Economic apologies for Francoist repression, 1937 and 2017

During a research trip to Madrid in April this year, a Spanish friend poked fun at my MA research on Nationalist propagandists in Seville during the Civil War (1936-1939). ‘In Spain,’ he said, ‘the Second Republic [1931-1939] and everything that comes after is still practically journalism’.

His tongue-in-cheek comment referred to what Helen Graham has called Spain’s ‘memory wars’.[i] During the transition to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975, Spanish politicians of all stripes preferred to engage in a ‘pact of forgetting’ or ‘pact of silence’ rather than to pursue a collective reckoning with the crimes of Francoism. Subsequent moves towards such a reckoning have been viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility by some on the Spanish right. The result is that the historical meaning of the Second Republic, the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship is still intensely and very publicly contested.

This summer again saw ‘historical memory’ dominate the headlines, courtesy of the revelation in July that the Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco – an organisation whose ‘primary objective is to promote the memory and works’ of the dictator, to quote its Twitter profile – had been managing visits to the Pazo de Meirás, formerly Franco’s summer residence in his native region of Galicia. The house is owned by the dictator’s descendants but has been designated a ‘site of cultural interest’, obliging the owners to accommodate public visits on at least four days per month.

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The Pazo de Meirás. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

If the controversy caused by this revelation was not enough, on 31 July the Fundación stated that managing the visits would be ‘an excellent opportunity to show the general public the greatness of … Franco’. These comments in turn led to a fractious interview with the Fundación’s spokesman Jaime Alonso on Thursday 3 August’s edition of the current affairs talk show Al Rojo Vivo. (Excerpts from the interview can be viewed here and here, and includes violent footage).

While Alonso’s bizarre claim that ‘Franco didn’t shoot people’ – based on the specious reasoning that he merely acceded to death sentences passed by the courts—[ii] is refuted by a large and ever-growing body of historical research,[iii] another point which caught my attention was his challenge to the presenter, Cristina Pardo. Alonso demanded of the presenter, ‘Who instituted social security? Who created the public health service? Who … industrialised the country? and made state pensions and paid holidays possible?’

It is not uncommon for Franco’s apologists to make such arguments. A very limited welfare state did exist in Spain before the outbreak of the Civil War, but it is true that – as throughout Western Europe – this expanded somewhat during the decades following the Second World War. None of this is to say that a liberal-democratic regime in Spain would not have presided over economic prosperity and expanded welfare provision, a point which those making arguments similar to Alonso’s conveniently tend to overlook.

Although my MA dissertation did not address the post-war era to which Alonso was referring, this use of social policy and economic prosperity to obscure or minimise the use of terror and physical repression was only too familiar. Nationalist propagandists in Seville often used these themes in apparent attempts to appeal to the city’s generally left-leaning workers. These attempts were, however, so deeply inscribed with the logic of terror and authoritarianism that it is often difficult to separate them.

One of the major social-policy initiatives in Seville at the time was the construction of affordable homes, intended especially for the families of Nationalist soldiers killed or wounded at the front, or families with numerous children and only modest means to support them. These projects allowed Nationalist propagandists to claim to be helping working-class sevillanos, yet the provision of affordable housing specifically to these two groups also shows how social provisions cannot be neatly separated from the authorities’ ideological concerns.

The local Nationalist commander, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, opined that ‘hygienic housing’ would allow workers to ‘fulfil their duties as citizens and as patriots’.[iv] These duties, as defined by Franco’s supporters, implied a stark loss of political agency. Paternalistic social policy pursued, by different means, similar aims to physical repression: the demobilisation of political opposition, and the definition of an apolitical class identity through which Spanish workers could be integrated into the nascent regime in a subordinate position.

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General Gonzalo Quiepo de Llano (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Another policy which the Nationalist authorities in Seville used to appeal to the interests of the city’s workers was imposition of price controls on staple foods. Regulating food markets in this way was, of course, a sensible wartime policy. Yet Nationalist propagandists – including Queipo, in his infamous radio broadcasts – repeatedly asserted that this was indicative of the alleged ‘normality’ of life in the Nationalist zone, which protected ordinary Spaniards’ access to food and general prosperity. The frequent publication in the local press of lists of business owners fined for violating these controls was not only a deterrent to others who may be tempted to do the same; they were also intended to demonstrate that the authorities were taking action to defend Seville’s workers.[v]

Of course, stable food prices were only one aspect of Nationalist ‘normality’ which affected working-class Spaniards’ lives. One of the key measures through which the military rebels hoped to impose their vision of economic ‘normality’ at the start of the conflict was an ‘absolute prohibition’ on strike action. Unlike price-hiking merchants, the leaders of striking unions would not be liable for a fine; they could expect to be condemned to death by a summary court martial.[vi] Although Nationalist propagandists during the Civil War claimed – disingenuously –[vii] that their management of the economy prevented working-class sevillanos from being negatively affected by the economic costs of war, this disparity in punishment is demonstrative of how measures such as price controls functioned within a wider discursive framework in which ‘normality’ meant brutal and often deadly repression for many of these workers.

