Socialism in Translation: The Challenges of Teaching Communist History in the 21st Century

By Lani Seelinger

Let’s say that you want to teach communist history to students whose countries were never under communist rule. It’s an important episode of history to address, especially in the EU, which includes countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain. When you find source material you want to use, where do you start? By translating it, of course.

If you just translate the words in the source and have students look at it from their contemporary perspectives, however, you’re going to be facing a minefield of potential problems. Historical representations of Eastern and Central Europe during the communist period and otherwise so often orientalise it, which is counterproductive to the whole point of integrating these histories within the general history of Europe.

The best way to address these problems, then, is to integrate an element of cultural translation when preparing teaching materials — and to find sources that don’t need an overwhelming amount of explanation. This is particularly important when dealing with the sort of language that the communist regimes employed, because the people reading it and hearing it at the time would have picked up on the linguistic symbols and slogans that they were accustomed to, whereas the same language now doesn’t carry as much meaning for modern audiences.

We’ve seen an example of this in the news recently, when American president Donald Trump referred to the media on Twitter as an ‘enemy of the people’. While we cannot be sure why exactly he chose to use this phrase, it was a red flag for those who have studied the history of Stalinism, as it was one of Stalin’s favorite loaded phrases.

Knowing the mere meaning of the words isn’t enough to grasp the significance of such an utterance in 21st century politics; the cultural and historical weight must be noted for those trying to learn about it from the outside.

Let’s take a look at one of the video clips on our educational website, Socialism Realised. We call this one ‘Girl on a Tractor’, and it’s a clip from a 1950s propaganda film about collectivisation in Czechoslovakia.

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We’ve translated the lyrics in the video, but they’re relatively meaningless to modern audiences in either language. ‘In the sea of air and airplane/ tractor drivers of vast fields’? ‘The farmer worked like a dog/ we’ll plough the old boundaries’? There are, however, symbols hidden in those words that might have meant something to the people who heard them, and they certainly held some significance for the people who wrote them.

The references to airplanes and tractors allude to technology and progress, which was an important selling point of collectivization for those running it. Individual farmers wouldn’t have the resources to purchase tractors, but look at the power of the collective! Without the tractors, a farmer had to ‘[work] like a dog’ inside ‘the old boundaries’ of the fields — which the tractors are now happily ploughing through to create the collective.

And then there’s the music, which is Russian in style and not native to the former Czechoslovakia at all. The resulting image is, of course, of a bountiful harvest and a happy farmer.

Modern students can see the bountiful harvest and the happy farmers, and they can gather that it’s a clip from a propaganda film without any additional information about the symbolism in the lyrics. ‘Girl on a Tractor’ works precisely because it contains elements that were clear enough to all of the audiences that we tested without needing significant cultural contextualization of its language. In order to teach histories of authoritarianism to web users who may be approaching the subject for the first time, this absolutely key.

Take, on the other hand, an example of a source that we ended up cutting out. The newspaper article ‘Who Is Václav Havel’ was published in the Czechoslovak government newspaper in 1989 as a hit piece, portraying Havel as the scion of a rich family who went on to launch a ‘“holy war” against the socialist state.”

When we piloted the article with international students, it launched our focus group into a heated discussion of whether it was a propaganda piece from a socialist state or a laudatory article from a magazine like Time. The language implying that Havel was an enemy of the people, without stating so explicitly, went completely unnoticed by a number of our testing subjects, which showed us that it was not a suitable piece of educational material for our desired audience.

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In its place, we decided to feature instead an article entitled ‘Losers and Usurpers’, which has a stronger tone and language that is more blatantly defamatory. No one needs an explanation of the linguistic tropes that communist regimes used in order to figure out that phrases like ‘dogged fight against progress’, ‘unstable and disoriented individuals’, or ‘these usurpers scorn our people’ are meant to be negative. The ability to immediately understand the perspective of the article then allows users to pick up on elements of the communist rhetoric that they might not have known to begin with — the negative connotation of the bourgeoisie, for example, or the vaunted position of the proletariat, thus building a cultural ‘vocabulary’ with which to contextualize the less explicit pieces.

