by Miriam Dobson. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2009. 280pp. Cloth. $45.00. ISBN: 9780801447570.

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


The title of this important study is drawn from a movie made in the final years of the Soviet Union, THE COLD SUMMER OF 1953, a fictional story which recounts the travails of a group of prisoners released from the Soviet prison camp system, known as the Gulag, as a result of a major amnesty that was implemented following the death of the country’s tyrannical ruler, Joseph Stalin. The movie’s premise reflects a remarkable feature of Soviet history in the period: the partial dismantling of the Gulag. Over the remaining years of the 1950s, under the rule of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, the total number of prisoners fell rapidly, and in 1960, the Gulag’s population reached a low of 550,000. This number represents the lowest such figure since 1935, and only one fifth of the figure at the time of Stalin’s death (pp.109, 154). This 80 percent decline resulted from two factors: first, some four million persons were actually released from prison camps; and second, new admissions to the camps also declined, as Soviet criminal justice policy tried to emphasize non-carceral measures for dealing with crime. Yet, in the next two years, the decline in the Gulag population abruptly reversed itself, and the number of prisoners rose to almost a million in 1962 (p.185). Miriam Dobson’s admirable study, KHRUSHCHEV’S COLD SUMMER: GULAG RETURNEES, CRIME, AND THE FATE OF REFORM AFTER STALIN, both explains the politics that led to criminal justice policy changes, and recounts the human story behind the figures through details about the life experiences of released prisoners. The book holds obvious interest to students of Soviet political history interested in the transition from Stalin. It also deserves to be read by scholars who are interested in understanding the causes of punitiveness in criminal justice policy.

KHRUSHCHEV’S COLD SUMMER can be read as part of a new wave of scholarship on Stalinist repression that examines the fate of the great masses of ordinary and obscure people who were swept into the Gulag or executed during Stalin’s rule, rather than looking at the trials of a handful of prominent political figures and intellectuals. Some of those sent to the Gulag or summarily executed had committed ordinary crimes, others had committed explicitly political offenses, and still others simply fell into social categories that the Soviet government viewed as its enemies, notably the prosperous peasants known in Soviet political parlance as kulaks. In some respects, Dobson’s book could be viewed as the companion to another recent study, Paul Hagenloh’s STALIN’S POLICE, which examines the gradual conflation of ordinary and political crime in Soviet criminal justice policy, which led to the rapid expansion [*79] of the Gulag and a wave of mass executions in the late 1930s (Hagenloh 2009). Dobson, in contrast, examines the aftermath of Stalin’s rule, and in particular Khruschev’s attempt to undo the most odious aspects of Stalin’s policies without destabilizing the entire Soviet regime.

In the context of criminal justice, Khrushchev’s program of “destalinization” involved several related components. First, he wanted to distance the Soviet government from Stalin’s misdeeds, such as mass killings or the imprisonment of opponents of Stalin. Both as a matter of political expediency and probably of his own conscience, Khrushchev understood that there would have to be a major break with Stalinist policies, and that this would entail mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. Within certain limits, such former prisoners would even be permitted to express publicly their grief and anger at their mistreatment, and the press and government would take note. For the future, Khrushchev also wanted to reestablish the distinction between political and non-political crime that Stalin had systematically undermined, with such horrific results. At a conceptual level, this meant reinterpreting crime as a social problem, rather than (as in the Stalinist view) a form of war against the state. Criminals would henceforth be seen not as “enemies of the people” who needed to be destroyed, but erring fellow citizens who needed to be corrected (p.96). At the policy level, Khrushchev publicly and repeatedly called for a renewed emphasis on “socialist legality,” which meant a break with the extra-judicial imposition of punishment by secret police tribunals, which had been a characteristic feature of the Stalinist Terror; in future, criminal justice would be administered by professionals in accordance with established procedures (p.102). In addition, methods of punishment were to move away from the extreme punitiveness of Stalin’s methods and would instead feature shorter terms of incarceration and alternatives to incarceration.

