Yogi and the Commissar

From Karl Polanyi
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Sir, — Revelations in regard to Russia are again the fashion. The novel trail is the emphasis laid by the crusaders on the defence of Western standards of intellectual integrity. The crusaders level amazing charges and treat the sceptical as “Soviet addicts”. An example of the manner in which facts and inferences from facts are being fused in order to arrive at the desired conclusions, is to be found in Arthur Koestler's recent book which was most objectively reviewed by Leonard Woolf in your journal. Koestler reports about U.S.S.R. that “capital punishment has been extended to children down to the age of twelve” (The Yogi and the Commissar, p. 170). He adduces a decree of 1935, the text of which he quotes as conclusive proof that Russian has now dropped all pretence of progressive cultural principles, and is sinking, at least in respect to the treatment of juveniles, below the level of any uncivilised country.

What are the facts? Up to 1935 juvenile criminality was dealt with the U.S.S.R. not by the Courts, as in other countries, but, by the educational authorities. In that year the system was changed, since experience showed that the “criminal underworld” was deliberately making use of the children thus exempted. Two important rulings were made: (1) heavy penalties were introduced for adults, who induced juveniles to crime or to prostitution, even if they were not responsable for the juveniles, and had not themselves participated in the crime. The penalty in some cases equalied that for murder. (2) The Criminal Code was extended to juveniles in the case of theft or crimes committed by violence. In extension of the decree special courts for juveniles were established at the ordinary courts as in earlier countries. The juveniles who were formally sentenced to imprisonment were committed for re-education to Approved Schools similar to Borsal, if allowance is made for the admittedly more modern methods of the Russians in dealing, with offenders during detention and after. Hypothetically, the juridical position involved the possibility of applying the death penalty, since the {deerse}, taken by itself, could be so construed. So far only does Koestler's assertion bear reference to fact. Actually, the criminal code in Russia does not provide for capital punishment for common crime, even in case of murder – a circumstance of which Koestler fails to remind the reader. Of all the crimes for which juveniles may conceivably have to answer under the decree of 1935, robbery committed by organised armed gangs (banditism) is the only one to which capital punishment may be applicable.

Koestler infers that interest in the application of progressive principles of criminology had been dropped in Russia. As a matter of fact, the sociological relevance of the decree of 1935 lay in the circumstances that it formed part a set of measures based on advanced principles. These took note of the existence of a “criminal underworld” against which both the juvenile and society had to be protected. As long as the juvenile was practically free to return from the educational home to his underworld haunts and the adult members of the criminal world were to use him as an agent of crime (since he was expressly exempted from punishment under the law) it was in many cases hopeless to try to prevent the juvenile from everything to crime. The principle of mercly individual treatment of the juvenile had broken down and had to be abandoned in favour of his protection against a criminal environment while maintaining the aim of his re-education. Clearly, the rationale of the 1935 decree was to reinforce the risk for an adult who invited the juvenile to commit a crime. So far to my knowledge no serious allegation has never been made that juveniles have been shot under this decree, which was passed ten years ago. On the other hand, I note in the semi-official {Ceoch} review Central European Observer of June 29th, an editorial article on “Russia and her German prisoners”. I quote an incidental statement from this apparently authoritative article:

The criminals are to be dealt with on a strictly legal basis and their guilt established. There is, however, an important exception to this rule: the very young. Many who delighted in shocking cruelties are only 14-16 years old, since nearly all the boys between 14 and 16 were recruited for the Waffen S.S. Under Russian law no young person can be faced with a capital charge (my italics) The Soviet authorities have asked a number of pedagogues to make proposals as to morally neglected youngsters.”


Text Informations

Original Publication: “Yogi and Commissar”, Letter to The New Statesman and Nation, 21 July 1945, p. 41-42
KPA: 18/27 (copie de l’original)