Re-visiting Musine Kokalari: a lost story of defiance in the face of political oppression

Agata Fijalkowski

 This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My current project about imagery and the law was sparked by a photograph of Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer and political dissident. Kokalari was imprisoned and suffered the humiliation of a public show trial under a despotic regime which murdered her brothers and kept her under surveillance and in exile most of her life. Her brave story can now be told after secret police files were released that revealed details about a shocking miscarriage of justice which deprived the world of a great writer.

Kokalari was Albania’s first female writer of note from the pre-communist period. She was born in 1917 in Adana, Turkey, where from an early age the young Musine showed a passion for literature and national folklore. The Kokalari family were at the centre of literary and political activity in the area.

They returned to their native Gjirokastra in southern Albania in 1920, and  in 1938 Kokalari left to embark on her university studies in literature at La Sapienza University, Rome. She kept a diary, My University Life, which was eventually published in 2016. In 1941, she published her first book, called As My Grandma Says,  about the daily struggles of a Gjirokastran woman living in a deeply patriarchal society and which can be seen as an early feminist text.

The writer and political dissident

It was during her studies in Rome that Kokalari joined anti-fascist and anti-communist movements. She continued her political activities upon her return to Albania in 1942 where she co-founded the Albanian Social Democratic Party. Her brother’s bookshop

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Musine Kokalari. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute, Author provided

became a hub of intellectual activity. As a result the family was kept under close surveillance by the communist authorities (represented by the National Liberation Movement/National Liberation Front). Two of her brothers, Vesim and Muntaz, were executed by the state for their political activities. Kokalari herself was detained and arrested several times in 1945 after openly expressing her views against totalitarianism.

She was then involved in the Democratic Coalition, a political movement that supported the postponement of elections, and called for multi-party elections. The writer hoped that representatives from the United Kingdom and the United States would monitor the elections. But all 37 members of the coalition were arrested and deemed traitors of the Albanian nation. Neither the US nor the UK intervened.

Hair torn from her head

In 1946, following these arrests, Kokalari stood before the military court in the Albanian capital, Tirana. She was threatened, intimidated and coerced. Archival memos refer to her hair being torn out of her head by bystanders. Her trial was transmitted live via loud speakers to the crowds outside. Her stoic stance is illustrated in a photograph taken by the Albanian Telegraphic Agency. In defiance she wore a mourning veil in memory of her executed brothers. Her powerful image made the front page of the broadsheets in Albania two days running.

This trial was the second in a run of six trials organised by the authorities in that period

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Kokalari with her brother Vesim. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute., Author provided

that effectively eliminated “enemies of the state”. It was dubbed the “political dissidents trial” and it sent a message about the direction that the regime was taking towards free speech. It did not deter Kokalari, who used the trial to stand up for her rights. Witness accounts speak of her declaring: “I do not need to be a communist to love my country”. Despite her bravery, she would have endured severe, prolonged torture during her detention and trial. The court refused to let her speak for any length of time.

Kokalari was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, of which she served 16. She spent a further period of exile in northern Albania, where she worked as a manual labourer. She joked that she was a “mortar specialist”, as her work involved heavy, arduous construction. On her days off she would visit the library and sit in a public place reading a book under the watchful eye of the secret police. Despite the fact that she was forbidden to write, she secretly completed a manuscript about the founding of the Social Democratic Movement. Kokalari died in 1983 – two years before the decline of the dictatorship – after being refused treatment for cancer by the Albanian government.

The fragile rule of law

The near full isolation imposed on her by the communist authorities denied Albanian society and the wider world her powerful voice and writings. Kokalari’s writing tapped into local custom and language, using local dialects in a lucid way, as she wrote about the challenges facing her generation of women. Her broader outlook about her country’s future as a democracy is far from outdated. At its core, the protection of free speech as a key to participating in, and contributing to civil society should serve to remind us how democracies are always works in progress. Her trial and the trials of her contemporaries show how fragile the rule of law can be.

In April 2015 the Albanian parliament passed a law permitting individuals to access their secret police or Sigurimi files. In 2017 the Kokalari family was presented with the file that the Sigurimi kept on her. Within it they found the powerful and defiant photograph of the writer standing alone in front a crowd of people as she was put on trial for her beliefs (fig.1). Kokalari is evidence of a political dissident voice in a country with little experience with democracy and which existed in near isolation for most of the 20th century. It continues to struggle with its authoritarian past.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the contribution that this remarkable woman made to Albania’s cultural and political life. Her life story is a poignant tale of achievement and ambition, of hope in the face of repression and also inspiration – for Albanians and non-Albanians alike.

Dr Agata Fijalkowski is a Senior Lecturer in Lancaster University’s Law School, where she is currently working on a monograph on ‘visual law’, which considers photographs of trials from the period 1944-1957 in Albania, Germany and Poland and the way that these photographs ‘speak legally’. The powerful image of the Albanian writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari discussed in this article resulted in an exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford that also included a short, ‘arty’ film An Unsung Hero: Musine Kokalari (2017). More broadly, she is interested in transitional criminal justice, law and the visual and war crimes. In July 2019 she will be joining Leeds Beckett University as Reader in Law. Find her on Twitter at @AgataFijalkow

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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

Debunking ‘Continuity Russia’ 

By Nathan Brand

Since the election of Donald Trump in the US and the resurgence of the radical right across Europe, you’ll have seen the reports of Russia’s involvement in the democratic process in the West.  You’ll probably have picked up on the McCarthyist-style links fashioned by the media against anyone suspected of being connected with the Kremlin.  And, if you’re lucky, you’ll have seen the level of conspiracy theory in some commentary raised to Cold War spy novel standards.