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‘Happiness of wheat, hope for tomorrow’. The Nationalist press often carried stories purporting to show that food was abundant under Franco. F.E., 18/7/1937 (special edition), n.p Held at the Hemeroteca Municipal de Madrid.

These are just two examples of wartime propaganda which pursued the same goal as Alonso’s comments on Al Rojo Vivo: to justify Francoism in terms of the economic wellbeing of Spain and its people. Yet economic and social policy in Civil-War Seville was comprehensively intertwined with the repressive discourse and practices which underpinned the birth of Franco’s dictatorship. This should not be forgotten, whether in reference to the Civil War or to later Francoism.

Joel Baker is a first-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield’s Department of History. His research is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities, and examines social housing and infrastructure projects under Spain’s Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923-1930) as expressions of the regime’s ‘anti-political’ populism. You can find him on Twitter at @joelrbaker.

References:

[i] Helen Graham, ‘Coming to Terms with the Past: Spain’s Memory Wars’, History Today 54.5 (2004), pp. 29-31.

[ii] In the immediate post-war period, these were often summary courts martial which tried and found guilty multiple defendants on flimsy evidence in proceedings sometimes lasting mere minutes. Defence lawyers were usually junior military officers who were given little time to prepare by their superiors, who sat as judges. See Peter Anderson, The Francoist Military Trials: Terror and Complicity, 1939-1945 (London, 2010); ‘In the Interests of Justice? Grass-Roots Prosecution and Collaboration in Francoist Military Trials, 1939-1945’, Contemporary European History 18.1 (2009), pp.25-44; ‘Singling Out Victims: Denunciation and Collusion in Post-Civil War Francoist Repression in Spain, 1939-1945’, European History Quarterly 39 (2009), pp. 7-26.

[iii] For a relatively recent synthesis of this research, see Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (London, 2012).

[iv] F.E., 16/3/1937, p. 11.

[v] See, e.g., F.E., 1/2/1938, p. 6.

[vi] See Queipo de Llano’s bando de guerra (declaration of martial law) of 18 July 1936. Auditoría de Guerra de la Segunda División Orgánica y del Ejército del Sur, Bandos y órdenes dictados por el Excmo. Sr. D. Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Sierra, General Jefe de la 2.a División Orgánica y del Ejército del Sur (Seville, 1937), pp. 5-6.

[vii] In fact, ordinary citizens throughout Spain saw their living standards decline drastically during the Civil War as a result of ‘economic repression’, and during the 1940s because the regime’s rationing and autarky policies forced many to accept inflated black-market prices for staple goods in order to survive. See Miguel Ángel del Arco Blanco, ‘Hunger and the Consolidation of the Francoist Regime (1939-1951), European History Quarterly 40.3 (2010), pp. 458-483; Hambre de Siglos: Mundo rural y apoyos sociales del franquismo en Andalucía oriental, 1936-1951 (Granada, 2007); Rúben Serém, A Laboratory of Terror. Conspiracy, Coup d’ état and Civil War in Seville, 1936-1939: History and Myth in Francoist Spain (Brighton / Portland / Toronto, 2017), pp. 147-189.

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The Paris Commune and the Consolidation of the Leninist state

by Danny Bird

One morning in July 1920, representatives of the world’s Communist and revolutionary socialist parties gathered alongside an audience of 45,000 outside Petrograd’s Stock Exchange building. For three hours, an epic historical production titled ‘Toward the Worldwide Commune’ gripped their imagination. In one memorable scene, the red flag of the Paris Commune of 1871 was spirited away for future generations as counterrevolutionaries slaughtered its defenders.

A re-enactment of the October Revolution and the birth of the Comintern brought the performance to a close. As the audience rose to sing The Internationale, the socialist anthem, written by Communard, Eugène Pottier, the message of the whole spectacle was palpable. There was no doubting that the nascent Soviet regime was the Commune’s heir.

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Spectators on Uritsky Square, Petrograd, during the 2nd World Congress of the Comintern, 1920.

