THE FORCE OF DISCIPLINE: The Procuracy in Stalinist Russia, 1938-1956

Факультет истории
Dr. Immo Rebitschek; University of Jena

The history of the procuracy illustrates that Stalinist justice was more than orchestrating show trials. Ordinary state prosecutors very rarely dealt with political enemies. Their main task was to investigate and prosecute millions of non-political offenses, such as theft, murder, or rape. At the same time, they bore responsibility to enforce legal norms within the state apparatus. All branches of government, including police work, were subject to prosecutors’ supervision. The procuracy not only was a crucial instrument for controlling the Soviet populace. It was the essential tool for the Stalinist state, to check on its institutions and its own actions. But how and why would a dictatorship check on itself? How did law enforcement work in a police state?

By answering these questions, Dr. Rebitschek’s book demonstrates how the procuracy shaped Soviet state and society more than any other agency. By focusing on the regional prosecutors’ office in Molotov it examines how their officials were more than simple tools for repression. They prosecuted millions of citizens for minor offenses, but they did so on a basis of procedural rules. They gradually developed a strong corps d’spirit and a professional drive to distinguish themselves against corrupt and less educated police officials. Day by day, thousands of local and regional prosecutors were prosecuting and fighting violations of procedural, criminal or constitutional law. Either in court or through back-channels of the Communist Party these officials managed to enforce legal norms or at least continuously fought for it. They wanted to hold both Soviet citizens and state institutions accountable, whenever rules were violated and when the Party did not intervene.

The history of the procuracy reveals how even a Stalinist dictatorship learnt to keep arbitrariness in check; how there were limits even to the power of secret police officials, and how enforcing not law but “discipline” enabled this dictatorship to evolve as a state – without challenging the authority of the Communist Party. Inspired by Foucault’s understanding of discipline, Dr. Rebitschek’s book demonstrates how the Soviet procuracy strove and ultimately succeeded to enforce predictability of individual and state practices, thus making Stalinist rule more precise and gradually more calculable, even before Stalin had died.

This evolution was visible in all areas where the procuracy was involved and where it managed to enforce legal norms: criminal prosecution, supervision of underage delinquents, supervision of police work, and even in prisons and the notorious labor camp system, the Gulag. Prosecutors engaged in confrontation with other (mostly police) institutions over the correct application of rules. They rejected criminal cases when the evidence presented by the police was not sufficient. Abusive police interrogators were reprimanded and even labor camp chiefs were attacked for arbitrary behavior and abuse of power. Although the police had wide-ranging privileges, using them to shield their officials from prosecution, and even though the procuracy was struggling with uneducated and corrupt officials in their own ranks, the balance of power eventually shifted in their favor. From 1938 onwards the procuracy mobilized and also received plenty of resources to combat corruption, arbitrary acts of violence and sloppy police work. This professional zeal not only led to individual victories against the police but it laid the groundwork for Stalin’s successors who were seeking for ways and means to transform the whole dictatorship, and found it in the procuracy.

Stalinist prosecutors were not supposed to bring principles of Rechtsstaat to life. They were the institutional embodiment of legal, precise, and predictable repression. Their work represented an integral aspect of Stalinist rule that only became stronger in the 1940s and that provided the basis for the reforms after 1953. Stalin’s heirs striped the police of some of their privileges and encouraged prosecutors to “discipline” the apparatus of state repression as a whole – by prosecuting corrupt police men, punishing abusive camp guards and enforcing higher standards in the system of criminal justice. The new Party leadership chose the procuracy to guide and implement the reforms that turned the Stalinist police-state into a post-Stalinist dictatorship, which enforced its will in a precise and predictable manner.

The paper is based on Dr. Rebitschek’s book, Die disziplinierte Diktatur: Stalinismus und Justiz in der sowjetischen Provinz, 1938 bis 1956, published by Böhlau in 2018.

*This paper will be presented in English.