminal Code

Let us consider some of the most important changes introduced in the Russian criminal code during the decade of the ‘30s. The laws here selected deal basically with theft, petty theft, malingering, hooliganism, truancy, etc. – that is, not uncommon, exceptional crimes, but everyday common crimes that are committed by members of the working class.

(1) August 7, 1932 – I (2): “In the case of crimes of pilferage of goods in, transit by rail or water, the supreme measure of social defense – death by shooting – together with confiscation of all property, shall be applied as a measure of legal repression; or, in extenuating circumstances, deprivation of liberty for not less than ten years, with confiscation of property, may be substituted.”

(2) March 7, 1934 – Art. 154-a: “Sexual relations between men (sodomy) entails deprivation of liberty for a period of from three to five years.” [In accordance with all the laws of humanity and modern psychology, the 1926 code did not penalize such action as “criminal,” considering that the doctor and not the prison warden was the answer.)

(3) June 8, 1934 – Art. 58, 1-a: “Treason to the fatherland, i.e., any act done by a Soviet citizen to the prejudice of the military strength of the USSR, of its independence as a state, or of the inviolability of its territory, e.g., espionage, the betrayal of any military or state secret, passing over to the enemy, or taking flight across the frontier by air or otherwise, is punishable with the supreme measure of criminal punishment - death by shooting and confiscation of the whole of the offender’s property; or, where there are extenuating circumstances, with deprivation of liberty for 10 years and confiscation of the whole of the offender’s property.”

Art, 58, 1-c: If a soldier goes AWOL across the border “any adult member of his family who assists him in preparations for or in committing the treason, or who, having knowledge of it, fails to bring it to the knowledge of the authorities, is liable to deprivation of liberty for a period of from five to ten years and confiscation of the whole of his property. The rest of the adult members ... who were living with or dependent on him at the time when the crime was committed, are liable to deprivation of electoral rights and exile to the remote regions of Siberia for five years.”

[Note that this law explicitly provides for the punishment of admittedly innocent parties, thereby harking back to a practice associated only with the dark ages. “Adult members” means anyone 12 years of age or over.]

(4) October 1934 – Art. 193, 2-a: “Failure to carry out an order given In the course of military duty entails – deprivation of liberty for a period not exceeding five years.” (Previously: two years.)

(5) October 1934 – Art. 193, 12-a: “Evasion of the obligation to perform military service by the selfinfliction of some injury, malingering, forgery of documents or any other form of deception, entails ... deprivation of liberty for a period not exceeding five years.” [Previously: two years.]

(6) April 7, 1935 – Art. 12: “Minors from twelve years of age, convicted in the commitment of a theft, causing of violence, of bodily injury, mutilation, or murder, or attempted murder, are to be prosecuted by the criminal court with the application of all measures of criminal punishment.”

Previously: “Minors under the age of 16 are not liable to measures of a judicial-correctional character. To them the commissions of juvenile cases may apply measures of social defense of a medico-educational character.” Also: “if a sentence of deprivation of liberty or of forced labor is passed on a minor between 16 and 18 years of age, the period shall be reduced by one third of the sentence which could have been imposed by the court if the crime had been committed by an adult.” – Art. 50, now abrogated.

The whole concept of juvenile authorities and special education for young criminals is here done away with.

(7) October 2, 1937: Maximum sentence of deprivation of liberty raised from 10 years to 25 years (Addition to Art. 28).

(8) June 26, 1940: “For truancy [“more than 20 minutes late” – Par. 3) without a valid reason, the workers and employees of state, cooperative and public enterprises and institutions ... are to be punished by corrective-labor work at the place of work for a period up to six months and withholding of salary up to 25 per cent.” (Criminal Code, Page 110, Sec. 5, Par. 2.)

(9) August 16, 1940 – Art 74: “Hooliganistic practices in enterprises, institutions and public places ... will be punished by imprisonment for a term of one year unless the character of the case calls for a heavier punishment.”

(10) August 16, 1940 – Art. 162-f: “Petty theft, regardless of the amount, committed in enterprises or institutions ... will be punished by imprisonment for one year, unless the character of the case calls for a heavier punishment.”

(11) December 26, 1941: “Voluntary leave of workers and employees from (war industries) ... are to be punished by imprisonment for a period of five to eight years.” (Criminal Code, Page 117, Par. 2.) (Note: According to Art. 28: a sentence of three or more years is to be served in a corrective-labor camp.)

These basic amendments to the criminal code of 1926 continue to increase in severity and in applicability, and the majority of them deal with the protection of property and the terms of work of the working class.