The Commune’s bloody defeat had bequeathed vital lessons to revolutionaries such as Lenin and Trotsky. Following the Bolshevik seizure of power in autumn 1917, the party’s leaders obsessively measured their achievements against the Commune’s record. In January 1918, Lenin noted that the Soviet regime had outlived its predecessor by five days. Yet these small victories always begged the question of how long it could all last.

Indeed, just as a hostile adversary had besieged the Commune, so too Bolshevik Russia found itself confronting the same foe following October 1917. Though Lenin believed the Commune had been premature and ‘not understood by those who created it’,  their sacrifice offered a paradigm of what had to be done in order to avoid a similar fate: namely, the violent destruction of the proletariat’s class enemy, the bourgeoisie.

The Commune served as the archetypal proletarian state throughout Lenin’s writings. No doubt, Friedrich Engels’s assessment of it as the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ championed by Karl Marx and himself, piqued Lenin’s interest. Disagreement over its legacy had contributed to the First International’s demise and would ultimately rupture the Second in turn. But for adherents to the Third, or ‘Communist’, International (Comintern), the Commune’s significance was indisputable.

Upon returning to Russia in spring 1917, Lenin had published his April Theses, in which he denounced the emergence of a parliamentary ‘bourgeois’ republic. Instead, he called for the creation of  ‘a state of the Paris Commune type’. Inspired by Marx’s epitaph to the events of 1871, The Civil War in France, and the role of class conflict within history, Lenin argued that the key to ending the First World War lay in each combatant nation imploding into civil war. This, he deduced, would eradicate imperialism, topple the bourgeoisie and lead to the eventual confluence of socialist regimes into a worldwide commune.

Lenin later elaborated on this in his pamphlet: Will the Bolsheviks retain State Power? Describing the state as the apparatus by which one social class oppresses another, he asserted that the socialist state’s principal duty was to obliterate the bourgeoisie, thus paving the way for a classless society. The Commune had been the untimely pioneer, whereas the Soviet regime was better prepared to enact this historical imperative.

Moreover, according to Leninist wisdom, the Communards failed because they had lacked the discipline and foresight of a resolute vanguard party. For Leninists, this was the greatest lesson of 1871. A ‘professional’ revolutionary elite would devise the strategy needed to crush the proletariat’s enemy. As Russia descended into civil war following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks relished the prospect.

Against this backdrop, the party launched the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage: better known as ‘the Cheka’. Headed by Felix Dzerzhinsky, it devoted itself to eviscerating the bourgeoisie. Lenin hailed its savage task as ‘directly exercising the dictatorship of the proletariat’. The harsh reality of ‘class struggle’, both on the battlefields of the Russian Civil War and on the home front, proved to the Bolsheviks that they were constructing a proletarian state in accordance with their ideology.

In March 1918, they rebranded themselves as the ‘Communist Party’. The resolution that

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A Soviet postage stamp commemorating the date of the Paris Commune’s inception

authorised this also declared Soviet Russia to be: ‘a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat [and] … a continuation of those achievements of the world working-class revolution which the Paris Commune began’. Moreover, the lyrics of The Internationale were modified from the future to the present tense to reflect the advent of worldwide revolution.

The outbreak of the Red Terror in September 1918 further testified to the regime’s confidence barely a year after coming to power. Following an assassination attempt on Lenin, a catharsis of violence erupted across Soviet Russia. Dzerzhinsky ordered the execution of key tsarist dignitaries, as well as the incarceration of numerous bourgeois citizens.

For Trotsky, the distance between 1871 and the late 1910s appeared immaterial as he rationalised the bloodshed: ‘The Commune was weak. To complete its work we have become strong … We are inflicting blow after blow upon the executioners of the Commune. We are taking vengeance for the Commune, and we shall avenge it’.

In a still largely illiterate country, the Bolsheviks used agitprop to galvanise the masses and convey the ‘utility’ of violence in history. Statues dedicated to historic regicides helped trivialise the murder of the Romanovs, presenting it as part of a revolutionary tradition. Additionally, the demolition of tsarist monuments echoed the Communards’ most famous act of iconoclasm: the razing of the Vendôme Column.

Nevertheless, the Commune’s incorporation of multiple left-wing and radical groups appalled Lenin. Only a single, regimented party acting as the vanguard of the proletariat’s interests could ensure that workers transcended ‘trade union consciousness’. This principle underlay the expulsion of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries from the Soviet government in summer 1918. At the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, Lenin imposed a ban on internal party factions. His approach became orthodoxy.

