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John G. Wright

Stalin’s Regime as Mirrored in Emergency Legislation

(December 1940)

From Fourth International, Vol.1 No.7, December 1940, pp.205-206.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What is going on in the Soviet Union? Accurate information is now practically confined to decrees which emanate from the Kremlin. And even this news arrives in garbled form after weeks and months of delay. The volume of new legislation has assumed proportions almost as monstrous as the content of the laws themselves. Each new decree surpasses the previous one in ferocity, and at the same time reveals the blind-alley in which Stalin’s regime has arrived.

The 1940 legislation may be roughly divided into two complementary categories. On the one hand are measures, in essence political, designed to consolidate the ranks of the bureaucracy by granting new immunities and privileges, new ranks and prerogatives: For example, the new income tax legislation, exempting the possessors of medals, orders and decorations, “Heroes of the Soviet Union,” “Heroes of Labor” (Stakhanovists), while taxing all wages and salaries of 150 roubles a month and making these taxes deductible at the source; the investment of directors with “sole and indivisible authority” in the enterprises; the further aggrandisement of the officers’ corps by restoring the titles of General, Admiral, etc. and reintroducing non-commissioned ranks from corporal to top-sergeant.

On the other hand there are savage totalitarian reprisals against the workers, the peasants and the youth. Chief among these are: The April laws against the peasantry which restore in practice forced collections of foodstuffs and raw materials; the June laws against labor, abolishing the 7-hour day 5-day week, legalizing the 8-hour day, 6-day week, and in reality even longer hours, without any increase in wages, making it a criminal offense to quit one’s job, or even come late to work – in short, converting the workers into industrial serfs bound to the factory; the October laws against the youth, driving the children of workers and peasants from schools and universities by instituting tuitions, and making children 14 years of age and over liable to draft in the “labor reserve,” i.e., restoring child labor.

It is one thing to pass laws. To enforce them is another.

A series of articles dealing with these laws and their significance, and the mass resistance which they are engendering has already appeared in the Socialist Appeal for October and November. In this article I propose to deal primarily with two “minor” decrees which serve to throw a glaring light on conditions existing in the Soviet Union.

On August 17 Soviet legislation against theft, already the harshest in modern times, was amended as follows:

“Petty theft, regardless of the amount, committed in institutions and enterprises, is punishable by a term of 1 year in jail, unless a severer penalty is attached to the crime.” (Pravda August 18. My emphasis.)

Anyone caught with so much as a nail in his or her possession faces jail for one year. Unbelievable? In the columns of Izvestya and Pravda are reported sentences of one year’s imprisonment in the following cases:

  1. A worker caught with a lump of bronze
  2. A driver with a few pounds of candy.
  3. A woman-worker with “13 meters of burlap.”
  4. Another with cookies and sugar.
  5. A worker with “two English locks.”

Downright theft assumes such a mass character only when there is a famine in objects of consumption, and when the cost of necessities rises. The Kremlin’s censor may clamp tight the lid on the actual data relating to the worsening conditions of the masses; the truth seeps through in a Kremlin ukase. Speculation, which springs from the same source, likewise reaches new heights. During the purge of the Trade Union apparatus in August, one of the bureaucrats blurted out:

“An investigation conducted by the District Committee has revealed that in the city of Kostroma there is a solid bloc of 1,000 families not one of whom had a job either in a State enterprise or institution; in Yaroslavl, there are 114 families at the textile combine Krasny Perekop who inhabit factory homes, who are the first ones to come into possession of scarce articles and commodities, and who engage in trading, and lead a parasitic holiday life.”

From time to time, a few speculators are arrested, some are shot, and the press features the news. Meanwhile, speculation increases. Even the bureaucrats who as a rule occupy “factory homes” find themselves elbowed out by the illicit traders.

The second decree issued on August 17 amends the criminal code on hooliganism as follows:

“Hooligan actions in enterprises, Institutions, and public places are punishable by a term of one year in jail, unless there is a severer penalty attached to the crime.”

In addition to this emergency amendment, special courts were set up to hear cases of hooliganism, preferably on the same day the arrests are made. No red tape.

The efficiency in applying this law has been little short of breath-taking. A single issue of Izvestia for August 27 lists eleven trials of hooligans:

CASE A: Defendant 26 years old, charged with “creating a scandal in a house.” Sentence: one year in jail, three years exile.

CASE B: Defendant 19 years of age, used “unprintable language in a trolley car” – one year in jail.

CASE C: Defendant 38 years old, caused a “scandal in an Emergency Ambulance” – one year in jail.

CASE D: Defendant 28 years of age, “drunk in a trolley car” – one year in jail.

CASE E: Defendant 19 years old, caused a disturbance, “engaged in a brawl” – one year in jail, three years exile.

CASE F: Defendant 26 years old, “used profanity on a public thoroughfare” – one year in jail.

