Redefining the ‘Born’ Murderer: Lombrosian Legacies in Early Soviet Criminological Discourse.

Mark Vincent.

The 1876 publication of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s L’uomo delinquent (‘Criminal Man’) caused quite a stir amongst professionals in late Imperial Russia, in addition to the field of Western social scientists. Whilst some elements of Lombrosian thought, such as inherited criminal impulses, a link between moral and physical deformity, and a determination to place the criminal rather than the crime at the forefront of legal and medical attention were received relatively warmly, there remained a dissenting consensus regarding the existence of a separate criminal class who were defined by their biological and psychological features.[1]

As criticisms of Lombroso’s phrenology-based atavism amassed, the work of one of his former students would find a more receptive audience in the fin-de-siècle Russian Empire. The subsequent writings of Enrico Ferri, in particular 1897’s influential Criminal Sociology, was deemed to be more agreeable due to its careful balance of social and biological factors.[2]

Figure 1. Enrico Ferri (1856-1929). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Credited by some as having coined the term ‘born criminal’ that has been long-attached to his mentor, Ferri was a leading thinker of the positivist school who argued for an understanding of the criminal as a product of society, more than someone defined by their atavistic traits.[3] In Criminal Sociology Ferri stated that all criminals could be divided into five different categories – criminal madmen, born criminals, criminals by contracted habits, occasional criminals and crimes of passion – and that identifying these various groups relied on studying not only their biological and psychological traits but investigating the social environment around them.[4]

This emphasis upon one’s social environment meant that Ferri’s influence would continue to spread in Imperial Russia even after the period of extreme change which characterised the 1917 revolutions and their immediate aftermath. Following the Bolshevik overthrow of power in October and the violent Civil War which ensued for the next four years, the new regime looked to implement sweeping societal changes which aligned with their Communist worldview.

As the embryonic state sought to recover from the tremors of civil war, a number of criminological groups were founded in the new ideologically-charged environment. Matching the prevailing belief amongst revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, and others, that crime would disappear after Communism had been fully implemented (as there would no longer be reason to steal) advances in the social sciences were encouraged with more freedom and governmental support than afforded by the late Tsarist regime.

Figure 2. Source: The New York Times, 8 June 1923. 

Arguably the most prominent of these was the ‘Moscow Bureau for the Study of Criminal Personality and Crime’ which had been instigated by a delegate from the city government in the spring of 1923. Led by the renowned criminologist Mikhail Gernet, the Moscow Bureau brought together a convocation of various social science experts, whose approach was positioned in vehement opposition to Lombroso’s work. 

Instead, the Moscow Bureau focused on the impact of societal factors, and most crucially the negative influence of the urban environment, which was described by Gernet as being a modern-day ‘Babylon, Sodom and Gomorrah’.[5] Patronage from within the Moscow Health Department allowed the bureau to send around 150 student volunteers into detention institutions around the city, in order to conduct interviews and conduct statistics.  This information was then compiled into a 1924 edited volume titled Criminal World Moscow which focused on a variety of different offences such as the production of illegal moonshine and banditry, alongside more diverse themes such as cases of genital mutilation and a study of inmate tattoos. 

Also included in the volume was a chapter on the various types of murder which drew heavily from Ferri’s work in the previous century. The chapter was written by Susanna Ukshe, who had published a somewhat incendiary criminological article on degeneration theory – that inherited disorders become more acute from one generation to the next – in 1915, before moving to Moscow following the revolutions and Civil War.[6] Following the quantitative approach typical of the rest of the volume, Ukshe’s chapter suggested that there had been a substantial increase in the number of reported murders between 1912-21. 

Figure 3. Vasili Komarov and wife Sophia. Source: S. A. Ukshe, ‘Ubiytsy’ in Aronovich, A. M. and M. N. Gernet (eds.), Prestupnyi Mir Moskvy: Sbornik Statei (Moscow, 1924)

To explain this rise, Ukshe developed Ferri’s prior definitions and classification schema to subsequently divide her chapter into three types of  murderer: pre-mediated, accidental, and the ‘mentally-ill’.[7] Illustrating this further, Ukshe further adapted Ferri’s work on pathological fatalism to discuss the well-known case of serial killer Vasili Komarov.[8] Executed in the summer of 1923 for killing 33 people inside his Moscow apartment, Komarov became Ukshe’s most prominent example of a pre-meditated murderer. 

