The Soviet Court as a Propaganda Instrument

By Anna Lukina

“The Soviet court should, above all, persuade, prove and subordinate the public attention to its moral influence and authority.”

Andrei Vyshinskii, “Theory of Evidence in the Soviet Law” (1946)

It is well-known that the Soviet court procedure, especially in the 1930s, can be characterized by its lack of due process, judicial independence, and fair outcomes. It remains unclear, however, why these legal institutions were preserved and, on the surface, respected at all. The core of Marxist-Leninist philosophy was suspicious of legal formalism, with early 1920s legal scholars such as Pashukanis and Krylenko advocating for the ‘withering away’ of the state and hence law.

Yet this position was fundamentally reversed in 1930s. This can be explained by the fact that Stalin saw the courts’ hidden potential as a political tool: not as an explicit source of power (since coercion could be, and was, applied via extralegal procedures), but as a mode of communication with the population.

Even before the 1930s “conservative shift”, Soviet society recognized this hidden meaning of judicial procedures. Some of the 1920s trials such as the Trial of the SRs (1922) and the Shakhty Trial (1928) were more like “trial-lectures” addressed to a wide audience of spectators. In the 1930s, however, this function was enhanced since the state, aided by the Show Trials prosecutor Andrey Vyshinskii as a chief reformer, invested in legal education, legal scholarship, and the reorganization of judiciary and related institutions. This was followed by a “refetishisation of the law” – an explicit acknowledgment of legal order as the cornerstone of socialism and a building force in Soviet society.

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A photo from the trial of Semenchuk and Startsev (1936), which was characterised by strict adherence to Soviet legal narrative canons. Here, the defence attorney (who really acted as a ‘second prosecutor’) is addressing the court.

This, in turn, has increased the use of Soviet court for propagandistic purposes, creating what I call a “Soviet legal narrative”. It can be briefly described as a chronological account of the facts of a specific case, which was presented as the primary ‘story’ in the Soviet court. Even though the notion of a legal narrative is not unique to the Soviet legal system, and has been used to describe legal procedures in a variety of jurisdiction, its Soviet form was characterized by a number of distinct features.

Firstly, as mentioned above, the Soviet legal narrative was addressed to an unusually wide audience. While ordinarily a story presented in court is intended to influence the judge and the jury, the Soviet court was officially designated a function of educating wider population. This “education” did not only extend to ideologically neutral values such as respect for law, but covered instillation of more specific Marxist-Leninist values. It was disseminated via the openness of trials themselves, wide reporting in the (state-controlled) media, and even novels and short stories based on real-life trials. It can be partly attributed to the lack of adversarial procedures, which diminished the role of the court in the decision-making: when the outcome is pre-determined, there is no one to persuade.

Secondly, it can be viewed as an official agenda. The Soviet legal doctrine furthered an extremely idiosyncratic role of the court: educating the population as synonymous with establishing an objective truth. However, unlike similar (but more legitimate) concepts in contemporary civil law systems, the latter meant construing impressions as reality using materialistic dialectics – a strong ground for creating a narrative deviating from facts. Therefore, it can be argued that propaganda appeared to be an implied goal of the Soviet court in that period.

Thirdly, the Soviet narrative was characterized by a specific type of content. For instance, it presented the mens rea (the “mental” element of the crime – such as motives and intentions) as more important than the unlawful act itself. Anti-Soviet motives were considered as aggravating factors and therefore actively discouraged when the narrative was disseminated to the legal audience regardless of the objective impact of the defendant’s actions.

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A Soviet propaganda poster from 1948. “Bourgeois court is the court of the rich, while the Soviet court is the court of the people!”

Moreover, many distinctly colourful assertions were made about the defendant’s character and their class standing, as well as the victim’s relative characteristics. These “portraits” created a story which was easily digestible by the audience, with clear protagonists and antagonists: a cautionary tale designed to shape the existing social norms. In addition, it represented class struggle, turning the trial not only into a battle of personalities, but a tension between the oppressor and the oppressed. This provided both a justification for coercion and a political lesson for the spectators to learn from.

Finally, the omnipresence of this particular variety of narrative was cultivated by the fact that the Soviet court structure was far from the “storytelling contest” seen in adversarial trials: both the court and the prosecution followed the same line from the very start. Even the defence was not exempt from repeating the official line, as defence attorneys were considered the servants of the state as much as prosecutors, and so were compelled to advance similar goals and ideas. In this sense, the Soviet legal narrative was hardly challenged by any competing stories, which solidified it in the audience’s minds.

Therefore, the Soviet legal narrative phenomenon and the use of the court as a propaganda device can explain many peculiarities of trials in that period. Even though the rule of law would have presented a challenge to the totalitarian leadership, a pretense of the rule of law was, ironically, central to its strengthening.

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

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Zealots, bureaucrats or ordinary people? Looking for the Soviet censor.

By Samantha Sherry

More often than not, the language of censorship employs tropes of conflict and struggle. One wages a battle with censorship, or struggles against it. Writers are ‘victims’ of an absolute evil. What emerges time and time again is the idea of censorship as an almost abstract force. In my work on the censorship of the post-Stalin period, I am concerned with shifting this view, with finding the individual and examining his or her position within the ‘totalitarian’ system.

