Citoyennes of the patrie? Gender and the mobilisation of France during the revolutionary wars, 1792-1799

Beth Fisher

The execution of Louis XVI in 1792 left a gaping void in French patriotic representation, leaving revolutionary leaders, such as Maximilien Robespierre, with the monumental task of recreating the body politic. Compounding the matter was the fact that France was at the same time embroiled in a war against Austria, and would later war with Prussia, Russia and Britain. To continue the war effort and stabilise society, revolutionary leaders needed to orchestrate a national mobilising mission, aimed at both men and women in order to boost morale and prevent desertion.

This raised the question: should there be a national figurehead? The revolutionaries were wary of reverting to old regime representations of a paternal figure, and in 1792 there was no one unifying leader as Napoleon would become a decade later.[1] The answer, therefore, was to replace paternity with fraternity, allowing revolutionaries to mobilise the nation around an idea – the fatherland – rather than a father.[2] Indeed, the iconography of the radical period of the Revolution featured virtually no emblems of fatherhood and nor did it mythologise a living leader. Leading revolutionaries like Robespierre, Danton, Lafayette and Marat passed from public office without establishing a personality cult, and tended to be depicted more often in death than in life.[3]

Just as paternity was replaced by fraternity, so religion was replaced by the human condition. Instead of worshipping the perfection of a Christian God, the revolutionaries now looked to the perfection of man. In his study of The Old Regime and the Revolution, the 19th century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed that the Revolution created a new kind of faith that made its ideas accessible, in order to rally large swathes of citizens:

If, with regard to religion, the French who made the Revolution were more unbelieving than we, at least there was left in them one admirable belief which we lack: they believed in themselves. They did not doubt perfectibility, the power of man; they readily became impassioned for his glory, they had faith in his virtue […] they did not doubt in the least that they were called to transform society and regenerate our species. These feelings and these passions had become a kind of new religion for them, which […] tore them away from individual egoism [and] encouraged them to heroism and devotion.[4]

Though at first sight, this replacement of Christianity may not seem particularly relevant to the gender dynamics of military recruitment, as Tocqueville alludes to, faith in the perfection of man helped form an imagined community whereby a ‘modern’ masculinity became inextricably linked with fraternity and a devotion to the fatherland – an idea for which citizen-soldiers were willing to die.[5]

Although self-sacrifice and military duty were central to the new religion of the revolution, the roots of the concepts are found in antiquity. The revolutionaries drew inspiration from classical republicanism, and the duties citizens owed to their patrie (homeland/fatherland) was one such ancient idea.[6]

It is no surprise then, that in much of the radical iconography, the citizen-soldier was portrayed in the guise of the classical youth. In many paintings from the revolutionary period, such as David’s The Oath of the Horatti (Figure 1), the young soldier exudes a Roman-style, militaristic masculinity.

oath of horatii
Figure 1: The Oath of the Horatii, by Jacques- Louis David.

In The Oath of the Horatii, the brothers prepare to fight their enemies, the Curatii, despite the siblings of the two families being linked by marriage. As in the French Revolution, the Horatii put love for the fatherland before familial love, ignoring the pleas of their weeping sisters.

Artists like David almost never depicted actual battle scenes or the gruesome consequences of war. Instead, by drawing upon allegorical and classical references, artists were able to paint the perfect vision of man as a virtuous, selfless soldier. By idealising sacrifice (rather than mutilation or death in battle), the army was ‘one with’ society, mobilising men in defence of the republican nation, inspired by the glory of ancient Rome.

