October 10, 2008

Capital Punishment and Soviet Russia

The approach to the "death penalty " should not be taken based on a "quote" of Lenin and-or Stalin  without considering;  the conditions of that specific time and period, who is applying to whom, to what crimes, and definitely without the class character of the event (s), and like all the "particular" theories and assessments, should never be sloganized. That is contradictory to the soul of Marxism Leninism.

Looking at the history of Russian revolution, what we see is that the approach to the question differed at each time based on fundamental reasons. During the five years following the February revolution of 1917, the legislation on the death penalty in Russia was constantly changing. It was repeatedly abolished and then reinstated by both the Provisional and Bolshevik governments.

January 1913, Lenin talks about the protests where the attitude was totally against the death penalty;
On November 11 (24), 1912, the Riga workers organised a protest demonstration against the death sentences on a group of sailors of the battleship Ioann Zlatoust passed by a court martial in Sevastopol, against the torturing of political prisoners, and against the war that had begun in the Balkans. Over 1,500 workers marched through the streets of Riga singing revolutionary songs and carrying red flags. They were received sympathetically by the population. On November 12 (25) many large factories in the city began a political strike. On November 8 (21) the workers in a number of Moscow factories went on strike in protest against the Sevastopol executions. 
Of historic importance in the process of growth of the new revolution in Russia are two factors: firstly, the April and May strikes during which the St. Petersburg workers—in spite of the arrest of their leading organisation, the St. Petersburg Committee—put forward the slogan of a republic, an eight-hour working day, and confiscation of the landed estates. Secondly, the November strikes and demonstrations (see letters from Riga and Moscow the same thing happened in St. Petersburg, hut the arrests swept away our correspondents). The slogans of those demonstrations were not only “Down with the death penalty! Down with war!”, but also “Long live the revolutionary working class and the revolutionary army!” (1)  
As we see the death penalty was being used against the revolutionaries. Death penalty remained till Just a month after the February revolution of 1917, the Provisional government abolished capital punishment for all criminal offences. The new Provisional government declared that the death penalty was a reactionary measure previously used by Tsar government and therefore should be abolished in the light of a new policy of revolutionary Russia.


However, after the failure in the military front, and with witch-hunting policy towards Bolşeviks, on July 12th of 1917, the death penalty was restored for all soldiers on the front, military crimes, murder, rape, and offences against the state committed during war time . " The result is a riot of counter-revolution and a military dictatorship" said Stalin, " The wrecking of the offices of Pravda and Soldatskaya Pravda,  of the Trud printing plant  and of our district organizations, the assaults and murders, the arrests without trial and the "unauthorized" reprisals, the vile calumniation of the leaders of our Party by contemptible police spies and the vituperation of the pen pirates of the venal press, the disarming of the revolutionary workers and the disbanding of regiments, the restoration of the death penalty—there you have the "work" of the military dictatorship." (2) 