The increasing barbarity of class repression and the solidification of the Stalinist bureaucracy here find their perfect expression in legal terminology. Let us go down the list: the extremely severe punishment for pilferage, petty theft and “hooliganistic” practices, family responsibility for guilt of soldiers who escape from the “socialist fatherland,” a tightening of military authority, full criminal punishment for minors, and punishment for truancy (20 minutes late) and quitting a job. Truly an admirable record!

“But wasn’t the death penalty abolished in 1947?” the apologists ask gleefully. Very true, it was. Let us examine this seeming liberality and discover its roots. The law at issue is the following:

May 26, 1947: “The death penalty for crimes punishable by death under the existing law is to be superseded by imprisonment in corrective labor camps for a period of 25 years.” (Pravda, May 27, 1947.)

The seeming liberality, on second glance, becomes the means to increase the labor supply in the gigantic slave-labor camps which began to become an important part of Stalinist production in the ’30s.

Workers Fined for Lateness

So far we have only the bones of the reality of class repression in the form of decrees and ukases. Let us fill in this framework with a little sociological meat. How are these laws applied? Unfortunately there has never been (how could there be?) a sociological study of crime in Russia. In the absence of such a work only conjectures are possible. But fortunately the tradition in Stalinist criminology has been to follow up the publication of decrees by mass warnings to the population in the form of lists of “criminals” indicted for specific crimes. Here is Stalinist justice at work (Pravda, August 28, 1940, page 6):

Tardy Workers Held Responsible Before Court

Yesterday in the people’s court of the 12th division of the Kiev district of Moscow, three criminal cases of N.P. Alfimov, I.I. Ermakov, and A.S. Gushchin, accused by the workers of the Moscow State Electromechanical plant, of violating the Ukase of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of June 26, 1940, were reviewed.

In the front row sit the accused – three young lads. There is no sign of disturbance on their faces. They are striving to give themselves the appearance of complete indifference, even perplexity: for what reason, in truth, were they invited here?

But this is only at the beginning of the court examination. As the judge and the assessors ask questions of the accused to clear up the circumstances of the perpetration of an anti-state offence, the accused start to consider that they were by no means summoned to jest with them.

The young workers, Alfimov, Ermakov, and Gushchin had much in common. All three came to Moscow at the same time looking for work without having any specialty. Alfimov and Ermakov entered as apprentice locksmiths at an electromechanical plant. Gushchin entered as an apprentice locksmith at another plant. Alfimov and Gushchin are members of the YCL. All three have obtained the qualifications of a locksmith. The old workers at the plant gave them assistance.

On June 27, all three were late 30 minutes and all gave the same reasons for lateness: “I overslept,” “I was not in time at the bus stop,” and “I was late to the train.”

“We did not agree beforehand,” Alfimov answered the judge’s questions.

“It is merely a coincidence. I am a member of the YCL and I understand the complete importance of the new law, but I cannot explain how this happened. I confess my guilt.”

Ermakov and Gushchin gave the same explanations. They also confessed their guilt. However, it was explained to the court that Gushchin was tardy more than once. Last year, for tardiness, he was dismissed from the plant.

After the discussions the court retired into a consulting room. The deliberation lasted one and a half hours.

The court acknowledged the guilt of all the accused in committing criminal offenses and sentenced them as follows: to subject the tardy workers Alfimov and Ermakov to corrective-labor work for two months each at the place of work, with deduction of 15 per cent of their monthly earnings.

Gushchin, having been tardy more than once, was sentenced to three months corrective-labor work at the place of work and likewise with deduction of 15 per cent of his monthly earnings.

The cases were heard under the chairman of the people’s court Comrade D. Lieubimov, with participation of the people’s assessors, Comrades I. Nikitin, A. Kaziukov, and advocate Comrade Raubo. The accused were defended by Comrade Kaziukov, the attorney of the Kiev district.

V. Ovcharov


This little piece reads like a play by Gogol, the great Russian satirist. Three young workers up before the tribunal for being thirty minutes late, accused by the “workers” (bureaucrats?) of their plant. They all give perfectly reasonable excuses for their tardiness but the judge wants to know if they had agreed beforehand. Truly a person closely connected with workers’ everyday experience with crowded buses – this judge!

The deliberation lasted one and a half hours. Beware, tardy worker! And then finally the fine: It is only necessary to recall that the first pamphlet Lenin ever wrote, entitled On Fines, warned the workers not to accept exactly such treatment from their employers.

