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Reviewed by:
  • Stalin's Police: Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926-1941
  • Alexander Hill
Stalin's Police: Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926-1941. By Paul Hagenloh. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 480 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

It is a pleasure to review a work such as this. On a basic level this book provides a history of Soviet policing from Stalin's rise to power to the start of the Great Patriotic War, preceded by a brief consideration of policing during the tsarist era and early Soviet period to provide context. This is not a social history, nor can it be classified as part of the wave of supposedly and self-consciously "bottom-up" histories [End Page 204] that have dominated writing on the Soviet Union in the last couple of decades, but it represents a highly sophisticated political history that is aware of and considers the activities of actors at all levels.

Hagenloh starts by identifying the belated centralization and modernization of the regular police during the Tsarist era, including moves toward a wider European model of a regular police force concerned not only with reacting to crime but prevention through surveillance and other methods. He goes on to describe the weak, decentralized, and poorly staffed regular police system in the early Soviet period and conflict between political and civilian policing. Moving through the period on which this book focuses chronologically, Hagenloh then describes and analyzes in the subsequent seven chapters the expansion and politicization of Soviet policing from the late 1920s, a process facilitated by the fact that in 1930 the OGPU was able to take over responsibility for civilian policing. The politicization of policing ran alongside modernization in the sense of both centralization and attempts to prevent rather than simply react to crime, but involved a focus on prevention aimed increasingly at whole groups of the Soviet population and a shift away from consideration of "individual and psychological influences on crime" toward seeing the bulk of criminal activity in political terms. Hence, for example, during the period of mass collectivization in the early 1930s "political meaning" might have been found in violent crime in the countryside committed by "kulak elements" (p. 81).

Hagenloh argues that from the early to mid 1930s, during which period the OGPU, as the GUGB, increased its hold on policing through its domination of the new NKVD of July 1934, campaigns for public order against such crimes as hooliganism took on an increasingly political tone while at the same time providing a model that could be applied in a particularly large-scale and brutal form later on in the decade. As the 1930s progressed, the militsiia or regular police within the NKVD were provided with and increasingly applied conceptual tools to interpret what had previously been considered civilian crimes of individuals in terms of a new social discipline to go with the new Stalinist order, that saw the Stalinist police system focus "almost exclusively on identifying, cataloging, and controlling population 'contingents' in pursuit of social order" and the protection of the state (p. 224), where such hostile groups were defined for instance on the basis of past criminal activity and sweeping sociological categorization. As part of this pursuit of social order, extrajudicial forms of repression became more commonplace, culminating in the troikas of the "Great Purges" with the extrajudicial powers to sentence to capital punishment, with [End Page 205] less extreme forms of extrajudicial punishment having been meted out against particular "contingents" from an earlier point through the 1932 internal passport system. The internal passport system, initially primarily concerned with the prevention of migration of peasants to cities, was increasingly used as a tool for the broader regulation of the population and in particular "socially dangerous elements."

For Hagenloh, the mass operations of 1937-1938, part of the so-called Great Purges, were a logical result of this process of "abstract categorization" of groups that was gradually transformed into particularly brutal "concrete repressive action" (p. 326). The infamous Order Number 00447 of July 1937 that saw the establishment of quotas for repression of specific groups, for instance, provides...