USSR: Judicial Death Penalty (1917-1991)


‘The theoreticians of socialism have never denied the necessity for strict and consistent legal regulation of all aspects of political life. On the contrary, they have emphasised that the socialist state can function only on condition that there is perfect legislation and that the laws are observed by all officials and ordinary citizens, and by all organisations and institutions.’

(Vladimir Terebilov – The Soviet Court)

Ten days following the 1917 February Revolution (in early March), the Provisional Government abolished the judicial Death Penalty throughout Russia. This enactment was short-lived, however, as upon July 12th, 1917 (old style), the Provisional Government re-instated the Death Penalty to be used on any frontline troops refusing to follow orders. This was a response to the collapse of the earlier July Offensive, which saw a civilian government give-in to pressure from the military authorities. Lenin and the Bolsheviks immediately protested this reversal – stating that it was wrong to kill Russian soldiers just because they thought the war not to be in their best class interests. As the Bolsheviks had refused to participate in the Provisional Government, Lenin remained untainted by this return to oppressive Czarist methods. Lenin stated that this Death Penalty was obviously a weapon in the hands of the Bourgeois State which was used against the masses. It would be different, Lenin said, if the same Death Penalty was used against landowners and capitalists. Together with the Socialist Revolutionaries, Lenin and the Bolsheviks continuously agitated against the use of the judicial Death Penalty at the time in both civil and military society – but Lenin did state that the working class would defend itself whenever attacked by the bourgeoisie. From a Scientific Socialist point of view, a Socialist State might use the Death Penalty if it was under internal or external attack from the bourgeoisie, but would not otherwise use the Death Penalty. The history of the Soviet Union is the observation of the unwavering application of that policy. There is no double-standards, hypocrisy or misuse, as bourgeois historians would have the world believe. The Socialist Death Penalty is not religiously derived, and exists merely to remove a physical threat to the workers and their well-being. When a social condition arises whereby the bourgeoisie and its tainting elements no longer function in society is reached, then there would be no need for existence or use of a judicial Death Sentence.

It is an irony of history to observe that Joseph Stalin abolished the Death Penalty of the USSR in 1947, whilst the (Trotskyite) Nikita Khrushchev (whilst accusing Stalin of all kinds of imagined ‘excesses’) re-introduced it in 1954. Of course, many countries in the world have practised the judicial Death Penalty at various times throughout their histories, and many modern so-called ‘democratic’ countries – such as the US, Japan, India and Sri Lanka, etc – still adhere to the principle of judicial ‘death’. The judicial Death Penalty is applied to an individual where and when it has been legally ‘proven’ he or she has participated in actions that have broken the laws that attract the application of capital punishment. This is decided by judicial process involving (where applicable) military authorities, civil law enforcement agencies, official courts, juries and/or the conclusions of investigative committees. Once sentence is passed, the condemned individual concerned forfeits his or her life via the legally defined method of despatch. For the US ally of Saudi Arabia, this amounts to beheadings (carried-out in local car-parks) on Friday night, whilst in the US-devastated Afghanistan, the feudalistic practice of ‘stoning’ is still practised. The modern Zionist State of Israel possesses the facility of the ‘Death Sentence’ in its law – but prefers not to use it. Instead, the troops of this other ally of the US, routinely kill and wound unarmed Palestinian men, women and children on a daily basis, operating in the occupied lands of Palestine. It is only across the EU that the judicial Death Penalty is formally ‘banned’, although historically, many European countries had voluntarily given-up the practice prior to EU membership. Other than in Western Europe, it is clear to see that the judicial Death Sentence remains popular throughout the world, and in many countries that would otherwise consider themselves to be both culturally advanced and ‘civilised’.

During the October-November Russian Revolution, Lenin, acting through the auspices of the Soviet Government of Russia (i.e. the Second Congress of Soviets on November 7th [new style] 1917), abolished in its entirety, the old Czarist legal system (Decree 1). This was necessary because Russia’s backward and oppressive feudalistic society was encapsulated in laws that were hundreds, if not thousands of years old. This meant specifically, that the Czarist Death Penalty (which Lenin’s brother – Aleksandr Ulyanov – had been subjected to in 1887), was abolished. Therefore, the judicial Death Penalty was abolished within Revolutionary Russia, not as a special concession, but merely as an incidental effect of rendering null and void the legal code. This is an important distinction, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not apply an opposed morality to the principle of the Death Penalty when establishing a completely ‘new’ way of structuring human society. Of course, Karl Marx was opposed to the use of the Death Penalty within bourgeois countries – stating that the Bourgeois State had no right to harm his body in any way. On the other hand, Marx also stated, the working class possessed the right to defend itself against bourgeois aggression. This was exactly Lenin’s opinion – the Death Penalty should not be used by the bourgeoisie against the oppressed working class – and neither should it be used by the working class against the workers. However, as the working class has the right to ‘protect itself’ in all areas of existence, a Workers’ State could conceivably have the right to use the judicial Death Penalty against anyone deemed a ‘class enemy’. A ‘class enemy’ is anyone legally proven to be acting on behalf of the international bourgeoisie. This method of punishment is designed to counter the bourgeois habit of assassination, terror, and traitorous behaviour. Many bourgeois commentators (including Trotsky) who are antagonistic to Communism often mention these facts as if they have discovered (or revealed) a great hidden contradiction within Marxist thought, whilst simultaneously expressing their ignorance of Marxist thought, and the fact that the working class is under a continuous psychological, emotional and physical attack from the bourgeoisie. This anti-working class ‘violence’ is practised both within capitalist societies and between capitalist societies, and is designed to prevent the domestic and international working class from effectively ‘uniting’ and formulating methods of Revolution. Part of this systemic bourgeois oppression is the recourse to the judicial Death Sentence applied asymmetrically to the poorest sections of society, as it is these poorest areas of society that stand the most to gain from any Revolution.