Classical republicanism was equally influential upon depictions of women in the radical iconography used to rally the nation for war. Unlike men, women tended to be depicted in far more abstract forms, usually representing the motifs of liberty, maternity, or the fatherland, rather than appearing as an individual woman. [7]

Patriotic representations of individual women also drew inspiration from the Spartan mother – an ancient Greek concept of womanhood in which females were authoritative and tasked with raising warrior sons. This ancient image was revived by Rousseau during the Enlightenment and subsequently became the basis of republican education. In Emile, Rousseau puts forward the idea that the ideal republican woman is one who is willing to sacrifice her sons for the greater good of the fatherland:

A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A Helot arrives; trembling, she asks him for news. “Your five sons were killed.” “Base slave, did I ask you that?” “We won the victory.” The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods. This is the female citizen.[8]

Rousseau’s thoughts on women’s ability to mobilise the nation were not just lofty ideals, but found real influence in revolutionary culture. Revolutionary festivals organised by women’s clubs were often variants on this theme, admonishing their sons and husbands to bravely defend the nation, and staging balls and banquets in honour of the volunteers who signed up to the army.[9]

The chaste republican mother became central to the project of social regeneration. In stark contrast to the depictions of scheming, gossiping aristocratic women of the Ancien Régime ‘bitchocracy’, women were now allegorised as the glue that held the nation together.

leave-your-arrow.jpg
Figure 2: Leave Your Arrow and on Some Familiar Tunes Learn my Cherished Moral; be no longer the son of Venus, become the lover of the fatherland, unknown artist.

Ironically, the fatherland was always depicted as a mother, rather than a father (probably because of the negative connotations associated with a king-like figure). In Leave Your Arrow and on Some Familiar Tunes (Figure 2), a womanly figure of La Patrie instructs Cupid to sever his ties with Venus and instead serve the nation. Here, Cupid serves as a latent representation of the French boy, who must learn to reject frivolous love and channel his passion into a love for his nation.

The way in which women were represented in revolutionary iconography ­– as chaste, sacrificial, Spartan – evolved in tandem with the state of warfare. In Devotion to the Fatherland (Figure 3), Pierre-Antoine de Machy depicts the patriotic fervour of 1793, just after the introduction of the levée en masse. In it, mothers offer their infant sons to the enthroned woman, representing La Patrie. The soldier at the far right of the painting has learnt the lesson enshrined in Leave Your Arrow, and ignoring the protestations of his lover, pledges his love and sacrifice for the nation.

devotion to the fatherland
Figure 3: Devotion to the Fatherland, by Pierre-Antoine de Machy

This optimistic fervour later gave way to a more fearful undertone as the French army faced the Second Coalition and the very real threat of invasion.[10]  The Fatherland in Danger (Figure 4) encapsulates the severity of the situation and the even greater need for mobilisation.

the fatherland in danger
Figure 4: The Fatherland in Danger, by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière.

Painted in 1799, The Fatherland in Danger does not show the sorrowful women that are often founded in earlier paintings, but instead portrays women as leading the urgent mission of mobilisation. Surrounded by tricolour flags, the women this time encourage their lovers to join the battle, with one woman even appearing to carry weapons towards the seated figure of La Patrie.

Gender had a profound impact on the iconography of the revolutionary wars. Drawing inspiration from classical republicanism, revolutionaries deified masculinity in the guise of the citizen-soldier, and femininity in the form of the Spartan mother. Ideals of gender were used both to regenerate society, and to mobilise it for total war. Even in Georgian Britain, it became noticed that French soldiers were increasingly more patriotic and masculinised than its own. British masculinity had usually been defined in contrast to French ‘effeminacy’, but during the revolutionary wars the attitude of British officers toward their enemy began to change as they recognised Napoleon had harnessed a formidable military power.[11]  Increasingly, the British army reflected upon the national differences between themselves and Spanish and Portuguese soldiers, whom they had fought alongside in the Peninsula War.[12]

However effective gender may have been in mobilising France, the fact that both masculinity and femininity were used to define what it meant to be patriotic republican shows that, as the country experienced large-scale war, the citizen-army became inextricably linked to civil society. The soldier was no longer simply a man fulfilling an occupation, but a warrior who inherited the ancient duty to protect his community, ushering in the modern age of ‘total’ war.

Beth Fisher is currently an MA student in Modern History at the University of York, having completed her undergraduate degree in History last year at the University of East Anglia. She has specialised in the French Revolution and modern European diplomatic history, and is currently researching a Master’s dissertation on Labour Party foreign policy towards Nazi Germany, 1936-1939.

