‘An amoral lifestyle’ – criminalizing female sexuality in the Soviet 1960s

by Mirjam Galley

That the USSR did not turn out to be the utopia of gender equality that some revolutionaries had dreamt of in 1917 can no longer really surprise anyone. A glimpse into how the Soviet authorities dealt with juvenile delinquency allows us to fathom the extent to which boys and girls were thought of and treated differently. Looking at how deviance and sexuality were addressed in the 1960s also point to the limits of so-called ‘liberalization’ under Nikita Khrushchev.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet leaders were left with a difficult legacy. His successor Khrushchev had to find a way of reinventing Soviet socialism and removing the taint of Stalinist terror. To prevent the destabilization of the Soviet regime, Khrushchev needed to come up with a way to ensure public order and impose certain norms of behaviour without ubiquitous state terror.

The Soviet 1960s were shaped by a fear of deviance, a fear which was rekindled time and again by actual or perceived waves of juvenile crime. These fears were predominantly evoked around the image of unsupervised youths hanging out in the streets, in staircases, and in the dvory (courtyards), where they were thought to be drinking, smoking, and gambling, all seen as gateways into delinquency and crime.[1]

These anxieties were often personified by the ‘hooligan.’[2] The ‘hooligan’ was the concept most widely invoked in Soviet society to label deviant behaviour. As Brian LaPierre has shown, hooliganism was mainly a ‘crime’ committed by working class

392px-Group_Walking_Moscow_1964
Group of young people walking through Moscow, 1964 (courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

men. This might suggest that in the Soviet Union, deviance was ‘male’. A closer look at convictions of underage boys and girls, however, shows that there was also ‘female’ deviance, and that Soviet notions of delinquency and deviance were deeply gendered. Archival documents reveal surprisingly conservative notions of gender roles and sexuality within the Soviet system of justice and even among youths.

At first glance, this seems surprising in a state claiming to have ‘freed’ women and reached the equality of the sexes. Instead, bureaucrats worked with crude impressions of ‘fallen women’ and resorted to victim blaming in cases of sexual abuse and rape. Although there were also girls who committed crimes, it seems like girls were mostly sent to institutions for delinquent minors (reform colonies or ‘special’ schools) for promiscuity (amoral behaviour), or even prostitution – if they could prove that money had been exchanged. Boys, on the other hand, would be sent away most frequently for hooliganism, theft, or assault.

To compare these gendered notions of deviance, I will look at two inspection reports from 1962 about so-called collection and distribution points (priemniki), one for boys in Leningrad and one for girls in Pushkin. Minors would be brought to these places by the police, and wait there to be transferred to an institution. The Leningrad priemnik mostly held boys waiting to be sent to a reform colony. These boys were accused of theft, hooliganism, drunkenness, and ‘refusing to study or work.’ The report also mentions particularly bad previous cases, such as stealing state property, breaking into apartments, organizing gangs, escaping from a colony, and rape.[3]

In contrast, the report about the 11 girls waiting in the Pushkin priemnik for their place in a colony shows most interest in their sexual behaviour, which is vividly described. The girls would either roam around at night or had left home to stay with some guy. The men in question are named as shady people, foreigners (in one case Swedish tourists), soldiers, delinquent people, ‘unknown’ men, people from the Jazz scene – covering every possible stereotype of a bad match for ‘good Soviet girls.’ According to the report, most of the girls were either skipping school, misbehaving or drinking and smoking. Five of them lived in a boarding school, two were students, four had dropped out or were between jobs. Their families (often single parents) are mostly described as drinkers, as leading ‘an amoral lifestyle,’ or as mentally ill.

The report emphasizes cases in which girls exerted a bad influence on their environment, either literally by catching (and potentially spreading) venereal diseases – two of them had been hospitalized for gonorrhoea – or more metaphorically by ‘having amoral conversations in her boarding school’s dorm,’ and ‘tainting’ the other girls at her school. Another common feature is the failure of other agencies to influence or re-educate them, be it schools, factory ‘collectives’, the Komsomol, the police or house committees.

Only one of the girls committed an actual crime; aside from all of her deviant acts, she committed a rather grim act of cruelty against animals.[4] Although the boys and

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Young women walking through Revolution Square, Moscow, 1964 (image courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

girls found themselves in similar institutions and came from similar social(ly destitute) backgrounds, they are convicted for very different offenses and could hardly have been described more differently.