While this was happening, a mutiny on the Kronstadt naval base was being ruthlessly suppressed by Bolshevik troops. Kronstadt’s sailors had played a major role during the October Revolution, but grew disenchanted with the Communist regime’s brutality in the years after 1917.

Their rebellion threatened to undermine the Leninist state’s revolutionary probity. By chance, the mutiny’s defeat coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune’s inception. In a definitive act of expiation, the triumphant Soviet regime rechristened one of the rebel ships, Sevastopol, as the Parizhskaya Kommuna.

The Leninist state was forged by an ideological campaign of class conflict. Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders considered their revolution to be a continuation of the Paris Commune. The Communards failed to secure a proletarian state because, according to Leninist theory, they had hesitated to wage war against the bourgeoisie. Therefore, the October Revolution was not conceived as a trailblazer, nor peculiarly ‘Russian’, but rather as the inheritor of a long revolutionary tradition, predicated on fulfilling the Commune’s aspirations.

Danny Bird is a History MA graduate of UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, for which he completed a dissertation on the topic of this blog. He also previously studied History at the University of Sheffield, graduating in 2009. His work has been published in History Today and TIME magazine. Twitter: @dannymbird

The Soviet Court as a Propaganda Instrument II: The Semenchuk Case, 1936

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.[1] 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.

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The trial of Semenchuk and Startsev (1936)

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

 

[1] For more on how the Soviet Court was deployed as an instrument of propaganda, please see my previous blog.

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

1989, Memory and Me

By Carmen Levick

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Romanian flag with emblem of the socialist cut out (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Memories are funny things: they come and go, they seem true but you discover they are rather fabricated, they haunt you when you least expect it. A few years ago I embarked on a quest to piece together my own history and to outline a road to a truth, to my truth which, according to Jean Baudrillard, ‘has vanished into the virtual through an excess of information’.[1] What follows are my own, individual memories of the days before and immediately after the 1989 Romanian revolution.

16 December 1989

School holidays. It is unusually warm outside and my grandmother tells me that when the trees are in bloom in winter that means a new beginning. I have recently turned 14 and I am really looking forward to changing from a pioneer to a young communist because when you are a young communist you don’t have to wear your tricolour tie to school. I have been waiting for eight years for this moment and I cannot wait to go back to school! This must be the new beginning my granny is talking about! But we have to get through the winter holidays first…

17 December 1989

Exciting morning! I am getting ready to go out and get in the queue for my winter holiday presents from the Party. Every winter, just before what people in the West call Christmas, but we just call winter holidays, kids my age and younger have to queue in front of the universal shop (not the only shop in the village, but the only one where there is actually something on the shelves) for our yearly presents: five oranges, a piece of chocolate and a tin of Globus meat.

It is the only time in the year when we are supposed to see oranges and eat real chocolate but we live on the border with Hungary so it’s easier to get hold of this stuff during the year. I have been queuing for about four hours now and I am glad it’s not snowing. The queue is advancing slowly and this is usually a lively affair but today things are different. The parents who joined their children in the line are whispering. In the evening, Ceausescu is on TV telling us that hooligans in Timisoara are destroying the city but that he has everything under control. Well, that’s good.

18 December 1989

Mum and Dad start whispering too. I feel that something important is happening and I would like to know what it is but nobody is talking to me. I am not allowed to use the phone as especially today it has more ears than usual. We visit some friends in the evening and I finally find out that Ceausescu does not seem to be that much in control as he said on TV. Apparently people are dying in Timisoara and corpses are thrown into the river Bega and into sewage canals. But nobody has really seen anything as the city is in lockdown. People are making stories up!

21 December 1989

Ceausescu is back from Iran and a large assembly of people is brought together in Bucharest in front of the Party’s Central Committee building. We are watching on TV as he addresses the crowd from the balcony, condemning the hooligans in Timisoara and talking about our bright future. But something is wrong! We start hearing boos and Ceausescu is flustered. He stops talking and tries, clumsily and without success, to calm the people. Suddenly the TV programme is cut. White noise.

The following days we are glued to the TV. On 22 December, at 12.08 Ceausescu and his wife flee Bucharest. The army is firing into the people. Tanks are crushing people in the streets. But then, suddenly, there are flowers on the tanks and in the barrels of the guns and the army is with us. Hugs and kisses. Ceausescu is gone! At night people are still dying. Who is shooting? The army are fighting ghosts. But people are dying so somebody must be shooting. The night is lit by tracer bullets. It is Christmas indeed!

