‘Outsider’ vs. ‘Our Own’: Confronting a Familiar Paradigm in the Pages of the Early Gulag Press.

By Mark Vincent

The rigid dichotomy of the ‘political prisoner’ vs. ‘common criminal’ continues to frustrate researchers of the Soviet camp system. Although accounts of late Imperial exile and hard labour have argued persuasively  in favour of studying a wider range of carceral experiences, this dichotomy remains unchallenged in studies looking to reconstruct daily life in the Gulag.[1]

Though an impressive achievement, the relatively recent volume edited by Michael David-Fox struggles to break down the reductive labels of ‘criminal’ and ‘political’ assigned to inmates.[2] While—on a purely personal level—this volume  proved incredibly helpful, as I was able find the activities of criminal gangs through terms such as urki (‘criminals’), vory (‘thieves’) or bandity (‘bandits’) in both survivor memoirs and archival documents, these inquiries raised the fairly obvious questions of who exactly constituted a ‘criminal’ in the Soviet Union in the first place, and what differences there might be within this broad category?

Looking for further ways of breaking down these labels and based on excellent advice by colleagues (special thanks to Miriam Dobson!), I began to look at prisoner newspapers from the 1920s The most prominent of these was the newspaper of the early Soviet ‘showpiece’ penal institution on the Solovetskii Archipelago in the White Sea – the inspiration behind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous allegorical metaphor.

Photograph of inmates working on the camp newspaper taken from the excellent online exhibition and teaching resource: https://www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/visit/exhibitions/virtualexhibitions/beautyinhellcultureinthegulag/

Beginning in 1923, and running until the spring of 1930, the most renowned publication from the camp, Solovetskii Island, reached an impressive circulation figure of around 3,000 copies and was available both via subscription or at kiosks in Moscow, Leningrad and Kharkov.[3] Upon first glance, the all too familiar dichotomy of ‘criminal’ vs. ‘political’ prisoner looked to be even more pronounced here than in the Gulag memoirs that I consulted, particularly given that the vast majority of articles were written by prisoners hailing from the educated and cultural elite.

This was encapsulated perfectly in the title of the article “Frayera” i “Svoi” from the August 1925 edition of Solovetskii Island.[4] In this sense, frayera is best understood as slang for an ‘outsider’ and svoi as ‘our own’, both implying a clear boundary of inclusion. These groups were consolidated further by the author of the article, a prisoner named ‘B. Borisov’ (pseudonyms were used by a number of authors ), who began the piece by depicting inmates from the 13th Work Company looking down from the walls of the Solovetskii Kremlin, dividing the mass of prisoners in the gardens below neatly in half.

Borisov clarified that these were the aforementioned two groups, with ‘outsiders’ representing anyone who could be stolen from (my emphasis), with ‘our own’ meaning those who earned their livelihood through stealing. Although, they  stated, this divide could be clearly seen through physical appearance and mannerisms, the author also suggested that differences were not just external. As a self-ascribed ‘outsider’, Borisov explained how the opposing group viewed not just camp life but the entire world according to these rules, even lamenting that his  group lacked the strict ideology and moral code that ‘our own’ lived by!

While this initial sketch subscribed to the conventional political vs. criminal paradigm with which we are familiar, Borisov later began to break down the category of ‘one’s own’ into a hierarchy which demonstrated a more diverse constellation of criminal identities. At the top of this pyramid, in Borisov’s words the ‘aristocracy’, were ‘swindlers’ (those who engaged in profit-making scams), followed by a ‘large bourgeois’ of safecrackers and counterfeiters. The remaining masses comprised of pickpockets, house burglars and thieves who stole from shops or market stalls with the aid of their accomplices.[5]

According to Borisov, the ‘have-nots, pariahs and shpana (habitual prisoners)’ who formed the bottom layer were driven by their ‘petit-bourgeois morality’. Interestingly, but not surprisingly given that it had to pass through secret police censors, the article had absorbed the language of the New Economic Policy which looked to crackdown on old, capitalist ways of life.[6] Although Borisov stated that criminal hierarches were full of ‘hypocritical traditions’, they  stated that more professional crimes such as ‘safe-cracking’ could not be compared to situational offenses, such as the wild, ‘feral’ activities which took place in Khitrovka – a famous Moscow district afflicted by its association with alcohol, drugs and prostitution, and which came to be used as ‘shorthand’ for these activities..

This analysis not only reflects discussions in contemporary criminology regarding the ‘hierarchy of crime’ where some activities have traditionally carried more esteem than others, but shows how the pejorative label Khitrovka could be prefixed to criminals, regardless of whether or not they actually hailed from that location.[7] Further interesting avenues this leads to could be to explore the interplay between incarceration and areas designated as ‘criminal spaces’ outside of penality; for instance the Odessan suburb of Moldvanka which appeared regularly in prisoner songs from the same period.

