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Military Justice - Book Reviews (4 titles)

V.E. Zviagintsev, Voina na vesakh Femidy. Voina 1941-1945 gg. v materialakh sledstvenno-sudebnykh del [War in the Scales of Justice] Moscow, Terra, Knizhnyi Klub, 2006, 767 pages.

Vanessa Voisin

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Soviet Union
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1The voluminous work of V. E. Zviagintsev (767 pages) is probably the best work on Soviet military justice published in recent years. At least three reasons make this book highly valuable.

2Firstly, V.E. Zviagincev, as a professional military jurist and historian, succeeded in the almost impossible task of getting access to first-handed sources from the archives of the military college of the USSR Supreme Court, from collections of the FSB Central Archive and from the judiciary collection of the Ministry of Defence Central Archives. Such a corpus allows the author to examine in depth little-known pages of the history of the Second World War in Russia. He presents statistics of penal repressions as well as rare insight into the judicial methods of inquiry and procedures during the war.

3Secondly, the work aims at a synthesis of all the aspects of military justice in Russia during the war. Retribution of unsuccessful generals at the beginning of the conflict, repression of desertion, proceedings against war criminals and collaborators are studied for the first time in a single book. This approach gives the reader a thorough panorama of military justice in wartime, highlighting the orientation that political direction followed in its attempt to control the military and society. One can assess the scope of repression as well as continuity between pre-war repressions and wartime prosecutions.

4Last but not least, the author does not simply confine himself to a description of events, while simultaneously avoiding any kind of biased assessment of judicial politics. He underlines the ideological basis of penal retribution and its consequences on judicial procedures (from investigation to judgment) while reconstructing the military conditions underlying wartime justice. Valuable appendices contain rare documents such as judicial statistics, lists of repressed officers, normative texts, reports from the army security services and even authentic transcriptions (including revisions) of verdicts.

5The book is divided as follows. The introduction examines the historiography of wartime prosecutions, explaining why the topic has suffered from a long-lasting “taboo” in the former Soviet Union. It then turns to a general survey of the scope of military condemnations, supported by statistical data and analysis. A useful first chapter draws on the frames of military justice, examining the specificity of “wartime laws” and judicial organs and adds insight into the world of military judges. The author then turns to a chronological approach, studying successively the repressions of the first months of war: prosecutions against unsuccessful commanders (chapter 2), repressions of “alarmists” (panikery), deserters and the like (chapter 3). The relationship between central directives and field practices is examined thoroughly, and so is the complex interaction between the ideological setting and pragmatic aims. The fourth chapter examines military justice during the battle of Moscow (Fall 1941) and other contemporary battles in Soviet Russia during the World War II. The fifth chapter addresses some long-lasting war myths; ambiguous aspects of some of the most caricatured symbols of heroism are re-examined on the basis of investigation and proceedings records.

6The following chapters follow a thematic framework: chapter 6 examines cases of military justice in the Soviet fleet while chapter 7 assesses various aspects of repression of “anti-Soviet feelings” among soldiers and officers. Chapter 8 offers the first in-depth study of the origins, goals and application of the famous Stalin “Order N°227” of July 28th 1942 designed to stop any kind of retreat, titled “No one steps back”. The following chapter addresses alternatives to death sentences and detention, such as legal suspensions of sentences during wartime and transfer to disciplinary units in the army or the air force. Finally, the chapter dismisses some popular preconceptions about the “zagradotriady”, second line battalions created to prevent unauthorized retreats.1 Chapter 10 reviews several peculiar aspects of wartime justice: repression of deviant behaviours associated with the consumption of alcohol, repressions linked to the presence of women on the front lines, the fight against various kinds of trickeries and organized crime in besieged Leningrad and the role of military justice at that time.

7The structure of chapter eleven is vaguer: the author successively studies judicial problems of partisan warfare (repressions of partisans as well as partisan retribution in the hostile rear) and repression in the field of military science and arts. The last four chapters (12 to 15) study various aspects of the crime of betrayal of the Motherland. In chapter 12, Zviagintsev draws attention to the repression of so-called military traitors who tried or intended to join the enemy, while the next chapter examines the question of Soviet collaboration with the Germans. While renouncing to give an overall assessment of the scope of this phenomenon, the author casts light on lesser-known aspects of military collaboration and the judiciary organs specifically created to deal with these crimes (called mobile martial courts). Chapter 14 takes interest in the fate of several heroes tried for betrayal of the Motherland on the basis of “judiciary control files” of the Central Military Procuracy. It shows how complex fates could be in the war and post-war years. Heroes being tried because they fell in captivity and sometimes had to “collaborate” with the occupiers, and were only rehabilitated as heroes in the 1960’s, or even later. The last part of the book concludes with examples of repatriated servicemen who underwent prosecutions on their way back to the USSR.

8Voina na vesakh Femidy thus provides entirely new and rare evidence on the military justice in USSR during the Second World War. Without claiming to draw definitive conclusions on the topic, it offers a comprehensive picture of military justice in the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

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1 "Zagradotriady" of NKVD (“detachments-obstacles” or “blocking detachments” of NKVD) used in battles to shoot run away soldiers [editors’ note].
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Electronic reference

Vanessa Voisin, “V.E. Zviagintsev, Voina na vesakh Femidy. Voina 1941-1945 gg. v materialakh sledstvenno-sudebnykh del [War in the Scales of Justice] Moscow, Terra, Knizhnyi Klub, 2006, 767 pages.”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 8 | 2008, Online since 14 July 2008, connection on 09 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Vanessa Voisin

University of Paris I

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