On Christmas day Ceausescu and his wife are caught. After a mock trial they are executed. It’s horrible they did this on Christmas day and live on TV. But we are still happy and go on with our Christmas dinner. Democracy is looming on the screen. We will have proper elections and it’s going to be so good. Like in the West. And hopefully now the Americans will finally arrive. In early January there is a small miracle: the shops are full of food and other wonderful objects. We don’t have the money to buy any of them but we are window-shopping and loving it. From here things can only get better!

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Photo of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 in Cluj-Napoca, of the kind of images remote from many but via TV screen. (Source: Răzvan Rotta/Wikimedia Commons)

This was my revolution: the way I experienced it as a 14-year-old. But did we actually have a revolution? Nothing happened where I lived. We watched all the gruesome stuff on TV. It was as if this was happening in another country, in another reality. It is almost impossible to try and piece together what happened that December in 1989. Subsequent representations of the Romanian Revolution have all struggled with the construction of their narrative and many of them needed to turn to surreal imagery in order to fill in the empty spaces between death and politics.

In his chapter The Timisoara Massacre, Baudrillard notes that many Romanian eyewitness accounts speak of being dispossessed of the revolution by only seeing voluntary traces of it on screen. They are ‘deprived of the living experience they have of it by being submerged in the media network, by being placed under house arrest in front of their television screens. Spectators then become exoterics of the screen, living their revolution as an exoticism of images’.[2]

While there was at least one factual event —at 12.08 Ceausescu left the building of the national parliament— almost everything else should have been questioned and challenged by us, the armchair revolutionaries. And, although at first we got stuck in the mirage of the image of freedom —which, if deep-frozen before, was now over-spilling its banks— the years following the revolution prompted an abundance of questions about truth and authenticity.

We preferred ‘the exile of the virtual, of which television is the universal mirror, to the catastrophe of the real’.[3] But what was real? After the revolution, stories started to pop up everywhere: about what happened, who got killed, who escaped and if they were heroes or collaborators, who shot all those people, who were the terrorists? The more intellectual faces of the previous regime were now ready to take over and give us freedom and democracy.

One of the first plays to question the official events of the revolution and attempt a reconstruction based on the reactions of ordinary people to the events of 1989 was, interestingly enough, not a Romanian play but a ‘play from Romania’: Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest. It was written in the first months of 1990 when Churchill went to Romania with a group of theatre students from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama to work with acting students in Bucharest and to try and find out more about the events of December 1989.

Structured in three acts, Mad Forest presents a before and after event, two weddings (Lucia and Florina’s) enclosing a rendition of what happened in December 1989, through seemingly unmediated (although English) voices of ordinary people, many accidentally involved in the events. What is fascinating about this work, is that even this very early play uses as a basis for its second act the narrative and imagery of the media revolution.

The characters telling the story: doctor, translator, housepainter, flowerseller, student, painter, soldier, Securitate man[4] and bulldozer driver, are all impersonal types, set against the main characters of the play, who give a sometimes painful but extremely visual account of the events. They piece together what everybody knows as being the official version of the revolution, with more personal, unseen events: ‘STUDENT: Then I saw students singing with flags with holes in them and I thought, surely this is the end’.[5]

Churchill gives voice to a Securitate man without turning him into a villain or a victim. Much like the other witnesses, he relies on the TV for his truth, which is now ruled by disorder as he himself notes: ‘Until noon on 22 we were law and order. We were brought up in this idea. I will never agree with unorder.’[6] His view of order and disorder challenges but also reaffirms Baudrillard’s conclusions about instating ordered democracy in Eastern Europe: ‘In Eastern Europe, where there was something (communism, but this was precisely disorder from a global point of view), today there is nothing, but there is order. Things are in democratic order, even if they are in the worst confusion.’[7]

Bio: Dr Carmen Levick is a lecturer in Theatre at the University of Sheffield’s School of English, having previously taught at University College Dublin following the completion of her PhD in their Theatre Studies programme. Carmen’s research focuses primarily on representations of revolution in theatre, Shakespeare in performance and physical theatre. She is currently working on a monograph mapping the performative representations of revolution in Eastern Europe, and recently presented a talk at the University of Sheffield’s Festival of Arts and Humanities entitled ‘Performing Stones: Memory, Forgetting and Communist Monuments’. You can follow her on Twitter at @Carmen_Levick.

