How The Soviets Used Common Criminals To Destroy the Regime’s Enemies

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Reprinted with permission Mises Institute Ryan McMaken

As violent crime rates rise and unsolved homicides become more common, Many ordinary voters have noticed that the regime doesn’t seem especially interested in investigating and prosecuting actual dangerous criminals. At the same time, the regime appears increasingly paranoid about “antidemocratic” activities and other alleged threats to the state. Gangs of thieves cleaning out the inventory of small businesses? The ruling elite isn’t concerned. Meanwhile, if a small business owner fails to report a $700 transaction on Venmo, heavily armed IRS agents may soon show up on his doorstep

This apparent trend toward ignoring violent criminals while prosecuting hapless middle-class taxpayers has caused many conservative activists—such as Tucker Carlson and Mike Cernovich—to resurrect the thirty-year-old phrase “anarcho-tyranny.” Conservative columnist Sam Francis defined the term in the early 1990s as “the combination of oppressive government power against the innocent and the law-abiding and, simultaneously, a grotesque paralysis of the ability or the will to use that power to carry out basic public duties such as protection or public safety.”

Francis would likely be among the first to say this isn’t true “anarchy,” of course. The state remains in full monopolistic control of its judicial, police, and military powers. That’s a good thing for the state itself since regimes can’t benefit themselves by actually losing control of the ability to suppress street crime. After all, states have long justified their existence with claims that they “keep us safe.” One might look to Mexico or El Salvador for examples of how rampant crime is a potential threat to state legitimacy. On the other hand, it is likely that many American policymakers are indeed indifferent to crime endured by their constituents so long as the taxpayers are sufficiently shaken down and the technocrats are well paid. 

The Soviet Version of Anarcho-Tyranny 

The American version of anarchy-tyranny that we presently endure is not the only variant, nor the worst. Francis may have coined the phrase, but the use of anarcho-tyranny as a deliberate policy dates back at least to Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Soviet version manifested itself in two ways. 

The first was the Soviet regime’s habit of imposing the harshest penalties for “political crimes.” This isn’t to say that the Soviet regime didn’t care about ordinary crime. The regime spent large amounts of money and resources on fighting street crime and rounding up the legions of underage criminals who were commonplace on the streets in the 1920s and early 1930s. Moreover, the regime overall sought to establish credibility for itself as the instrument of safety and order. 

[READ MORE: “Why Governments Love Political “Crimes” Like Treason and Sedition” by Ryan McMaken]

Yet, it’s clear the regime was more concerned with punishing so-called political criminals than with real crime. This certainly wasn’t an innovation of the Soviet regime, as political regimes have for millennia considered political crimes like treason, sedition, and “libel” as more dangerous than mere non-political theft and murder. The Soviets were no different, although the Soviet definition of political crime expanded far beyond the usual despotic norm. Any Soviet subject could be found himself accused for political crimes for any number of infractions including theft of “socialist property,” shirking work at a state-owned factory, failing to inform on others’ anti-Soviet activities, or any number of activities that might be defined as “bourgeois” acts that undermined socialist laws. The nature of the acts mattered less than the assumed motivation. Even petty theft—which might receive scant attention from the regime if deemed non-political—could be severely punished if labeled as a “counterrevolutionary” act. 

In his book on crime in the USSR, Valery Chalidze sums up the situation: 

[T]he new regime concentrated its pressive efforts on political opponents and class aliens. Amid the crowd of real or supposed enemies of the regime, non-political criminals were still regarded as socially akin; they received shorter terms of imprisonment and served them in less severe conditions.1 

Those prosecuted for political crimes, however, might quickly find themselves in a political court where legal procedures were stacked against defendants. If convicted, the “political criminal” would often be sentenced to years at a Gulag camp.