With criminals being designated a ‘Khitrovka pickpocket’ or ‘Khitrovka prostitute’ it also opens the possibility of looking at the differences between how male and female prisoners were discussed in the publication. Although, as suggested,  the problems of using the camp newspapers are manifold, the information they have provided goes far beyond the survivor memoirs from the Solovetskii camp, helping to break down this reductive binary. This, in itself, would seem like a worthwhile endeavour in looking to construct a more detailed and nuanced picture of prisoner society during the early years of the Soviet regime.

Based on themes from Dr Mark Vincent’s upcoming monograph, Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps (I. B. Tauris, 2019). Link to the Amazon pre-order: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Criminal-Subculture-Gulag-Prisoner-Stalinist/dp/1788311892.  Find Mark on Twitter at @VincentCriminal, or contact him at cultoftheurka@gmail.com



[1]See, in particular: Sarah Badcock, A Prison Without Walls? Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism (Oxford, 2016); Sarah Young, ‘Knowing Russia’s Convicts: The Other in Narratives of Imprisonment and Exile of the Late Imperial Era’, Europe-Asia, 65:9 (2013). Link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09668136.2013.844509

[2] Michael David-Fox (ed.), The Soviet Gulag: Evidence, Interpretation and Comparison (Pittsburgh, 2015).

[3] Gullotta, Andrea, ‘The ‘Cultural Village’ of the Solovki Camp:  A Case of Alternative Culture’, Studies in Slavic Cultures, XI (2010), p.12.

[4] Borisov, B, ‘‘Frayera’ i ‘Svoi’’, Solovetskie Ostrova, No.8, August 1925, pp.80-82.

[5] Definitions of criminal activities checked against: Vitaly von Lange, Prestupnyy Mir  Rossii: Moi Vospominaniya ob Odesse i Khar’kove (Odessa, 1906).

[6] See similar comments regarding prostitution in: Kowalsky, Sharon, Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia 1880-1930 (Dekalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2009).

[7] Crewe, Ben, The Prisoner Society: Power, Adaptation and Social Life in an English Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).



‘An amoral lifestyle’ – criminalizing female sexuality in the Soviet 1960s

by Mirjam Galley

That the USSR did not turn out to be the utopia of gender equality that some revolutionaries had dreamt of in 1917 can no longer really surprise anyone. A glimpse into how the Soviet authorities dealt with juvenile delinquency allows us to fathom the extent to which boys and girls were thought of and treated differently. Looking at how deviance and sexuality were addressed in the 1960s also point to the limits of so-called ‘liberalization’ under Nikita Khrushchev.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet leaders were left with a difficult legacy. His successor Khrushchev had to find a way of reinventing Soviet socialism and removing the taint of Stalinist terror. To prevent the destabilization of the Soviet regime, Khrushchev needed to come up with a way to ensure public order and impose certain norms of behaviour without ubiquitous state terror.

The Soviet 1960s were shaped by a fear of deviance, a fear which was rekindled time and again by actual or perceived waves of juvenile crime. These fears were predominantly evoked around the image of unsupervised youths hanging out in the streets, in staircases, and in the dvory (courtyards), where they were thought to be drinking, smoking, and gambling, all seen as gateways into delinquency and crime.[1]

These anxieties were often personified by the ‘hooligan.’[2] The ‘hooligan’ was the concept most widely invoked in Soviet society to label deviant behaviour. As Brian LaPierre has shown, hooliganism was mainly a ‘crime’ committed by working class

Group of young people walking through Moscow, 1964 (courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

men. This might suggest that in the Soviet Union, deviance was ‘male’. A closer look at convictions of underage boys and girls, however, shows that there was also ‘female’ deviance, and that Soviet notions of delinquency and deviance were deeply gendered. Archival documents reveal surprisingly conservative notions of gender roles and sexuality within the Soviet system of justice and even among youths.

At first glance, this seems surprising in a state claiming to have ‘freed’ women and reached the equality of the sexes. Instead, bureaucrats worked with crude impressions of ‘fallen women’ and resorted to victim blaming in cases of sexual abuse and rape. Although there were also girls who committed crimes, it seems like girls were mostly sent to institutions for delinquent minors (reform colonies or ‘special’ schools) for promiscuity (amoral behaviour), or even prostitution – if they could prove that money had been exchanged. Boys, on the other hand, would be sent away most frequently for hooliganism, theft, or assault.