Another such case demonstrating the gendered notions of deviance is the conviction of a 14-year-old girl to a reform colony for leading an ‘amoral life style’, which included running away from school and petty theft. The Latvian prosecution chose to protest against this conviction, as the story behind it is rather tragic, and the girl was not known for misbehaving. A 20-year-old man had (illegally!) started a relationship with this girl and was terrorizing her emotionally. When her schoolmaster found out that the girl was sexually active, he persuaded her mother to send her to a boarding school. The man continued pursuing the girl and threatened to break up with her if she did not come to see him at once.

Scared, she ran away from school, stole some clothes to wear, and went to meet him. She was picked up by the militsiia (police) and brought back to school, where the headmaster chose to put her in ‘quarantine’ for three weeks and then had her sent to a colony, bullying her mother into agreeing to this. At the time of the prosecution’s protest, the girl was stuck in a priemnik, awaiting transfer. The prosecutor demanded for her to be sent back, and for the security forces to charge the guy who had abused and pressured her instead, as seemingly no one had thought of this before. The commission in charge followed that recommendation, although this came quite late for the girl: the trail of documents suggests that between the decision to send her to a colony and its reversal a whole year had passed.[5]

The tendency to blame girls for having sex even goes as far as influencing the outcome of rape trials. In the 1960s in Latvia, a rapist was charged but not arrested, because the victim had been a ‘promiscuous’ girl – which is a gross, but sadly familiar, trivialisation of rape.[6] In a discussion about juvenile crime among senior Latvian education, health, and juvenile justice officials, a law scholar considers rape a serious problem amongst minors. He inexplicably links it to the phenomenon of uneducated single mothers, somehow implying that it is the father’s job in a family to tell his sons not to rape anyone, or that such basic moral ground rules require a certain level of schooling. To explain the status of rape among such youngsters, the scholar evokes the case of three boys being tried for raping a 26-year-old. Towards the end of the trial, one of the accused admitted that he actually did not take part in the crime, but asked the court ‘not to tell anyone because it would embarrass him in front of his friends.’[7]

These examples bear witness to an underlying culture of criminalizing female but not male sexuality, and of victim blaming in the case of rape – a culture so widespread and unquestioned that not to rape a girl could apparently be cause for embarrassment.

Mirjam Galley is a third-year PhD student in Sheffield’s History Department. Her doctoral research deals with children in care in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, exploring both how the Soviet leadership sought to ‘form’ children in institutions into productive workers, and how children coped in these institutions. Her research interests include cultural history, especially the history of everyday life, of violence, and of marginalised groups. She is one of the co-founders of the Sheffield Modern International History Group. You can reach her on Twitter @M_E_Galley.

References

[1] Susan Reid, ‘Building Utopia in the Back Yard. Housing Administration, Participatory Government and the Cultivation of Socialist Community,’ in Karl Schlögel (ed.), Mastering Russian Spaces: Raum und Raumbewältigung als Probleme der russischen Geschichte (Munich, 2011), (149-186), pp. 171-172.

[2] Deborah Field, Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev’s Russia (New York, 2007), p. 22.

[3] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 126-133. (1962)

[4] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 119-125. (1962)

[5] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 1982, pp. 7-8. (1963)

[6] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100. (1964)

[7] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100-101. (1964)

 

Full Image Attributions

Image 1: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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The ‘Garrotted Renaissance’: language and nationalism in the 1930s

Almost exactly 80 years ago, on 3 November 1937, the NKVD executed the renowned Ukrainian theatre director Les Kurbas. Kurbas was not alone that day – a large group of Ukrainian writers and intellectuals were executed alongside him. The loss of so many of Ukraine’s cultural community resonated deeply with their compatriots, and those who had been executed became known in Ukraine as the ‘garrotted renaissance’.[1]

This execution was a tiny part of one of the most significant moments in Soviet history, a chain of events often referred to as the Great Terror.[2] As the Terror swept through Soviet society hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were arrested and executed, from

Les_Kurbas_OGPU-NKVD
Les Kurbas, in his official ‘mug shot’ taken by the NKVD shortly after his arrest in 1933

the political elite down to the most humble worker.[3]

It was not uncommon for writers and thinkers to be executed or imprisoned during this period, although it was unheard of for so many to be executed together. To grasp why this was so, we need to understand a little more about the complex and varied reasons why writers were arrested or imprisoned.

