By Anna Lukina
As one of the most publicized and mysterious —yet surprisingly obscured— Soviet criminal cases, the Semenchuk case (1936) provides one of the most striking examples of the use of the Soviet court as an instrument of propaganda. The Semenchuk case was, in many ways, a “rehearsal” for the subsequent infamous Moscow Show Trials; it focused on the supposed banditry of Konstantin Semenchuk, the head of a polar station on the Wrangel Island, and Stepan Startsev, his associate. They were accused of sabotage, mistreating the local population, destroying the winterers’ morale, and, finally, murdering Dr Nikolai Wulfson, who threatened to report their crimes to the higher authorities.
So far, the “plot” of the case does not seem extraordinary; unlike subsequent trials, there was no ‘plot’ to overthrow the Soviet state, just a minor local official abusing his position. Still, the case attracted a lot of attention at the time. The prosecutor was Andrey Vyshinsky, later on famous for his role in the Moscow Trials. The defence attorneys, Nikolai Komodov and Sergey Kaznacheev, were also some of the best and most prominent at the time. The trial was widely reported in the press (including Time magazine), cited in works of legal scholarship (such as Vyshinsky’s “The Theory of Soviet Evidence Law”), and even put into prose by Lev Sheinin, a criminal investigator and detective-writer. The case report (i.e., a transcript of all proceedings) was widely circulated among academics and professionals.
Why then did this case attract so much attention? There are two possible explanations. The first is that Semenchuk and Startsev were, essentially, scapegoats for deeper problems common to all Soviet polar stations. Historical records show that drunkenness and disorder were commonplace in these locations, as well as “imperialist” attitudes towards indigenous people. Whilst the government promoted their exploration missions, these ultimately failed. This was mostly due to the missions attracting the “politically illiterate” and others generally ill-suited to the role.
Exposing this failure would, however, be detrimental to the population’s morale, and so the state decided to follow its usual playbook and blame the structural failures on individual “wreckers” like Semenchuk and Startsev. The second objective was that by bringing the case to the public eye, the “Soviet legal narrative” could be used to solidify the perception the Soviet state and its agents wanted to create.
One of them was, as in previous cases, an appeal to the character rather than facts. Luckily for the prosecution, Semenchuk and Startsev seemed to fill almost “fairytale” archetypes. Semenchuk was presented as a self-centered, power-hungry mastermind of the whole conspiracy, while Startsev was his cowardly associate. Interestingly enough, the defence tried to absolve Startsev of his crimes by adding to the negative characteristics; apparently, Startsev was a “half-barbarian” and lacked individual agency, thus rendering him incapable of taking part in the conspiracy.
This shows that the technique utilized by the prosecutors was not to mindlessly tarnish opponents, but to make them fill a specific designated “role”. This also extended to creating “heroes” of the “story”; Wulfson and his wife were presented as loyal, selfless, and ideologically sound characters, as opposed to their assailants. This helped not only to create new role models for the public, but to also sway the court’s decision, given that the evidence was limited to the words of a “bad character” against those of a “good character”.
Similarly, the prosecution centered on the ideological character of Semenchuk’s and Startsev’s crimes. For instance, their treatment of the local population was discussed at length and criticized as “imperialist”. The prosecutor, however, made sure to let the court (and the wider audience) know that these attitudes were “relics of the past” and certainly not commonplace in the Soviet Union, therefore shifting the blame on the individual perpetrators. To a modern reader this, however, is not corroborated by the clichés used to portray the native population as naïve and easily governed; showing that concerns about the “colonialism” of Semenchuk were not genuine and used to deflect attention from the broader problem with the Soviet mode of governance and general attitudes.
Another ideological point considered the past of the perpetrators – Semenchuk and Startsev were found to be involved with anti-Revolutionary activities in the past, Startsev fighting in Kolchak’s army and Semenchuk being convicted of theft in the past. The question of how they were allowed to take on leadership positions afterwards, however, was conveniently ignored: probably to suit the overall trend of blame deflection.
While the defence tried, in some way, to alleviate the fate of Semenchuk and Startsev, they still acted as agents of the state in constructing and developing the narrative. Most of their input was to support the charges, add to the negative characterization of their “clients”, and even congratulate the prosecutor on his findings. One cannot, however, blame Kaznacheev and Komodov for failing to perform their duties as defendants, since this was the dominant model of defence in Soviet academia and legal practice.
Overall, the Semenchuk case is full of fascinating insights into how the Soviet court was used for propagandistic purposes: this is how a mundane criminal case became a cautionary tale for millions of Soviet citizens. The prosecution was tasked with writing “a perfect crime”, and they achieved this – consequently shaping Soviet legal culture for many years afterwards.
Anna Lukina is a 3rd year BA in Jurisprudence student in the University of Oxford. Her research has so far focused on legal narratives in the Soviet criminal case and Soviet conceptions of human rights(1). She plans to combine Soviet legal history, socio-legal studies and legal theory in her work. This blog post is partly based on her article, Anna Lukina, “The Semenchuk Case of 1936: Storytelling and Propaganda above the Law in the Soviet Criminal Trial”, Review of Central and East European Law, Volume 41, Issue 2, 2016, 63-116. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/15730352-04102001