 Stalin made several speeches in reference to issuance of death penalty;
""The following is a model platform that might serve as a basis of agreement with such non-party organizations of peasants and soldiers :
We are opposed to the reintroduction of the death penalty."" (3) 
The counter-revolutionary generals have won, for the Moscow Conference approved the death penalty. (4) 
""At the last meeting of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies the Socialist-Revolutionaries voted for the abolition of the death penalty and joined in protesting against the arrest of Bolsheviks.
That, of course, is very good and very commendable. 
But we take the liberty in this connection of asking one modest question: 
Who introduced the death penalty at the front, and who arrested the Bolsheviks?Well, wasn't it all these right honourable "Socialist-Revolutionaries" who introduced the death penalty at the front and arrested the Bolsheviks?"" (5)
profound discontent is brewing among the worker and peasant masses, who are doomed to land hunger and unemployment and are subjected to repressive measures and the death penalty. (6) 
""As a means of improving the fighting efficiency of the army, "I pointed," says Kornilov, "to the necessity of immediately restoring the death penalty in the theatre of military operations." 
so, the death penalty at the front, the death penalty in the rear, militarization of the factories and railways, conversion of the country into a "military" camp, and, as the coping stone, a military dictatorship presided over by Kornilov—such, it transpires, were the aims of this gang of conspirators. 
The death penalty in the rear and at the front, militarization of the factories and railways, firing squads—these are the weapons that form the arsenal of such a dictatorship. "Democratic" deception reinforced by coercion; coercion concealed by "democratic" deception—such is the alpha and omega of the dictatorship of the imperialist bourgeoisie."" (7)
Similiarly Lenin states on September 6, before the revoution;
""Let us see, in fact, what the workers and peasants were striving for when they made the revolution. What did they expect of the revolution? As we know, they expected liberty, peace, bread and land. 
But what do we see now?
Instead of liberty, the old tyranny is coming back. The death penalty is being introduced for the soldiers at the front. Peasants are prosecuted for the unauthorised seizure of landed estates. Printing presses of workers’ newspapers are wrecked. Workers’ newspapers are closed down without trial. Bolsheviks are arrested, often without any charge or upon blatantly trumped-up charges."" 
The Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, being slaves of the bourgeoisie, shackled by their master, agreed to everything: dispatching reactionary troops to Petrograd, bringing back the death penalty, disarming the workers and revolutionary troops, arresting and hounding, and closing down newspapers without trial. The power which the bourgeoisie in the government were unable to take entirely, and which the Soviets did not want to take, fell into the hands of the military clique, the Bonapartists, who, of course, were wholly backed by the Cadets and the Black Hundreds, by the landowners and capitalists."" (8)
After the Bolshevik’s revolution, the death penalty was  abolished in October of 1917, as a bourgeois measure to suppress the working class . However, Lenin emphasized that it is only right to argue against the penalty when it is applied by the exploiters;
"The revolutionary democrats, were they real revolutionaries and democrats, would immediately pass a law abolishing commercial secrecy, compelling contractors and merchants to render accounts public, forbidding them to abandon their field of activity without the permission of the authorities, imposing the penalty of confiscation of property and shooting for concealment and for deceiving the people, organising verification and control from below, democratically, by the people themselves, by unions of workers and other employees, consumers, etc. 
I have already had occasion to point out in the Bolshevik press that it is right to argue against the death penalty only when it is applied by the exploiters against the mass of the working people with the purpose of maintaining exploitation. It is hardly likely that any revolutionary government whatever could do without applying the death penalty to the exploiters (i.e., the landowners and capitalists). "(9)
On February 21 of 1918, death penalty  was reinstated by the Decree-declaration titled “Socialist Motherland is in Danger!” The Decree was adopted in response to the requirements of civil war and foreign intervention during 1917-1919. The Decree authorized the extrajudicial “Emergency Commissions” to sentence the offenders who committed counter-revolutionary crimes, such as sabotage and treason.

As Lenin explained on April 1918;
""We are now passing through the hardest months of the revolution, said Lenin. There is famine, which we must exert all our strength to combat, while the Right S.R.s and Mensheviks look on with malicious joy. Their tactics are the tactics of Dutov and Kornilov, the tactics of the officer cadets who organised an uprising in Moscow against the Soviet government. In this respect the Mensheviks, who are striving to overthrow the Soviet government, are on their side, are on the side of the bourgeoisie, and are thereby betraying us. When we apply the death penalty by shooting, they turn into Toistoyans and shed crocodile tears, shouting about our cruelty. They have forgotten how, along with Kerensky, they drove the workers into the slaughter, while the secret treaties were hidden in their pockets. They have forgotten this and have turned into meek Christians, fretting about mercy."" (10)
 A new Decree adopted on June 16 of 1918 also instructed the Revolutionary People’s Courts to use the death penalty as the only punishment for counter-revolutionary offences
""Those who say that the Bolsheviks violate freedom and who propose the formation of a united socialist front, that is, an alliance with those who vacillated, and twice in the history of the Russian revolution went over to the side of the bourgeoisie—these people are very fond of accusing us of resorting to terror. They say that the Bolsheviks have introduced a system of terror in administration, and if Russia is to be saved, the Bolsheviks must renounce it. This reminds me of a witty French bourgeois who, in his bourgeois manner, said with reference to the abolition of the death penalty, "Let the murderers be the first to abolish the death penalty." I recall this when people say, "Let the Bolsheviks renounce the terror." Let the Russian capitalists and their allies, America, France and Britain, that is, those who first imposed terror on Soviet Russia, let them renounce it! ""  (11)
 İn September of 1918, the Decree called “About Red Terror” directed that “all persons having links with White Guard organizations, or involved in conspiracies and revolts” will be subjected to death penalty.

