12 MAY 1961, Page 4

Progress to the Rope

APROMINEN1 Abolitionist said the other day .that the state of a country's civilisation can be judged by its attitude to capital punishment. By this criterion, the Soviet Union is now one of the most uncivilised countries in the world, out- side the Yemen. The new law scatters executions with a lavish hand to embezzlers of State property, forgers, persistent criminals, and prisoners in labour camps who terrorise their fellows and otherwise cause disorder. The Observer finds this last provision 'progressive,' in that it indicates a concern for the individual. It seems much more likely to be used by the authorities against any solidarity on the part of the prisoners, such as that shown in the great camp revolts of 1953, than in protecting anybody.

The history of the death penalty in the Soviet Union has been chequered. It was abolished in January, 1920, to the accompaniment of mass executions up to the moment the new decree came into force. But it continued to be prac- tised, and was in any case restored in May of the same year. In Stalin's time it was abolished in 1947 and not restored, for State crimes only, until 1950; but as the dates of death since given for a number of those wrongly executed in the 'Leningrad Case' fall within the period of aboli- tion, we may conclude that law and practice do not always go together in the Soviet Union. Restoration and abolition are, in fact, never intended purely as legal measures: always as a dramatisation of public positions on the points at issue.

The post-Stalin regime has been associated with an increasing deterioration in the legal position. In 1954 first-degree murder was again made the sub- ject of the death penalty, and now there are these new categories. The arguments put out by the Soviet Government and its Prosecutor-General would sound reactionary at a Conservative Women's Conference; they accord more with the views held by extreme retentionists here in the 1820s -there is a crime wave, it must be stamped out, and what more effective method than killing off all concerned? The boast used to be that crime would die out in a 'Socialist' society; this natural process seems to be requiring a good deal of help on its way.