Whilst WWI was brought to an end for Russia, the immense task of re-structuring society was commenced by the Bolsheviks. All foreign finance (and other assets) had been withdrawn from Russia by the West, soon to be followed by the insertion into Russia of troops from 14 capitalist countries (including the USA, UK, Japan, China, and Germany, etc). This large-scale invasion (known as the ‘Russian Civil War’) sought to destroy the Russian Revolution and restore Czarist rule. It is a little known fact that before the UK and Germany finished fighting one another in France, British and German soldiers fought side by side in Russia to end Bolshevism in early 1918. As much of the Russian territory had fallen under foreign domination at this time, and considering that the Western allies were encouraging terrorism, murder and sabotage behind Bolshevik lines, the Death Penalty was re-introduced in mid-1918. On January 17th, 1920, the Bolsheviks again abolished the Death Penalty, however, as Baron Wrangel was still active in Crimea, and the bourgeois Poles were advancing into the Ukraine, the Death Penalty was re-introduced on May 4th, 1920. This demonstrates how the Bolsheviks applied the Death Penalty purely upon practical grounds, and the ebb and flow of war-time conditions. The Death Penalty would be in effect in one way or another in the Soviet Union, until its abolishment in 1947. What has to be understood is that between 1917 and 1926, Revolutionary Russia had no formal legal code (with the Soviet Union not being founded until December 30th, 1922). Instead, the various Soviet bodies responsible for ensuring public safety through law and order, were advised by Lenin to make decisions on the ground in accordance with local conditions, and motivated by the spirit of Socialist thinking. This process was regulated with the formation of various legal codes all designed to eventually feed into a ‘new’ Soviet Constitution (which was ratified in 1926). This suggests that the principle of the Death Penalty was not necessarily intended to be a regular or permanent feature of Soviet judicial life, despite the fact that on May 17th, 1922, Lenin wrote to Commissar of Justice – DI Kurskii – suggesting that the Death Penalty be retained for ‘political’ crimes.

Unlike previous epochs within Russian history, Lenin demanded that all minors and pregnant women be permanently ‘exempt’ from any instigation of the Death Penalty, and that this sentence should not be routinely resorted to, but be part of a selection of possible punishments available, depending upon the severity of the crime in question. As the bourgeois class continuously advocated death and destruction at every turn toward any Socialist Movement, the retaining of the Death Penalty within the USSR was viewed by Lenin as an act of judicial self-defence. As the Soviet State had no intention of engaging in the cruel and unnecessary practice of prolonging ordinary judicial executions, the quickest method of despatch was considered ‘shooting’. Within the military this could involve a traditional ‘firing squad’, but in the case of civilians, a single shot to the back of the head (whilst sat on a chair) was the preferred method. Unlike in the bourgeois West, Death Sentences in the Soviet Union (when carried-out), were administered quickly after sentencing to reduce stress and suffering for the condemned. However, the kind of crimes that attracted the Death Penalty were not ‘ordinary’, but purely political in nature and involved sabotage, terrorism, assisting the bourgeoisie, treason, counter-revolution, armed uprising, aiding foreign governments against the USSR, undermining State institutions, assisting the Czarist regime, crimes committed against another Workers’ State, inducing a foreign attack, espionage, anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation, wrecking, unauthorised return from exile, terrorist acts against foreign officials, and using religious prejudice to over-throw the government. As can be seen, none of these categories generally applied to everyday ‘civilian’ life in the USSR, and suggests that for ordinary and law-abiding Soviet citizens, the Death Penalty did not exist in practice. When ‘civil’ crimes were committed (including murder and rape), long-term prison sentences coupled with hard labour were usually the preferred methods of punishment, although in 1954 (and possibly in mimicry of the bourgeois West), Khrushchev’s legal reforms extended the existing Soviet Death Penalty legislation to include ‘pre-meditated murder’. This demonstrates Khruschev’s muddled thinking, and how he confused ‘civil’ crimes with ‘political’ crimes.

Following the end of WWII, and the NKVD crushing of the neo-Nazi Movement in the Ukraine, Joseph Stalin decided that the time was now right for the Soviet Union to completely abolish the judicial Death Penalty for ALL categories of crimes. However, as the US initiated its highly aggressive Cold War policy at around this time, an exception to this abolition was made in January 1950, which stated that those convicted as being traitors, spies and saboteurs would be subject to the judicial Death Penalty. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, the rise of the Trotskyite Nikita Khrushchev led to a reactionary period in Soviet legal history where the clear thinking of Lenin and Stalin was replaced with the bourgeois thinking of a counter-revolutionary.  In 1954, Khrushchev re-introduced the judicial Death Penalty and this remained in-place until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Under Nikita Khrushchev, the clear line established by Lenin and Stalin regarding the difference between ‘civil’ and ‘political’ crimes was ‘blurred’, with the Death Penalty being used to infiltrate Soviet civilian law – a situation Lenin never intended.

Russian Language Reference:Смертная_казнь_в_России

English Language Reference:

On he Road to Communism: By RE Kanet & I Volgyes (1972), University Press of Kansas

The Soviet Court: By Vladimir Terebilov, (1986), Progress Publishers




Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s