Criminologists have recently begun applying theories derived from the study of interpersonal violence to aspects of intra-elite political violence formerly seen as the preserve of historians and political scientists. We use a database of acts of violence by Russian and Soviet rulers against family members and other intimates from 1500 to 1953 to test two competing theories of intra-elite violence, Elias’s “civilizing process,” which interprets declining interpersonal violence in European societies as the result of long-term cultural change; and Cooney’s “privatization of violence,” which holds that with the formation of modern states, fewer motivations for interpersonal violence remain, and public authorities have largely monopolized dispute resolution. In Russia, we find a trend toward less violence–less in quantity, as well as lesser in severity and publicity–by rulers against intimates over the 18th and 19th centuries. In contrast, the early Soviet period sees a renewed increase in violence against intimates of General Secretary Joseph Stalin, although directed against a different “at risk” group of intimates. Our findings provide some support for the “civilizing process” hypothesis, but also suggest the need for a more multifaceted model of intra-elite violence, integrating distinct but interacting individual, cultural, and political levels of causation.
Matthew Light is associate professor of criminology and sociolegal studies at the University of Toronto. Light received his doctorate in political science at Yale University in 2006. His research concerns migration policy, law enforcement, and criminal justice in post-Soviet countries. His book, Fragile Migration Rights: Freedom of Movement in Post-Soviet Russia, was published by Routledge in 2016. He will be visiting at UCRS from May 1 to 31.