Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Light reviews Dobson, Khrushchev's Cold Summer

The Law & Politics Book Review has posted a review of Khrushchev's Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform after Stalin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), by Miriam Dobson (University of Sheffield).

Matthew Light (University of Toronto) calls the book "a fascinating study of the scope and limits of criminal justice policy liberalization in an authoritarian regime." Here's the first paragraph of the review:
The title of this important study is drawn from a movie made in the final years of the Soviet Union, THE COLD SUMMER OF 1953, a fictional story which recounts the travails of a group of prisoners released from the Soviet prison camp system, known as the Gulag, as a result of a major amnesty that was implemented following the death of the country’s tyrannical ruler, Joseph Stalin. The movie’s premise reflects a remarkable feature of Soviet history in the period: the partial dismantling of the Gulag. Over the remaining years of the 1950s, under the rule of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, the total number of prisoners fell rapidly, and in 1960, the Gulag’s population reached a low of 550,000. This number represents the lowest such figure since 1935, and only one fifth of the figure at the time of Stalin’s death (pp.109, 154). This 80 percent decline resulted from two factors: first, some four million persons were actually released from prison camps; and second, new admissions to the camps also declined, as Soviet criminal justice policy tried to emphasize non-carceral measures for dealing with crime. Yet, in the next two years, the decline in the Gulag population abruptly reversed itself, and the number of prisoners rose to almost a million in 1962 (p.185). Miriam Dobson’s admirable study, KHRUSHCHEV’S COLD SUMMER: GULAG RETURNEES, CRIME, AND THE FATE OF REFORM AFTER STALIN, both explains the politics that led to criminal justice policy changes, and recounts the human story behind the figures through details about the life experiences of released prisoners. The book holds obvious interest to students of Soviet political history interested in the transition from Stalin. It also deserves to be read by scholars who are interested in understanding the causes of punitiveness in criminal justice policy.
You can read the rest here.

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