For some Russian writers, it really was the words that flowed from their pen that were their undoing. Perhaps most famously Osip Mandelstam’s poem – characterising Stalin as ‘the Kremlin crag-dweller’ and comparing his eyes to cockroaches – led to his arrest and sentence to the Gulag. Mandelstam died en route to his destination.

In the case of the ‘garrotted renaissance’ it was not what they wrote so much as their Ukrainian nationality that was the key to their fate. This is confirmed when we examine the interrogation files of the writers in question. Within the pages of Mandelstam’s interrogation file, the focus was very much on the content of the writing, and possible interpretations. During his interrogation, Mandelstam’s interrogator, N.K. Shivarov, actually asked him to compare different drafts of his poem about Stalin and comment upon them.[4]

Even in the interrogation file of Isaac Babel, who was accused of conspiring with Trotskyists, there is much discussion of the former’s writing, and of the effect that his regular meetings with anti-Bolshevik editors and writers had on his work.[5] Babel was executed in January 1940.

In the interrogation files of Ukrainian writers, the focus on the actual creative output of the writers is almost entirely absent. Instead, these interrogations are largely focused on the possibility of the Ukrainians being members of anti-Soviet nationalist groups. The opening statement written by Kurbas in his interrogation file begins: ‘ I hereby… admit that I belonged to the counter-revolutionary terrorist organisation the UVO.’ His

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1924 Poster from the Berezil Theatre

statement goes on to detail how his work at the Berezil theatre in Kyiv led him to join the UVO (in Ukrainian, the Ukrayins’ka Viys’kova Orhanizatsiya or Ukrainian Military Organisation).[6]

Why this change of emphasis? What was so different about the Ukrainian intelligentsia? Were they really all members of underground nationalist organisations, writing poems and plays by day, and plotting to murder Stalin by night? The answer lies in the broader context of the 1930s.  As the decade opened, Ukraine had become a problem for the Soviet leadership.

During the 1920s, Ukrainian language and culture had been recognised and positively encouraged by the Soviet leadership, as part of the policy of ‘Ukrainisation’, a pragmatic attempt to win over the peoples of the former Russian empire to the Bolshevik cause. However, by the early 1930s the policy was reversed, amid rising fears of anti-Soviet forces working within the Soviet Union.[7] Bordering Poland, Ukraine was considered both a conduit and breeding ground for spies, and as such allowing Ukrainian language and culture to thrive was seen as too great a risk.

Those who had held prominent roles in the creation of a confident, articulate Ukrainian culture – many of them writers, critics, and university professors – were now identified as enemies.[8] Their crimes were not rooted in their writing as such, but in their supposed nationalist aims. And on that day in November, this supposed threat was extinguished with one brutal blow – not just as a punishment, but as a warning to any other Soviet citizen who might be quietly nurturing nationalist hopes.

Does the nature of the execution matter? Is it even possible for us to compare the manner of one execution to another? Hardly. However, these subtle differences do shed a little light on the dynamics of the Terror: reminding us that it was not just one homogenous act of state violence but a complicated process, with small but important variances.

Polly Corrigan is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, where she is currently writing her thesis on the Soviet political police and their relationship with writers. She studied history at the University of Liverpool, and then completed an MA at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL. You can find her on Twitter at @pollycorrigan

References

[1] Lavrinenko, Y, Rozstriliane Vidrodzhennia: Antolohiia, 1917-1933. Paris, 1959.

[2] For a useful discussion of the term ‘Great Terror’ see Ryan, J, The Sacralization of Violence: Bolsheviks Justifications for Violence and Terror during the Civil War, Slavic Review 74, no. 4 (Winter 2015), pp. 808-809.

[3] See Conquest, R. The Great Terror, London, 1968; Getty, JA, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938, Cambridge, 1985; Getty, JA & Naumov OV, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, London, 1999.

[4] Shentalinsky, V, The KGB’s Literary Archive, London, 1995, pp. 172-173.

[5] Ibid, pp. 30-31

[6] Archives of the SBU, F6, Op1, Spr75608, pp. 38-39.

[7] Harris, J, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s, Oxford, 2016, pp. 178-179.