Images

Figure 1: Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of Horatii, oil on canvas (1784), taken from https://www.jacqueslouisdavid.org/The-Oath-Of-The-Horatii-1784.html, date accessed 20.3.2019

Figure 2: Unknown artist, Leave Your Arrow and on Some Familiar Tunes Learn my Cherished Moral; be no longer the son of Venus, become the lover of the fatherland, unknown artist (c. 1793), taken from Landes, ‘Republican citizenship’, p. 102.

Figure 3: P.A. de Machy, Devotion to the Fatherland (1793), taken from Landes, ‘Republican Citzenship’, p. 108.

Figure 4: Gillaume Guillon-Lethière, The Fatherland in Danger, oil on canvas (1799), taken from http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/19/, date accessed 21.3.2019

References

[1] Alan Forrest,‘Citizenship and Masculinity The Revolutionary Citizen-Soldier and his Legacy’, in S. Dudink (ed.), Representing Masculinity Male Citizenship in Modern Western Culture (Basingstoke, 2007), p. 112.

[2] Lynne Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Abingdon, 1992) p. 53.

[3] Ibid, p.71.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, edited by F. Furet (Chicago, 1998), p.208

[5] Joan Landes, ‘Republican citizenship and heterosocial desire: concepts of masculinity in revolutionary France’, in S. Dudink, K Hagemann and J. Tosh (eds.), Masculinities in Politics and War (Manchester, 2004), p. 98.

[6] Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford, 2013), p. 34-35.

[7] I am yet to find a single refence to a ‘motherland’. Interestingly, France was always referred to as a ‘fatherland’, but it was common for contemporary artists to depict France as a maternal figure. It is not entirely clear why this was the case, but some historians, such as Joan Landes, have suggested that female depictions were used to bolster heteronormative behaviour, particularly within the army which, during this era, became an exclusively male space.

[8] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education (New York, 1979), p. 40.

[9] Susan Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France (Berkeley, 2004), p. 78.

[10] Landes, ‘Republican Citzenship’, p. 106.

[11] Catriona Kennedy, ‘John Bull into Battle: Military Masculinity and the British Army Officer during the Napoleonic Wars’, in K. Hagemann and J. Rendall (eds.), Gender War and Politics: Transatlantic Perspectives on the Wars of Revolution and Liberation, 1775-1830 (Basingstoke, 2010), p. 128.

[12] Ibid, p. 139.

Advertisements

‘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.

mark
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).

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.

DavidBrutusSonsCorps

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

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.

Kustodiev_-_Congress_of_Comintern
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

url
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

Doctor Zhivago as a Response to the Weaponization of Soviet Literature and Mass Culture

By Lonny Harrison

Almost from the moment they seized control in November 1917, the Bolsheviks nationalized the publishing industry and tightly controlled the press. Soviet authorities were never ashamed of their monopoly on media and culture, viewing them as weapons of class struggle. After all, media had been used by the bourgeoisie for their own exploitative purposes, they argued. Allowing freedom of the press to their enemies would have seemed ‘criminally stupid.’[1]

Nor was there any reason to curtail propaganda. Trotsky, in Literature and Revolution (1924), defined propaganda not as a nefarious trick, the way we might view it today, but as a form of education to bring political consciousness to the workers. Thus, the Bolsheviks made it their aim not only to seize power in the tangible sense, but to seize meaning. The Revolution had created a void which required a new way of defining the past, present, and future. To establish their legitimacy, the Bolsheviks needed to control public discourse and transform popular attitudes and beliefs through new symbols, rituals, stories, and imagery.[2]

Literature and mass culture served as the primary means toward that end. A Pravda critic wrote in 1924, ‘We can and should regard literature as a weapon, and an altogether powerful weapon to affect the reader’s consciousness and will.’[3] At the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, Maxim Gorky famously stated that books were ‘the most important and most powerful weapons in socialist culture.’[4] Mass media and culture would wind through numerous permutations in the following decades, but government control and censorship remained a constant. The weaponization of media and culture would hold sway from the Great October Socialist Revolution right through the Cold War until the glasnost era and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Persecution of dissenters ratcheted up during mass arrests of the late 1920s, and through the Great Terror and purge of the Communist Party from 1936 to 1938. Labels like class enemy, petty bourgeois, Trotskyite, or cosmopolitan were levied against millions who were arbitrarily sentenced to prisons, penal colonies, or summary execution. Artists were particularly vulnerable to branding as a formalist or subjective idealist. Frequently the charges were announced in the press along with forced confessions and signatures of those pressured to denounce the ‘traitors’—often their own family, friends, or colleagues.