In the Soviet Union, the main arm of the extensive censorship system was Glavlit – the main administration for the maintenance of state secrets in the press (its full name

Обложка_брошюры_~Список_лиц,_все_произведения_которых_подлежат_изъятию_(1938-1950)~
Cover of the pamphlet, ‘List of persons, all of the work of whom is to be removed in accordance with Glavlit decree for the period 1938-1950′

would change several times from its foundation in 1922). Staffed mainly by individuals recruited for their ideological outlook and political correctness in the Stalin period, Glavlit became an increasingly professional outfit in the years following Stalin’s death. Censors were now educated, literate people, drawn from the ranks of publishing and journalism graduates, scientists and engineers.

The unintended consequence of this professionalization was that censors developed an increasingly strong literary and cultural sense. Some authors have recalled how censors tried to interfere in the literary process, making suggestions about how they might ‘improve’ their works, and in certain cases, particularly in the late Soviet period, where the censor became more willing to intervene and be part of publication debates.

They even, surprising as it might seem, tried to promote books they thought suitable, or push forward their own individual agenda. For instance, economist and co-editor of the magazine Russia, Igor’ Birman, remembered mobilising his contacts with the censor attached to the Ekonomika publishing house in order to expedite the publication of his own works with other major Moscow-based publishers.[1]

A number of censors even worked as novelists or poets – many after they left the institution, but some published their own original works while they censored the work of colleagues. For some, regulating literature was the next best thing to producing it. A telling statement is made by Vladimir Solodin, who led Glavlit in the 1980s, in an interview conducted after the collapse of the Soviet Union: ‘Naturally, I did not dream of [becoming a censor] from childhood. And I consulted for a long time with my friends. But the fact was, I wanted to write. And the route via censorship into the writing community was shorter than the route from the street’.[2] The links between the literary and political worlds, always close in the Soviet Union, are particularly striking where the censor is concerned.

At the lower level, a number of censors also worked as authors or poets. Glavlit’s files show that rather than being mutually exclusive, the roles of author, editor and censor could be combined. One interesting case is that of Nina Matveevna Berkova (1925-2003). Berkova entered Glavlit after graduating from the history faculty of MGU in 1952, the same year she joined the Communist Party.

Berkova moved between the literary and governmental spheres throughout her life and in the late 1960s lived in a building for KGB employees. During her time working for Glavlit, she wrote sci-fi novels under a pseudonym – perhaps a sign that the authorial role was not officially approved of – and after she left the censorship agency was a prolific author, editor and patron of sci-fi and fantasy and mystery literature and maintained close links with authors such as the liberal Strugatskii brothers, who had experienced their own struggles with censorship.

The traditional view of what the novelist and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn looks out from a train, Vladivostok 1994. Photo by Mikhail Efstaviev (full attrib. below)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn termed the ‘literarily illiterate people’ therefore bears some reconsideration. [3] Scholarship on Soviet censorship, by positing the censor as a monstrous kind of ‘Other’, antithetical to an oppressed creator of ‘pure’ literary production has hitherto obscured the complexity of censorial practices and the reality of the existence of the censor as a social actor, with complicated and contradictory motivations. In doing so, it obscures the close links between censorial practices and literary practices and the overlap between the intellectual and censorial spheres.

Where censors produced poetry and novels, we cannot simply think of them as anti-intellectuals or destroyers of literature. I will conclude by quoting the Lithuanian author Tomas Venclova, who railed against literary censorship: ‘For after all, the censor, too, is human. Like Homer, he might have to take a nap now and then. […] Although the censor is usually faceless, and never communicates with the author eye to eye, once in a great while one can play on his emotions, on his desire to spite someone, on his secret dissatisfaction with his life and profession, on virtually anything at all’.[4]

Biography

Samantha Sherry holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. From 2013 to 2016 she was Leverhulme Career Fellow in Russian at the University of Oxford. She currently works at the University of Reading. Her book, Discourses of Regulation and Resistance: Censoring Translation in the Stalin and Khrushchev Era Soviet Union is published by Edinburgh University Press.

References:

[1] ‘Soviet Censorship: Discussion’, in The Red Pencil: Artists, Scholars, and Censors in the USSR, ed. by Marianna Tax Choldin and Maurice Friedberg (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), pp. 53–67 (p. 65).

[2] ‘Tsenzory: Inter’viu S Byvshim Zamestitelem Nachal’nika Upvravleniia Glavlita (1984-1989 Gg.) Iuriem Otreshko’, Kommersant” Vlast’, 1997.

[3] Cited in T. M. Goriaeva, Politicheskaia Tsenzura v SSSR. 1917-1991 Gg., Kul’tura I Vlast’ Ot Stalina Do Gorbacheva. Issledovaniia (Moscow: Rosspen, 2002), p. 330.

[4] Tomas Venclova, Forms of Hope : Essays (Riverdale-On-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1999), p. 187.

Image Attributions:

Image 1: By George Shuklin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: I, Evstafiev [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.