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Nonpolitical Crime and Punishment

The Soviet Union did not publish comprehensive crime statistics, so it is difficult to compare its crime rates with those of other countries. According to Western observers, robberies, murders, and other violent crimes were much less prevalent than in the United States. This was explained by the large police presence, strict gun controls, and the relatively low incidence of drug abuse. By contrast, white-collar economic crime was extremely common. Bribery and covert payments for goods and services were universal, mainly because of the lack of goods and services on the open market. Theft of state property was practiced routinely by employees, as were other forms of petty theft. In 1989 the Gorbachev leadership was making a concerted effort to curtail such white-collar crime. Revelations of corruption scandals involving high-level party employees appeared in the Soviet media on a regular basis, and there were many arrests and prosecutions.

The death penalty, carried out by shooting, was applied in the Soviet Union only in cases of treason, espionage, terrorism, sabotage, certain types of murder, and large-scale theft of state property by officials. Otherwise, the maximum punishment for a first offender was fifteen years. Parole was permitted in some cases after completion of half of the sentence, and periodic amnesties sometimes also resulted in early release.

The Soviet Union had few prisons in 1989. About 99 percent of convicted criminals served their sentences in labor camps, supervised by the Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps (Glavnoe upravlenie ispravitel'no-trudovykh lagerei--Gulag), which was under the MVD. The camps had four regimes of ascending severity. In the strict-regime camps, inmates worked at the most difficult jobs, usually outdoors, and received meager rations. Jobs were less demanding and rations better in the camps with milder regimes. The system of corrective labor was regarded by Soviet authorities successful in that the rate of recividism was quite low. Prisons and labor camps, in the views of former inmates and Western observers, however, were notorious for their harsh conditions, arbitory and sadistic treatment of prisoners, and flagrant human rights abuses. In 1989 new legislation, which emphasized rehabilitation rather than punishment, was being drafted to "humanized" the special system. Nevertheless, in 1989 conditions for many prisoners had changed little.

Data as of May 1989

Sources and Methods


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