by Paul Hagenloh. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 460pp. Cloth. $45.00. ISBN: 9780801891823.

Reviewed by Matthew Light, Centre of Criminology, The University of Toronto. Email: matthew.light [at]


Over a period of roughly two years in 1937 and 1938, leading figures in the Soviet Communist Party, military, and intelligentsia were accused of a variety of attempts (often spectacularly improbable) to overthrow the government of the USSR. Following a series of sham trials that were staged before the public in Moscow, all were convicted, and in most cases executed. These “Moscow show trials” have fascinated scholars of Soviet politics for years. They form part of a larger series of events often referred to interchangeably but imprecisely as “the purges” or “the great terror.” Yet, although western audiences are broadly familiar with the stories of prominent defendants in the “show trials” such as Kamenev and Bukharin, the fate of thousands of other victims has received far less scholarly and public attention. Indeed, only in the post-Soviet period has newly accessible archival evidence made it possible to gauge the scale of the late 1930s bloodletting. It is now estimated that by late 1938, the Soviet police had arrested approximately a million people, of whom some 700,000 had actually been shot. The vast majority of those killed in these so-called “mass operations” were obscure Soviet citizens whose extra-judicial condemnation and execution by specially constituted police commissions went unnoticed by the foreign journalists (and later, academics) who covered the “show trials” in extensive detail. In STALIN’S POLICE, Paul Hagenloh has written an extremely important book that at last gives due attention to the [*93] humble victims of these large-scale executions and that provides a comprehensive explanation of the political decisions that brought about their deaths. Breaking with earlier students of the period, Hagenloh argues that the mass killings of 1937-38 resulted not from struggles over power within the Communist political elite headed by Joseph Stalin, but rather from Soviet methods of law enforcement that relied on extra-judicial repression of suspect population categories. His book presents great interest not only to Soviet historians, but to all of scholars of criminal justice who are interested in exploring the boundaries between political and non-political violence.

Other scholars of “the purges” have focused on the execution of socially and politically prominent defendants and explained these events either by reference to Stalin’s desire to liquidate all potential rivals and intimidate his remaining subordinates (as in the works of Robert Conquest), or to ongoing conflict between central and regional elites within the Communist Party (as in those of J. Arch Getty). Hagenloh seeks to explain the mass killings of the humble rather than the (so to speak) elite executions of the prominent. On the basis of extensive archival research, he has produced a comprehensive study of the development of Soviet policing methods from the Bolshevik Revolution of October/November 1917 to the eve of World War II. He finds that from the inception of Soviet rule, policing in the USSR was marked by an unstable and tenuous distinction between political policing (aimed at liquidating threats to the state) and ordinary policing (aimed at suppressing non-political crimes). While some within the regime were initially more inclined to recognize a distinction between political and ordinary crime, over the years the contrast was elided, ultimately leading to the re-categorization of even clearly economic acts (such as the theft of state property, or the re-sale of goods sold by the state to consumers) within the political category. At the same time, the Soviet police tried and failed to develop modern methods of law enforcement based on effective detection of crimes and proactive techniques, such as the use of informants to gain information about planned criminal activity. As a result, even in the 1920s, Soviet policing was already evolving a model of law enforcement based on the concept of “socially dangerous” categories of persons. These suspect “contingents” included groups such as homeless youth, recidivists, and later the peasant smallholders known in Stalin’s Soviet Union as kulaks. Members of such groups were frequently made subject to extra-judicial punishment by the police themselves, rather than to trial by regularly constituted tribunals. Once suspect contingents had been identified, they could be subjected to heightened surveillance, removed from major urban areas, and in some cases banished en masse. The Soviet system of mobility controls, which was based on the issuing of travel documents such as internal passports and residence permits for restricted areas, was also a product of the Soviet model of law enforcement, which in Hagenloh’s formulation “relied on interlocking systems of population surveillance and extrajudicial sanctions” (p.224).

