Australian Institute of Criminology

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Penal mortality in historical and comparative perspective : Russia, Europe, and Australia

Australian Institute of Criminology, Stephen G Wheatcroft
04 October 2002 -

Associate Professor Stephen G Wheatcroft
History Department, University of Melbourne


The opening up of the Soviet archives have allowed us to get a much better understanding of both the scale and the nature of the Soviet penal experience as it operated over time. Although it is conventional to argue that such developments should be treated as anomalies that are non-comparable with 'normal' penal systems, Wheatcroft argues that it is important to see such extreme developments in the perspective of penal developments elsewhere and at different times.

Russian execution rates had traditionally been the lowest in Europe before the beginning of the Twentieth century (0.1 per million in Russia, cf 0.5 per million in England, 0.5 per million in Australia and 0.2 per million in Germany). The Russian execution rate would rise sharply in four major waves after the 1905 Revolution (9 per million in 1906-8), the 1917 Revolution (200 per million in 1918-21), Dekulakization 1930-1 (130 per million 1930-31), to peak in the Yezhovshchina 1937-8 (2,100 per million). In the two years of the Yezhovshchina over 680,000 people were executed. During this period the scale of imprisonment rose greatly and penal mortality in its different forms (exclusive of executions) underwent several distinctive changes.

The paper discusses the scale and contours of Russian and Soviet penal mortality in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and compares them with long-term and anomalous changes in penal mortality in other societies throughout this period.

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