To compare these gendered notions of deviance, I will look at two inspection reports from 1962 about so-called collection and distribution points (priemniki), one for boys in Leningrad and one for girls in Pushkin. Minors would be brought to these places by the police, and wait there to be transferred to an institution. The Leningrad priemnik mostly held boys waiting to be sent to a reform colony. These boys were accused of theft, hooliganism, drunkenness, and ‘refusing to study or work.’ The report also mentions particularly bad previous cases, such as stealing state property, breaking into apartments, organizing gangs, escaping from a colony, and rape.[3]

In contrast, the report about the 11 girls waiting in the Pushkin priemnik for their place in a colony shows most interest in their sexual behaviour, which is vividly described. The girls would either roam around at night or had left home to stay with some guy. The men in question are named as shady people, foreigners (in one case Swedish tourists), soldiers, delinquent people, ‘unknown’ men, people from the Jazz scene – covering every possible stereotype of a bad match for ‘good Soviet girls.’ According to the report, most of the girls were either skipping school, misbehaving or drinking and smoking. Five of them lived in a boarding school, two were students, four had dropped out or were between jobs. Their families (often single parents) are mostly described as drinkers, as leading ‘an amoral lifestyle,’ or as mentally ill.

The report emphasizes cases in which girls exerted a bad influence on their environment, either literally by catching (and potentially spreading) venereal diseases – two of them had been hospitalized for gonorrhoea – or more metaphorically by ‘having amoral conversations in her boarding school’s dorm,’ and ‘tainting’ the other girls at her school. Another common feature is the failure of other agencies to influence or re-educate them, be it schools, factory ‘collectives’, the Komsomol, the police or house committees.

Only one of the girls committed an actual crime; aside from all of her deviant acts, she committed a rather grim act of cruelty against animals.[4] Although the boys and

Young women walking through Revolution Square, Moscow, 1964 (image courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

girls found themselves in similar institutions and came from similar social(ly destitute) backgrounds, they are convicted for very different offenses and could hardly have been described more differently.

Another such case demonstrating the gendered notions of deviance is the conviction of a 14-year-old girl to a reform colony for leading an ‘amoral life style’, which included running away from school and petty theft. The Latvian prosecution chose to protest against this conviction, as the story behind it is rather tragic, and the girl was not known for misbehaving. A 20-year-old man had (illegally!) started a relationship with this girl and was terrorizing her emotionally. When her schoolmaster found out that the girl was sexually active, he persuaded her mother to send her to a boarding school. The man continued pursuing the girl and threatened to break up with her if she did not come to see him at once.

Scared, she ran away from school, stole some clothes to wear, and went to meet him. She was picked up by the militsiia (police) and brought back to school, where the headmaster chose to put her in ‘quarantine’ for three weeks and then had her sent to a colony, bullying her mother into agreeing to this. At the time of the prosecution’s protest, the girl was stuck in a priemnik, awaiting transfer. The prosecutor demanded for her to be sent back, and for the security forces to charge the guy who had abused and pressured her instead, as seemingly no one had thought of this before. The commission in charge followed that recommendation, although this came quite late for the girl: the trail of documents suggests that between the decision to send her to a colony and its reversal a whole year had passed.[5]

The tendency to blame girls for having sex even goes as far as influencing the outcome of rape trials. In the 1960s in Latvia, a rapist was charged but not arrested, because the victim had been a ‘promiscuous’ girl – which is a gross, but sadly familiar, trivialisation of rape.[6] In a discussion about juvenile crime among senior Latvian education, health, and juvenile justice officials, a law scholar considers rape a serious problem amongst minors. He inexplicably links it to the phenomenon of uneducated single mothers, somehow implying that it is the father’s job in a family to tell his sons not to rape anyone, or that such basic moral ground rules require a certain level of schooling. To explain the status of rape among such youngsters, the scholar evokes the case of three boys being tried for raping a 26-year-old. Towards the end of the trial, one of the accused admitted that he actually did not take part in the crime, but asked the court ‘not to tell anyone because it would embarrass him in front of his friends.’[7]

These examples bear witness to an underlying culture of criminalizing female but not male sexuality, and of victim blaming in the case of rape – a culture so widespread and unquestioned that not to rape a girl could apparently be cause for embarrassment.

Mirjam Galley is a third-year PhD student in Sheffield’s History Department. Her doctoral research deals with children in care in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, exploring both how the Soviet leadership sought to ‘form’ children in institutions into productive workers, and how children coped in these institutions. Her research interests include cultural history, especially the history of everyday life, of violence, and of marginalised groups. She is one of the co-founders of the Sheffield Modern International History Group. You can reach her on Twitter @M_E_Galley.


