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’.
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. As the Terror swept through Soviet society hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were arrested and executed, from
the political elite down to the most humble worker.
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.
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. 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
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).
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. 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. 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
 Lavrinenko, Y, Rozstriliane Vidrodzhennia: Antolohiia, 1917-1933. Paris, 1959.
 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.
 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.
 Shentalinsky, V, The KGB’s Literary Archive, London, 1995, pp. 172-173.
On the night of 18 October 1977, the remaining three key members of the first generation of the Red Army Faction died in mysterious circumstances in Stammheim prison. Another member barely survived severe stab wounds. Immediately following what became infamously known as the “death night” in West German history, the second generation of the Red Army Faction executed their hostage, Hanns Martin Schleyer, a prominent German business executive and former rabid SS officer. This marked the climax of the “German Autumn”, a series of attacks led by the Red Army Faction in 1977.
What was the Red Army Faction, better (and incorrectly) known as the Baader-Meinhof Group? In the words of Gudrun Ensslin, founder of the self-proclaimed urban guerrilla group, and among the dead on the night of 18 October 1977, the RAF embodied the expression of “the awareness of a duty of resistance in the Federal Republic [of Germany]”. Those words may seem incongruous to most readers, often brought up to see the former West German government as a shining example of democracy post-1945. And yet, it is easily argued that this was far from the truth. The FRG was filled with ex-high-ranking Nazi officials at the top of the system, many of whom would never face trial, and many more whose past would be swiftly forgotten.
Uncritical support of American policies by the government – such as the Vietnam war – also prompted a crisis within parts of the FRG population. In addition, the FRG had few qualms in using its monopoly of violence, exerted through police brutality and media companies such as Axel Springer, whose most well-known victims were Benno Ohnesorg and Rudi Dutschke. This existence of a form of repression triggered the creation of many underground left-wing groups who advocated for theories of self-defence and resistance. The RAF, possibly the bloodiest of these groups, saw themselves as leading the “compensatory resistance”, as Hans Kundnani so well phrased it, that their parents, fervent Nazis or passive bystanders between 1933-1945, failed to undertake. Led by two women, Gudrun Ensslin, a PhD student, and Ulrike Meinhof, a well-known intellectual and journalist, and motivated by Marxist-Leninist ideology, the RAF fought against what they saw as the imperialist, capitalist and neo-fascist order in the FRG.
It is a popular view in academia and the mass media that one of the fundamental inconsistencies of the Red Army Faction was its authoritarian system, despite its pretensions of overthrowing capitalist society and establishing anti-authoritarian structures in its place. That view, if true, is certainly reflected in the language of the many tracts that the RAF produced within the three generations that it spawned. The various tracts – and even prison letters – of the urban guerrilla fighters are filled with conscious and potentially subconscious borrowings from Soviet language, and by extension, from GDR language, as well as, more chillingly, National-Socialist language.
Borrowings from both GDR and National-Socialist discourse would hardly be surprising. Ulrike Meinhof had been a member of the illegal KPD, establishing contacts with the Stasi in 1970, and the GDR had become a safe hub for RAF members fleeing West German imprisonment until reunification, taking in for example Susanne Albrecht, who assassinated family friend and Dresdner bank chairman Jürgen Ponto. As for the presence of National-Socialist discourse, it seems that the crushing weight of intergenerational guilt haunting the RAF unfortunately and ironically translated into the reproduction of linguistic patterns that the group would have otherwise done its best to avoid. Alternatively, the similarities with Nazi discourse can be seen as a logical consequence of using Soviet/GDR discourse, if it is possible to lump Soviet and GDR discourse into similar categories.
But what is Soviet discourse, and how could it be extended to GDR discourse? And is there such a thing as Nazi language? It would appear too Orwellian to think of a language specifically created to shape the psyche of a whole population, or, in the case of the USSR, whole populations. And yet, special “Nazi dictionaries” have been published, chock-full of the various (invented) terms acquiring particular or new definitions under National-Socialism, from the infamous “Endlösung” (Final Solution) to “Julfest”, as used in adoring letters addressed to Hitler, better known as “Weihnachten” in today’s Germany, or Christmas, in English.
One would also have to take into account various linguistic effects of Nazi discourse, whether that be through the frequent use of superlatives and a tendency to use infinitive constructions in the place of modal verbs, or a form of “ideologizing” language through the adding of pejorative prefixes to adjectives (“undeutsch” literally “unGerman”, meaning foreign, or “nichtarisch”, “Non-aryan”).