Full photo attributions:

CC BY-SA 2.5 pl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1237708

Photo of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 in Cluj-Napoca taken by Răzvan Rotta, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Photos_of_the_Romanian_Revolution_of_1989_in_Cluj-Napoca_taken_by_R%C4%83zvan_Rotta

References

[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 54.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 56.

[3] Ibid., p. 57.

[4] ‘Securitate’ refers to the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania.

[5] Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest, London: Nick Hern Books, 1990, p. 36.

[6] Ibid., p. 42.

[7] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 29.

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

A_solzhenitsin
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

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.

Picture2

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.

 

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

By Laura Sumner

laura blog 3
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

laura blog 2
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.

laura blog
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

Speaking Soviet – The Marriage of Soviet Linguistics and Literacy in the Early Soviet Period

By Kate Martin

With the advent of the early Soviet period, the idea of literacy and language was one which was at the forefront of the minds of the Bolshevik leadership. Although work had begun in the late 19th and early 20th century by the previous regime to make education and literacy more available to the population, it had moved at a very slow pace: in 1914, only 41% of the population was literate[1]. To combat this, the Soviets mobilised a variety of new literacy schemes, including the successful Obshchestvo doloi negramotnost’ – The Society for the Eradication of Illiteracy.

kate-m
‘We are not slaves’ – Soviet Illiteracy Eradication Campaign Poster

 

Parallel to this, in the upper echelons of Soviet sciences, work was being undertaken at a lightning pace as linguists raced to find a ‘true’ theory of Marxist Linguistics. One such individual was Boris Larin, who argued that language users could move between several metalanguages in their own mother tongue. He focussed on the language of the state, language of the family group and language of the workplace. Per his theory, the same word might have different connotations depending on the metalanguage being used at the time.

While he did not suggest that his theory could be used in terms of language planning, a study of literacy campaigns shows how they can be used to influence language use by interlinking and homogenising the metalanguages of each language user. The campaigns were quickly put into action by an army of teachers and volunteers. Figures from the Central Moscow State Archive, TsGaMo, show the scope of the Society for the Eradication of Illiteracy.

Numbers of Illiterates Educated                                 Numbers of Semi Literates Educated

Year In Moscow In the Counties Total in the Moscow Region In Moscow In the Counties Total in the Moscow Region Total
1920/21 12000 21000 33000 3300
1922/23 3155 4500 7655 2400 1500 3900 11555
1923/24 5000 10000 15000 3710 3500 7210 22210
1924/25 5399 22953 28352 5945 7756 13701 42053
1925/26 6095 29435 35530 4746 8931 13675 49205
Total 31649 87888 119537 16801 21687 38486 158025

Figure 2: Numbers of Literate and Semi-Literate Citizens Educated in the Moscow Region between 1920-26[2]

However, literacy, to the Soviets meant more than the ability to read books and newspapers. As one early literacy scheme curriculum stated on its sign-up sheet, as a way of repaying the debt that they owed to the freedom afforded to them by the Great October Revolution all citizens “Can learn and must study the national economy”[3]. This focus on national economy greatly influenced the curricula of the literacy classes.

As well as learning about grammatical structures and reading skills, students in these schemes also learned about the different industries of the USSR. Indeed, the curriculum above stated that. “The economy is made up of production, for example that of textiles, metallurgy, mining industries and farming.”[4]

So how does the linguistic theory link to the literacy campaign, and how does it teach citizens to speak Soviet? Interestingly, the answer to this lies in newspapers. One of the main skills in the literacy curriculum was the ability to read and understand newspapers. This appears to be a rare case of the Soviet powers successfully joining the dots between their different schemes: newspaper articles often focussed heavily on the efforts and ‘successes’ (to be taken with a large grain of salt) of the various industries in the USSR.

Thus, Larin’s ‘the political’ and ‘the workplace’ metalanguages became much more closely connected. The extended definition of literacy created an impetus for more people to learn to read. The design of the curriculum meant that learners were exposed to a wide variety of topics relating to industry, and were instructed in how to read about these subjects in the newspapers. As the topics in the curricula were broad in range, people could access a much wider variety of information, and indeed compelled to read on more topics than they would have previously.

The state, as controllers of the content of the media, was able to control the ideological content of the newspapers. Words from the work metalanguage could be imbued with ideological colourations from the political.

While this is just one small part of the language planning operation which was put in place by the Soviet government during the early period of the USSR, the use of this theory demonstrates the ways that they were able to implement state goals through a trickledown effect.

Kate Martin is a third-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her doctoral research is a multidisciplinary project which brings together Soviet linguistics, censorship and translation theory. Her research interests include the development of the Russian language and Soviet linguistics in the 1917-34 period and the translation of anti-utopian novels from this period.