[1] Susan Reid, ‘Building Utopia in the Back Yard. Housing Administration, Participatory Government and the Cultivation of Socialist Community,’ in Karl Schlögel (ed.), Mastering Russian Spaces: Raum und Raumbewältigung als Probleme der russischen Geschichte (Munich, 2011), (149-186), pp. 171-172.

[2] Deborah Field, Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev’s Russia (New York, 2007), p. 22.

[3] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 126-133. (1962)

[4] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 119-125. (1962)

[5] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 1982, pp. 7-8. (1963)

[6] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100. (1964)

[7] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100-101. (1964)


Full Image Attributions

Image 1: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Garrotted Renaissance’: language and nationalism in the 1930s

Almost exactly 80 years ago, on 3 November 1937, the NKVD executed the renowned Ukrainian theatre director Les Kurbas. Kurbas was not alone that day – a large group of Ukrainian writers and intellectuals were executed alongside him. The loss of so many of Ukraine’s cultural community resonated deeply with their compatriots, and those who had been executed became known in Ukraine as the ‘garrotted renaissance’.[1]

This execution was a tiny part of one of the most significant moments in Soviet history, a chain of events often referred to as the Great Terror.[2] As the Terror swept through Soviet society hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were arrested and executed, from

Les Kurbas, in his official ‘mug shot’ taken by the NKVD shortly after his arrest in 1933

the political elite down to the most humble worker.[3]

It was not uncommon for writers and thinkers to be executed or imprisoned during this period, although it was unheard of for so many to be executed together. To grasp why this was so, we need to understand a little more about the complex and varied reasons why writers were arrested or imprisoned.

For some Russian writers, it really was the words that flowed from their pen that were their undoing. Perhaps most famously Osip Mandelstam’s poem – characterising Stalin as ‘the Kremlin crag-dweller’ and comparing his eyes to cockroaches – led to his arrest and sentence to the Gulag. Mandelstam died en route to his destination.

In the case of the ‘garrotted renaissance’ it was not what they wrote so much as their Ukrainian nationality that was the key to their fate. This is confirmed when we examine the interrogation files of the writers in question. Within the pages of Mandelstam’s interrogation file, the focus was very much on the content of the writing, and possible interpretations. During his interrogation, Mandelstam’s interrogator, N.K. Shivarov, actually asked him to compare different drafts of his poem about Stalin and comment upon them.[4]

Even in the interrogation file of Isaac Babel, who was accused of conspiring with Trotskyists, there is much discussion of the former’s writing, and of the effect that his regular meetings with anti-Bolshevik editors and writers had on his work.[5] Babel was executed in January 1940.

In the interrogation files of Ukrainian writers, the focus on the actual creative output of the writers is almost entirely absent. Instead, these interrogations are largely focused on the possibility of the Ukrainians being members of anti-Soviet nationalist groups. The opening statement written by Kurbas in his interrogation file begins: ‘ I hereby… admit that I belonged to the counter-revolutionary terrorist organisation the UVO.’ His

1924 Poster from the Berezil Theatre

statement goes on to detail how his work at the Berezil theatre in Kyiv led him to join the UVO (in Ukrainian, the Ukrayins’ka Viys’kova Orhanizatsiya or Ukrainian Military Organisation).[6]

Why this change of emphasis? What was so different about the Ukrainian intelligentsia? Were they really all members of underground nationalist organisations, writing poems and plays by day, and plotting to murder Stalin by night? The answer lies in the broader context of the 1930s.  As the decade opened, Ukraine had become a problem for the Soviet leadership.

During the 1920s, Ukrainian language and culture had been recognised and positively encouraged by the Soviet leadership, as part of the policy of ‘Ukrainisation’, a pragmatic attempt to win over the peoples of the former Russian empire to the Bolshevik cause. However, by the early 1930s the policy was reversed, amid rising fears of anti-Soviet forces working within the Soviet Union.[7] Bordering Poland, Ukraine was considered both a conduit and breeding ground for spies, and as such allowing Ukrainian language and culture to thrive was seen as too great a risk.

Those who had held prominent roles in the creation of a confident, articulate Ukrainian culture – many of them writers, critics, and university professors – were now identified as enemies.[8] Their crimes were not rooted in their writing as such, but in their supposed nationalist aims. And on that day in November, this supposed threat was extinguished with one brutal blow – not just as a punishment, but as a warning to any other Soviet citizen who might be quietly nurturing nationalist hopes.

Does the nature of the execution matter? Is it even possible for us to compare the manner of one execution to another? Hardly. However, these subtle differences do shed a little light on the dynamics of the Terror: reminding us that it was not just one homogenous act of state violence but a complicated process, with small but important variances.