The biggest challenge of putting together our online learning environment was choosing material that could be understood by the broadest possible audience of people who have no experience with authoritarianism. The pieces we’ve chosen, then, are the ones that we believe are best able to get people thinking critically about the period — and those are the ones that needed the least cultural translation. Learning is, however, always a work in progress — so if you’ve got comments about something that we chose to include, we are always happy to hear them.

Lani Seelinger is based in the Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Prague. She is also the co-creator and curator of Socialism Realised, an online learning environment aimed at forging a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in communist regimes, and a comparison of these experiences to the present. You can find Socialism Realised on Twitter at @SocialismR.

 

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‘Enemies of the people’: Fake news and Bolshevik manipulation of the press in early Soviet Sormovo

By Laura Sumner

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One of Donald Trump’s references to ‘fake news’

 

‘The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!’- Donald Trump (17th February 2017)

‘This strike is subordination… In short, they [Mensheviks and Right SRs] acted as enemies of the proletariat, the enemies of the people, like true Whites.’- ‘Sormovskaia Zhizn’’, Rabochii- Krestianskii Nizhegorodskii Listok  (18th May 1918)

‘Fake news’ was named word of the year in 2016.[1] It was one of the buzz phrases used by sections of the media and politicians against apparently false news stories and campaign claims. Whilst endorsing fabricated news stories himself, Donald Trump has appropriated the term ‘fake news’ to use against sections of the American press which are critical of him. This supposedly ‘post truth’ era in 2017 may seem like the beginning of a slippery slope of backhanded political campaigns from which we can never return. However, there is nothing new about fake news or accusations of fake news. In fact, Trump’s hostile language towards the press is sharply reminiscent of the attempts of the early Soviet state 100 years ago to shape a revolutionary discourse during the Civil War.

Sormovo was a large metalworking factory and industrial complex situated in Nizhegorod province. It had a skilled and literate workforce which had a lot in common with metalworkers in Moscow and Petrograd. However, unlike Moscow and Petrograd it was not the Bolsheviks but the Socialist Revolutionaries, or SRs who commanded the support of Sormovo workers. They won a majority of Sormovo votes for the Constituent Assembly in

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Sormovo workers in the foundry workshop, 1923

November 1917 and continued to have a presence inside the factory and in the Sormovo soviet until mid 1918. The Bolsheviks sought to create a negative discourse about their moderate socialist opposition in Sormovo in an attempt to elicit the support of Sormovo workers. Smith argues that the monopolisation of revolutionary discourse by the Bolsheviks was one of the main reasons they managed to secure state power during the Civil War.[2] The power of the Bolshevik discourse of ‘class war’ is revealed in the Soviet state’s ability to portray the moderate socialist opposition as enemies not only of the new Bolshevik state, but of the people, despite their enduring support in the provinces.

 

After the moderate socialist press was shut down in Sormovo in January 1918, it was extremely difficult for the SRs and Mensheviks to openly challenge Bolshevik policies and rhetoric. Bolshevik newspapers were now one of the only official sources of information. The Sormovo Bolsheviks utilised the local press to speak directly to metalworkers in a section called ‘Sormovo life’ (Sormovskaia Zhizn’). This cemented a Soviet discourse not only about the political opposition but about workers and the Bolsheviks themselves. The Bolsheviks explained labour activism in Sormovo by creating and establishing a discourse that labelled the moderate socialists as ‘bourgeois’ enemies. They were blamed for acting falsely towards workers by trying to dupe them into the destruction of the Soviet state and were used as scapegoats for ongoing unrest amongst labourers. During a strike in 1918 the Bolsheviks publicly accused the Mensheviks of infiltrating certain workshops in Sormovo and persuading workers to be violent during a strike:

