Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Crime and Punishment in Russia: A Comparative History from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Crime and Punishment in Russia: A Comparative History from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin

Article excerpt

Daly, Jonathan. Crime and Punishment in Russia: A Comparative History from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, pxx-236, $30 paper (9781474224352).

How did the Russian criminal justice system evolve from the reign of tsar Peter the Great to the rule of president Vladimir Putin? This is the question that Jonathan Daly (University of Illinois, Chicago) answers in this well-crafted and well-written monograph. In a nutshell, dramatic change and striking continuity characterized the evolution of criminal justice in that country; furthermore, unlike in the rest of Europe, reform occurred mostly from the top down rather than from intellectual and political movements sponsored by influential nongovernment elites.

Crime and Punishment in Russia is based on a wide array of secondary sources and proceeds chronologically, starting with the pre-Petrine period. The absence of legal theorizing, of a legal profession, of permanent judges, of the possibility of appeal, and of a system of courts best described criminal law before Peter the Great (1682-1725). Instead, officials of the prince presided over judicial proceedings that, given the arbitrariness of the political power, often resulted in bodily mutilation, flogging, branding, and death sentences. Chapter I surveys the Russian criminal system in the eighteenth century. Both Peter I and Catherine II (1762-1796), the key figures of this period, shared the same priorities--to Europeanize their country by inculcating respect for the law and creating a uniform hierarchy of courts. Their efforts were only partially successful, largely because the power of social elites (nobles and merchants) and the bureaucracy was hardly constrained by administrative or constitutional rules. Huge backlogs, the lack of trained jurists, and the absence of an up-to-date law code were further obstacles to the triumph of the rule of law. Chapters 2 and 3 outline the judicial developments in the nineteenth century. Here, the author rightly emphasizes the major judicial reform introduced by tsar Alexander II in 1864 - new judicial institutions, trial by jury, equality before the law, public court proceedings, and irremovable judges. These innovations were all important steps on the path toward the rule of law.

The Russian revolution that ultimately brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917 resulted in the introduction of even more radical changes. The early Soviet regime "viewed prerevolutionary criminal law as hopelessly integrated with structures of class exploitation" (79), hence the need to jettison it. Furthermore, Lenin's conviction, as outlined in State and Revolution, that under communism the conscious proletarian masses would replace the police, lawyers, the law courts, criminal investigators, and prisons of tsarist Russia, was soon confronted with the harsh reality of a bloody civil war. Indeed, repressive agencies, like the Cheka, emerged, "endowed with far more unchecked power than their prerevolutionary counterparts" (80). Thus, the very idea of the rule of law was rejected. Stalin, for his part, engineered a break toward almost complete lawlessness, as evidenced in the collectivization drive and the Great Terror--a time period when the justice system was used to provide a coerced labour force and to punish presumed enemies of Soviet power. With the dictator's death in 1953, however, state terror ended and, subsequently, criminal justice became more predictable and more lenient--a process facilitated by the institution or revival of mechanisms for popular participation in the administration of justice, a tighter supervision of the Procuracy, and an enhancement of the independence of the judicial system. The amnesty decree of March 27, 1953, for example, that released millions of prisoners from the Gulag illustrated this commitment to legality on the part of the Communist Party. …

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