CASE G: Defendant 20 years old, (brandished a “safety razor blade,” “threatened to slash a citizen” – three years jail, four years exile.

CASE H: Defendant 31 years old, bashed “another citizen in the face with a suitcase” – three years jail, four years exile.

CASE I: Defendant 45 years old, charged with “hooliganism on the street” – four years in jail, deprived of civil rights for three years, not permitted to live in eight specified cities for a period of five years.

CASE J: Defendant 22 years old, charged with slugging a citizen and “resisting arrest” – three years jail, deprived of civil rights for three years.

CASE K: Defendant 41 years old, “profanity on a public highway,” “resisted arrest” – 3 years in jail.

I have a confession to make: I did not see through the intense campaign in the press in preparation for this decree. On July 31, for instance, Izvestia declared that hooliganism was increasing; that the authorities were “not coping with the situation”; that four People’s Judges and three city magistrates had to be removed from their posts because of leniency toward hooligans; and that this “condition was true not only of Moscow but other cities.” I assumed that hooliganism of the ordinary garden variety was involved, and that it was increasing as is undoubtedly the case. My suspicions that something more was involved were aroused first by the text of the ukase which announced in so many words that the arena of hooliganism had extended beyond the public places into the very heart of Soviet industry and trade, the “enterprises and institutions.”

But it took the case of a 25 year old worker – Case L in Izvestia’s list – to open my eyes concerning the true identity of the most dangerous “hooligans.” The case follows verbatim:

“The case of I.V. Timonin, born in 1915. On August 23 (the defendant) appeared at a clinic where he demanded that he be issued a doctor’s certificate excusing him from work; becoming chagrined because the thermometer indicated only normal temperature he indulged in debauchery (!), and used unprintable language. Sentenced on August 23 to three years in jail, not permitted to live in nine specified cities of the Soviet Union after the completion of the sentence.” (Izvestia, August 27.)

Easy on the Bureaucrats

Any factory or office worker who dares in any way to resist, as much as grumble, or engage in any other “debauchery” against the smooth application of the June 26 ukase is immediately guilty as charged: a “hooligan”! One can now fully appreciate the humor of the cartoons and skits against “hooliganism” featured in Stalin’s humorous periodical, so aptly named Krokodil (crocodile). The intensity of repressions reflects the force of resistance. Despite all the Kremlin censors we learn that the resistance of the Soviet workers is growing!

To round out the picture it is necessary to cite still another trial. This time, the defendants are M.S. Vorobiev, head of the Political Department of the Gorky Railroad and G.I. Romanov, head of passenger traffic of the same railroad. The defendants, we learn immediately, were expelled from the party and “handed over to the courts.” The report of the court-proceedings follows:

“In the Gorky railroad loafers and disrupters felt themselves quite privileged. In July and August, 1572 cases of violations (of labor discipline) and 145 cases of self-willed departures were recorded ... M.S. Vorobiev did not struggle against the violators of labor discipline, he was too busy arranging for his own personal, family comfort. D. Pavlova, a woman conductor, served as his cook, and he made a valet de chambre out of the secretary of the Political Department. They worked for Vorobiev and continued to draw their pay from the state payroll. The head of the Political Department was imitated by the commanders below him ...”

It is not clear just what the charges against Vorobiev are: collusion with the violators of the June 26 ukase, turning his subordinate not only formally but actually into a flunkey, or cheating the state of his servants’ wages. The report tries to clarify the issue:

“‘How dared you, a political leader, to violate the Soviet law so crudely, and set so bad an example to your subordinates?’ asks the prosecutor.

“‘I did not sufficiently grasp the importance of the June 26 ukase of the Praesidium of the Supreme Council,’ replies the defendant with assumed innocence.

“At the trial,” continues Pravda, “it was disclosed that Vorobiev’s crimes were known to the prosecuting attorney of the Railway, the editor of the Railway newspaper, the head of the Railway, and other people in the service ... In court, the defendant G.I. Romanov confessed: ‘I behaved like a coward before Vorobiev. I did not want complications. In this lies my mistake.’ ‘I did not want complications.’”

This is more than a confession. It is a self-portrait of the bureaucracy.

The court sentenced Vorobiev to – “two years in jail.” After all, he was not a “hooligan.” His accomplice, G.I. Romanov, was not jailed. He was not even removed from his post but received a sentence of “one year penal labor at place of employment” – as head of the railway! – and “fined 20% of his wages.” (Pravda September, 24.) The prosecuting attorney and the editor of the Railway, not to mention Vorobiev’s subordinates who “imitated his example,” were apparently not even arrested.

Pravda need have no fears in publishing this. No Soviet citizen would so much as dare curse under his breath on penalty of going to jail for one year, and maybe for life!

Last updated: 13.6.2005