As a slight indication of how these laws are applied in practice, it should be noted that the third worker, Gushchin, was given an extra month for an act which was not a crime when he committed it. This is called ex post facto law in legal terminology and went out with the first stirrings of democracy. Gushchin was late to work “last year” but the ukase had just been passed a few weeks before. That such a blooper got into Pravda is an indication of the general situation.

Poverty, Theft and Justice

In the People’Ls Courts of Moscow – Cases of Petty Theft in Production

The people’s courts of Moscow reviewed a number of cases of persons brought to court on the basis of the Ukase of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on August 10 for responsibility for “petty theft” in production.

Each of the indicated persons was sentenced by the people’s courts of Moscow to a year’s imprisonment. (Pravda, August 16, 1945)


One is reminded of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, who is sentenced to the galley for stealing some bread when he was starving. These petty thefts – candy, cookies, cloth, a piece of bronze – indicate a society of poverty, a society of want and semistarvation for the masses. Otherwise, why are the penalties so severe?

The most inexcusable and vicious class legislation – horrible to an extreme – are the laws on “hooliganism” passed, in August 1940. The different conditions of life of the worker and his “boss,” whether he be Stalinist or bourgeois, dictate different attitudes, language and behavior. Laws against “hooliganism” are basically laws against the working class and they are usually dictated by a desire to prevent workers from protesting against their conditions of slavery. The severity of the punishments in the following cases merely hints at the terrible reality of everyday life in Russia. Izvestia, August 27, 1940:

 From the People’s Commissariat of Justice and Attorney General of the USSR

In Moscow, recently, the following violators of the Ukase of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of August 10, 1940, on criminal responsibility for hooliganism, were brought to court and sentenced:


It might be noted here that according to Art. 28 of the Criminal Code, “A sentence of deprivation of liberty for a period of less than three years shall be served in an ordinary place of imprisonment, and for a period of three years or more in a correctional-labor camp.” Six of these unlucky victims were sent to work in the slave-labor battalions of the Stalinist state.

The worker who tried to get an excuse to quit work from the “company sawbones” should be familiar to every worker who has been in the same position. Half-dead from fatigue, he was probably told that he was in excellent health and that he should go back to work and stop malingering. We might imagine him restraining himself to calling the sawbones an S.O.B., whereupon he is dragged off to a slave-labor battalion, after a summary trial, and condemned to eternal exile if he ever gets out of prison.

The crowning achievement of Stalinist jurisprudence, however, is yet to come in the shape of the “Protection of Citizens’ Private Property” act and the “Embezzlement of State and Public Property” act, which were passed on June 4, 1947. Here income differences, class repression and social barbarity speak through the authoritative lips of N.M. Shvtrnik, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR:

Slave Labor Fixed into Law

Protection of Citizen’s Private Property

With the object of strengthening the protection of the private property of citizens, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR decrees that:

(1) Theft – that is, covert or open appropriation of the private property of citizens – is punishable by confinement in a reformatory labor camp for a period of five to six years. Theft committed by a gang of thieves for a second time is punishable by confinement to a reformatory labor camp for a period of six to ten years.

(2) Robbery – that is, assault with the object of appropriating other people’s property combined with violence or a threat of violence – is punishable by confinement to a reformatory labor camp for 10 to 15 years with confiscation of property.

Robbery with violence endangering the life or health of the victim or a threat to kill or cause grievous bodily harm, as well as robbery committed by a gang for a second time, is punishable by confinement to a reformatory labor camp for 15 to 20 years, with confiscation of property.

(3) Failure to report to the authorities concerning a robbery authentically known to be under preparation or known to have been committed is punishable by loss of freedom for one to two years or banishment for four to five years.


(Signed) N.M. Shvernik, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR,
and F.K. Gorkin, secretary of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, Moscow, Kremlin
June 4, 1947

Embezzlement of State and Public Property

In order to establish uniformity of legislation with respect to criminal liability for embezzlement of state and public property and to strengthen the measures against these crimes, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR decrees that:

(1) Theft, appropriation, defalcation or other, embezzlement of state property is punishable by confinement in a reformatory labor camp for 7 to 10 years, with or without confiscation of property.

(2) Embezzlement of state property for a second time, as well as when committed by an organized group or on a large scale, is punishable by confinement in a reformatory labor camp for 10 to 25 years, with confiscation of property.

(3) Theft, appropriation, defalcation or other embezzlement of collective farm, cooperative or other public property is punishable by confinement in a reformatory labor camp for five to eight years, with or without confiscation of property.

(4) Embezzlement of collective farm, cooperative or other public property for a second time, as well as that committed by an organized group or gang or on a large scale, is punishable by confinement in a reformatory labor camp for 8 to 20 years, with confiscation of property.

