Monday, 10 March 2008

Crime in the Soviet Union

This piece is a look at W. E. Butler’s article of the same title in the Spring 1992 British Journal of Criminology.

Discussing crime and the Soviet Union is quite a difficult proposition. Why? Because crime stats which are often the guide for discussing crime in many countries, and in the Soviet Union these were not available for many years. Butler, who has written the article under discussion is from his tone clearly no Marxist, and to that extent is ignorant of the difference between the first few years of the Russian Revolution and it’s development thereafter. Even so, he does comment that in the early years “it is certainly the case that data on the incidence of reported crime, criminal convictions, and sentencing policies were reported and discussed in the press and cumulated in annual statistical yearbooks”(pg.146). However, “from the early 1930s the reporting of this type of ‘negative phenomena’ was prohibited on grounds of official secrecy”(pg.146). He mainly puts this down to “the obvious ideological inconsistency between the declared achievement of socialism by Soviet society and the continued pervasiveness of criminality.”(p146). Obviously, decreeing socialism like Stalin did has nothing in common with real marxism and won’t make crime disappear. But Butler treats this as part of the development of communism rather than spotting the absolute break with marxism that Stalin’s coming to power represented.
One final point on this. Butler also says “Crime by definition was expected to die out, to disappear, under socialism and communism” (pg.146); this isn’t true. Marxists have always said that crime would be near negligible in a genuine communistic society – Lenin even discussed how crime would be dealth with to an extent in his State and Revolution.

The main piece of Butler’s analysis is of crime rates in the last few years of the Soviet Union (from 1987-89). He comments that “The year 1989 was by all accounts a deplorable one… registered crimes had increased by 31.8 per cent over 1988…”(pg.148) He also a bit later discusses the main decrease being in what he terms ‘economic crimes’, suggesting that this is because “the constituent elements of those offences were not consistent with the market economy ethos”.(pg.148) I would argue it is because the are all too consistent with the market that they simply stopped being investigated.

In the data on crimes, Russia and Ukraine within the USSR accounted for usually between 75 and 85 per cent of all crime. Somewhat surprisingly “Only 1-2 per cent of crimes in the USSR are classified as narcotics related.”(pg.154), however as if to make up for this “About one-third of all criminals acted in a state of intoxication…”(pg.155)
However, interestingly for us, he concludes the article with the following comment “Preliminary data released for 1990 showed a still rising crime rate: 2,786,605 crimes were committed, a 13.2 per cent increase over 1989.”(pg.159)

This is only a brief overview of the contents of this article which includes some more fascinating statistical data on crime rates in the various constituent parts of the USSR as well as who committed the crimes as well as some more commentary. Hopefully, I will be able to look again at Russia and the USSR in the near future. In particular interest to myself is both the transition from (well from semi-feudalism really!) and back to capitalism in that country. I would appreciate comments on this piece a lot, as I don't get many chances to talk about these issues.

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