Once he was within the Gulag, the political criminal would then discover the second form of Soviet anarcho-tyranny. This second version was more terrifying than the first. The terror came from the fact that unofficial Soviet policy in the 1930s was to use ordinary criminals as means of eliminating political criminals altogether. Chalidze continues: 

In the twenties and thirties … the regime was conducting a campaign to change the class composition of society, and among the millions of class aliens in the camps were many whom the Bolsheviks wanted to get rid of but preferred to liquidate with the aid of criminals rather than openly. Thus political prisoners were systematically terrorized by criminals in the camps … with the direct encouragement or connivance of the authorities. The helpless politicals, unused to camp conditions, were robbed of their clothing and allowed to freeze; their meager ration of food was taken from them, and eventually they died of exhaustion. Meanwhile they were constantly tormented and humiliated. Who can say how many perished in Soviet camps as a direct result of this persecution by criminals?2 

In her summary of this form of Gulag terror, Elizabeth Klements adds that “the prison administration empowered the criminals in the GULAG by giving them access to the life-saving jobs and goods in the labor camps, while gradually withdrawing the political prisoners’ access to the same.” 

In the Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes how for all the changes that occurred at the Gulag camps during this period, the gulag administrators never gave up their 

encouragement of the hoodlums, the thieves (blatnye). Even more consistently than before, the thieves were given all the “commanding heights” in the camp. Even more consistently than before, the thieves were egged on against the [political prisoners], permitted to plunder them without any obstacles, to beat, to choke.3

Klements goes on the list dozens of events illustrating the regime’s relatively mild treatment of common criminals compared to the political prisoners. For example: 

To the political prisoners, this theft and violence was constant, senseless, and cruel. Worse still, the GULAG administration tolerated it, and the guards rarely interfered. Gustav Herling recalled an incident in his camp, where a group of blatnye overpowered and raped a young woman at night in the middle of the camp, and once she managed to scream for help, “a sleepy voice called from the nearest watch-tower: ‘Come, come, boys, what are you doing? Have you no shame?’” That was all. The gang simply moved her to a more discreet position, and continued their assault.

This abuse of political prisoners endured in its worst form from the 1930s to shortly after the Second World War.  The situation only changed significantly after the war because of a new influx of hundreds of thousands of Soviet war veterans. These veterans had been declared political criminals because they had surrendered to the Germans, served time in German POW camps, and were therefore viewed—in the twisted minds of Soviet agents—as collaborators with the Germans.4 These war veterans, however, were not as helpless against the criminals as earlier arrivals had been. Thus, the new war-hardened political prisoners fought back against the regular criminals. This, according to Klements, disrupted the status quo and forced the Gulag administrators to seek new methods. 

The difference in treatment between the regular criminals and the political prisoners had roots in Soviet ideology about re-education and class conflict. The view of the Soviet ideologue was that common criminals could be reformed and converted into productive members of Soviet society with relative ease. Political prisoners, on the other hand, class “aliens” as they were, required far harsher treatment to attain sufficient reeducation. Many political prisoners were perhaps beyond reformation in this view, prompting the guard’s indifference to the political prisoners’ fate. 

To some extent, this is all to be expected; regimes have long inflicted greater cruelty on perceived enemies of the regime than toward ordinary criminals. The Soviet example, however, provides an especially extreme and alarming example of how literally millions of ordinary non-violent “offenders” can be caught up in a legal system that is designed to protect the state instead of protecting the general public. 

  • 1.Valery Chalidze, Criminal Russia: Essays on Crime in the Soviet Union, translated by P.S. Falla (New York: Random House, 1977) p. 70. The term “socially akin” is to be contrasted with “class alien.” Translated another way, the term is “socially near,” a phrase that again contrasts with the idea of counterrevolutionaries as distant or alien from the ideal socialist society. 
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (Volume 2), translated by Thomas P. Whitney. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 126.
  • 4.Stéphane CourtoisNicolas WerthJean-Louis PannéAndrzej PaczkowskiKarel Bartošek, and Jean-Louis Margolin, ed. Mark KramerThe Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1999) p. 231.

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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