References:

[1] Ben Ecklof, ‘The Myth of the Zemstvo School: The Sources of the Expansion of Rural Education in Imperial Russia: 1864-1914’, History of Education Quarterly, 24 (1984), 561-84. p.142

[2] TsGaMO (Central State Archive of the Moscow Region) f.966, o.4 d.2408 l.6

[3] TsGaMO f.966 o.4 d.945 l.7

[4] Ibid.

 

The Political Language of Celebration: The Anniversary of the October Revolution, 1918-1932

By Jon Rowson

‘It is impossible to build socialism in white gloves’ – Mikhail Kalinin, 7 November 1930[1]

The Anniversary of the October Revolution was the apogee of public politics in the young Soviet state. The celebrations, lasting 2-3 days in all areas of the USSR, were a means of honouring the previous year’s achievements, and increasing the morale of the populace. Despite Petrograd being the centre of events during the October Revolution, Moscow- and in particular Red Square – soon became the axiomatic centre of celebrations after being named the Soviet capital in 1918.

The culmination of the annual Anniversary event was a joint military and civilian parade through Moscow and Red Square, where Soviet soldiers and citizens caught a glimpse of the political elite, and heard speeches delivered by a range of politicians. Over time, the nature of the celebrations changed, turning from a spontaneous outburst of civilian celebration, to a rigid, militaristic pageant. Nonetheless, the importance of the written and spoken word remained.

Political speeches were ubiquitous throughout the Anniversary event. Lenin delivered at least six speeches during the 1918 holiday, with his address on Red Square being published verbatim in the Pravda and Izvestiia VTsIK newspapers.[2] These speeches reveal crucial insights into how the Soviet state addressed and sought legitimation from its citizens, and how these processes changed during the turbulent first fifteen years of Soviet rule.

‘Kolarov is an amazing person. Did you hear the way he talks? He never says: fight. He says, to fight and win. Generally, the Bolsheviks were the kind of people that like to dot their i’s’ – Unnamed audience member, 9 November 1923[3]

As the above quotation indicates, clarity and understanding were of vital importance to the Anniversary’s political message. This was often reflected in the choice of speaker,

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Soviet leaders including Lenin (centre) and Trotsky (saluting) observing the Second Anniversary of the October Revolution celebration on Red Square, 1919.

particularly for the Red Square speeches which were always published in Soviet newspapers in the days that followed. During the War Communism years, Lenin and Trotsky, noted respectively for their speeches’ ‘iron logic’ and ‘drama’, both appeared frequently, reflecting their status at the head of Soviet politics.[4]

 

After Lenin’s death in 1924, a multiplicity of voices characterised the Anniversary celebrations. Two of the most audible figures were Mikhail Kalinin, often hailed as the “All-Russian Village Elder” [Vserossiiskii starosta] and, as the military began to play a greater role in festivities, Kliment Voroshilov.[5]

Problematically, many of the Soviet political elite were not proletarian in origin. However, Kalinin and Voroshilov, sons of a peasant and railway worker respectively, were figures that the Soviet populace both rural and urban, could draw commonalities with, especially during the reading of the revolutionary oath which began with the proclamation, ‘I, the son of the working people’.[6] This made them a savvy choice for inclusion in the annual celebrations .

The Anniversary celebrations were a means of mythologizing the achievements of the Soviet state. During the Civil War years, this took the form of celebrating the ‘unprecedented, incredibly difficult struggle’ of the Red Army troops.[7] Vague statements of success, such as Trotsky’s 1919 retort that ‘our army, which is fighting against the White gangs of Yudenich, is successfully moving forward’, were said to have drawn cheers from the crowd.[8]

During the years of the First Five-Year Plan, this myth-making project was directed towards the economy. Political speeches became replete with statistics, an example being Voroshilov’s 1930 parade speech, which featured the claim that ‘gross industrial output has reached 196.9% of the pre-war level’.[9]

Between 1928 and 1932, statistics such as these became evidence of socialism’s ‘extraordinary achievements’, and proof that, as Kalinin stated at the 1930 Red Square parade, ‘we have left behind many of the difficulties’ of the War Communism years.[10] Yet, at the same time as these statements of success, workers’ real wages had fallen 52% from their 1918 level, with the continued decrease in meat and dairy consumption another indicator of falling living standards.[11]

