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Comptes rendus
Période soviétique et postsoviétique

Juliette CADIOT, La société des voleurs. Propriété et socialisme sous Staline

James Heinzen
p. 836-838
Référence(s) :

Juliette CADIOT, La société des voleurs. Propriété et socialisme sous Staline, Paris : Éditions de l’EHESS, 2021, 320 p.

Texte intégral

1Juliette Cadiot’s excellent and important new book creatively excavates a crucial but understudied subject in the study of Stalinism: the practice of so-called “theft of socialist property” and its criminalization. In its Stalinist variation, this umbrella term included embezzlement, the pilfering of goods and raw materials from factories and other work places and, most often, the theft of produce from collective farms, all of which were endemic in the postwar period of survival, shortages and reconstruction.

2Cadiot’s research is highly significant. The book sheds light on a key plank of Stalinist ideology. The Soviet constitution of 1936 declared that socialist property was “sacred and inviolable.” Stalin went to great lengths to “protect” socialist property, by instituting harsh penalties against anyone who committed the “theft” of it. The research deals with the criminalization of practices that the state labeled theft of state property. In the first chapter, she discusses the famous August 1932 law on theft of socialist property. But Cadiot has chosen to concentrate on a second law, the ukaz of June 4, 1947, which shook Soviet society to its foundations with its far-reaching cruelty. Expanding on pioneering work by Peter Solomon and Yoram Gorlizki, Cadiot shows that the draconian June 4 ukaz on theft of state property was a central piece of Stalin-era legislation. Yet the decree is not often mentioned in scholarship on the late Stalin period, despite its impact. As a result of the deluge of arrests for theft beginning in the summer of 1947, nearly half of Gulag inmates were convicted thieves. As Cadiot notes, a great majority of convictions for theft of socialist property were for instances of petty pilfering, such as a few potatoes or a bit of lumber, yet they still typically carried mandatory minimum sentences of seven years in prison. Stalin specifically forbade judges from considering factors that could mitigate punishment. The social consequences of long sentences for property crime were devastating. The final chapter of La société des voleurs uses an examination of almost 200 applications for pardons to capture the voices of those convicted of theft of socialist property (most of whom were serving time in the Gulag), and this focus on the thieves themselves is also an essential contribution of this book.

3One of the book’s most important contributions is its detailed look at the reasons for, and consequences of, the mass arrests that followed the issuance of the June 1947 ukaz. In the process, Cadiot shows that archive-based studies of criminalization and law continue to shed a great deal of light on the practices of daily life in late Stalinism. Cadiot explores state attempts to protect state property to investigate not only those who designed and implemented the legislation (in some cases unwillingly), but also, as she puts it, “the thieves themselves, those who disobey. This study restores their voices to understand the diversity of their backgrounds, how they gave meaning to their actions and punishments, their relationship to the law and to socialist morality and power.” Theft, she argues, was itself a key social practice in Soviet life, worthy of study. Drawing on a very impressive array of archival sources, Cadiot aims to give agency to those accused of theft, who were usually impoverished peasants, workers, and petty officials, as they struggled to survive and improve their material situation. One of her conclusions is that the extensive and repeated Stalin-era attempts to inculcate in Soviet people’s minds the critical (to the state) principle that “socialist property” (which gradually became essentially synonymous with state property) was as worthy of protection as people’s own individual property resulted in utter failure. This idea is not new, but the process is more cogently conceptualized and documented by Cadiot than in any other study of which I am aware.

4Cadiot also focuses on the efforts of judges to temper the impact of property decrees to some degree. Being a member of the nomenklatura was the best defense, though that guaranteed nothing. It was those who had shown competence in other areas who were most likely to have their sentences reduced or to have the charges dismissed. Prosecutors had little luck in reversing judges’ efforts. The book’s third chapter discusses the widespread phenomenon of theft and fraud among the “small proprietors” who engaged in crafts or ran workshops, or other small enterprises such as petty manufacturers of clothing and home goods, or people who undertook construction. These entrepreneurs fell into a grey area where they had certain privileges but were still often the target of police who suspected them of absconding with state resources.

5The fourth chapter is in some senses the culmination of the book. It focuses on the so-called Khain Affair, a major case in which prosecutors accused the perpetrators of theft and paying bribes to officials in an operation that involved trade employees at a wholesale textile storage and distribution base in Kyiv. Khanan A. Khain, the director of the base and the leader of the operation became so wealthy through his various machinations, and so well protected through the patronage of important party and government officials, that a chauffeur drove him around Kyiv in a Mercedes Benz automobile, in which he conducted business. The men were arrested in early 1951. After a publicized trial, the director of the base and three top assistants were convicted of illegally providing their friends and colleagues, including many of the city’s political, economic and law enforcement elites, with merchandise and fabric that were in short supply from the base in exchange for cash, favors and services. The four men, all of whom were Jewish, claimed that their shadowy relationships were necessary for the base to function in conditions of shortage. They were scapegoated and ultimately executed in 1953. The Khain Affair was a case in which prosecutors claimed that the theft of state property, fraud and bribery were so egregious that they should be prosecuted as crimes against the state, a type of “counter-revolutionary” crime. Cadiot describes the antisemitic overtones in the case. This chapter brings together many of the main themes of the book and shows off the fruits of Cadiot’s desire to look deeply into the motivations of alleged thieves themselves. Cadiot did a great deal of work in Ukrainian judicial, police, and party archives, as well as the Gulag archive. She analyzed thousands of pages of investigative material on the case, including interrogations and trial protocols.

6In sum, La société des voleurs is a pioneering and fascinating book that carefully illuminates some of the darkest and least known pages of Soviet legal and social history, probing deeply into power relationships, ideology, and daily life under late Stalinism.

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Référence papier

James Heinzen, « Juliette CADIOT, La société des voleurs. Propriété et socialisme sous Staline »Cahiers du monde russe, 63/3-4 | 2022, 836-838.

Référence électronique

James Heinzen, « Juliette CADIOT, La société des voleurs. Propriété et socialisme sous Staline »Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 63/3-4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 07 décembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/monderusse/13563 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/monderusse.13563

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James Heinzen

Rowan University

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