FACTBOX: History of death penalty in Russia

TASS FACTBOX: State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that all the necessary laws concerning the use of the death penalty in Russia were ...


TASS FACTBOX: State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that all the necessary laws concerning the use of the death penalty in Russia were in place and a decision whether to reintroduce such a punishment depended entirely on the Constitutional Court. He agreed with the head of the State Duma’s Committee on Statehood and Legislation, Pavel Krasheninnikov, that "in making such decisions it is essential to keep a cool head and gauge all the consequences well enough." Earlier, the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Leonid Slutsky, called for lifting the moratorium on the death penalty in the wake of the terrorist attack at the shopping mall and entertainment center Crocus City Hall just outside Moscow city limits, where a handful of gunmen late on March 22 went on a shooting spree amid a merry crowd minutes before a rock concert was due to begin. The leader of the A Just Russia - For Truth party, Sergey Mironov, in turn, suggested putting the issue to the vote in a referendum. TASS FACTBOX editors have taken a brief look at the history of the capital punishment in Russia. 

Death penalty in Russia

The death penalty in Russia was introduced and canceled several times. The Russkaya Pravda (Russian Justice), the first code of laws in Ancient Russia (11th-12th centuries), did not envisage the death penalty at all. In the era of Ivan IV The Terrible, the practice of mass and public executions by beheading, hanging, drowning, quartering, impalement, burning, etc. came into use. Some monarchs, upon ascending the throne, would amnesty thieves and robbers sentenced to death and send them to hard labor instead. For instance, Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich and his son Peter I the Great did so. The Military Statute Approved by Peter I in 1716 mentioned 123 offenses punishable by death.

In 1743-1754, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna signed decrees to replace execution by whipping, eternal exile and hard labor. The cases of all "death row" prisoners were sent to the Senate and considered personally by the Empress. Catherine II found the death penalty reasonable in cases where criminals, even in jail, could "disturb the peace."

During the reign of Alexander I (1801-1825) the death penalty was applied 24 times, mainly during the Patriotic War of 1812 against the Napoleonic invasion. Under Nicholas I (1825-1855), 40 people were executed, including five leaders of what went down in history as the Decembrist Revolt: on December 1825 about 3,000 officers and soldiers refused to swear allegiance to the new Emperor, Nicholas, Alexander’s brother, proclaiming instead their loyalty to the idea of a Russian constitution and a constitutional monarchy. The emperor himself reiterated that in Russia the death penalty was applied in "exceptional cases." Throughout the reign of Alexander II (1855-1881) death sentences were replaced by internal exile, hard labor or life imprisonment. After the failed revolution of 1905 military field tribunals were established. By 1911, about 2,800 convicts were put to death based on their verdicts.


Death penalty in Soviet Russia

On October 28, 1917, the 2nd All-Russia Congress of Soviets (elective councils) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies abolished the death penalty, however, in the summer of 1918 the proponents of Red Terror and their White Terror antagonists clashed in what would become years-long merciless Civil War, with the floodgates of extrajudicial executions of both convicts and potential suspects thrust wide open. The Criminal Code of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, adopted in 1926, envisaged the death penalty for more than 40 crimes (organization of armed uprisings for counter-revolutionary purposes, espionage, brigandage, counterfeiting of coins and banknotes, etc.). During the period of repression of 1937-1938, 681,692 death sentences were handed in cases administered by the NKVD secret police. During the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, some Nazi collaborators were executed in public and others, in jail.


On May 26, 1947, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet (national legislature) replaced execution by a firing squad with 25-year terms in corrective labor camps. On January 12, 1950 the death penalty was reintroduced for traitors and saboteurs, and starting from April 30, 1954 for those who committed premeditated murder. In 1962, the list of offences punishable by death was complemented by economic crimes, including gross embezzlement, and some others. Between 1962 and 1989, 24,422 death sentences were passed; 2,355 of these convicts had their sentences eventually commuted.


By the early 1990s, the RSFSR Criminal Code contained more than 30 offenses for which the capital punishment was envisaged: high treason and espionage, premeditated murder under aggravating circumstances, gross embezzlement of state or public property, and, in wartime conditions, desertion, evasion of military service, and others.


Mitigation of punishment after the Soviet Union’s collapse

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, at least 770 people were sentenced to death in Russia between 1992 and 1996, and at least 78 of them were executed. In February 1996, Russia joined the Council of Europe, pledging to halt executions and to adopt a law abolishing capital punishment. A moratorium on executions was proclaimed.


On January 1, 1997, Russia’s new Criminal Code came into force. The death penalty was defined as an exceptional measure applicable only to extremely serious crimes against life: murder (under aggravating circumstances) or attempt on the life of government or public figures, employees of investigative, law enforcement and judicial bodies, as well as genocide. The death penalty was not imposed on women, minors, persons over 65 years of age, or those extradited to Russia by a foreign state. Execution could be replaced by life imprisonment or imprisonment for 25 years.


On April 16, 1997, Russia signed Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, after which a moratorium on the death penalty came into effect in the country. Russia has not ratified the Protocol.


On February 2, 1999, the Constitutional Court prohibited the imposition of the death penalty due to the absence of trials by jury, and in 2009 it declared it would be impossible to impose the death penalty even after the establishment of such courts. On November 19, 2009 the Constitutional Court extended the moratorium on the death penalty until Russia ratified Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights. As long as the moratorium stays in effect, life imprisonment is the harshest punishment possible in the Russian judicial system.


The last death sentence in Russia was carried out in 1996. The name of the executed person was not officially announced. According to some media reports, he was serial killer Sergey Golovkin, found guilty of taking the life of 11 underage boys in the Moscow Region in 1986-1992.


On November 29, 2022, Valery Zorkin, the then chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court, said that the restoration of the death penalty in Russia might be possible only by amending the Constitution, while such conditions, he said, "currently do not exist." He noted that Russia had a constitutional and legal regime in which Russian citizens enjoyed the right not to be sentenced to death. As Valery Zorkin emphasized, Russia’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe would not discontinue the moratorium on the death penalty.


On February 28, 2023, President Vladimir Putin signed a law on the termination of Russia’s compliance with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (in general) and a number of protocols to it, but not Protocol No. 6.


According to the Federal Penitentiary Service, there were 1,942 convicts serving life sentences in Russia in 2022. They are held in six tight security colonies; such convicts become eligible for parole after serving 25 years of their sentence.


Public debate

Whether or not Russia should reintroduce the capital punishment remains a major controversy in society. At various times, prominent Russian politicians, government officials, and cultural figures, including writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Chechnya's head Ramzan Kadyrov, A Just Russia party leader Sergey Mironov, and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, have spoken in favor of restoring this exceptional punishment for a number of crimes (particularly terrorism).


After the Crocus City Hall carnage on March 22, 2024 some politicians suggested bringing back the death penalty. In particular, the head of the United Russia faction in the State Duma, Vladimir Vasilyev, told the media that the issue of introducing the death penalty for terrorism in Russia would be scrutinized thoroughly in order to eventually produce a decision meeting the expectations of society. Leonid Slutsky, the head of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs and leader of the LDPR, wrote on his Telegram channel after the Crocus City Hall attack that an exception to the moratorium on its application could and should be made in such cases.


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