[8] Shkandrij, M, Ukrainian Nationalism: Politics, Ideology and Literature, 1929-1956, Yale University Press, 2015, p. 272.

 

 

 

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

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

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.

pic1
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.

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.

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

Teaching Soviet Children the Language of Science and Technology

By Laura Todd

At the beginning of the First Five-Year plan in 1928, the aims of children’s literature neatly intersected with those of the Soviet government’s plans to create a viable and powerful state, built on the promotion of knowledge, science, and technology. Soviet children, as the generation who would oversee and complete the transition to the bright future of full communism, were taught to be future constructors and leaders of science and technology from an early age.

fig 1
Figure 1: ‘Who I Will Be’ From L. Savel’ev’s book, What Are We Building? (1930)

The positioning of children at the forefront of scientific development was closely linked to the political necessities of the time. The First and Second Five Year Plans (1928-1932 and 1933-1937 respectively) were characterised by their push to rapidly increase industrialisation, and scientific and technological progress. However, Stalin had also enacted a wide-scale purge of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in 1930, leaving the new Soviet state without the scientific experts required to carry through this ambitious programme of change. In the place of these adult scientists, children were identified and educated to fill this void.

Unsurprisingly, literary critics and Party functionaries were clear that science and industrialisation were essential topics to cover in the ‘re-construction’ of the children’s publishing industry that was taking place simultaneously to the promotion of technology.[1] The focus on industry in children’s books was not by any means an independent occurrence. The 1925 publication of Fedor Gladkov’s Cement (Tsement) had sparked the birth of the Soviet ‘production novel’ (proizvodstvennyi roman), which evolved into a children’s version of the genre, the ‘children’s production book’ (detskaia proizvodstvennaia kniga).

fig 2
Figure 2: Laptev on the construction of factories and plants

Unlike the novels for adults, the children’s production book appeared in more varied forms than novels or stories about the heroes of Soviet industrialisation. In part, this difference arose from the very nature of children’s books, which, while usually moral and/or educational in tone, also needed to be entertaining in a way that Soviet adult’s fiction was wise to avoid for political reasons. However, there was also a wide recognition that the theme of manufacturing presented specific challenges across adult audiences as ‘even representatives of the Party nomenklatura perceived industrial tales to be something necessary, but unbearably boring.’[2]

The language of the Soviet production novel with its formulaic structures was particularly unlikely to appeal to the tastes of children, who seek out stories of adventure and entertainment, even in societies heavily restricted by political ideologies. One critic from the time suggested that, through the children’s production book, the theme of production could be transformed from a mere ‘topic of analysis and description’ into an art form of its own.[3]

fig 3
Figure 3: The page folds out to reveal more information on construction

In this manner, children’s texts on science and technology (these children’s production books) combined education with the process of discovery and an emphasis on transformation.

Some of these books taught children about the aims of the Five-Year Plans (piatiletki), including A. Laptev’s book The Five-Year Plan (Piatiletka), published in 1930. In The Five-Year Plan, Laptev teaches children the story of how the Plan was created and what it envisions. Using a trait common to many Soviet texts on science and technology, Laptev’s book presents these aims in visual form on maps of the Soviet Union, showing places where electrification, the construction of factories, and the creation of collectivised farms were taking place.

 

fig 4
Figure 4: An illustration of a ‘dynamo’ from What Are We Building?

Laptev’s illustrations and diagrams are not so different from those featured on Soviet agitprop posters from the time, but the book is constructed in a way to appeal to children’s curiosity. Each page folds outwards to reveal that the Plan is one of many layers, which need to be folded and placed in a specific way to ensure success.

fig 5
Figure 5: The exercise book cover of Savel’ev’s What Are We Building?

By contrast, Leonid Savel’ev’s part-storybook, part-exercise book (kniga-tetrad’), What Are We Building?: An Exercise Book with pictures (Chto my stroim?: Tetrad’ s kartinkami, 1930) presents children with the process of industrialisation in a recognisably educational way – the exercise book makes an appearance in most global education systems. The new language of science and technology is presented to children as new words often are – in picture-book format. Technical terms, such as ‘dynamo’, ‘cog’, and ‘lathe’, are accompanied by bright illustrations of what they are.