On the other hand, Khrushchev’s campaign of criminal justice reform was marked by extreme ambivalence from its inception, which became more marked with time. While Khrushchev did order the execution of Lavrenti Beria, the last head of the secret police under Stalin (and a political rival of Khrushchev himself), he also decided at the beginning of his rule that lower-ranking officials who had implemented the Stalinist terror would not be punished, or at least not so severely. As he argued in a private remark to his son that Dobson quotes, millions of people had been involved in implementing the terror, their exact culpability for the abuses was difficult to establish, and there was no way to bring them to justice without a renewed bloodbath (p.5). Former Gulag inmates who made their stories public were expected to emphasize their own innocence and loyalty to the state, rather than issue demands to punish their oppressors (p.91).

Moreover, Khrushchev’s policy of emptying out the Gulag rapidly ran into difficulties as a result of the ambivalent response of the released prisoners, other Soviet citizens, and the regime itself. Not surprisingly, many of those released harboured – and were now in a position to express – extreme hostility toward the entire Soviet regime. Following their [*80] return from the camps, they frequently encountered both officials and other Soviet citizens who reciprocated this hostility. Many people – including in the Soviet government – did not share Khrushchev’s view that criminal justice policy under Stalin had been highly misguided, and continued to regard convicts as enemies (pp.110-11). The early 1960s saw a wave of moral panics involving youth “hooliganism” and “parasites,” the official term for willfully unemployed people (p.141). Moreover, in a pattern that was to become a defining feature of post-Stalin governance in the Soviet Union, the state rapidly discovered that enforcing social conformity without extreme repression is no easy matter, as the mass release of alienated, displaced former inmates contributed to an alarming rise in crime. Beginning in the 1960s, these trends ultimately led to a wave of repressive measures, including increased use of incarceration, extension of the death penalty to more offenses, and new anti-crime measures such as citizens’ patrols (similar to US neighbourhood watch organizations) and specialized courts that were instituted to punish low-level offenses such as disorderly conduct (pp.142-43, 177). The rapid growth of the Gulag population in the early 1960s that was noted above reflects this return to punitiveness.

Dobson’s book is a fascinating study of the scope and limits of criminal justice policy liberalization in an authoritarian regime. On the one hand, as noted above, Khrushchev’s reforms were limited from the outset by his unwillingness to countenance measures that could undermine the Communist Party’s rule, as well as his increasing disappointment with (as he saw it) the unwillingness of the ex-convicts to conform to the norms of Soviet society. Indeed, one of Dobson’s more interesting findings is that criminal justice reforms were also blocked in part by popular opposition. As she argues, Khrushchev and his government had to deal with – and ultimately accommodate – the highly punitive views of many Soviet citizens and low-level officials, which of course had been encouraged (not to say required) during Stalin’s more than two decades in absolute power.

On the other hand, the fact remains that Khrushchev managed to engineer the release of some 4 million prisoners from the Gulag over a barely five-year period, which must surely make the amnesties of the early 1950s one of the largest releases of prisoners in contemporary world history. He also managed to re-professionalize and re-regulate the administration of criminal justice, as well as to repudiate the premises and methods of Stalinist crime control, including the assumption that mass incarceration was a normal feature of a progressive society (as the Soviet leadership depicted the USSR). These achievements seem to suggest that the same authoritarian and closed features of the Soviet political system that made the Gulag possible in the first place, paradoxically also made possible the partial dismantling of the Gulag by a new ruler with a different agenda. There is an obvious but somewhat discouraging contrast here with the United States. Like Stalin’s USSR, the United States is engaged in the routine use of mass incarceration. Like the Soviet citizens who opposed Khrushchev’s reforms in the 1950s, many American citizens now regard [*81] such mass incarceration as normal and desirable. It is possible that at some point in the future, at least some political leaders in the US federal and state governments will make serious attempts to dismantle the American system of mass incarceration. When they do, like Khrushchev, they will have to contend with a public opinion that is deeply hostile to such reform efforts. Unlike Khrushchev, however, these leaders will also be subject to defeat in elections on the basis of their criminal justice policies. It is ironic that it may prove easier to empty out the Soviet Gulag than to empty out America’s prisons.

Proshkin, Aleksandr (Director). 2004. THE COLD SUMMER OF 1953. [Motion Picture]. US: Image Entertainment.

Hagenloh, Paul. 2009. STALIN’S POLICE: PUBLIC ORDER AND MASS REPRESSION IN THE USSR, 1926-1941. Washington, D.C. and Baltimore: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins University Press.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Matthew Light.