In the GULAG, prisoners were officially subdivided into two categories: the socially distant and the socially close.
The socially close were what we call common criminals. Murderers, gangsters, rapists, robbers, thieves. They got preferential treatment and were allowed to torture the socially distant prisoners, stealing their food and belongings.
The socially distant prisoners were those jailed for political crimes.
This was an official policy. It was considered that a common criminal could be rehabilitated. The theory was that a criminal only ever committed crime because he had been oppressed by
structural racism the unjust capitalist system or by the remnants of bourgeois mentality that still existed in the USSR. A criminal belonged to a favored social class and had to be treated as a brother, not an enemy.
But political prisoners were class enemies and deserved no mercy. There were frequent amnesties for all categories of common criminals but never any for the political prisoners. Of course, what made you a political prisoner could be something extremely trivial. If you had a party at your house and only played music records and no records of Stalin’s speeches – or not enough records of Stalin’s speeches, or you looked inattentive while listening to the records of Stalin’s speeches, or didn’t stand up fast enough when a record of Stalin’s speeches was played at a house party – that officially made you worse than a convicted career criminal with a record from here to infinity.
Of course, both groups were in jail. Stalin wasn’t a US Democrat. He didn’t want criminals running around and terrorizing people in the streets. The ones he amnestied went back in fast enough when they reoffended.
There was one exception, though. Stalin allowed a culture of heightened criminality to exist during Hitler’s invasion and for a couple of years immediately after. The reason was that the population needed to be schooled into not questioning the early failures in the war. Street crime pushes people closer to supporting authoritarian rule. They become more willing to accept a limit on their civil freedoms in hopes that the authoritarians will make the streets safe.