‘Outsider’ vs. ‘Our Own’: Confronting a Familiar Paradigm in the Pages of the Early Gulag Press.

By Mark Vincent

The rigid dichotomy of the ‘political prisoner’ vs. ‘common criminal’ continues to frustrate researchers of the Soviet camp system. Although accounts of late Imperial exile and hard labour have argued persuasively  in favour of studying a wider range of carceral experiences, this dichotomy remains unchallenged in studies looking to reconstruct daily life in the Gulag.[1]

Though an impressive achievement, the relatively recent volume edited by Michael David-Fox struggles to break down the reductive labels of ‘criminal’ and ‘political’ assigned to inmates.[2] While—on a purely personal level—this volume  proved incredibly helpful, as I was able find the activities of criminal gangs through terms such as urki (‘criminals’), vory (‘thieves’) or bandity (‘bandits’) in both survivor memoirs and archival documents, these inquiries raised the fairly obvious questions of who exactly constituted a ‘criminal’ in the Soviet Union in the first place, and what differences there might be within this broad category?

Looking for further ways of breaking down these labels and based on excellent advice by colleagues (special thanks to Miriam Dobson!), I began to look at prisoner newspapers from the 1920s The most prominent of these was the newspaper of the early Soviet ‘showpiece’ penal institution on the Solovetskii Archipelago in the White Sea – the inspiration behind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous allegorical metaphor.

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Photograph of inmates working on the camp newspaper taken from the excellent online exhibition and teaching resource: https://www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/visit/exhibitions/virtualexhibitions/beautyinhellcultureinthegulag/

Beginning in 1923, and running until the spring of 1930, the most renowned publication from the camp, Solovetskii Island, reached an impressive circulation figure of around 3,000 copies and was available both via subscription or at kiosks in Moscow, Leningrad and Kharkov.[3] Upon first glance, the all too familiar dichotomy of ‘criminal’ vs. ‘political’ prisoner looked to be even more pronounced here than in the Gulag memoirs that I consulted, particularly given that the vast majority of articles were written by prisoners hailing from the educated and cultural elite.

This was encapsulated perfectly in the title of the article “Frayera” i “Svoi” from the August 1925 edition of Solovetskii Island.[4] In this sense, frayera is best understood as slang for an ‘outsider’ and svoi as ‘our own’, both implying a clear boundary of inclusion. These groups were consolidated further by the author of the article, a prisoner named ‘B. Borisov’ (pseudonyms were used by a number of authors ), who began the piece by depicting inmates from the 13th Work Company looking down from the walls of the Solovetskii Kremlin, dividing the mass of prisoners in the gardens below neatly in half.

Borisov clarified that these were the aforementioned two groups, with ‘outsiders’ representing anyone who could be stolen from (my emphasis), with ‘our own’ meaning those who earned their livelihood through stealing. Although, they  stated, this divide could be clearly seen through physical appearance and mannerisms, the author also suggested that differences were not just external. As a self-ascribed ‘outsider’, Borisov explained how the opposing group viewed not just camp life but the entire world according to these rules, even lamenting that his  group lacked the strict ideology and moral code that ‘our own’ lived by!

While this initial sketch subscribed to the conventional political vs. criminal paradigm with which we are familiar, Borisov later began to break down the category of ‘one’s own’ into a hierarchy which demonstrated a more diverse constellation of criminal identities. At the top of this pyramid, in Borisov’s words the ‘aristocracy’, were ‘swindlers’ (those who engaged in profit-making scams), followed by a ‘large bourgeois’ of safecrackers and counterfeiters. The remaining masses comprised of pickpockets, house burglars and thieves who stole from shops or market stalls with the aid of their accomplices.[5]

According to Borisov, the ‘have-nots, pariahs and shpana (habitual prisoners)’ who formed the bottom layer were driven by their ‘petit-bourgeois morality’. Interestingly, but not surprisingly given that it had to pass through secret police censors, the article had absorbed the language of the New Economic Policy which looked to crackdown on old, capitalist ways of life.[6] Although Borisov stated that criminal hierarches were full of ‘hypocritical traditions’, they  stated that more professional crimes such as ‘safe-cracking’ could not be compared to situational offenses, such as the wild, ‘feral’ activities which took place in Khitrovka – a famous Moscow district afflicted by its association with alcohol, drugs and prostitution, and which came to be used as ‘shorthand’ for these activities..