Polly Corrigan is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, where she is currently writing her thesis on the Soviet political police and their relationship with writers. She studied history at the University of Liverpool, and then completed an MA at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL. You can find her on Twitter at @pollycorrigan


[1] Lavrinenko, Y, Rozstriliane Vidrodzhennia: Antolohiia, 1917-1933. Paris, 1959.

[2] For a useful discussion of the term ‘Great Terror’ see Ryan, J, The Sacralization of Violence: Bolsheviks Justifications for Violence and Terror during the Civil War, Slavic Review 74, no. 4 (Winter 2015), pp. 808-809.

[3] See Conquest, R. The Great Terror, London, 1968; Getty, JA, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938, Cambridge, 1985; Getty, JA & Naumov OV, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, London, 1999.

[4] Shentalinsky, V, The KGB’s Literary Archive, London, 1995, pp. 172-173.

[5] Ibid, pp. 30-31

[6] Archives of the SBU, F6, Op1, Spr75608, pp. 38-39.

[7] Harris, J, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s, Oxford, 2016, pp. 178-179.

[8] Shkandrij, M, Ukrainian Nationalism: Politics, Ideology and Literature, 1929-1956, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 272.




The Soviet Court as a Propaganda Instrument II: The Semenchuk Case, 1936

By Anna Lukina

As one of the most publicized and mysterious —yet surprisingly obscured— Soviet criminal cases, the Semenchuk case (1936) provides one of the most striking examples of the use of the Soviet court as an instrument of propaganda.[1] The Semenchuk case was, in many ways, a “rehearsal” for the subsequent infamous Moscow Show Trials; it focused on the supposed banditry of Konstantin Semenchuk, the head of a polar station on the Wrangel Island, and Stepan Startsev, his associate. They were accused of sabotage, mistreating the local population, destroying the winterers’ morale, and, finally, murdering Dr Nikolai Wulfson, who threatened to report their crimes to the higher authorities.

So far, the “plot” of the case does not seem extraordinary; unlike subsequent trials, there was no ‘plot’ to overthrow the Soviet state, just a minor local official abusing his position. Still, the case attracted a lot of attention at the time. The prosecutor was Andrey Vyshinsky, later on famous for his role in the Moscow Trials. The defence attorneys, Nikolai Komodov and Sergey Kaznacheev, were also some of the best and most prominent at the time. The trial was widely reported in the press (including Time magazine), cited in works of legal scholarship (such as Vyshinsky’s “The Theory of Soviet Evidence Law”), and even put into prose by Lev Sheinin, a criminal investigator and detective-writer. The case report (i.e., a transcript of all proceedings) was widely circulated among academics and professionals.

The trial of Semenchuk and Startsev (1936)

Why then did this case attract so much attention? There are two possible explanations. The first is that Semenchuk and Startsev were, essentially, scapegoats for deeper problems common to all Soviet polar stations. Historical records show that drunkenness and disorder were commonplace in these locations, as well as “imperialist” attitudes towards indigenous people. Whilst the government promoted their exploration missions, these ultimately failed. This was mostly due to the missions attracting the “politically illiterate” and others generally ill-suited to the role.

Exposing this failure would, however, be detrimental to the population’s morale, and so the state decided to follow its usual playbook and blame the structural failures on individual “wreckers” like Semenchuk and Startsev. The second objective was that by bringing the case to the public eye, the “Soviet legal narrative” could be used to solidify the perception the Soviet state and its agents wanted to create.

One of them was, as in previous cases, an appeal to the character rather than facts. Luckily for the prosecution, Semenchuk and Startsev seemed to fill almost “fairytale” archetypes. Semenchuk was presented as a self-centered, power-hungry mastermind of the whole conspiracy, while Startsev was his cowardly associate. Interestingly enough, the defence tried to absolve Startsev of his crimes by adding to the negative characteristics; apparently, Startsev was a “half-barbarian” and lacked individual agency, thus rendering him incapable of taking part in the conspiracy.

This shows that the technique utilized by the prosecutors was not to mindlessly tarnish opponents, but to make them fill a specific designated “role”. This also extended to creating “heroes” of the “story”; Wulfson and his wife were presented as loyal, selfless, and ideologically sound characters, as opposed to their assailants. This helped not only to create new role models for the public, but to also sway the court’s decision, given that the evidence was limited to the words of a “bad character” against those of a “good character”.

Similarly, the prosecution centered on the ideological character of Semenchuk’s and Startsev’s crimes. For instance, their treatment of the local population was discussed at length and criticized as “imperialist”. The prosecutor, however, made sure to let the court (and the wider audience) know that these attitudes were “relics of the past” and certainly not commonplace in the Soviet Union, therefore shifting the blame on the individual perpetrators. To a modern reader this, however, is not corroborated by the clichés used to portray the native population as naïve and easily governed; showing that concerns about the “colonialism” of Semenchuk were not genuine and used to deflect attention from the broader problem with the Soviet mode of governance and general attitudes.