On January 17, 1920, the death penalty was abolished again since “the enemies of the Red Revolution were defeated in most territories of Soviet Russia”
"""In regard to our internal policy for the two months under review, among the main measures which more or less stand out from a number of current tasks, the following decision requiring the endorsement of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee is of particular importance. This is the decision to abolish the death penalty. As you know, immediately after the main victory over Denikin, after the capture of Rostov, Comrade Dzerzhinsky, the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, who is in charge of the Cheka, submitted a proposal to the Council of People’s Commissars, and had it endorsed in his own department, that the passing of all death sentences by the Cheka be abolished. When bourgeois democracy in Europe does all in its power to spread the lie that Soviet Russia is predominantly terrorist, when this lie is spread about us by bourgeois democracy and by the socialists of the Second International, when Kautsky writes a special book entitled Terrorism and Communism in which he declares that communist power is based on terrorism, then you can well imagine the kind of lies spread on this subject. In order to refute this lie we have decided on the step taken by Comrade Dzerzhuiisky, endorsed by the Council of People’s Commissars, and which now needs the approval of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee. 
We were forced to use terror in response to the terror employed by the Entente, when the mighty powers of the world flung their hordes against us, stopping at nothing. We could not have lasted two days had we not replied to these attempts of officers and whiteguards in a merciless fashion. This meant the use of terror, but this was forced on us by the terrorist methods of the Entente. But as soon as we had gained, a decisive victory, even before the end of the war, immediately after the capture of Rostov, we renounced capital punishment, and have therefore proved that we intend to carry out our own programme as we had promised. We say that the use of violence arises from the need to crush the exploiters, the landowners and capitalists. When this is accomplished we shall renounce all extraordinary measures. We have proved this in practice. And I think, I hope, and I am confident that the All-Russia Central Executive Committee will unanimously endorse this measure of the Council of People’s Commissars and will implement it in such a way that it will be impossible to apply the death penalty in Russia. """   (12)
As Lenin mentioned on February 2 speech in reference to the capture of Rostov, he reminded that "we do not by any means close our eyes to the possibility of restoring capital punishment. "

""the first acute moment of our struggle with the counter-revolution, with the whiteguard armed force, both overt and covert-this first acute period is apparently passing. It is more than likely, however, that attempts at one or another counter-revolutionary movement and revolt will be repeated, and, besides, the experience of the Russian revolutionary movement shows that attempts of a purely terrorist nature are often accompanied by a mass armed struggle, and therefore it is natural to expect that the counter-revolutionary armed officer force-an element probably most accustomed to handling and using arms-will not miss a chance to make use of these arms for their own ends.
So though the death sentence, after the capture of Rostov, has been abolished on Comrade Dzerzhinsky’s initiative, a reservation was made at the very beginning that we do not by any means close our eyes to the possibility of restoring capital punishment. With us this is a matter of expediency. It goes without saying that the Soviet government will not keep the death penalty longer than is absolutely necessary, and by doing away with it, has taken a step that no democratic government of any bourgeois republic has ever taken."" (13)

Restoring of capital punishment in particular case, emerged when the report of the arrest of Baron Ungern received.

In reference to Baron Ungern Trial, Lenin stated;
"I advise that greater attention be given to this case and the gravity of the charges be checked, and in the event of their being incontrovertibly proved, of which there seems to be no doubt, a public trial should be held with the greatest speed and the death penalty imposed."" (14)
The trial of Baron Umigern took place on September 15. During the hearing a long list of atrocities committed by Ungern and his underlings was revealed. On capturing Urgu (now Ulan-Bator) he ordered all the employees of Centrosoyuz and the Town Council to be shot. On his orders the peaceful inhabitants were robbed and killed and the town was burnt down. The trial brought to light Baron Ungerr.’s ties with the Chinese militarists (Chang Tso-lin) and Japanese interventionists. Baron Ungern was sentenced to death.


İn his May 15, 1922,letter to Kursky Lenin suggested the following addendum; 
""Preamble to the Criminal Code of the R.S.F.S.R.
x ... 5. Pending the establishment of conditions guaranteeing Soviet power against counter-revolutionary encroachments upon it, the revolutionary tribunals shall be given the right to apply capital punishment for crimes under Articles 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63+64 of the Criminal Code).
X) Add also Articles 64 and 65 and 66 and 67 and 68 and 69.
X X) Add the right, by decision of the Presidium of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, to commute the death sentence to deportation (for a term or for life).
X X X) Add: death penalty for illicit return from abroad.
 Comrade Kursky,
I think the application of the death sentence should be extended (commutable to deportation). See 1st line down—to all forms of activity by the Mensheviks, S.R.s and so on;  to be formulated so as to identify these acts with those of the international bourgeoisie and their struggle against us (bribing the press and agents, working for war and so on).
Please return urgently with your comments." (15)
So the  the Criminal Code  of 1922 was mostly rehabilitative only allowed the death penalty offences against the workers state which the judges had full discretion to replace the death sentence.