Soviet discourse appears to be more complex and harder to define. Stalin dreamt of a common socialist lingua franca once the proletariat would rule the world, and with the creation of the USSR came about a whole new lexicon, whether that came about through redefining Russian words (for example “tovarishch”, which once meant co-worker in tsarist Russia, became the well-known term “comrade” across the USSR), or the invention of words such as “profsoiuz” (“professional union”). More relevant perhaps are the (disputed) differences between East German and West German discourses, with East German discourse described as “Sowjetdeutsch” by the FRG, a deviant of the standard German that the West Germans held claim to.
This “Soviet German” consisted mostly in the creation and redefinition of terms to reflect Marxist-Leninist ideology, such as “Staatsrat” (State council) or “Produktionsgenossenschaft” (agricultural cooperative – notice the use of the word “Genosse”, which is the German translation of the Soviet term “comrade”). GDR discourse was also marked by a certain stiffness and pedantic use of language, as primarily shown through SED General Secretary Erich Honecker’s speech for the 40th anniversary of the GDR. Of course, one might have to bear in mind that these potential differences between GDR and FRG discourses might form part of the divisive myth of the GDR as being “other” to the FRG, deviant and degenerate, in desperate need of Western assimilation, rather than simply another part of the German nation under a different regime.
So how is this reflected in RAF tracts? Because Soviet and GDR discourse seems primarily based on lexicon, similarities established between both can be seen mostly in terms of vocabulary which reflect the same broad themes. Most striking is the consistent use of the term “Genosse”. The only difference here would be that traditionally in Sovet and GDR discourse, the term “Genosse” would refer to fellow Marxist-Leninists or at least, fellow USSR citizens. In RAF tracts, “Genosse” acquires a far more ambiguous meaning in that it is also designated for RAF traitors, so that in their April 1971 tract, the RAF denounces the “viele Genossen…” that “verbreiten Unwahrheiten über uns.”
Of course, a key feature of both RAF and GDR discourses is the integration and frequent use of Marxist-Leninist terms within the language, which includes terms such as “antifaschismus” and other nouns ending with the suffix “-smus” pertaining to both the chosen and enemy political ideologies, such as “Imperialismus”, “Chauvinismus”, “Militarismus”, “Sozialismus”. However, where GDR official discourse is arguably monolithic, painstakingly attached to its Marxist terms and formality, RAF discourse is fluid and lively, fluctuating from the aggressively provocative, almost vulgar to the highly academic or literary, or blending both, creating a highly original form of language.
Where RAF discourse is more similar to Soviet than GDR discourse, particularly in terms of early Soviet propaganda, is in the use of rhetorical devices to attract the reader’s attention: slogans (“Sieg im Volkskrieg!”, written at the end of an April 1971 tract); informality (both the RAF and early Soviet/Mayakovsky propaganda posters and advertisements use the informal second-person plural, instead of the formal plural pronoun use); and the use of linguistic caricature . Linguistic caricature would take the form of repetitive verbal abuse with which the RAF targets the State or passive by-standers, who are termed as “Schweine”, “Superschwein”, or “Hosenscheißer”, where a same noun or adjective is often used to qualify the same person or institution in question, as though it is their only defining trait.
What about Nazi discourse? First of all, similarities between Nazi and GDR discourses are not uncommon, in the excessive use of superlatives for example, such as “heroisch” or “episch”, or in the constant impression that the GDR is in constant struggle/at war, with the use of “kämpfen” and its variations. However, in RAF tracts, one could say that the similarities to Nazi discourse are primarily present in the linguistic dehumanization of the enemy, as well as in the construction of an oppositional, “you are either with us or against us”, discourse.
Hitler’s Mein Kampf infamously uses medical terminology to metaphorically designate the Jews as germs and parasites. While the RAF does not go to such lengths, it similarly denies the humanity of its enemies.Meinhof’s famous 1970 Spiegel article states: “Wir sagen, der Typ in Uniform ist ein Schwein, das ist kein Mensch […] und natürlich kann geschossen warden”.  The RAF borrowed the pig terminology to designate the police from the Black Panther Party, a major influence on the group. As for the oppositional discourse, this is present in National-Socialism through a multiplicity of ways; one example would be the obligatory “Heil Hitler!” to signify one’s allegiance to the Party.