(5) Failure to report to the authorities concerning embezzlement of state or public property definitely known to be in preparation or known to have been committed as set out in Articles 2 and 4 of this decree, is punishable by loss of freedom for two to three years or banishment for five to seven years.


(Signed) N.M. Shvernik, etc. (same as above)
Moscow, Kremlin
June 4, 1947


The intensity of the class struggle fairly screams through the pages of the law journal. The “reformatory labor camp” (a guilt-ridden synonym for forced labor) has become the punishment for a theft, no matter of what size. To put it in another way, recruitment to forced labor has become the purpose of this legislation, while the actual theft takes a subordinate role.

The increase in income differences is reflected in the increasing severity of the punishments for the theft of personal property, which, contrary to previous law, have now become quite as severe, to all practical purposes, as theft of “public” property.

Pravda again comes to our aid with a few choice morsels of Stalinist jurisprudence in action. The following is from Pravda, July 9, 1947:

Communique from the Attorney General of the USSR

In carrying out the ukases of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of June 4, 1947 ... a number of persons have been recently prosecuted and brought to trial for criminal responsibility:

  1. In the city of Saratov, V.F. Yudin, who had been previously convicted for theft ... stole fish from a smoke factory. On June 24, 1947, ... Yudin was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment in correctivelabor camps ...

  2. On June 11, 1947, an electrician on the power lines of the Moscow-Ryazan railroad, D.A. Kiselev, stole fur goods from a railroad car ... On June 24, 1947, the war tribunal of the Moscow-Ryazan railroad sentenced D.A. Kiselev to ten years’ imprisonment in the corrective-labor camps.
  3. In the town of Pavlov-Posad in the Moscow region, L.N. Markelov ... stole clothing from the Pavlov-Posad textile factory. On June 20, 1947 ... Markelov was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in corrective-labor camps.
  4. In the Rodnikov district of the Ivanov region, Y.V. Smirnov and V.V. Smirnov ... stole 375 pounds of oats from a collective farm. On June 26, 1947 ... both were sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in corrective-labor camps.
  5. In the Kirov district of Moscow, E.K. Smirnov, a chauffeur, was arrested for stealing 22 pounds of bread from a bakery. The people’s court ... sentenced E.K. Smirnov to seven years’ imprisonment in corrective-labor camps.
  6. In Saratov, E.J. Gordeyev ... stole various products from a warehouse. On June 21, 1947 ... Gordeyev was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in corrective-labor camps.
  7. On June 8, 1947, in Kuikyshev, E.T. Poluboyarov stole a leather case from Citizen Shnitko, who was riding on a trolley ... Poluboyarov was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in corrective-labor camps.
  8. On June 7, 1947, in Kazan at the collective farm market, V.E. Bukin snatched money from the hand of Citizeness Pustinsky ... On June 20, 1947 ... Bukin was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in corrective-labor camps.
  9. On June 6, 1947, in the village of Subovka in the Kutuzovsk district of the Kuibyshev region, A.A. Chubarkin and V.G. Morozov stole from a cellar 88 pounds of potatoes belonging to Citizeness Presnyakov. On June 17, 1947 ... both were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in corrective-labor camps.
  10. On June 5, 1947, in Moscow ... K.V. Greenwald, who had been previously convicted for theft, took advantage of the absence of his neighbor, entered the room of Citizen Kovalev and stole various household articles ... Greenwald was sentenced ... to ten years’ imprisonment in corrective-labor camps.


The lot of the Russian working class is more graphically portrayed in these items than in a thousand theses. This society is a huge concentration camp, with want and misery rampant as the ruling class of the bureaucracy grinds the people into an atomized mass.

The means of production, the factories and farms and mills, belong to the state. But that is not necessarily socialism. The state, in turn, belongs not to the people ruling their own lives democratically but to a totalitarian and uncontrolled bureaucracy. It is the collectivism of the new class of rulers, not the democratic collectivism of the working class. It is what we have called the bureaucratic-collectivist society of the Stalinist tyranny.

Social discontent in such a new slave society will obviously take many forms among the downtrodden: brutality in social relations, theft, sabotage, flight – even anti-Semitism, The brutal rulers brutalize their slaves and then call for thicker chains to hold them in their slavery.

But side by side grows the hatred of the slaves for their brutal lot. The new slave rulers of the Russian state had best examine history: they will find there, written in bloody letters, the picture of their future: the great Spartacus revolt of the ancient slaves. It is toward this day that we work.

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