What all of this points to is an ongoing crisis in Western analysis of contemporary Russia and its international relations.  This is not so much an economic problem; the structure of daily life is defined in both Russia and the West by relatively strict adherence to neoliberal economic management.  Rather, it is crisis borne of our relation to the past.  As we know from Giorgio Agamben, amongst others, our knowledge of the past is the only way to access the present.  It follows that a lack of interrogation of the past would lead to a mis-reconstructed present.

The dominant discourse in the Anglophone Western media about Russia is the thesis of ‘Continuity Russia’.  This thesis argues that Russia has been a continuously dangerous power for the West over the course of the last couple of hundred years, despite its changing guises – Tsarist, Soviet, post-Soviet.  It relies upon one particularly problematic construction in particular; that the current leadership of the Kremlin can be understood using the tools of the Soviet era because they are, more or less, continuations of the Soviet era.

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Cover of the New Statesman (5th May 2017) – Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Putin pictured together as fellow travellers

As its big Other, the West constitutes one of the major defining points of Russian identity.  Indeed, scholars such as Viatcheslav Morozov have argued that the question of Russia’s European-ness constitutes one of the major issues for Russian identity in the last 200 or so years.  This is also evident in the recent conservative turn in Russian politics, but even more so in culture, where conservative cultural elites have claimed Russia as the true heir to the culture of European antiquity.  It is especially dangerous, then, for Western (and particularly Anglo-American) analysis of Russian political culture to fall, at best, into cheap stereotype and at worst into outright historical revisionism.

More often than not, such revisionism comes from the north Atlantic foreign policy establishment; the response of the liberal media in the United States following Donald

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Cover of the New Statesman (21st March 2014) – portrait-style image of Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev and Putin

Trump’s election exemplifies the thesis superbly.  The coded argument here is that a Trump win could only have been down to Russian meddling, as opposed to a poorly-run campaign on the part of the Democratic party.  Andrew Bacevich’s convincing article this month on the ISS forum shows how historical revisionism has become the stock response to Donald Trump’s election as President and the fear that American hegemony will no longer be prioritised in the international sphere.  The irony, Bacevich points out, is that although Trump may appear “closer to full-fledged illiteracy than any president since Warren G. Harding” he nonetheless intuits the need for a change in U.S. foreign policy. In Great Britain, which has a great history in celebrating historical revisionism, The New Statesman has been the most frequent flyer in this great airplane of obfuscation.

In their most recent coverage of Russia on the front pages, the New Statesman commonly uses two tropes: 1) crude homophobic depictions of Vladimir Putin as a sexual predator, ready to come for other countries in Europe; and 2) the portrayal of Russia as a reincarnation, or even a continuation, of the Soviet Union.  Most commonly these two tropes are combined, as shown by the two images below

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Cover of the New Statesman (13th January 2017) – Putin pictured nude, with an ‘insatiable desire to regain superpower status’
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Cover of the New Statesman (7th March 2014) – Putin dressed as a Red Army soldier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The function of these recurring depictions of Russia is, of course, to inhibit resistance to the liberal interventionist foreign policy which has dominated the North Atlantic Anglophone powers since the heady days of the early 20th century.  This foreign policy portfolio is recently exemplified by interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as support for dictators in those countries (and many others) whilst it suited them.  The argumentation follows that if Russia has not sought to change its stripes in the last

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Cover of the New Statesman (28th March 2014) – Russia is depicted as an ursine aggressor

century, then why should we?  Such specious reasoning escalates tension between the major powers, as well as encouraging the militarisation of our societies, sending us spiralling back toward the dark days of Cold War rhetoric.

This is certainly not to endorse Putin’s foreign policy exploits; the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent spiritual climate which it has created, capable of sweeping away the demands of the labour movement at home, are certainly nothing to stand up for.  But the assumption of Russia as a historically continuous entity, threatening Western values, from the Tsarist empire, through the Soviet empire, to its current status within the neo-liberalised global economic system helps do nothing but mystify.  It allows the New Statesman to argue for a foreign policy concept – in liberal interventionism – which has propped up dictators whilst they were useful, before allowing anarchy to spread in zones of the world which appeared resistant to the free flow of capital.

Ultimately, the thesis of continuity Russia leads necessarily to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If the Western media seek to exclude Russia from the symbolic global order by way of writing historically revisionist works of selective tradition, then Russia will indeed be excluded.  Such is the power of the global hegemon.  But if semi-authoritarian, anti-democratic rule can be seen to be on the rise in Russia, dogmatic, historically inaccurate portrayals of the contemporary leadership can surely do nought but help its cause.

Nathan Brand is a WRoCAH-funded PhD researcher based in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds.  His current research focuses on the so-called Conservative Revolution in post-Soviet Russia, with a particular emphasis on visual aspects of the political and media discourse of this far-right movement.  He is co-convening a conference next year titled ‘Sovereign Bodies and Bodily Sovereignty: Mediation of Body in Semi-Authoritarian Countries’