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Soviet Union

Legal Codes and Abuses of the System

The fundamental principles of the civil and criminal branches of Soviet law were established at the all-union level and then set down in the legal codes of the republics. The Civil Code dealt with contract law, tort law, and law governing wills and inheritance. Separate codes existed for family law and labor law. The Criminal Code concerned itself with all aspects of criminal behavior.

The Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure of the Russian Republic were revised completely (along with the codes of the other republics) in 1960, incorporating the 1958 Fundamental Principles of Criminal Procedure, approved by the Supreme Soviet. These codes represented a sharp departure from the Stalinist criminal codes, which had provided a formal legal basis for the arrest and prosecution of innocent citizens on groundless charges. Under the Stalinist code, for example, an individual could be prosecuted for committing an act not specifically prohibited by the criminal code but "analogous" to such an act. The 1960 codes abolished the principle of analogy.

The 1960 codes defined political crimes in a more restricted form and made punishments considerably less severe. They also established procedural rules to govern the arrest and detention of suspected criminals. According to the law, a suspect could not be detained for more than three days without a warrant. Thereafter, permission for detention had to be obtained from the procurator or from the courts. The maximum period of pretrial detention was nine months. At the end of such detention, the accused was entitled to the services of a defense lawyer. The trial itself was supposed to be public, with the prosecution conducted by the procurator, who could recommend sentencing.

Despite the existence of formal laws to protect the rights of the accused, ample evidence indicated that these laws were not adhered to when political or other interests of the party came into play. The party was the ultimate authority in the administration of justice, and party officials frequently interfered in the judicial process to protect their own interests. Party approval was required before appointment to any important position in the legal apparatus, and this control over personnel appointments gave the party substantial power (see Nomenklatura , ch. 7). The party also exerted influence in the oversight of the legal and judicial organs.

The party sometimes interfered in the administration of justice. CPSU officials put pressure on procurators, judges, and defense attorneys in the conduct of individual cases. In some instances, party officials pressed members of the legal system to arrest and convict innocent persons who were viewed as politically unorthodox. (In these cases, the KGB was often the agency exerting such pressure on behalf of the party.) At other times, party officials arranged to have crimes covered up or ignored to protect their personal or economic interests. This situation frequently occurred with corruption and bribery offenses.

Data as of May 1989