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Killing the Soviet Man: The Death Penalty in the Soviet Union, 1954-1991


This dissertation examines the history of popular engagement with the Soviet criminal justice system from the Khrushchev era to the present. Specifically, it is the first history of the Soviet death penalty, one that traces the effect it had on ordinary people and how it shaped their perceptions of the Soviet state, the law, and socialist ideology from the “Thaw” to the country’s collapse in 1991.

In the decades following Stalin’s death, courtrooms across the Soviet Union became sites of a new and intense form of civic engagement. In 1954, the country’s leadership reinstated the death penalty for non-political crimes, overturning a Stalin-era decree that abolished the death penalty in times of peace. Over the next thirty-seven years, courts across the Soviet Union sentenced a combined 33,329 people to death. This phenomenon transformed the lives not just of the executed, but their mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children, co-workers, friends, and members of their communities. Many of these people possessed little to no knowledge of Soviet laws or the legal system that administered them. This all changed once they found themselves occupying a position where each word they uttered and each action they took meant the difference between life and death for the accused. Rather than stand idle while the Soviet state decided who should live and die, these people intervened in the judicial process to express grievances, convey demands, and articulate their own visions of justice and legality. Interventions like these had a profound impact both for the accused and those who defended or denied their right to live. By exposing them to the inner workings of the most sensitive branch of the Russian legal and judicial system, the death penalty process offered ordinary people an education in Soviet morality, law, and governance, empowering them to acquire novels forms of legal and procedural knowledge that, I argue, engendered their transformation from Soviet subjects to Soviet citizens.

This dissertation argues that the post-Stalin Soviet criminal justice system created a distinctive space for knowledge acquisition, legal debate, and popular engagement with the Soviet state from 1954 to 1991. Following legal professionals and ordinary citizens as they adjudicated individual capital cases, I examine how the legal, moral, and procedural norms that undergirded the Soviet death penalty helped usher in the development of a legal consciousness qualitatively distinct from “socialist legality,” the post-Stalinist legal philosophy upheld by the country’s legal and political elites. I analyze how people took advantage of innovations like the open courtroom, psychiatric screenings, and appellate review to advocate on behalf of their own interests and those of their kith, kin, and local communities.

I build my social analysis on a diverse set of archival primary sources, namely, a classified collection of 109 death penalty case files that span the 1945-1991 period, housed in the Central Archive of the Moscow Region. Untouched since they were originally compiled, these case files contain court transcripts, forensic evaluations, crime scene photographs, psychiatric reports, written verdicts, appeal letters, and citizen complaints. Together they describe how ordinary people and state officials navigated through the death penalty process. Through a close social historical reading of these sources, I uncover the ways in which ordinary citizens used the legal innovations made available to them through the capital litigation process to lay claims to citizenship in new and profound ways. My dissertation uncovers the late socialist period as a transformative moment of identity formation in the post-Stalin and late socialist period. In the fields of Soviet and Russian history, it demonstrates the central place of Soviet law in the production of late-Soviet identity.

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