History Matters: ‘On the Language of “Authoritarian” Regimes’

Written by Hannah Parker, this post originally appeared on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters blog on February 25, 2016

On February 12 2016, Steph Wright (who works on disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War) and I held a conference on ‘The Language of Authoritarian Regimes’. The day aimed to explore the creation, dissemination and reception of discourse in regimes commonly considered to be ‘authoritarian’ from an interdisciplinary perspective; to discuss how to effectively analyse discourse through a range of different sources; and to understand any broad parallels that can be drawn between different regimes. 1

The speakers addressed a fascinating range of topics, covering Soviet literacy campaigns and the texts of Soviet citizens; the ‘emancipation’ of Tunisian women to create a modernised national identity; personal naming and mental health discourse in Franco’s Spain; music and ballet in the Soviet Union; Nazi language in the context of historical discourse analysis; and the translation of foreign texts for Soviet citizens.

Though there was clearly much ideological variation between the different regimes discussed, many of the processes occurring within these societies were in fact very similar, and so I’ve taken the liberty of articulating some of my own, quite general observations. The workshop originated in an interest Steph and I share in the ways citizens negotiated and shaped the discourses of gender and citizenship they were presented in our respective research fields. I was aware, based upon my own research into Russian women’s self-perceptions and social roles, of the degree of ‘negotiation’ of authoritarian government and discourse in the Soviet Union, but after listening to the other papers delivered, I was struck by the extent to which this process of negotiation was a key feature of authoritarian societies more generally.

Zhenshchina na rabotye

Due to these processes of negotiation, a common feature of the running of ‘authoritarian’ regimes is risk management. Inherent to the nature of all the regimes and societies discussed at the workshop was the task of balancing policies geared – often very sincerely – towards politically ‘emancipating’ a population, and managing this sense of ‘emancipation’ so as to maintain the acquiescence of the people.

Within this process, literacy, language, arts, and practices of personal naming were all key strategies for interaction with the discourse of a regime, through which citizens could express identity, dissent or compliance. These strategies also presented the regimes with a significant problem: how to manage these interactions, and the risks posed by the ways in which they contributed to a sense of discursive heterogeneity which coexisted uncomfortably with the idea that there should be a ‘homogenous’ character to state, society and the arts.

International LiteratureSamantha Sherry’s paper on the translation of foreign literature in the Soviet Union, and its inherent challenges, encapsulated this risk management problem precisely. Officials feared ‘opening the floodgates’, so to speak, to Western influences and so they censored foreign texts by removing not just whole passages or texts, but manipulating the entire ideological premises to ‘complement’ the broader principles and finer details of Soviet ideology.

The interdisciplinary element of the event worked really well, and definitely broadened my perspective on discursive matters within and between authoritarian regimes. In particular, the papers given on the development of Soviet ballet, and the use of time in the choral music of Veljo Tormis, highlighted the importance of conceptions of time, movement, and space as a ‘language’ to negotiate dominant discourse.

The concept of monumental time as the time of oppressed people, discussed by Claire McGinn in her paper on the music of Veljo Tormis, highlighted the dichotomy of time in application to both state and society. All of the societies in question sought to ‘modernise’ or ‘mechanise’ their populations in some way: a future-driven linear historical time characterises state discourse and understandings of ‘progress’ in authoritarian (and ostensibly many other twentieth-century) regimes.

Oppressed people on the other hand belong to monumental time – devoid of the linear regularisation of historical time – which is something the Tunisian state arguably sought to address in its framing of the 1956 personal status code, attempting to link the modernisation of the Tunisian state to concepts of kinship to create.

To some extent this is also reflected in the development of ballet in the early Soviet Union: the use of folk dance, the reworking of old narratives, as well as the evocation of non-verbal discourse all functioned as a means of negotiating life under such severe creative restrictions. And this speaks directly to the problem of ‘risk management’ with which policy makers – and censors – in these states sought to grapple.

The papers delivered on the day have brought me closer to an integrated understanding of ‘authoritarianism’ as a social and discursive phenomenon, and have added invaluable insight to my own research on the reception of Soviet gender ideology by ordinary women. Steph and I were also delighted with the variety and cohesiveness of the programme overall, for which our guest speakers are entirely responsible.

Based on the success of the day, we will be starting a blog based on the same theme. Any relevant contributions would be much appreciated, so please send any expressions of interest to hparker2@sheffield.ac.uk or smwright1@sheffield.ac.uk!

Hannah Parker is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the reception of gender ideology by women in early Soviet Russia. Steph Wright is a WRoCAH-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield. She’s researching disabled nationalist veterans and perceptions of masculinity in Franco’s Spain. You can find them both on twitter @_hnnhprkr and @EstefWright. A full list of speakers and their papers can be found in the conference programme.

Header image: Language of Authoritarian Regimes poster, courtesy of Guy Parker.

In-text image 1: Women at work in a large textile factory. Picture extracted from the article ‘Woman at Work’, from “Женский журнал” (Women’s Journal), 1928.

In-text image 2: Internatsional’naia literature (International Literature) No. 1.

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