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Brezhnev's War on Crime: The Criminal in Soviet Society, 1963-1984


One of the most important questions concerning Soviet history is: how did the period widely known as the era of “stagnation” lead to the very opposite of stagnation, indeed to the most sudden and cataclysmic changes in the region since the Russian Revolution? Was the Brezhnev era (1964-1982) simply the calm before the storm, or was it in fact the culmination of a tempest that had been brewing for decades? I argue that it was during “stagnation,” when many citizens learned to articulate their frustrations with Soviet society and formulate demands and solutions. Those solutions drew heavily from images, ideas and promises made by agents of the Soviet state. By taking a closer look at the Brezhnev era, we can see that it was in fact the legitimacy of the state's claims, and the seriousness with which people took them in this period, that actually helped to precipitate its downfall.

Nothing brings this to light better than a focus on crime. I analyze debates in Soviet society about crime and punishment as these problems became increasingly central to public life in the final decades of the Soviet Union's existence. I study the Soviet Union's first post-Stalin criminological research institute from its formation in 1963 through the height of its influence in the early 1970s, along with journalistic writing on crime and justice, films, and television programs from the thriving genre of crime fiction. I also access popular views on criminality through private and public letters and other writings.

These sources show that in the Brezhnev era, an increase in scientific research on the causes of crime, coupled with a new focus on a Soviet “war on crime” in the media, opened up new possibilities for mass discussions of important political and ideological issues in multiple venues. Additionally, they show that alliances were formed between elite scholars and journalists on one hand, and ordinary citizens on the other, forcing many intellectuals to reformulate their ideas about the nature of criminality and the meaning of justice in the Soviet state. In these discussions, ordinary Soviet citizens made it clear that they had heard a good deal about the concept of justice, but witnessed only its opposite. For many, this contradiction did not discredit the ideals of Soviet justice as much as it made them all the more desirable, and the disillusionment with Soviet reality more acute.

It turned out that the earlier campaigns to educate the public about crime and morality had a powerful effect on popular legal consciousness in the Soviet Union: they stoked a deep desire in people for promises of justice they never saw realized, and gave them the language to condemn the state and justice system on its own terms.

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