Peculiarities of Soviet justice

ID: 262

The eleventh and twelfth barracks were for "those political" [prisoners]. Other barracks were for those convicted of domestic crimes. Because, as you know, they imprisoned for ears of corn, for a sheaf of wheat that one took somewhere — a lot of people were serving their sentences besides us, "political" ones…
(Memoirs of Mykola Petrushchak about the prison number 25 in Lviv, collection of the Territory of Terror Museum)

The Extraordinary State Commission for the Establishment and Investigation of the Crimes of the Nazi Invaders and Their Associates and the Damage They Caused to Citizens, Collective Farms, Public Organizations, and State Enterprises of the USSR was established by the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on November 2, 1942. It was tasked with registering the crimes of the Nazis and the damage they caused to the Soviet state and its citizens as well as establishing Nazi criminals in order to bring them to justice. Local commissions were set up to investigate Nazi crimes. Several million people were involved in the work. The commission collected about 4.3 million documents: from forensic reports and eyewitness testimonies to "trophy" German documents and materials of Soviet courts. The commission also participated in the preparation of Soviet documents for the international Nuremberg trials and provided expert opinions to Soviet courts.

The value of many of the materials collected by the Commission is unquestionable, but it should be noted that from the very beginning it worked under the very specific conditions of the Stalinist regime. According to Swedish researcher Nils Polsen, the commission did not aim to collect impartial and independent information about crimes during the occupation. Evaluations of its work are very different. Soviet researchers did not question the Commission's data. Some modern scientists consider its figures exaggerated, while others believe they are underestimated. For example, many researchers note that the number of 200,000 dead in the Yanivsky camp, according to a report by the Lviv Emergency Commission, is inflated.

The scale of German crimes was such that errors in documenting them were inevitable. However, Soviet investigators tried not only to expose Nazi crimes but also to hide their own (as was the case with the Katyn shootings). Among the strengths of the materials collected by the Extraordinary State Commission are a large number of eyewitness accounts, which, however, were often given in fear of Soviet repression. It is estimated that between 1943 and 1953, more than 320,000 Soviet citizens were arrested on charges of collaborating with the Nazis.

An important aspect of Soviet postwar policy was the total examination of the population in the occupied territories, as well as repatriates to the USSR. In the postwar trials of "traitors of the Motherland" and "accomplices of the Nazis", the materials of the Extraordinary Commission’s investigations were actively used. The declared struggle against Nazi criminals and collaborators became an instrument of mass repression. Persecution and deportation were often an element of Soviet policy and a means of putting pressure on various social groups. Thus, the wave of mass arrests of Poles in January 1945 was intended to "encourage" them to leave for Poland. Maria Kulczyńska, who was arrested in Lviv and sent to forced labours in the Donbass, recalls:

At the night of January 2-3, 1945, a wave of night arrests spread throughout Lviv. This time, we were unable to understand the motives of the mass persecutions, despite the experiences of 1939-1941. Only much later did we learn that Soviet citizens, who had lived under German occupation for some time, were subject to the so-called "state examination." […] After three years of German occupation (from 1941 to 1944), the NKVD and NKGB judicial authorities considered people like reichsdeutsche, volksdeutsche, Ukrainians fighting on the German side, accomplices in robberies and murders committed on Jews to be collaborators of the occupiers. Honest citizens were also examined under the accusation of cooperation, in the broadest sense of the word: officials, engineers, doctors, teachers, etc. Few people realized this situation, so astonishment was as common as depression.
(Maria Kulczyńska, Lwów-Donbas 1945)

Collectivization, the struggle against the nationalist underground in Western Ukraine, and the famine of 1946–1947 stimulated the authorities to intensify their policies of repression and deportation. In 1944-1946 36,609 people were deported from the western regions of Ukraine to the northeastern regions of the USSR. The largest action to deport the Western Ukrainian population was called Operation West and was carried out in the autumn of 1947. Operational headquarters headed by Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of the Ukrainian SSR Mykola Diatlov was set up in Lviv. Assembly points were set up in Lviv, Chortkiv, Drohobych, Rivne, Kolomyia, and Kovel to receive "nationalist" families and send them to special settlements. About 15,000 law enforcement officers were involved in the deportation. Most of the deportees were peasants, some workers and employees. Religious persecutions played a special role, as the liquidation of the UGCC in 1946 was preceded by the mass terror of the NKVD in 1944–1946 against the hierarchs of the Greek Catholic Church in Galicia, led by Metropolitan Yosyf Slipy. Thus, the basis of deportation policy in the USSR was the search for "enemies of the people", "kulaks", "hostile elements" and "counter-revolutionaries", and repression became an effective mechanism for forced Sovietization.


"Депортації", Територія Терору (accessed on 13.02.2019)
Нільс Бо Польсен, "Розслідування воєнних злочинів "по-совєтськи": Критичний аналіз матеріалів Надзвичайної державної комісії." Голокост і сучасність, 2009, № 1 (5)
Сборник сообщений Чрезвычайной государственной комиссии о злодеяниях немецко-фашистских захватчиков. Москва, 1946
Тетяна Пастушенко "Правосуддя" по-радянськи: кваліфікація співпраці з нацистами в СРСР, 1941-1956 рр." Сторінки воєнної історії України, 16 (2013), cc. 124-136
Damian Karol Markowski, Anatomia strachu. Sowietyzacja obwodu lwowskiego 1944–1953. Studium zmian polityczno-gospodarczych, Warszawa, 2018
Istvan Deák, Europe on Trial. The Story of Collaboration, Resistance and Retribution during World War II, Boulder, 2015
Maria Kulczyńska, Lwów-Donbas 1945 (accessed on 13.02.2019)
Tanja Penter, "Collaboration on Trial: New Source Material on Soviet Postwar Trials against Collaborators", Slavic Review, Vol. 64, No. 4 (2005), pp. 782-790

Cover photo: Soviet Extraordinary Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes at the Yanivsky camp site and in the place of mass burials, autumn 1944. Source: Urban Media Archive, Center for Urban History, DALO Collection.
Anna Chebotariova
Translated by Andriy Masliukh



All stories