By the mid-forties, on the eve of the intensification of cultural repression known as the

Banner of Pasternak
Banner with portrait of Pasternak at the entrance to the Feltrinelli bookstore in Rome, 2012.

Zhdanov Doctrine (zhdanovshchina), Boris Pasternak, who had already faced years of criticism as a poet allegedly out of step with the times (despite enormous popularity at home and abroad) felt compelled to make a stand: ‘I need to do something dear to me and my very own, riskier than usual . . . I need to break through to the public.’[5]

This he did in his first full-length novel, Doctor Zhivago. A conspicuously apolitical work, it would earn him censure and endless invectives in the Party press. The author had anticipated that sort of fallout. Far from a blunder of novice or naïveté, Pasternak had come to see it as his mission to publish the book, at whatever peril it brought to himself or his family—some of whom were not in support of his decision. Indeed, his confidante and lover Olga Ivinskaya, whom the author acknowledged as an inspiration for his heroine Lara Antipova, would spend years in the Soviet GULAG because of her association with the author.

Yet upon finishing the novel in late 1955, he was evidently satisfied with what he had accomplished: ‘You cannot imagine what I have achieved! I have found and given names to all this sorcery that has been the cause of suffering, bafflement, amazement, and dispute for several decades. Everything is named in simple, transparent, and sad words. I also once again renewed and redefined the dearest and most important things: land and sky, great passion, creative spirit, life and death.’[6]

However, the novel was unpublishable in the Soviet Union. The editorial board of Novy mir hand-delivered a rejection letter to Pasternak in September 1956: ‘The thing that has disturbed us about your novel is something that neither the editors nor the author can change by cuts or alterations. . . . The spirit of your novel is one of non-acceptance of the socialist revolution. The general tenor of your novel is that the October Revolution, the Civil War and the social transformation involved did not give the people anything but suffering, and destroyed the Russian intelligentsia, either physically or morally.’[7]

To bring his work to the light, Pasternak was forced to smuggle it out of the Soviet Union, eventually securing a contract with Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak

Doctor_Zhivago-1st_ITA_edition
Cover to the Italian first edition of Doctor Zhivago, 1957.

expressed his willingness to accept the consequences of such a risky endeavor. He wrote to Feltrinelli that he was willing to face ‘any kind of trouble’ as long as the novel was published, declaring, ‘Ideas are not born to be hidden or smothered at birth, but to be communicated to others.’[8]

His intuition proved correct, and he would be harassed by the Soviet authorities for the remainder of his days, until his death in 1960. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, Pasternak was forced to decline the award, as it was interpreted by authorities as a political provocation from the West.

The novel’s great offense was its apoliticism. Contradicting the ideological program of Socialist Realism sanctioned at the 1934 Congress and subsequently imposed on all Soviet art and artists, it failed to glorify the Revolution and the New Soviet Man in a monochrome paean to Soviet power.

The hero Yuri Zhivago’s philosophy of life and art evolves. At first he welcomes the Revolution like the breath of a purifying storm, a spontaneous tide without cause or reason, for ‘What is truly great is without beginning, like the universe’ (182).[9] He paints it in quasi-religious terms: ‘An extraordinary sight! Mother Russia is on the move, she can’t stand still, she’s restless and she can’t find rest, she’s talking and she can’t stop. And it isn’t as if only people were talking. Stars and trees meet and converse, flowers talk philosophy at night, stone houses hold meetings. It makes you think of the Gospel, doesn’t it?’ (146).