Ukshe suggested that the case deviated from the Italian criminologist’s views due the importance of Komarov’s immediate social conditions in a city which had been ravaged by food crises caused by the civil war, despite linking elements of Komarov’s biography with Ferri’s work on the negative effects of alcoholism,.[9] Ukshe would also situate Komarov alongside another prominent case study from Siberia, in which a deer-hunter had begun to murder individuals from the parties he had been paid to supervise. In the chapter, Ukshe suggested that the only difference between the two pre-mediated murderers was the contrasting backdrops of remote taiga compared to the fetid atmosphere of the city.[10]

The Moscow Bureau would further suggest that murder had become mechanised, with individuals like Vasili Komarov committing exact copies of his victims as if on a production line.[11] All of Komarov’s victims had been murdered using the same modus operandi, as they were struck with a three-foot hammer to the back of the head, before being identically tied up and deposited in bags scattered around the central Shabolovka area of the city. These modernity metaphors would not only complement the bureau’s main thesis regarding the negative effects of urbanisation but were linked too to the turmoil of the First World War, for which the late Imperial regime was considered to blame. This, in itself, was a seemingly contradictory position, given that a number of important events in Komarov’s biography, occurred while fighting for the Bolsheviks in the Civil War which immediately followed their overthrow of power in 1917, such as his ability to fortuitously avoid his own execution, and further witness to other widespread violence. 

This was not the only curious omission in Ukshe’s reconstruction of the Komarov case. Vasili’s wife Sophia, executed alongside him as an accomplice, was not mentioned in the chapter despite a prevalence in contemporary criminological thought to present rising female criminal involvement as a progressive trend.[12]

Despite these inconsistencies – all fascinating in their own right – Ukshe’s adaption of Ferri’s work demonstrates how elements of nineteenth century thinking continued to influence discussions amongst social science professionals after 1917.[13] Unfortunately for the Moscow Bureau, this link, which could be traced (albeit indirectly) back to Lombrosian thought, would be one of the reasons that growing criticism from inside the Communist Academy saw them quietly wound down as the 1920s drew to a close. Following the ascent of the NKVD (state secret police), any criminological thought would now be entirely shunned in favour of the widespread removal of any groups perceived to be obstructive to the Soviet project who were now sentenced to lengthy terms in the growing Gulag system with little consideration for the origins of their crimes. 

Mark Vincent is a historian of crime and punishment in late Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. He has recently published an article on prisoner hierarchies of the 1920s in the journal Revolutionary Russia and is a contributor to the upcoming volume Reading Russian Sources: A Student’s Guide to Text and Visual Sources from Russian History (Routledge, 2020). His first monograph Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps, 1924-53 is set be published next year by Bloomsbury, and is currently available for pre-order

Alongside looking at the influence of various forms of criminal behavioural rituals, such as tattoos and slang, within the Gulag system, the book also investigates how criminological thought of the 1920s was represented in newspapers written by inmates at some of the most notorious locations of early Soviet penality. These articles, developed from the ideas of criminologists outside the camps, help to show a much more detailed prisoner hierarchy than previous represented in any English-language publication and elucidate our understanding of daily life behind the barbed wire. 


[1] Daniel Beer, Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930 (London, 2008), p.102. 

[2] Beer, Renovating Russia, p.125. 

[3] Sharon Kowalsky, Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia, 188-1930 (DeKalb, 2009), p.32.

[4] Enrico Ferri, Criminal Sociology, edited by W. Douglas Morrison (London, 1895), p.2, 16.

[5] Mikhail Gernet, ‘Predislovie’ in Aronovich, A. M. and M. N. Gernet (eds.), Prestupnyi Mir Moskvy: Sbornik Statei (Moscow, 1924), p. vi. 

[6] S. A. Ukshe, ‘Vyrozhdenie, ego rol’ v prestupnosti i mery bor’by s sim’, Vestnik obshchestvennoi gigieny, sudebnoi i prakticheskoi meditsiny, no. 42 (June 1915) cited in: Beer, Renovating Russia, p.117.

[7] S. A. Ukshe, ‘Ubiytsy’ in Aronovich and Gernet (eds.), Prestupnyi Mir Moskvy, p.47, 63, 69. 

[8] Ferri, Criminal Sociology, pp.7-8. 

[9] Mauricio Borrero, Hungry Moscow: Scarcity and Urban Society in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1921 (New York, 2003), pp.65-87.

[10] Ukshe, ‘Ubiysty’, pp.51-2. 

[11] Gernet, ‘Predislovie’, p. xxxi. 

[12] Ukshe, ‘Ubiysty’, p.65; Kowalsky, Deviant Women, p.181. 

[13] Beer, Renovating Russia, p.209. 

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