However, this multi-functional ‘exercise book’ allows children to fill-in-the-gaps and write themselves into Soviet industrialisation, as they are encouraged to answer questions on how their village/town/city contributes towards the Five-Year Plans. Children and their communities become small, but essential, cogs in the great Soviet factory. Children were firmly encouraged to imagine themselves as being ‘little-workers’ (deti-rabotniki) in the present, not only in the future.

fig 6
Figure 6: In Bumaga, trees are felled….

Soviet children’s books on industry frequently presented the process of science as one of raw material transformation. Many books helped children to understand the natural roots of products and how manufacturing allows nature to be transformed into useful items. N. Dirsh’s book, Paper (Bumaga, 193u?) shows children how trees are processed from a raw material into the paper that makes up their notebooks, journals, and magazines. The message of the transformation of raw materials into useful products has a dual meaning; knowledge and the manufacturing process turn natural products and children alike into items that can benefit Soviet society.

fig 7
Figure 7: …the trees are processed into pulp…

Finally, other texts played on fantasy structures well-established in children’s literature, moving away from didactic explanations of technology. N. Bulatov and P. Lopatin’s Journey through an Electric Lamp (Puteshestvie po elektrolampe) sees two children, Iura and Natasha, shrunk into a miniature size so that they can explore the inside of their father’s broken lamp. Ultimately, the book is designed to encourage technical knowledge – the children learn how electrical currents are channelled to create light and they become mini-technicians capable of fixing faults. But, the book chooses a deliberately fantastical tone, which echoes the adventures of miniaturised children in other books, including Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Children are taught the language of science and technology through play and imagination – traits not commonly associated with Soviet literature that follows the Party line.

fig 8
Figure 8: ..and transformed into the favourite magazines of children

Soviet children’s literature on science and technology from the late 1920s and 1930s is fascinating for a number of reasons. Considering that such books on science and technology did not appear as a concentrated stream in children’s publishing until the 1960s in the United Kingdom (when Ladybird Books began to regularly publish its ‘How it works’ series), the Soviet literary focus on science and technology in these early decades is impressive.

fig 9
Figure 9: Iura and Natasha try to fix their father’s broken lamp

Not only did these texts change the way progressive educators envisaged teaching children about complicated scientific and technical achievements, but they presented a means for authors to escape into worlds of fantasy that were not permitted in the adult world.[4] They are one of the many lesser-known sides of Soviet culture that demonstrate progressive ideas were to be found in the Soviet Union, despite the day-to-day restrictions on the literature and culture of adults.

 

Laura Todd researches histories of youth and childhood in Russia, the Western Balkans, the Soviet Union and Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Laura completed her PhD on ‘Youth Film in Russia and Serbia Since the 1990s’ in the Russian and Slavonics Department at the University of Nottingham in 2016. She currently teaches in the History Department at De Montfort University. Find her on twitter @laupaw

Acknowledgements:

This blog is adapted from a paper written for the research project, ‘Pedagogy of Images: Depicting Communism for Children’ at Princeton University (https://pedagogyofimages.princeton.edu/). Laura would like to thank the project, its organisers, Thomas Keenan, Serguei Oushakine, Katherine Hill Reischel, and Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library, for their support in conducting this research. All images in the blog have been taken from digitised collections in the Princeton University Digital Library (available here: http://pudl.princeton.edu/collections/pudl0127).

References:

[1] See, for example, Elena Putilova, Ocherki po istorii kritiki sovetskoi detskoi literatury: 1917-1941 (Moscow: Detskaia literatura, 1982), particularly Chapter 4, ‘Diskussiia o detskoi literature 1929-1931 gg.’

[2] Dmitrii Fomin, ‘“Proizvodstvennaia” detskaia kniga’ in Kniga dlia detei 1881-1939: detskaia illiustrirovannaia kniga v istorii Rossii: iz kollektsii Aleksandra Lur’e, glav. red. N Verlinskaia (Moskva: Ulei, 2009), 196-201 (p. 197.)

[3] S Margolina, ‘Proizvodstvennaia detskaia literatura’, Literaturnaia gazeta, No. 5 (1926), p. 107.

[4] See, for example, George S. Counts, ‘A Word for the American Reader’ in Mikhail Ilin, New Russia’s Primer: The Story of the Five Year Plan, translated from the Russian by George S. Counts and Nucia P. Lodge (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1931).

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

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

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

By Laura Sumner

laura blog 3
One of Donald Trump’s references to ‘fake news’

 

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

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

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

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

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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