He has a fervent desire to live honestly, productively, ‘to be a part of all this awakening.’ (147). But soon the Civil War devolves into violence and mayhem. Yuri witnesses it first hand when he is captured by partisans and forced to join the fight. Red and White atrocities rival each other. Proclamations of the regional Soviet threaten, ‘Anyone found hoarding food will be shot on the spot’ (377), and promise, ‘Only mass searches . . . only terror applied in all its harshness, down to the shooting of speculators on the spot, can deliver us from famine’ (381). The decrees make him feel ill: ‘What kind of people are they, to go on raving with this never-cooling, feverish ardor, year in, year out, on nonexistent, long-vanished subjects, and to know nothing, to see nothing around them?’ (381-82).

One of those people is his nemesis, Strelnikov (Pasha Antipov), ‘the famous non-Party military expert who was the pride and terror of the region’ (245). Lara’s husband and Yuri’s rival for her love, Antipov had been transformed by the Civil War into the cold mask of a revolutionary zealot. In search of purity forged by the Revolution, he winds up shelling villages from an armored train.

Lara herself gives some of the novel’s most impassioned pleas for humanity: ‘The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the naked human soul stripped to the last shred.’ This resulted when ‘. . . untruth came down on our land of Russia. The main misfortune, the root of all the evil to come, was the loss of confidence in the value of one’s own opinion. People imagined that it was out of date to follow their own moral sense, that they must all sing in chorus, and live by other people’s notions.’

Although Pasternak himself, and the hero and heroine of Doctor Zhivago were enthralled by the tidal events and sea change wrought by the Revolution, the essence of the novel boils down to the right of a human being to stand alone, free of the rhetoric and the enforced, militant enthusiasm for the new social regimen. As a study in the perseverance of character in a time of political and social upheaval, there is perhaps no better.

Ironically, Pasternak’s novel would prove to be a powerful weapon of non-alignment with Party dogma. In Victor Erlich’s summation: ‘When culture is treated as a weapon and literature as a source of moral edification, poetic detachment smacks of sabotage. . . . When dry-as-dust abstractions of an official ideology are increasingly used to displace reality and explain it away, even such politically innocuous qualities as delight in the sensory texture of things are likely to appear as escapism.’[10]

In a fascinating twist, the book marched straight to the frontlines of Cold War cultural warfare: the CIA printed a Russian language edition and smuggled it into the Soviet Union in hopes that Soviet citizens would read it and turn against their own government.

CIA_Miniature volume_Doctor_Zhivago
Copy of the original Russian-Language edition of Doctor Zhivago, covertly published by the CIA.

The head of the CIA’s International Organizations Division wrote that exposure to Western ideas ‘could incrementally over time improve the chances for gradual change toward more open societies.’[11]

That said, Doctor Zhivago is hardly a political novel in any respect. It merely reclaims the personal; it vindicates the rights of an individual to live freely, outside of ideological dogma and conformism. In fact, Pasternak was distressed by the reduction of his novel to something akin to a political pamphlet indicting his home country. ‘I deplore the fuss now being made about my book,’ he said in late 1957. ‘Everybody’s writing about it but who in fact has read it? What do they quote from it? Always the same passages—three pages, perhaps, out of a book of 700 pages.’[12]

Pasternak’s point was not to write subversive literature. He merely defended the artist’s right to express his art freely while reclaiming the right of the individual to choose self-determination and perennial truth. Biographer Christopher Barnes records, ‘Shortly before the end, Pasternak talked of his life as spent in a duel between the forces of vulgarity and the free play of human talent.’

Pasternak’s own immense talent made him one of the greatest of chroniclers of the Russian Revolution. As the poet Marina Tsvetaeva described her friend Boris, ‘He walked alongside the Revolution and listened to it raptly.’[13]

Dr. Lonny Harrison is Associate Professor of Russian at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research interests include 19th-century Russian literature and philosophy, and 20th-century Russian literature, media, and mass culture. He is the author of Archetypes from Underground: Notes on the Dostoevskian Self, as well as numerous articles on the life and works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. He is currently researching Russian responses to authoritarianism in the 20th century. Find him on Twitter at @lonnyharrison.

 

References:

[1] James von Geldern and Richard Stites, eds., Mass Culture in Soviet Russia: Tales, Poems, Songs, Movies, Plays, and Folklore, 1917-1953 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. xi.

[2] Victoria E. Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 1.

[3] Jeffrey Brooks, Thank you Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 23.

