There are many historical accounts of "trials" in the Soviet Union. However, they tend to center around trials which are political trials. For example, a government agent accused of treason.

How did a criminal trial in the Soviet Union work? Specifically I am interested in the time immediately after World War 2.

  • You might need to be more specific timewise. The period 'immediately after' WW2 is still under Stalin, and it seems that all trials were political trials. Stealing a handful of grain could make you an enemy of the state.
    – justCal
    Jun 9 '17 at 4:22
  • @user2448131 Maybe that is the answer in itself. You could submit an answer about how even the smallest offenses in society were elevated to the level of severe crimes against the state apparatus.
    – Eric Urban
    Jun 9 '17 at 12:39
  • Дина Каминская "Записки адвоката" contains 2 major episodes: a criminal and a political. The author was the defender in both cases. Breathtakingly interesting.
    – sds
    Jun 9 '17 at 21:30

Criminal justice in USSR in the post war period was performed by "People's Courts" (they existed in 1937-1989). They consisted of judges and "people's jury". The judges were elected by popular vote for the term of 5 years. The jurors were elected for 2 years by meetings of "labor collectives" (factories an other enterprises). All elections in Soviet Union were strictly controlled by the Communist party, so usually 99.9% voted for a single candidate proposed by CPSU. There was no such notion as "independent court", even in theory. The system of justice was "a branch of the government". In addition to this, aspects of life, all institutions in USSR, including the government and justice were strictly controlled by CPSU, and this was written into the constitution.

Superficially, the process looked as in democratic courts: there was an accuser and a defender, the judge presided and the jurors made decision by vote. In some cases the jurors were not used and the judge made the decision him/her self.

There was also a variety of other courts, "Camarade's courts", tribunals, etc. But the usual criminal cases were handled by the People's courts. In the period immediately after WWII, enormous number of people were imprisoned in camps or exiled without any court hearings, for alleged "collaboration with enemy", or waging war against Soviet power. (Whole nations were deported, and other nations decimated). In most cases, the armed resistance against Soviet power was qualified simply as "banditism", but it was not handled by any courts. Most of the camps population in the late 40s consisted of these people, though the ordinary crime rates were also very high.

Torture was not officially permitted after WWII, but in fact it was widely used. Even in 1980s, beating by police was a routine "investigation procedure". Very few people dared to complain.

Death penalty was abolished in 1947, but in 1950 it was re-introduced for "spying and high treason". 10 years later people were sentenced to death for "illegal currency transactions". So the state did not respect its own laws. But in any case, death penalty was very rare in comparison with 1930s.

See, for example, http://lawbook.online/gosudarstva-prava/organyi-yustitsii-sud-prokuratura-29805.html Sorry, in Russian.

  • +1 overall but I think you might be wrong on one point: the courts were considered independent in theory. Jun 9 '17 at 11:04
  • 1
    Can you provide any sources?
    – justCal
    Jun 9 '17 at 12:14
  • 1
    My answer was based on my own experience (I lived in USSR since the middle 50s till late 80s), on many Soviet books and newspapers that I read in this period, but you can check everything I said using Russian Wikipedia, or typing "Criminal Justice in USSR" on Google.
    – Alex
    Jun 9 '17 at 18:01
  • 2
    @Felix Goldberg: I disagree. The whole idea of "separation of powers" was totally foreign to Soviet system, even in theory. Justice was just a branch of the state. There was no authority except the state. This is why the system is called "totalitarian".
    – Alex
    Jun 9 '17 at 18:05
  • 1
    @Alex With due respect, I think you are wrong here. The judiciary is a branch of the state everywhere, by definition. The question is whether the executive branch can control the operation of the judiciary. There is no argument that in practice the Soviet courts were subservient to the party. But in theory, on the level of constitutional platitudes, the had about the same status as their counterparts in free countries. Jun 10 '17 at 2:29

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