This analysis not only reflects discussions in contemporary criminology regarding the ‘hierarchy of crime’ where some activities have traditionally carried more esteem than others, but shows how the pejorative label Khitrovka could be prefixed to criminals, regardless of whether or not they actually hailed from that location.[7] Further interesting avenues this leads to could be to explore the interplay between incarceration and areas designated as ‘criminal spaces’ outside of penality; for instance the Odessan suburb of Moldvanka which appeared regularly in prisoner songs from the same period.

With criminals being designated a ‘Khitrovka pickpocket’ or ‘Khitrovka prostitute’ it also opens the possibility of looking at the differences between how male and female prisoners were discussed in the publication. Although, as suggested,  the problems of using the camp newspapers are manifold, the information they have provided goes far beyond the survivor memoirs from the Solovetskii camp, helping to break down this reductive binary. This, in itself, would seem like a worthwhile endeavour in looking to construct a more detailed and nuanced picture of prisoner society during the early years of the Soviet regime.

Based on themes from Dr Mark Vincent’s upcoming monograph, Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps (I. B. Tauris, 2019). Link to the Amazon pre-order: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Criminal-Subculture-Gulag-Prisoner-Stalinist/dp/1788311892.  Find Mark on Twitter at @VincentCriminal, or contact him at cultoftheurka@gmail.com

 

References

[1]See, in particular: Sarah Badcock, A Prison Without Walls? Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism (Oxford, 2016); Sarah Young, ‘Knowing Russia’s Convicts: The Other in Narratives of Imprisonment and Exile of the Late Imperial Era’, Europe-Asia, 65:9 (2013). Link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09668136.2013.844509

[2] Michael David-Fox (ed.), The Soviet Gulag: Evidence, Interpretation and Comparison (Pittsburgh, 2015).

[3] Gullotta, Andrea, ‘The ‘Cultural Village’ of the Solovki Camp:  A Case of Alternative Culture’, Studies in Slavic Cultures, XI (2010), p.12.

[4] Borisov, B, ‘‘Frayera’ i ‘Svoi’’, Solovetskie Ostrova, No.8, August 1925, pp.80-82.

[5] Definitions of criminal activities checked against: Vitaly von Lange, Prestupnyy Mir  Rossii: Moi Vospominaniya ob Odesse i Khar’kove (Odessa, 1906).

[6] See similar comments regarding prostitution in: Kowalsky, Sharon, Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia 1880-1930 (Dekalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2009).

[7] Crewe, Ben, The Prisoner Society: Power, Adaptation and Social Life in an English Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

 

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Justifying Terror: virtue in Jacobin France

By Sam Young

Paris in 1793 was a city gripped by uncertainty.

The revolution that ended Bourbon absolutism and established a constitutional monarchy had developed more rapidly than anyone could have predicted. Spiralling food prices, provincial uprisings and incursions by foreign armies led to unbearable tension in the capital. In September 1792, following an explosion of popular violence against suspected reactionaries, the monarchy was abolished. By January, the ex-king Louis was dead.

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Republican leaders knew that instability required decisive leadership. In July 1793, the hard-line Montagnard wing of the Jacobin Club ousted the faltering Girondin faction and centralised power in the Committee of Public Safety, headed by the ‘incorruptible’ Maximilien Robespierre.

The Committee realised that the threat of violence alone was not enough to consolidate the Revolution. A form of unifying ideology was required. Here the Jacobins fell back on a word that was already widespread in political rhetoric: Vertu, or ‘Virtue’.

The philosophical concept of virtue has its origins in the Enlightenment. In her 2013 study Choosing Terror, Marisa Linton highlights the two key strands of ‘virtuous’ thought that developed over the eighteenth century.[1]

The first is a highly intellectual form of virtue referred to as classically republican. Popular with philosophers such as Montesquieu, this interpretation focuses on the merits of selfless patriotism in safeguarding the democratic republic (modelled on Ancient Greece or Rome). Virtue here represents the philosophical means to a political end: establishing specific intellectual principles upon which governments can base their style of rule.

