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Police Brutality & Police Reform in Russia and the CIS - Book Reviews (5)

Paul Hagenloh, Stalin's Police. Public order and mass repression in the USSR, 1926-1941

The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2009, 460 pages
François-Xavier Nérard
Bibliographical reference

Paul Hagenloh, Stalin's Police. Public order and mass repression in the USSR, 1926-1941, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2009, 460 pages

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Dedication is grateful to Shaun Long who edited this review

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  • 1 David R. Shearer, Policing Stalin’s Socialism : Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 19 (...)

1This book completes almost a decade of research by Paul Hagenloh on the Soviet police in Stalin’s USSR. This is a crucial book for our understanding of Soviet repression. The main aim of Paul Hagenloh (and, in many ways, of David Shearer who has been working on the same topics, and published an almost as interesting book at the same time1) was to work on the regular Stalinist police. While many researchers have previously concentrated on the political police, Hagenloh chose on the contrary to understand mass repression through the prism of public order and policing. And this approach proves to be very heuristic and interesting.

2Hagenloh therefore worked on sources relating to the regular police (militsia) at both a central (GARF) and a regional level (mainly from the Moscow and, partly, from the Novosibirsk regional archives). Anyway, sources are still a major problem when working on the police as the ability of scholars to get to the grass-roots level of police activity is limited, and actually made almost impossible, by the restricted access to the archival funds. Most of the day-to-day activity of the police therefore remains unavailable and constitutes a black hole in our knowledge. Nevertheless, there is no alternative for scholars working on the Soviet Union, but to work with these incomplete sources, and to use available sources to understand their object. And that is what Hagenloh does with talent.

3Strictly separated during the 1920’s and the beginning of the 1930’s, the regular police and the political arm (OGPU) were merged after 1934 into a large People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (the NKVD). This merger, for the author, was much more than an administrative decision: it possessed a political meaning that helps us to understand the “Great Terror” of 1937-1938. It ended a long-term process aiming to use the police in the engineering of society. Hagenloh’s cardinal idea is that of the politicization of criminal policing. As he explains on page 87, ”Local police administrations, under the tutelage of OGPU officers, increasingly viewed broad categories of crimes as essentially ’anti-Soviet’ activity […] and turned to the ’methods of the OGPU’ — surveillance, categorization, and extrajudicial repression to control them”. One of the main contributions of the book is therefore a reflection on the use of categorization. Hagenloh shows how the control of society was enforced by defining categories of the population (”socially harmful elements”, for example) and managing them through repression, rather than dealing with specific behaviors. The book demonstrates very convincingly that this way of policing the society is very specific to the Stalinist system.

4Avoiding studying this repression in terms of intentionalism and the essentially criminal nature of Stalinism, Hagenloh shows the roots of the terror in Stalinist policy itself. For him, there is a kind of dialectical relationship between the stalinist aim of enforcing an ideal order through violence, the disorder it creates, and the renewed violence used to re-establish order. The collectivization of the countryside is seen as the template for Stalinist violence (chapter 2) because of the way it was conducted (it was the first attempt at “cleansing” society of ”threatening” individuals), but also because of the by-products of these violent politics that created a huge mass of people, largely free from the control of Soviet power, wandering from exile to other places. The whole Soviet Union was therefore transformed in a kind of very difficult country to master. One of the weapons OGPU used to regain control was the politicization of actions, that were not necessarily political.

5The next important stage of the process was, as Hagenloh explains in a very plausible way, the use of passportization of the urban population in 1932 to control and repress. The internal passport, of which the peasants were deprived, is considered as a key weapon of policing. First of all, it allowed the authorities to prevent a lot of peasants from establishing themselves in the cities, but it was also a way of allowing the cleansing of the cities of people considered as ”undesirable” by the Stalinists themselves. This stage of Soviet policing is now well known as it was explored, apart from Hagenloh himself, by scholars as Gijs Kessler, David Shearer and Nathalie Moine. Hagenloh’s distinctive contribution is to insert these operations in a broader framework to explain mainly the mass repressions of the Great terror.

6Hagenloh creates a continuum between the two high points of the repression (Collectivization and the Great Terror). He shows how the years of 1935-1936 were the theater of repression of ”socially harmful elements” and not, as usually thought, a period of “mild” stalinism. It was the use of the passport legislation that helped the introduction of extra-legal repression, as many people were condemned to up to three years in the camps without judicial intervention in this period. That’s why the study of mass repression, in chapter 6, proves to be very precise and impressive. By no way does the terror appear random or blind, as an interpretation in terms of Hannah Arendt’s totalitarianism might suggest, even if the author refers to her in his conclusion. It seems on the contrary, in Hagenloh’s understanding, very rational and organized.

7Actually, it is both the strength and perhaps the limitation of Hagenloh’s book. It draws a very logical, very convincing picture of repression in Stalin’s USSR, even after 1938, as he shows that the logic of repression remained the same after the removal of Ezhov. This picture may be too logical, too precise. Hagenloh seems to neglect some of the dimensions (the terror is not only an urban phenomenon), hesitations, and approximations of the mass repressions. The dynamics of Stalinist terror were probably not as coherent as Hagenloh depicts them.

8This book, alongside Shearer’s, is nevertheless a very important landmark in our knowledge of the Stalinist policing of society.

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1 David R. Shearer, Policing Stalin’s Socialism : Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009, 507 p.

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Electronic reference

François-Xavier Nérard, « Paul Hagenloh, Stalin's Police. Public order and mass repression in the USSR, 1926-1941 », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 13 | 2012, Online since 15 July 2012, connection on 03 March 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

François-Xavier Nérard

University of Burgundy

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