What this man could teach us about crime

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In Britain and America today, there is growing consensus, across the political spectrum, on the need for a tougher approach to law and order. This is understandable given the widespread public concern about crime. As we move into a world of longer prison sentences, "zero tolerance", tagging and curfews, we hear a good deal about the lessons of the past, here and in the United States. But there is another set of lessons which hardly ever gets mentioned. The crime policies of the old Soviet Union, and particularly the Brezhnev regime, are increasingly relevant to our present debate, because they bear some disturbing similarities to methods now being advocated here.

For anyone concerned with crime, the Soviet record provides an almost unique case study. Rarely can such a punitive system have produced such disastrous results. It is true, of course, that the pattern of crime in the USSR differed greatly from that of Britain and America. When the communists were in power, for example, the streets of Moscow at night were safer than some of the streets in London and New York. On the other hand, there was dreadful corruption in high places which had its effects throughout the system. All in all, however, the balance was certainly on the negative side and by the mid-1980s it was clear that the Soviet Union was a very sick society.

Yet whatever the reason may have been, it was certainly not due to a soft penal policy. The Soviet police had immense powers and resources and were never hampered by independent judges. Acquittals in criminal trials were rare. The death penalty was relentlessly applied. Between 1962 and 1990 there were some 21,000 executions, almost all of them for murder. In spite of this, however, there were 18,700 actual or attempted murders in the Soviet Union in 1985 alone - a level only marginally below that in the US (as a percentage of population) and some five or six times the rate for England and Wales.

Penal policy was certainly guided by the principle that "prison works". In the late 1970s the notorious Gulag - the vast network of prison camps - held an estimated 1.6 million inmates. The Gulag fully deserved its reputation, but in the Brezhnev era it did not mainly consist of political prisoners. The bulk of the Soviet prison population at that time were ordinary offenders, most of whom really had in some way broken the law.

Harsh treatment of offenders went hand in hand with a harsh official rhetoric - and with repeated calls for tighter controls over delinquents. A policy of "zero tolerance" towards crime was urged as far back as 1969 by a Soviet deputy minister who demanded that "every hooligan and rowdy should be personally known and given no peace". Curfews on juveniles, another idea now being debated here, were apparently being imposed in Moscow as far back as 1966, although the policy seems not to have been widely taken up.

The Soviet authorities incessantly talked about crime prevention - and also sermonised about the need for ordinary citizens to respect the law. Among their favoured methods of law-enforcement were the encouragement of anonymous informers and the public humiliation of offenders. Latterly, they talked a good deal about the supposed interdependence between individual rights and responsibilities. It hardly needs be pointed out that all these ideas, too, have recently become fashionable in Britain.

The use of anonymous informers (now officially encouraged in Britain with the "Beat-a-Cheat" hotline to expose social security frauds) was at one time regarded as one of the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime; and they were used in the Soviet Union not only against dissidents. In the early 1980s, the authorities in a number of Soviet cities even invited members of the public to send unsigned postcards to the police denouncing neighbours for living dishonestly. This system proved to have no visible effect in stemming corruption; although it did offer endless scope for the settling of personal scores. It is to the credit of Mikhail Gorbachev that he put an end to this distasteful business. It was eventually laid down, under a decree of 2 February 1988, that anonymous complaints would no longer be officially examined.

The public humiliation of offenders (a favourite method in Nazi Germany as well as communist China) was also canvassed by the Soviet authorities, although with mixed results. Officially inspired campaigns against parasites, hooligans, drunkards and "violators of labour discipline" were constantly featured in the Soviet press. The authorities, in the late 1950s, set up a vast network of informal "Comrades' Courts" in factories and residential areas for the purpose of "shaming" the offenders. But despite official encouragement, these courts ran into difficulties. At one extreme, they created a danger of victimisation; at the other, the attempted humiliation sometimes backfired. In December 1979, an article in Pravda described how sometimes an absentee from work would be severely censured by his colleagues who would later offer him their sympathy, saying that they were only acting on instructions from above. Such cases, the paper pointed out, produced "the most negative consequences". They certainly made a nonsense of the idea of peer pressure. By the end of the Brezhnev era, the Comrades' Courts seem to have become moribund.

Another idea, much discussed in Britain and America today, centres on the supposed importance of making rights dependent on fulfilment of responsibilities. The idea is not as original as it looks. It was incorporated into Article 59 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution, which laid down that "Citizens' exercise of their rights and freedoms is inseparable from the performance of their duties and obligations." At first sight that seemed eminently reasonable, but there was a nasty snag - as Soviet dissidents were quick to point out. Article 59 imposed a duty to "comply with the standards of socialist conduct". Therefore, anyone deemed to have defaulted in this "duty" ran the risk of losing all the impressive rights (to free speech, education, housing and much else) which the constitution guaranteed. It has to be remembered that the Brezhnev regime was, at that time, under relentless pressure from the West over human rights violations. It is possible that the Soviet leadership invented the "rights and duties" concept as part of an attempt to resist this pressure.

It is true, of course, that the level of crime under Brezhnev and Stalin was much lower than it is in Russia today under Yeltsin - which partly explains why some Russians feel nostalgic about communism. But people are, on the whole, less likely to commit crimes when they are motivated by hope - because they have more to lose by breaking the law. In its earlier years, the Soviet system did give rise to widespread hope among its citizens - an important factor in creating respect for authority. But when optimism eventually gave way to cynicism, the police state gradually lost its power to cope.

None of this is intended as an argument against toughness towards crime. But the Brezhnev record underlines the danger of trying to tackle crime without addressing its social causes. Brezhnev and his colleagues had, of course, got themselves into a difficult situation. They had failed to kick-start the Soviet economy; they faced intractable social problems and they were unable to rely on any "feel-good" factor among their own people. Hence the temptation to search for quick solutions to crime - through moral sermonising and inexpensive remedies. The failure of these methods was hardly surprising. The real surprise - five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union - is to see the ideas of the Brezhnev era resurfacing in the Western world.

The writer is a specialist in Russian affairs and former member of BBC World Service

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