The second strand is natural virtue. Commonly associated with Rousseau, natural virtue is a more emotional concept than its classical counterpart. It is a popular sentimental force aimed at promoting a ‘sublime level of happiness and fulfilment’ among the people through virtuous acts.[2] This process requires a personal moral development beyond the realms of high intellectualism.

Classical virtue of the first type was what drove the men of the Third Estate when they split from the crown in 1789. To them it remained a ‘high’ philosophical concept, endowing their revolutionary project with a sense of classical destiny steeped in Enlightenment tradition.

This is reflected in the visual art of the time: in August 1789 the Neo-Classical painter Jacques-Louis David exhibited Les licteurs rapportent à Brutus les corps de ses fils (‘The lictors bring Brutus the bodies of his sons’), depicting the Roman republican leader who executed his own sons for plotting with royalists. Emphasising the themes of patriotic sacrifice for the classical-style state, David’s painting portrayed ‘classical republican’ virtue in a clear yet deeply intellectual style.

However, there was a limit to the practical use of lofty Enlightenment idealism. As crises multiplied and French politics edged towards hard-line republicanism, the semantic nature of virtue changed. By 1792 the Jacobins were advocating a form of virtue far closer to Linton’s ‘natural virtue’.

This strongly emotional sentiment was aimed at the streets rather than the drawing rooms of political clubs. Spread by propagandists such as Jean-Paul Marat, natural virtueFrench_revolution_guillotine_hulton_archive represented a ‘passionate commitment’ to the preservation of the patrie and the rooting out of all counter-revolutionary bodies.[3]

The populist appeal of natural virtue gave the Jacobins (or by 1793, the Montagnards) a method of winning support among ‘the urban workers’, particularly in Paris.[4] Virtue was propagandised as a semi-mystical force that existed within all honest republicans – a helpfully ambiguous definition that allowed the Montagnards to use it to popularise actions taken to preserve their power.

The 1793-4 Terror demonstrated this flexibility of meaning. Virtue became the order of the day, acting as the motivation behind the relentless political violence required to sustain Jacobin power. Robespierre summed up the use of natural virtue in the mechanism of terror on 5 February 1794:

‘The basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is monstrous; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing more than justice – swift, severe and inflexible.’[5]

Robespierre’s words clearly show the transition of virtue from a philosophical concept to a practical justification for state violence. Semantic ambiguity gave it political potential. From here, one can draw a line to later authoritarian regimes and their use of deliberately vague language to justify violence. For example, the Soviet propaganda machine made liberal use of the term ‘Class Enemy’, changing its meaning to suit the purging of particular social or ethnic groups.

This flexibility is what made Vertu so dangerous. What started out as a highly intellectual term was transformed into a political buzzword used to legitimise terror. The French Revolution introduced many new political ideas to Europe, but perhaps its most remarkable legacy was the realisation that the power of a single word can be virtually limitless.

Sam Young is currently studying for an MA in Modern History at Sheffield. He holds a BA French & History at the University of Nottingham, where he wrote his undergraduate dissertation on the use of ‘Virtue’ in French republican painting. He is currently researching for an MA dissertation on the creation of French-Algerian exile communities in 1960s France. Find him on Twitter: @Samyoung102

References

[1] Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford, 2013).

[2] Linton, Choosing Terror, p. 38.

[3] Barrington Moore Jr., ‘Misgivings About Revolution: Robespierre, Carnot, Saint-Juste’, in French Politics and Society 16.4 (1998), pp. 17-36.

[4] Marisa Linton, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, in History Today 56.8 (Aug. 2006), pp. 23-29.

[5] Quoted in Max Gallo, L’homme Robespierre: Histoire d’une solitude (1968), p. 318.

 

Images

Image 1: Jacques-Louis David, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: ‘French Revolution Execution with Guillotine’ from the Hulton Archive, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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

RomanianFlag-withHole
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

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

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

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

Biography

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

References:

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

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

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

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

Image Attributions:

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

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

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

By Lani Seelinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Laura Sumner

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Sormovo workers in the foundry workshop, 1923

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

 

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

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

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

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Bolshevik newspaper Rabochii-Krest’ianskii Nizhegorodskii Listok

 

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

Full Image Attributions:

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

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

Image 3: Author’s own