Another ideological point considered the past of the perpetrators – Semenchuk and Startsev were found to be involved with anti-Revolutionary activities in the past, Startsev fighting in Kolchak’s army and Semenchuk being convicted of theft in the past. The question of how they were allowed to take on leadership positions afterwards, however, was conveniently ignored: probably to suit the overall trend of blame deflection.

While the defence tried, in some way, to alleviate the fate of Semenchuk and Startsev, they still acted as agents of the state in constructing and developing the narrative. Most of their input was to support the charges, add to the negative characterization of their “clients”, and even congratulate the prosecutor on his findings. One cannot, however, blame Kaznacheev and Komodov for failing to perform their duties as defendants, since this was the dominant model of defence in Soviet academia and legal practice.

Overall, the Semenchuk case is full of fascinating insights into how the Soviet court was used for propagandistic purposes: this is how a mundane criminal case became a cautionary tale for millions of Soviet citizens. The prosecution was tasked with writing “a perfect crime”, and they achieved this – consequently shaping Soviet legal culture for many years afterwards.

Anna Lukina is a 3rd year BA in Jurisprudence student in the University of Oxford. Her research has so far focused on legal narratives in the Soviet criminal case and Soviet conceptions of human rights(1). She plans to combine Soviet legal history, socio-legal studies and legal theory in her work. This blog post is partly based on her article, Anna Lukina, “The Semenchuk Case of 1936: Storytelling and Propaganda above the Law in the Soviet Criminal Trial”, Review of Central and East European Law, Volume 41, Issue 2, 2016, 63-116. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/15730352-04102001


[1] For more on how the Soviet Court was deployed as an instrument of propaganda, please see my previous blog.

The Soviet Court as a Propaganda Instrument

By Anna Lukina

“The Soviet court should, above all, persuade, prove and subordinate the public attention to its moral influence and authority.”

Andrei Vyshinskii, “Theory of Evidence in the Soviet Law” (1946)

It is well-known that the Soviet court procedure, especially in the 1930s, can be characterized by its lack of due process, judicial independence, and fair outcomes. It remains unclear, however, why these legal institutions were preserved and, on the surface, respected at all. The core of Marxist-Leninist philosophy was suspicious of legal formalism, with early 1920s legal scholars such as Pashukanis and Krylenko advocating for the ‘withering away’ of the state and hence law.

Yet this position was fundamentally reversed in 1930s. This can be explained by the fact that Stalin saw the courts’ hidden potential as a political tool: not as an explicit source of power (since coercion could be, and was, applied via extralegal procedures), but as a mode of communication with the population.

Even before the 1930s “conservative shift”, Soviet society recognized this hidden meaning of judicial procedures. Some of the 1920s trials such as the Trial of the SRs (1922) and the Shakhty Trial (1928) were more like “trial-lectures” addressed to a wide audience of spectators. In the 1930s, however, this function was enhanced since the state, aided by the Show Trials prosecutor Andrey Vyshinskii as a chief reformer, invested in legal education, legal scholarship, and the reorganization of judiciary and related institutions. This was followed by a “refetishisation of the law” – an explicit acknowledgment of legal order as the cornerstone of socialism and a building force in Soviet society.

A photo from the trial of Semenchuk and Startsev (1936), which was characterised by strict adherence to Soviet legal narrative canons. Here, the defence attorney (who really acted as a ‘second prosecutor’) is addressing the court.

This, in turn, has increased the use of Soviet court for propagandistic purposes, creating what I call a “Soviet legal narrative”. It can be briefly described as a chronological account of the facts of a specific case, which was presented as the primary ‘story’ in the Soviet court. Even though the notion of a legal narrative is not unique to the Soviet legal system, and has been used to describe legal procedures in a variety of jurisdiction, its Soviet form was characterized by a number of distinct features.

Firstly, as mentioned above, the Soviet legal narrative was addressed to an unusually wide audience. While ordinarily a story presented in court is intended to influence the judge and the jury, the Soviet court was officially designated a function of educating wider population. This “education” did not only extend to ideologically neutral values such as respect for law, but covered instillation of more specific Marxist-Leninist values. It was disseminated via the openness of trials themselves, wide reporting in the (state-controlled) media, and even novels and short stories based on real-life trials. It can be partly attributed to the lack of adversarial procedures, which diminished the role of the court in the decision-making: when the outcome is pre-determined, there is no one to persuade.

