Rhiannon Dowling is a postdoctoral research fellow working on the book manuscript, “The Soviet War on Crime: The Criminal in Society, 1953-1991.” In 2018, she won the ASEEES Robert C. Tucker/Stephen Cohen prize for her dissertation.
I interviewed Rhiannon at the Harriman Institute on December 5, 2019. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you become interested in the Soviet criminal justice system?
I studied history at UC Berkeley after becoming interested in Russia while working on a master’s at UMBC. I thought I was going to focus on Cold War film and propaganda, which is what I wrote my master’s thesis on, but I became interested in crime and criminal justice in the Soviet Union while teaching a course on Soviet history and literature at San Quentin Prison.
The experience of coming face to face with the intellectual and political lives of incarcerated people and the extent to which that is not fully understood or appreciated both in history generally and in our popular culture and media drew me to the subject.
Tell me about the Soviet war on crime.
A few years after the state started to release people from the camps in 1953, contributing to a crime wave, Khrushchev began a public campaign to discover the causes and develop solutions to crime. He established an expectation that it was the state’s obligation to eradicate crime. That the Soviet Union would be the first country in the world to do this, and that the government would do it humanely. This, I argue, didn’t end with Khrushchev and actually played a significant role in Soviet life until the fall of the Soviet Union.
What’s the central argument in your dissertation?
The story that historians of the Soviet Union have told about the Soviet war on crime is that, initially, the government under Khrushchev attempted a more humane approach to crime and punishment, to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes, but retreated and became tougher on crime because both the people who were released, and society as a whole, proved unwilling to conform to the idea that criminals could be rehabilitated.
What I’m trying to show is that while that might have been true for part of the population, it wasn’t the whole story. Actually, there was a lot of scientific research on crime during that period, there was journalism, and there were writers who wrote about crime and producers who made very popular crime serials for television and film. They painted a picture of an all-knowing, all-seeing, but also fundamentally humane justice system that many people actually came to believe in. But that’s not how the system actually functioned.
If we look at the way that people consumed this media and the way they interacted with these cultural producers we get a much more nuanced story about the Soviet public and its ideas about crime. It wasn’t just that Khrushchev tried to be nicer to criminals, but the Soviet public wanted harsher punishments.
In reality, a lot of people had a much more nuanced idea about criminality and took the state’s promises to heart well into the Brezhnev era. As crime became a topic of national discussion, citizens did not develop a more active hatred of the people they saw as criminals, but instead started to see a correlation between the problem of crime and the problem of corruption.
How did they come to see this analogy?
People read the newspaper and crime books and watched television shows that showed agents of the state doing their jobs—a meticulous and scientific approach to crime that focused on collecting evidence and proving guilt beyond the shadow of a doubt.
But, early on, people accused of petty crimes or violent crimes started to see a disconnect—while official rhetoric, books, and films were showing a very fair and methodical approach to solving crimes, in reality innocent people were being accused and charged and wondering why it was happening to them. At the same time, it appeared that highly-placed or well-connected people could get away with much worse crimes without suffering any punishments.
Then in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Soviet citizens, “model” Soviet citizens who were workers, Party members, and veterans, started becoming frustrated in their attempts to expose corruption in factories and on collective farms. They realized that all the agencies intended to keep agents of the state from stealing from the state were actually cooperating with the highly-placed criminals and that this corruption went all the way up to the top. They felt powerless.
I know all of this thanks to an archival source in Russia, an official Soviet, Party-approved writer, who started writing about crime and criminal justice in 1959, right when Khrushchev was trying to understand the causes of crime. His name was Grigory Medynskii and he had won the Stalin Prize in 1949. In 1959 he published a novel about crime, which I don’t think he would have been able to do had the timing not coincided with Khrushchev’s efforts.
Medynskii became a sort of public symbol for the war on crime, and when people became frustrated with the system for not fulfilling its promises, and when writing to officials yielded no results—in fact some were actually punished for writing—they decided to write to Medynskii, and he did listen. They came to trust him.
The result is an archive of Medynskii’s correspondence with regular Soviet people. And what’s really valuable about this is that we don’t typically have voices like this in Soviet history. We generally hear from elites. But these are regular Soviet people without any real status or any real power.
From all these letters, Medynskii started to piece together the problems with corruption that weren’t getting addressed by the people who were supposed to be addressing them. And he underwent an interesting transformation. He went from being a Stalin Prize winner to writing samizdat in the 1970s. Though he never considered himself a dissident.
What findings most surprised you during your research?
While conducting my research I realized that though the Soviet war on crime started with Khrushchev, it became a grassroots effort in some ways—writers, producers, intellectuals, and regular citizens kept it going.
Ironically this is very different from the war on crime in United States history, which was much more of a top-down effort to make laws tougher and punishments harsher. In the Soviet Union, there was a broad-based effort to take a holistic approach to the war on crime, which led to a bottom-up critique of corruption in the state.