Chess Delinquents

January 14, 2015

[The “Bolshevo” work commune of the GPU] was the first work commune organized for neglected, delinquent children, established at the instigation of Dzerzhinsky, director of the GPU, in 1924. The basic principle was that criminals were to be educated in complete freedom. The fundamental problem was how to organize them. This was resolved as follows. Two of the founders of the Bolshevo Commune discussed the undertaking with prisoners at the Butirki jail in Moscow. The prisoners were adolescents convicted of robbery, theft, loitering, etc. The GPU proposal was: We will give you freedom. the opportunity for cultural development, lessons, participation in the building of the Soviet Union. Do you want to come along and found a commune? At first, the delinquents were suspicious; they would not, and could not, believe that the GPU which had arrested them now wanted to set them free. They thought it was a trap and rejected it. It was later revealed that they decided to look into the matter and then run off to continue stealing and robbing. Fifteen boys were given a leader, and some carfare and money for food. They also were given complete freedom to come and go as they pleased. Arriving at the site of the future commune, they searched the shrubs and hedges for hidden soldiers. When they saw an old iron gate they became suspicious and wanted to run off; they thought this was the walls of another prison. They were calmed down and convinced that nothing of the kind was intended, so they stayed. The increase of commune members to 350 and then to a thousand was due exclusively to the fifteen original boys. They first made a list of another seventy-five boys and guaranteed their behavior. They themselves sent a delegation to the jail to recruit the seventy-five new members.

Now there was the problem of how the work could best be organized. It was decided to establish a shoe factory for the neighboring population. The boys organized everything themselves. They arranged communes for household, work and cultural evenings. At first their wages were 12 rubles monthly with free bed and board.

The neighboring population violently protested against the establishment of the commune of delinquents. They sent petitions to the Soviet government to try to stop the plan; they isolated themselves and were frightened.

Gradually, the cultural work began. A club was organized, a theater set up. The peasants in the neighborhood were invited to come. The relationship between the delinquents and their neighbors grew so harmonious that in the course of a year boys began to “marry” girls from the neighboring villages and towns.

Gradually, the small plants were turned into factories for sports equipment. In 1929, there was a shoe factory that turned out four hundred shoes and one thousand skates per day, as well as clothes, sweaters, etc. The wages were 18 rubles for newcomers and 100 to 130rubles for older residents. Workers paid 34 to 50 rubles for their recreation, food, housing, clothing, and 2 percent of their wages went for cultural events. The newcomers faced the problem of subsisting on 18 rubles. The answer was: we will give you credit until you make enough money.

The plant had the same system of self-administration as did all the factories in the Soviet Union. A trio of directors was elected from the ranks, and a delegation was elected to supervise the functions of the directorate.

Several commissions were set up to recruit new members, and the commune was steadily expanding. If, in 1924 and 1925, the delinquents had been afraid of joining the free commune, now the rush of delinquents into the commune was so great that the rank and file decided to hold entrance examinations for newcomers, in which they had to prove that they were really neglected delinquents and not non-criminal workers. It was ascertained exactly where the applicant was captured and imprisoned, what crime he had committed, which prisons he knew, how they were arranged inside, etc. If the newcomer could not answer these questions satisfactorily—and the commissioners knew their job well—he was not accepted. Non-prisoners were also not accepted. The list of candidates was submitted to a general meeting of the commune at which the newcomer had to tell about himself. If he was unknown, two members of the commune were appointed to take care of him. The candidacy lasted six months. If the newcomer proved himself during that period, he was accepted into the commune on a permanent basis; if he did not prove himself, he could leave without embarrassment.

Gradually, a library, a chess club, a small art collection, and a movie house were established, operated not by high officials but by elected communards. There were also so-called conflict commissions. If someone did not show up for work or was late, he was officially reprimanded; if he lapsed again, money was subtracted from his wages. In the most serious cases, the commune sentenced the communard to one or two days of arrest. The “criminal” was given the address of a jail in Moscow. Entirely without escort or supervision, he went there, served his term, and returned happily to the commune.

In the course of the first three years, thirty girls joined the 320 boys. Apparently there were no sexual difficulties, because the boys had contact with girls in the neighborhood. In reply to my specific question, the director of the commune explained to me that the commune members counseled themselves when there were sexual difficulties but that coarser excesses rarely occurred. Sexual life regulated itself because love could be experienced without restrictions.

The Bolshevo Commune may serve as a model for educating young delinquents on the principle of self-government and un-authoritarian restructuring. Unfortunately, such communes were isolated institutions. and for reasons unknown to me, the same principle was not followed in subsequent years. This is proved by reports after 1935. Let us not forget that by 1935 the general regression toward authoritarian social measures had already made serious inroads.

— from The Sexual Revolution by Wilhelm Reich

Extracted from file: “Communism”; Cross reference: “New Social Forms”;  “Prisons” 

— From the Desk of the Unconscious

Communism New Social Forms Prison