Saturday, June 9, 2018

83 Years Ago, Soviets Imposed Death Penalty on Anyone Seeking to Flee Abroad

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 9 – Eighty-three years ago today, on June 9, 1935, the Soviet government made unauthorized flight across the border of the USSR a capital offense and imposed criminal sanctions as well on the relatives of anyone who made the attempt.  The death penalty for this offense was dropped after the death of Stalin, but the law remained on the books until 1990.

            In reporting this anniversary which should have called into question Moscow’s claims that the Soviet Union was a worker’s paradise no one wanted to leave, a Russian news agency says that Moscow adopted this extreme measure because it was afraid that in the event of famine, many Soviet citizens would try to flee (

            In fact, that did not happen, but the decision to impose the death penalty for such attempts calls attention to two things many analysts fail to take into account. On the one hand, the mass deaths from collectivization in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia, actions that rose to the level of genocide, genuinely shook the Soviet leadership. And it decided to act pre-emptively.

            And on the other, the Soviet borders at that time were not well guarded. Many Soviet citizens near them were able to maintain contact with contrabandists who were in a position to help them escape the USSR.  From Moscow’s perspective, it was clearly cheaper to threaten the death penalty than to put in place the kind of Soviet borders that existed most places later.

            Not unimportantly, it provided another charge that could be brought against emigres who had gone abroad without Soviet permission and was in fact used against those who were forcibly handed over to Stalin by the Western allies at the end of World War II in what became known as Operation Keelhaul.

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