Legitimacy for this myth-making project was sought by demonstration of the Bolshevik elite’s ability to predict the future. Lenin’s 1919 statement of the Party’s ‘firm belief in the imminent victory of Soviet power’ was justified following the 1920 capitulation of the White forces.[12] After his death, Anniversary speeches contain references to the ‘great teacher’ Lenin, whose ‘great ideas’, such as the smychka, the union of proletariat and peasant, would help the USSR ‘overcome all difficulties’.[13]

By 1932, Lenin’s name was not only being used during the Anniversary celebrations to

jon-blog-2
Military Review at the Fifth Anniversary Celebrations on Red Square, 1922.

legitimise Bolshevik economic and political policy, but also Stalin’s personal rule. Kalinin declared that Stalin was ‘leading the way for the Party’s implementation of Lenin’s testament’, whilst Voroshilov hailed ‘Long live the faithful follower of Lenin, the Bolshevik of Bolsheviks, Comrade Stalin’, during his speech on Red Square.[14]

 

Concurrent with these attempts to legitimise Soviet rule was the de-legitimisation of Soviet enemies, both internal and external. Speeches outlined, on the one hand, positive identities, such as ‘shock-workers’ [udarnik] and ‘collectivised peasant’ [krest’ian-kolkhoznik], and on the other, ‘enemies of the people’, including ‘truants’ and ‘kulaks’ .[15]

Humour was also used as a de-legitimisation tool. Kalinin’s damning portrayal in 1932 of American President Herbert Hoover as an ‘ignorant peasant, who raises his eyes to the sky and prays for the heavenly rain during a drought’, was a confident jab by a Soviet state which had fulfilled the First Five-Year Plan, whilst the American economy was still reeling from the Great Depression.[16]

The Anniversary of the October Revolution was a national holiday for all Soviet citizens, meaning that it had great nationwide exposure, This made it the ideal site for the dissemination of political messages. The dual processes of legitimising Soviet politics, both with regards to policy and personnel, and de-legitimising ‘enemies of the people’, were crucial to inculcating a spirit of festivity, achieved by demonstrating the achievements of the Soviet state, and the promise of a better future.

Jonathan Rowson is a first-year ESRC-funded PhD student at the University of Nottingham in the Department of History. His thesis, entitled ‘Out-migration from the Russian village: Perm’ province 1890-1914’, examines migration networks in the late-Tsarist period at a local level, analysing the causes and effects of rural-to-urban migration within Perm’ province, and the growth of rural-to-rural migration from Perm’ province to Siberia. This province-level study is also an attempt at documenting the regional socio-economic idiosyncrasies of late-Tsarist Russia’s industrial and economic modernisation, and how this impacted, and was impacted by, population movement. Other research interests include the concept of legitimacy in the Soviet state, and the socio-cultural means by which the Soviet Union sought to legitimise itself in the 1920s.

References:

[1] Izvestiia VTsIK (308), 7 November 1930, p. 4.

[2] Graeme Gill, Symbols and Legitimacy in Soviet Politics (Cambridge, 2011), p. 71.

[3] ‘S tribuny’, Izvestiia VTsIK (256), 9 November 1923, p. 5.

[4] Orlando Figes & Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven, CT., & London, 1999), p. 101.

[5] Pravda (256), 10 November 1925, p. 3.

[6] Pravda (256), 11 November 1924, p. 5.

[7] V. I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 37 (Moscow, 1969), p. 147.

[8] Pravda (251), 9 November 1919, p. 1.

[9] Izvestiia VTsIK (309), 10 November 1930, pp. 1-2.

[10] Izvestiia VTsIK (261), 10 November 1928: 4; Izvestiia VTsIK (308), 7 November 1930, p. 4.

[11] Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton, NJ, 2001), p. 55.

[12] V. I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 39 (Moscow, 1969): 288. Originally published in Pravda (249), 6 November 1919.

[13] L. B. Kamenev, ‘Vos’maia godovshchina Oktiabria’, Izvestiia VTsIK (256), 10 November 1925: 2; Izvestiia VTsIK (261), 10 November 1928, p. 4.

[14] Pravda (310), 10 November 1932: 2; K. E. Voroshilov, ‘Rech’ na parade v Moskve v den’ XV godovshchiny oktiabr’skoi revoliutsii’, in K. E. Voroshilov, Stat’i i rechi (Moscow, 1937), p. 480.

[15] Voroshilov, ‘Rech’ na parade v Moskve’: 477; Pravda (310), 11 November 1932, p. 2.

[16] Pravda (310), 10 November 1932, p. 2.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: By L.Y. Leonidov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: History of Russia in Photographs