Abstract

The following report consists of two essays examining the phenomenon of arson in Russia in two periods of accelerated social change and reform: during the post-Emancipation era (1861-1905) and in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In both essays, the author examines the crime of arson as an aspect of Russia's century-long struggle to establish an effective rule of law in society and in the state. During both periods under review here, Russia was without an effective rule of law. One hundred years ago, during the post-Emancipation era, arson in rural Russia was commonplace and served as a reminder of how far Russian legal reformers had to go before they could draw the peasant majority of the population into understanding of, trust in, and use of the law to mediate their relations with other members of their society. Despite sincere and serious efforts on the part of the state and of members of the legal community to bring law to the Russian countryside, arson continued to plague villages and gentry estates alike. Arson fires represented three obstacles to the development of the power of law in Russian society: as a common and frequent crime, they demonstrated general lawlessness in the countryside; as weapons of social control and retribution within the peasant community and between classes, they reflected community norms and concepts of justice that blocked the introduction of a national system of shared ethics and laws; and as unsolved crimes, they testified to the weaknesses of the system of policing, investigation, and judicial institutions. It is important to note that the second obstacle sometimes had the paradoxical effect of maintaining community stability by reenforcing community norms and ethics of behavior. While these community norms frustrated efforts to introduce a shared legal system, a genuinely national rule of law, they did not necessarily contribute to chaos or a generalized insecurity among the population.

The author's examination of arson in Russia beginning in the late Gorbachev era identifies two areas of continuity. First, the increase in the incidence of arson reflects the spread of lawlessness in post-Soviet Russia. As such, it is simply one of the many crimes contributing to the explosion of criminality in Russia today. Second, the breakdown in the institutions of the police, investigation, and the courts resembles the failures of these institutions in the pre-Soviet period. This breakdown has contributed to the population's willingness to commit crime and to take the law into their own hands as a way to protect themselves. In this sense, post-Soviet Russians find themselves resorting to a twentieth-century form of samosud, self-help, a stage in the development of legal cultures that has always been associated with the evolution of a society toward the rule of law. and that has represented the immaturity of that legal culture. In post-Soviet Russia, self-help has resurged as the only route to self-protection in the wake of the utter collapse of institutions of law and order. The author concludes that comparing arson in the post-Soviet era with arson in the preSoviet era leads to the pessimistic conclusion that Russia today has further to go to develop a rule of law than a century ago. By examining the uses of arson and its reach into various elements of society, she concludes that arson illuminates the wholesale deterioration of shared ethical norms in the culture. Whereas communities in rural Russia a century ago displayed shared morals and constraints, even while practicing arson, urban residents of Russia today float in a population of no limits, bespredel, with no guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable behavior, much less for fundamental definitions of criminality. This report presents the essay on contemporary arson first, then provides the historical essay on arson in rural Russia a century ago.

Publication Date

8-1995

Publisher

THE NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR SOVIET AND EAST EUROPEAN RESEARCH

Document Type

Report

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