‘The Mensheviks and Right Socialist-Revolutionaries have long inserted themselves in Sormovo to agitate against the Bolsheviks and Left SRs. They enjoy all the difficulties that the country is going through. [They] excite the workers against the Soviet government policy and against the dictatorship of the proletariat.’[3]

This type of language is suggestive of a Bolshevik siege mentality and is remarkably similar to Trump’s twitter rants which have accused sections of the mainstream media of lying and deceiving the American people. Like Trump, the Sormovo Bolsheviks created a discourse about themselves in reference to their relationship to workers. Indeed, published Bolshevik resolutions often began ‘we Sormovo workers agree…’. Like Trump’s populist presentation of himself as a successful self-made businessman representing the ordinary working man, the Bolsheviks presented themselves as workers and as the party of the workers, which represented their views and best interests. The Bolsheviks’ was based on what the moderate socialists were not. The moderate socialists were bourgeois and the Bolsheviks were not, the bourgeoisie exploited workers and the Bolsheviks did not.

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Bolshevik newspaper Rabochii-Krest’ianskii Nizhegorodskii Listok

 

The Sormovo workers were given no agency in the narrative of labour activism in Bolshevik local press. They were merely puppets being manipulated by the moderate socialists. In private, the local and provincial organisation in Nizhnii Novgorod were in a continual state of fear about Sormovo workers, of their labour activism, ingrained support for the SRs and their integral role in the production of munitions for the Civil War. In private, Soviet reports about the causes of strikes are not steeped in ideological language. In a report of another strike in 1919 the Bolsheviks reported how they believed the strike had begun:

‘The reason for the outbreak of the strike was mainly about the insufficient amount of food issued per month to workers.’ [4]

This reveals a major discrepancy in the Sormovo Bolsheviks discourse about workers. In private correspondence the Bolsheviks were aware of how the food crisis in Sormovo was a prominent grievance of Sormovo workers. In the public press the workers themselves were not publicly blamed for the strike as this would have raised ideological questions about the nature of the Soviet state being a workers’ regime and representing workers in Sormovo.

By using labels such as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘enemy of the people’ to identify enemies of the state, the Bolsheviks created a powerful revolutionary discourse. The use of labels as a means of distinguishing the opposition had no base in reality but was a means to distinguish the state’s allies from its enemies. The fluidity of these labels created an atmosphere of fear and became a coercive tool, which was a formative experience for the Soviet Union, not unlike the ‘fake news’ phenomenon at play at present in the United States.

Laura Sumner is a final year ESRC funded History PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her research ‘Ideology and Identity: ‘Knowing’ workers in Early Soviet Russia, 1917-1921’ explores discourses about worker identity in the Early Soviet Period with a focus on the factory complex Sormovo in Nizhegorod Province. You can find her on Twitter:

References:

[1] ‘’Fake news’ named word of the year by Macquarie Dictionary’, The Guardian (24/01/2017) [https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jan/25/fake-news-named-word-of-the-year-by-macquarie-dictionary]

[2] S. Smith, Captives of revolution: The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolshevik dictatorship, 1918-1923 (Pittsburgh, 2011) pp. xiv-xv

[3] ‘Sormovskaya Zhizn’’, Rabochii- Krestianskii Nizhegorodskii Listok (18th May 1918)

[4] GOPANO (Gosudarstvennyi obshchestvenno-politicheskii arkhiv Nizhegorodskoi oblasti ) f.34, op.1, d.61: Sormovskii Raikom RKP(b) Nizhegorodskaia Gubernia: Materialii Komissii po zabastovki na Sormovskii zavoda (27th March 1919)

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: Author’s screenshot of Donald Trump’s 25/02/2017 tweet

Image 2 (Sormovo workers in the foundry workshop): V.A. Kazakov, Revoliutsei Prizvannye: Ocherki ob ychastnikakh revoliutsionnogo dvizheniia v Nizhnegorodskoi Gubernii, vstupivshchikh v partiiu v 1917 godu (Gorky, 1987), p.142

Image 3: Author’s own