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The Politics of Punishment: Prison Reform in Russia, 1863-1917.

The Politics of Punishment: Prison Reform in Russia, 1863-1917. By Bruce F. Adams. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Pp. viii, 237. $35.00.)

The author of this study sets out to revise the dismal picture of Russian prisons painted in late nineteenth-century works by George Kennan and Peter Kropotkin. Based on close reading of state ministerial archives, Bruce Adams concludes that by 1917 reform "gradually made [Russia's] prisons cleaner, roomier, healthier places" (9). Adams's thesis is convincing, although he could do more to relate it to broader historical and historiographic themes.

Adams argues that enlightened opinion in Russia had turned against corporeal punishment even before the Great Reforms. Borrowing from Western thinkers, reformers believed that Russia as a civilized country could not tolerate barbaric punishment. Adams describes the 1863 law ending corporeal punishment as a case of enlightened sentiment outstripping Russian reality. Ending corporeal punishment required that more criminals be sent to Russia's dilapidated prisons and thus created the need for prison reform.

Again borrowing from the West, Russia's reformers conceived of prisons as corrective institutions; labor in particular was believed to have redemptive qualities. But prison reform fed into interministerial struggles, as Adams shows in his reconstruction of the work of successive state commissions on prison matters. The Ministry of Internal Affairs sought to centralize prison administration, but found its efforts at fundamental reform frustrated by the Ministry of Finance's tight budgetary policy and by conflict with the Ministry of Justice. Adams suggests that the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Justice differed in their conceptions of the empire. While the former saw Russia as a police state, the latter envisioned a state ruled by law.

Adams argues that budget restraints continually hampered implementation of reformers' attempts to apply European and U.S.-born theories to Russian conditions. Still, the Main Prison Administration established by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 1879 slogged away at reform and, by the late 1890s, had created a more professional cohort of prison bureaucrats. Subsequent efforts at reform by the Ministry of Justice (which took over responsibility for prisons in 1895), depended upon the ebb and flow of national politics. Adams ultimately concludes that reform made Russia's prisons more modern but could not stem the growth of crime.

Adams gives us much to consider, and his book touches on a number of important issues. Yet, the focus is at times both poorly defined and overly narrow. Chapters two through five lack clear introductions and conclusions, and the thread of Adams's argument gets lost in his dense treatment of endless bureaucratic debates. He might also have explained more clearly how prison reform intersected with issues such as interministerial conflict, the transformation of public attitudes toward law and labor, and the growth of voluntary associations. Moreover, Adams rarely relates his findings to those of other historians (at times--especially in his conclusion--he sets up historiographic strawmen), so that readers will have difficulty fitting this book into a "big picture." These criticisms aside, Bruce Adams is to be congratulated for providing an exhaustive, detailed study of interest to students of both modern Russian history and the history of prison reform.

Michael C. Hickey

Bloomsburg University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hickey, Michael C.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Words:528
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