By the early 1930s, the stage was set for the decisive triumph of this model of policing. Hagenloh argues that the decisive events that paved the way for the mass executions of 1937-38 were the collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s and the associated mass “deportation” (internal exile) of kulaks to remote and inhospitable regions of the USSR, where many perished. These operations essentially eliminated the distinction between political and non-political crime and created the precedent for the mass extra-judicial punishment of suspect population “contingents.” This elision of political and non-political crime was then operationally entrenched through the merger of the political and ordinary police within a single administration. (Although Hagenloh does explain the twists and turns of this extremely complicated administrative reform in his text, some diagrams showing the relevant chains of authority would also be helpful.)

Thus, by the mid-1930s all the institutional and conceptual elements were in place for a campaign of mass extra-judicial killing. According to Hagenloh, all that was needed for external events to ignite the regime’s latent concerns about its own long-term survival was the increasing international [*94] tension of the late 1930s (centred on Germany and Japan, but also involving relations with the liberal capitalist states of the West). By 1937, fear of war and invasion had led to increased official anxiety about supposed internal enemies of the regime, such as former kulaks, released prisoners, minor entrepreneurs pejoratively termed “speculators,” members of certain ethnic minorities with ties to hostile foreign powers (such as Germans and Koreans), and members of Russia’s prerevolutionary elites (p.250). Such groups became the designated targets of the “mass operations” that led to so many killings.

For students of Soviet history and politics, STALIN’S POLICE makes important contributions to scholarly understanding of the 1930s. One important finding that emerges from Hagenloh’s study concerns the paradoxes of decision-making in the “mass operations.” On the one hand, police officers instructed to round up “suspicious” elements often had recourse to highly slapdash methods, such as simply rounding up petty traders at a public market for arrest and possible execution as “speculators” (p.260). On the other hand, Hagenloh leaves no doubt that the mass operations were ordered and to a high degree supervised by Stalin himself. Moreover, arrests were carried out by the police largely based on their own internal records of membership in suspicious contingents. External sources of information, such as denunciations by other citizens, played a relatively minor role. Thus, the mass operations represent the systematic and centrally organized deployment of law enforcement data about individuals who were themselves highly obscure, but who belonged to categories the regime judged to be inimical to its survival.

Indeed, the broader message of STALIN’S POLICE that makes it valuable for scholars of criminal justice without a specialized interest in Soviet history concerns the tenuousness of the distinction between political violence and criminal justice on which rests the disciplinary division of labour between political science and criminology. In fact, Hagenloh’s book shows that this putative distinction is highly illusory. It was the Soviet government’s ideologically and institutionally derived understanding of the nature of crime and criminality that led it to continually broaden the concept of political crime by the inclusion of more and more seemingly non-political offenses, and that eventually led the state to construct a criminal justice system based on the quarantining, and in some cases eradication, of dangerous contingents. Moreover, despite the alluring spectacle of political trials of prominent defendants that has bedazzled many observers, Hagenloh shows convincingly that it was the very nature of policing in the USSR that set the stage for the mass violence of 1937-38. Thus, without detracting from the moral significance of the killings of either prominent or humble victims, Hagenloh avoids the temptation to lay them at the door either of the evil genius of Stalin or of the shadowy machinations of party officials. Rather, he explains the violence of those years through a comprehensive narrative centred on specific social policies and law enforcement technologies. Ultimately, this explanation actually increases the relevance of Hagenloh’s findings for students of criminal justice. In particular, some of his findings eerily [*95] prefigure those of more recent studies of trends in law enforcement, most notably the so-called “new penology” identified by Feeley and Simon and based (like Stalin’s policies) on risk assessments based on suspicious population contingents. And of course, in our own post-9/11 age of heightened anxieties, like those of the 1930s, the focus of law enforcement agencies has shifted still more in this direction.

This is a book that transcends disciplinary boundaries and deserves to be widely read by scholars of criminal justice.

Conquest, Robert. 1968. THE GREAT TERROR: STALIN'S PURGE OF THE THIRTIES. New York: Macmillan.

Feeley, M. and Simon, J. 1992. “The New Penology: Notes on the Emerging Strategy of Corrections and Its Implications.” Criminology 30: 449-474.

Getty, John Arch. 1985. Origins OF THE GREAT PURGES: THE SOVIET COMMUNIST PARTY RECONSIDERED, 1933-1938. New York: Cambridge University Press.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Matthew Light.