Secondly, it can be viewed as an official agenda. The Soviet legal doctrine furthered an extremely idiosyncratic role of the court: educating the population as synonymous with establishing an objective truth. However, unlike similar (but more legitimate) concepts in contemporary civil law systems, the latter meant construing impressions as reality using materialistic dialectics – a strong ground for creating a narrative deviating from facts. Therefore, it can be argued that propaganda appeared to be an implied goal of the Soviet court in that period.

Thirdly, the Soviet narrative was characterized by a specific type of content. For instance, it presented the mens rea (the “mental” element of the crime – such as motives and intentions) as more important than the unlawful act itself. Anti-Soviet motives were considered as aggravating factors and therefore actively discouraged when the narrative was disseminated to the legal audience regardless of the objective impact of the defendant’s actions.

pic 2
A Soviet propaganda poster from 1948. “Bourgeois court is the court of the rich, while the Soviet court is the court of the people!”

Moreover, many distinctly colourful assertions were made about the defendant’s character and their class standing, as well as the victim’s relative characteristics. These “portraits” created a story which was easily digestible by the audience, with clear protagonists and antagonists: a cautionary tale designed to shape the existing social norms. In addition, it represented class struggle, turning the trial not only into a battle of personalities, but a tension between the oppressor and the oppressed. This provided both a justification for coercion and a political lesson for the spectators to learn from.

Finally, the omnipresence of this particular variety of narrative was cultivated by the fact that the Soviet court structure was far from the “storytelling contest” seen in adversarial trials: both the court and the prosecution followed the same line from the very start. Even the defence was not exempt from repeating the official line, as defence attorneys were considered the servants of the state as much as prosecutors, and so were compelled to advance similar goals and ideas. In this sense, the Soviet legal narrative was hardly challenged by any competing stories, which solidified it in the audience’s minds.

Therefore, the Soviet legal narrative phenomenon and the use of the court as a propaganda device can explain many peculiarities of trials in that period. Even though the rule of law would have presented a challenge to the totalitarian leadership, a pretense of the rule of law was, ironically, central to its strengthening.

Anna Lukina is a 3rd year BA in Jurisprudence student in the University of Oxford. Her research has so far focused on legal narratives in the Soviet criminal case and Soviet conceptions of human rights(1). She plans to combine Soviet legal history, socio-legal studies and legal theory in her work. This blog post is partly based on her article:

Anna Lukina, “The Semenchuk Case of 1936: Storytelling and Propaganda above the Law in the Soviet Criminal Trial”, Review of Central and East European Law, Volume 41, Issue 2, 2016, 63-116. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/15730352-04102001

Reformable Victims? The Language of Commercial Sex during the First Decade of Soviet Power

By Siobhán Hearne

Prostitution was rife in early twentieth-century Russia. The tsarist authorities installed a system widely known as the ‘supervision of prostitution’ (nadzor za prostitutsiei) in 1843. In order to legally work, prostitutes were required to register with their local police and attend obligatory weekly medical examinations. These women were given a medical ticket as identification which attested to their sexual health. The state regulation of prostitution continued until 1917, when it was abolished by the Provisional Government following the February revolution.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, they attempted to completely eradicate prostitution from society. Their campaign or ‘struggle with prostitution’ (bor’ba s prostitutsiei) focused on improving the socio-economic conditions that they believed pushed women into prostitution, such as their economic and political inequality. As part of this campaign, the Bolshevik, and later Soviet, government attempted to transform the way in which wider society conceptualised both prostitution and prostitutes by reforming the vocabulary used to describe them.

‘In destroying capitalism, the proletariat destroys prostitution’. Poster available in K. Waschik (ed.), Seht Her, Genossen!: Plakate Aus Der Sowjetunion, (Dortmund: Harenberg, 1982)

As prostitution had been regulated in the imperial period, brothels were relatively integrated within the urban landscape. In late-tsarist Russia, official discourse referred to brothels as ‘houses of toleration’ (doma terpimosti), which reflected the imperial government’s acceptance of prostitution as a necessary evil. Following the criminalisation of brothel-keeping and pimping in the 1922 Criminal Code, these establishments were pushed underground.[i]

Throughout the 1920s, central and local administration referred to brothels as ‘dens’ or even ‘dens of debauchery’ (pritona razvrata), terminology which had only been used by abolitionist philanthropic organisations before the revolution.[ii] This language marked brothels as something illicit and surreptitious, and demonstrated that the Soviet government aimed to destroy, rather than tolerate, brothels.