[4] Garrand, John, and Carol Garrand, Inside the Soviet Writers’ Union (New York: The Free Press, 1990), p. 42.

[5] Letter to S.N. Durylin, June 1945. Quoted in ed. Edith W. Clowes, Doctor Zhivago: A Critical Companion (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995), p. 6.

[6] Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book (London: Harvill Secker, 2014), pp. 83-84.

[7] The letter was published in Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette), October 25, 1958. It is reproduced in full in Robert Conquest, Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair (Collins and Harvill Press, 1961), Appendix II, pp. 136-63.

[8] Finn and Couvée 91.

[9] Page nos. here and below refer to Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. by Max Hayward and Manya Harari (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958). Italics are added.

[10] ‘Introduction: Categories of Passion’ in ed. Victor Erlich, Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978), p.5.

[11] Meyer, Cord. Facing Reality: From World Federation to the CIA. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), p. 114.

[12] Finn and Couvée 152.

[13] Quoted in Victor Erlich, Modernism and Revolution: Russian Literature in Transition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 72.

 

Full image attributions

Image 1: Fair use, via Wikipedia.com.

Image 2: By the Central Intelligence Agency [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 3: By Visarik [Creative commons], via Wikimedia Commons.

Refugees, Exiles and Émigrés: Russia Abroad and the Semantics of Displacement

By Eilish Hart

Following the 1917 Revolution over a million Russians fled to Europe to escape the turmoil of the ensuing Red Terror and Civil War. Although often referred to as Russian émigrés, these people were actually the first wave of European migrants to be legally classified as refugees. The reason they are now referred to as the Russian émigrés can largely be attributed to their own efforts at shaping their identity as a community.

435px-Thecristisrizenoldrussiancivilwarposter
Cover of the émigré journal ‘Chasovoi’ from 1932 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Russian refugees, or at least the members of the intelligentsia among them, were keenly aware of the semantics surrounding their displacement. The label ‘refugee’ came with connotations that they sought to disassociate themselves from, but the circumstances under which they left Russia also drove an awareness of themselves as victims of the Bolshevik regime. While displacement caused an identity crisis among Russians in Europe, self-identifying as émigrés and/or exiles allowed them to reconcile with living abroad.

Russians fleeing the revolution were the beginning of a pan-European refugee crisis that developed in the wake of the First World War. Allied humanitarian organizations were among the first to provide aid for Russian refugees. In 1921, the League of Nations responded, appointing Fridtjof Nansen their High Commissioner for Refugees, responsible for negotiating the resettlement or repatriation of displaced Russians.

That same year the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (a precursor to the USSR) issued a decree that resulted in the mass denaturalization of former citizens of Imperial Russia.[1] Rendered stateless, Russian refugees were left without legal protection, representation or valid travel documents. In response, the ‘Nansen Certificate’ (or ‘Nansen Passport’) was issued in 1922, which served as an international travel document for displaced Russians, granting them official refugee status.[2]

For many Russians, displacement and statelessness caused an identity crisis because they could not conceive of themselves as refugees and rejected the connotations of this label. They were demographically diverse, including many well-known members of the Russian intelligentsia, religious figures, White Army personnel, and members of the former Tsarist and Provisional governments – all of whom still strongly identified with their pre-Revolutionary socio-economic status.

800px-Nansenpass
A Nansen Passport belonging to a Russian refugee (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, most of those who left Russia believed that the Bolshevik regime would soon collapse. They saw their displacement as temporary and were anticipating being able to return home soon. For many, the Nansen Certificate came as a blow. Writer Nina Berberova recalled receiving a Nansen Certificate upon her arrival in Paris in 1925, ‘Here we received a document given for those who are stateless, people without a homeland….[3] While the refugees still regarded Russia as their homeland, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Nansen Certificate had rendered them officially homeless.

With the help of their Nansen certificates Russian refugees settled in major European cities like Berlin, Paris, London and Prague. To combat the loss of their legal status as ‘Russians’ and shed their refugee identities, they took it upon themselves to fashion a cultural identity for ‘Russia Abroad’. Drawing on the cultural legacy of the nineteenth century, which connected exile to temporary banishment, they were able to construct a collective cultural identity as transitory ‘exiles’ or ‘émigrés’.

