Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
Full employment, achieved in the course of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-31), was widely celebrated in the Soviet Union as indicative of the advantages that Soviet workers enjoyed over their counterparts in the capitalist world. But what about able-bodied citizens who refused to engage in socially useful labor or evaded work? The 1936 Constitution embraced the moral precept that “he who does not work shall not eat,” but it was only towards the end of the decade that workers who were absent from work without excuse or who quit their jobs without authorization were made criminally liable and subjected to imprisonment. These Draconian measures were not repealed until 1956 when a thoroughgoing reform of labor legislation was initiated. The new laws facilitated job-changing, made it more difficult for workers to be dismissed, and otherwise were part of the liberalization process of the Khrushchev years.
Within this context, the decree issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR on May 4, 1961 entitled “On Strengthening the Struggle with Persons Avoiding Socially Useful Work and Leading an Anti-Social, Parasitic Way of Life” seems to represent a volte face. Its provision for banishment of such individuals “to specially designated places for a term of from two to five years” certainly was anything but liberal. Yet, like the people’s volunteer detachments (druzhiny) established throughout the USSR by a decree of March 2, 1959 as well as the statute of July 3, 1961 that reinstituted comrades’ courts within the RSFSR, the “anti-parasite” decree was couched in terms of popularizing the administration of justice. For along with the people’s courts, sentences banishing “parasites” could be “issued by a group of toilers working together in a factory, shop, office, organization, collective farm and collective-farm brigade.”
Whatever the intent of the law, it opened the door to obvious abuse. In September 1965 the sentencing power accorded to groups of toilers was removed. Abuse of a different kind, however, persisted, as illustrated by the law’s application in some well-known cases of dissidents who, having been thrown out of their jobs, subsequently were subjected to banishment as “anti-social parasites.”