The ‘struggle’ campaign also attempted to remove the stigma from individual prostitutes in discourse. Aleksandra Kollontai, founder and leader of the Zhenotdel (Women’s Department) marked prostitutes as victims of capitalist exploitation. ‘The roots of prostitution are in economics’ she declared in a 1921 speech, and argued that the combination of women’s economic vulnerability and their conditioning to believe that they must provide sexual favours for material support directly caused prostitution.[iii]

Individual prostitutes were therefore to be reformed, rather than condemned. The Leningrad Council of the Struggle with Prostitution stressed the need to treat women ‘reclaimed’ (otvoevannye) from prostitution with the upmost respect, and ‘categorically prohibited’ Council members from using the word prostitute when referring to them.[iv] Former prostitutes were not to be stigmatised for their previous profession, and instead were to be welcomed into a life of productive labour for the socialist state.

Aleksandra Kollontai (Source: Wikicommons)

Despite attempts to transform opinion through vocabulary, some Soviet administrators clung to pre-revolutionary notions of the ‘deviant prostitutes’. In 1888, one of the most vocal supporters of imperial regulation, Veniamin Tarnovskii, described prostitutes as dangerous social defects who required constant close supervision.[v]

In 1918, thirty years and various revolutions later, local authorities in Petrograd discussed a so-called ‘special category’ of prostitute, whose involvement in commercial sex was a ‘result of degeneracy’ and a ‘painful necessity as a result of mental disorder’.[vi] This divided prostitutes into two camps: those who worked in prostitution out of necessity and could be reformed, and the innately deviant women who were irredeemable. This distinction provided the authorities with an ideological scapegoat in case of failure, as women who did not comply could be lumped into this category.

Other administrators blamed the apparent mental weakness of women for the continuation of prostitution into the late 1920s, and ignored the impact of wider socio-economic factors such as high female unemployment. In Leningrad, local government classified the labour exchange as a dangerous site where women ‘standing on the verge of prostitution’ could be easily seduced by pimps and brothel-keepers.[vii] This could have been an attempt by the Leningrad authorities’ to provide social assistance for vulnerable women, but the vague classification could also have been used to legitimise interference into the lives of any woman they perceived to be vulnerable.

Ultimately Soviet attempts to reform discourse were relatively unsuccessful. The linguistic turn was evident in visual culture, as propaganda posters and films from the 1920s showed the contrast between the ‘victim’ prostitute and the ‘villain’ brothel-keeper or pimp. The film A Prostitute: Killed by Life, for example is a piece of Soviet propaganda about the seduction of a young girl into prostitution. Those who profit financially from prostitution, such as the brothel-keeper and clients are strongly condemned throughout.

Despite this, many administrators clung to pre-revolutionary notions of women’s deviance and weakness to explain the continued existence of prostitution. From the beginning of the first Five Year Plan for economic development in 1928, policy began to move away from the reform of prostitutes and towards their repression and incarceration as class enemies.

Young prostitute Liuba and her brothel-keeper in the 1927 film A Prostitute: Killed by Life (directed by Oleg Frelikh)

Siobhán Hearne is second-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her thesis ‘Female Prostitution in Urban Russia, 1900-1917’ explores how prostitutes, their clients and wider urban communities experienced, and resisted, the system of regulated prostitution that remained in place until 1917. She is also interested in early Soviet campaigns to eradicate prostitution and venereal disease in the 1920s, and is part of the Peripheral Histories? editorial team.


[i]  The Criminal Code of 1922 criminalised those who profited from prostitution, namely pimps and brothel-keepers, with a minimum sentence of three years imprisonment. The 1926 Criminal Code changed the sentence to a maximum of five years.

[ii][ii] G. I. and Ia. I. Lifshits also refer to brothels as ‘assembly points of debauchery’ (sbornye punkty razvrata) their report on the successes of early Bolshevik prostitution policy, see Sotsial’nye Korni Prostitutsii (Yaroslavl, 1920), p. 40.

[iii] Speech by Alexandra Kollontai, ‘Prostitution and Ways of Fighting It’ https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/prostitution.htm

[iv] Report of the Leningrad Council for the Struggle with Prostitution 1928, Tsentralnyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sankt-Peterburga (TsGASPb), f. R4370, op. 1, d. 409, l. 193, O Rabote Soveshchaniia po Bor’be s Prostitutsiei.

[v] V. M. Tarnovskii, Prostitutsiia i Abolitsionizm (Saint Petersburg, 1888).

[vi] Minutes from the meeting of the Petrograd Venereal Council for the Struggle with Prostitution, 12 December 1918. TsGASPb, f. R142, op. 1, d. 3, l. 25-26.

[vii] Report of the Leningrad Council for the Struggle with Prostitution 1928, TsGASPb, f. R4370, op. 1, d. 409, l. 193 Protokol zasedaniia Venerologicheskogo Soveta po bor’be s prostitutsiei.