The intelligentsia preferred the terms ‘émigré’ and ‘exile’ because of their historical and cultural connotations. Recalling famous exiles of the nineteenth century allowed displaced Russians to connect themselves to a historical legacy. When Vladimir Nabokov’s family fled to the Crimea following the Revolution, he took inspiration from the romantic image of nineteenth-century poet Alexander Pushkin’s exile experience.[4] The collective noun ‘emigration’ also provided an underlying sense of cohesion.[5]

Having reframed their identities as a community of temporary ‘exiles’ rather than refugees, the Russian émigrés soon embarked on a self-imposed mission to preserve ‘real’ Russian language and culture abroad, in order to counter Bolshevism’s erosion of it back home. The notion that they would return to Russia, bringing real Russian culture with them, was foundational to émigré identity.

To preserve Russian language and culture the émigrés formed isolated communities in most major European cities. Unlike most refugees, they showed little interest in integrating into their host countries and few of them sought naturalization. They were united in their expectation that the Bolshevik regime would collapse and they could return to Russia. As such, Historian Marc Raeff argues that they really did constitute a ‘society in exile’ because they were committed to living a ‘Russian life’ in Europe.[6]

01
Émigré journal ‘Mir i Isskustvo’ featuring a class photo
from the Russian University in Paris (1930) (Source: Russians without Russia Press Archive)

The Russian émigrés founded their own publishing houses to print books and journals, they opened Russian schools and Orthodox Churches, shopped at Russian grocery stores and frequented Russian cafés. The concentration of Russian émigrés in the Berlin’s Charlottenburg district even earned it the nickname ‘Charlottengrad’ in the 1920s. The proliferation of Russian institutions in communities abroad essentially allowed the Russian émigrés to go about their daily lives entirely in Russian.

In addition, Russian émigrés could rely on a wide variety of journals, newspapers and books published abroad in their native language. To counter the Bolsheviks’ post-revolutionary spelling reform, many of these publications continued to use nineteenth century orthography. This emphasis on preserving Russian language also meant that literature played a key role in the cultural identity of ‘Russia Abroad’. As the Bolsheviks developed notions of Soviet culture in the 1920s and 1930s, the émigrés framed their own cultural output as a continuation of ‘real’ Russian cultural traditions and values, which they intended to restore upon their return to the homeland.[7]

The reality that the Bolshevik regime was there to stay was slow to sink in. Few Russian émigrés ended up returning to Soviet Russia and as such, they were unable to fulfil their cultural mission. As time wore on, Russia Abroad evolved from a society in exile to a permanent diaspora. Nevertheless, shaping the semantics of their displacement allowed Russians abroad to create an identity that gave their community structure and purpose. Their self-awareness and opposition to Bolshevism even led to the development of a parallel Russian culture abroad.

Eilish Hart is an MA candidate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs. She is currently based in Kyiv, Ukraine where she is working as an intern for digital media NGO Hromadske International and conducting research on how return migration and forced repatriation shaped the resettlement of Kyiv after the Second World War. Find her on twitter, @EilishHart.

References:

[1] George Ginsburgs, “The Soviet Union and the Problem of Refugees and Displaced Persons 1917-1956,” The American Journal of International Law 51 (April 1947), p. 329.

[2] John Glad, Russia Abroad: Writers, History, Politics, forward by Victor Terras (Washington & Tenafly, NJ: Birchbark Press & Hermitage Publishers, 1999), p. 235

[3] Nina Berberova, The Italics are mine (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), p. 218.

[4] Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (New York: Picador, 2002), p. 548.

[5] Robert H. Johnston, “New Mecca, New Babylon”: Paris and the Russian Exiles, 1920-1945 (Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988), p. 7.

[6] Marc Raeff, Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919-1939 (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 5.

[7] Ibid.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: By Fram Museum [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 2: By Unk. [Public Domain], via Wikipedia Commons.

Image 3: By Fiodor Sumkin [Open Access], via Russians without Russia Press Archive

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!

PozeRevolutia1989clujByRazvanRotta02
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.