The new Code adopted in 1926 retained capital punishment for all political crimes.

Amendments to the CC of RSFSR of 1929,  added the State officials defecting or taking bribes to be treated equally with the perpetrators of crimes against the state and sentenced to death.

In Reply to an Inquiry of the Jewish News Agency in the United States Stalin stated; 
""National and racial chauvinism is a vestige of the misanthropic customs characteristic of the period of cannibalism. Anti-semitism, as an extreme form of racial chauvinism, is the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism.

Anti-semitism is of advantage to the exploiters as a lightning conductor that deflects the blows aimed by the working people at capitalism. Anti-semitism is dangerous for the working people as being a false path that leads them off the right road and lands them in the jungle. Hence Communists, as consistent internationalists, cannot but be irreconcilable, sworn enemies of anti-semitism. 
In the U.S.S.R. anti-semitism is punishable with the utmost severity of the law as a phenomenon deeply hostile to the Soviet system. Under U.S.S.R. law active anti-semites are liable to the death penalty.""(16)
 In 1934, “betrayal of the Motherland" added to the capital offence crimes.

A new attempt to abolish the death penalty introduced by Stalin, in respect to crimes committed during peacetime was undertaken in 1947. The death penalty was substituted by 25 years in prison.

The Criminal Code adapted by  Kruschev revisionists in 1960 extended the death penalty by adding new crimes to the list of capital offences which included all state crimes, a murder, felonies  during war time,  property crimes, counterfeiting, unauthorized dealing of foreign currency, and aggravated robbery by an organized group 

In conclusion, as the Soviet history has shown, Marksist Leninists do not treat the "death penalty" with a prescription but based on the questions; "who against whom", "capitalist system or socialist system, war or peace time etc.

Erdogan A
February 9, 2008


(1)  Lenin, The Development of Revolutionary Strikes and Street Demonstrations, Sotsial-Demokrat No. 30, January 12 (25), 1913. CW Volume 18

(2) J. V. Stalin, Close the Ranks ! July 15, 1917  Works, Vol. 3

(3) J. V. Stalin , The Constituent Assembly elections, July 27, 1917

(4) J. V. Stalin ,Outcome of the Moscow Conference, August 17, 1917 Works, Vol. 3

 (5) J. V. Stalin Division of Labour in the "Socialist-Revolutionary" Party August 23 1917 Works, Vol. 3,

(6) J. V. Stalin Either — Or August 25, 1917 Works, Vol. 3

(7) J. V. Stalin The Plot Against the Revolution October 4, 5 and 7, 1917

(8) Lenin, Lessons of the Revolution September 6 (19), 1917 , Rabochy Nos. 8 and 9. CW Volume 25, 

(9) Lenin Abolition of Commercial Secrecy Collected Works, Volume 25, October 1917

(10)  Lenin, Newspaper Report April 7, 1918 Izvestia Saralovshovo Soveta No- 71, April 13,CW Volume 27

(11) Lenin, Speech At The First All-Russia Congress Of Workers In Education and Socialist Culture July 31, 1919 Pravda No. 170, August 5. 1919, Collected Works, Volume 29

(12) Lenin, Report On The Work Of The All-Russia Central Executive Committee And The Council Of People’s Commissars Delivered At The First Session Of The All-Russia Central Executive Committee, Seventh Convocation, February 2, 1920, Collected Works,Volume 30,

(13) Lenin Speech at the Fourth Conference of Gubernia Extraordinary Commissions, February 6, 1920 Lenin Collected Works, , Volume 42,

(14) Lenin,Motion to the Politbureau of the C.C., R.C.P.(B.) on Bringing Ungern to Trial August 26, 1921 Lenin Collected Works, Moscow, Volume 42,

(15) Lenin Addendum to the Draft Preamble to The Criminal Code of the R.S.F.S.R. and a Letter to D. I. Kursky May 15, 1922 Collected Works, Volume 42,

(16) J. Stalin January 12, 1931 Works, Vol. 13