Criminal Code of the RSFSR

(Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic)

Copyright 1997, 2000 by Hugo S. Cunningham
first added 971007
changed 001229
trivial change 20021026

(Russian: "Ugolovnyj Kodeks RSFSR")

1934 version (on the eve of Stalin's Great Purge), largely unchanged from 1926

This code was the "legal" basis for much of the political repression under Stalin. As far as I know, there was no "Criminal code of the USSR." Some purge victims may have been prosecuted under analogous criminal codes for the other 14 union republics of the USSR, but I didn't see any such codes in my library.

The 1934 version of the Criminal Code was divided into a "General Part" of Articles 1 through 57 and a "Specific Part" of Articles 58 through 205. The "Specific Part" names specific crimes and penalties for violations. The copy I found was a paperback of 176 pages, small enough to fit into an NKVD interrogator's pocket.

Index (table of contents) to Criminal Code (in Russian or English).
Provides links to some of the text, in both English and Russian, including Article 58 (discussed below).

Historically the most interesting part is Article 58, "Counterrevolutionary Crimes," often referred to by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his "Gulag Archipelago" series and his novel "The First Circle." (In "First Circle," note in particular the chapter "Traitor Prince," where some prisoners stage a lampoon of a Stalinist prosecution.) I reproduce Article 58 in English and Russian.

In "Gulag Archipelago, Part I" (Harper & Row, p. 60), Solzhenitsyn wrote an ironic ode to Article 58: One can find more epithets in praise of this article than Turgenev once assembled to praise the Russian language, or Nekrasov to praise Mother Russia: great, powerful, abundant, highly ramified, multiform, wide-sweeping 58, which summed up the world not so much through the exact terms of its sections as in their extended dialectical interpretation.

Who among us had not experienced its all-encompassing embrace? In all truth there is no step, thought, action, or lack of action under the heavens which could not be punished by the heavy hand of Article 58.

In Stalin's time, the Criminal Code did not limit the discretion of prosecutors. For example, if police decided that the prescribed six-month sentence (Article 58-10) was inadequate for a suspect possessing anti-Soviet literature in peacetime, they could always beat and torture him till he "confessed" to a more serious offense.

A few articles of particular interest in Article 58 are:

Solzhenitsyn (GULag I, p. 284 [English], pp. 277-278 [Russian]), lists some other "lettered articles" which did not necessarily correspond to specific paragraphs of Article 58:
Apart from Article 58, some other items have interest:

Article 16 sets up the principle of "analogy": if prosecutors considered an act "socially dangerous," but it was not specifically outlawed in the criminal code, they could prosecute the defendant under "those articles of the code which cover crimes most similar in type." Western legal scholars pointed out the sharp contrast to Western standards ("There is no crime without a law"). Even so, Article 16 was a minor issue compared to Stalin's routine use of torture, and lack of concern for objective truth.

Article 19 ("intention") specifies that an attempted offense, or preparations for an offense, should be punished just as severely as a completed offense.

There really is an item 20a (the punchline of Solzhenitsyn's "Traitor Prince" lampoon), prescribing as one possible punishment: proclamation as an enemy of the workers, with deprivation of citizenship of one's union republic, and likewise of citizenship of the USSR, and enforced expulsion from its territory. (Dating from the less bloody 1920s, this item had long been forgotten by the late 1930s. Stalin had no intention of repeating his troubles with the exiled Trotsky.) Solzhenitsyn's fictional prisoners dreamed of being "punished" by expulsion to the West.

This Criminal Code of the RSFSR was thrown out in 1958, under Khrushchov, and replaced with a law code somewhat closer to Western norms. Nevertheless, the Soviet government, working through pliable judges, retained the power to bend the rules when they wanted to.

Separate note:
Solzhenitsyn also made some references to the Criminal Procedure Code of the RSFSR, a separate document setting out procedures for conducting investigations, trials, and appeals. Its most distinctive part prescribes the summary disposal of accused "terrorists," "wreckers," and "saboteurs."

Table of Contents for 1934 edition of Criminal Code, with links to sections of text.

Table of contents for 1950 edition of Criminal Code. There is no important change to the names and numbers of sections, but this also lists many decrees issued 1934-1950 that were not integrated into numbered articles. It includes a link to a 1940 decree ("On the Transfer to the Eight-Hour Work Day ...") requiring criminal penalties for quitting or being 20 minutes late to work.

Index of legal codes described at this site.

Speech by I.V. Stalin on the need for "Liquidating Trotskyites"

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