Of course, the invention of such terms as “undeutsch” also serve to reinforce the binary between who is considered of Aryan race as who isn’t, and therefore, who ought to be eliminated. In RAF discourse, this is clearly outlined in Holger Meins’s last letter where he pens “Entweder Schwein oder Mensch…Entweder Problem oder Lösung/Dazwischen gibt es nichts,” as well as through the Mao quotes peppering the tracts, insisting on drawing the line against the enemy, what Ensslin describes in her prison letters as a “Trennungsstrich”, or a dividing line.
Finally, could there be a tie between both Soviet and National-Socialist traditions in RAF culture, so to speak, through the presence of the cult of personality present in all three? It is well-known that Stalin and Hitler invited adulation through all forms of propaganda. The RAF’s own kind of cult of personality could be interpreted in the given names of the commandos, usually the names and dates of death of fallen members, such as the commando Petra Schelm/15th July commando (the date at which 20 year-old RAF member Petra Schelm was killed in a police shooting), the Holger Meins commando (who died in a hunger strike, protesting against deplorable incarceration conditions), and, more tellingly, the Ulrike Meinhof commando, after Meinhof’s death in mysterious and controversial circumstances.
Meinhof acquires a mythical, cult-like status in the April 1977 tract justifying Attorney General and former fervent Nazi Siegfried Buback’s assassination. This might firstly be shown through the use of her first name, Ulrike, rather than the last name Meinhof, used by the government in naming the RAF the “Baader-Meinhof Gruppe.” This refusal to use Meinhof’s last name could therefore be interpreted as refusing to play into official discourse, in addition to “humanizing” Meinhof, so to speak, especially in the face of the “pigs” that are the State and the police. Meinhof also repeatedly appears as the sentence subject, such as “Ulrikes Zeugenvernehmung,” “Ulrikes Geschichte” or “Ihr Tod””. Verbs such as “verkörpert”, or the modal verb “sollte”, demonstrate the symbolic force that the second RAF generation lends to Meinhof.
The 40th anniversary of the Stammheim “death night” combined with a reflection on traces of totalitarianism in structures and systems that claim the values of freedom, justice and equality for themselves – whether that be the FRG or the RAF, or any other state, government or group – is an interesting reminder that those in power, or those that claim power for themselves, may seldom follow through with the ideals they promulgate. It also provides an interrogation as to what resistance, revolt and revolution mean, and if it is possible to achieve ideological purity when leading resistance activities.
Though some of those apparent linguistic elements contradict the RAF’s ideology, as well as general left-wing ideology, particularly where Nazi discourse is concerned, aspects of RAF discourse still seems to live on in German left-wing circles, as evidenced for example by tweets and tracts produced by the #NoG20 movement in June of this year, or in anarchist graffiti on Neukölln streets. Such remnants testify to the enduring cultural influence of the RAF.
Léa Carresse is a French-American graduate of Oxford University (BA German and Russian, 2016). She recently delivered a paper on the linguistic analysis of Gudrun Ensslin’s prison letters to the Women in German Studies Conference at Oxford in June 2017, and was also part of a panel at an academic conference in Cambridge in May 2017. In this panel, she discussed the relevance of 1968 in Germany with several of Rudi Dutschke’s contemporaries. She is now a law student at McGill University, and intends to write a PhD on the linguistic aspects of the RAF after completing her degree.
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. 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.
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
 For more on how the Soviet Court was deployed as an instrument of propaganda, please see my previous blog.
In December 1930, a twelve year old girl named Nura wrote an apparently cheerful request for correspondence to Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaia, Russian Deputy Education Commissar from 1929-1939:
‘Long I have dreamt to have a correspondence with the great leader of the young friends of Pioneers… I do not have the opportunity to visit Moscow, I have no father or mother, and I do not have the means to visit Moscow and see you. Happy are those Pioneers who have the opportunity to see you. But I will unfailingly work in the squad to get permission to visit, then I will get happiness to see you, dear friend… Dear comrade Nadezhda Konstantinovna, if you don’t mind my request, write me a few words, for which I would be very grateful… I hope I receive a reply from you, I will be very proud amongst my comrades, that I have a correspondence with you… Please send me your correct request, as I do not know it…
P.S. I’ve attached a few stamps for a speedy reply!’
At first glance this letter appears to be unremarkable amongst the reams of salutations
and ambitious requests for correspondence sent by Soviet children to state officials. Such letters were fairly uniform in their composition.Where adults might write to authorities with a more formal tone of address, such as ‘respected’ or ‘much respected’ Molotov, children often addressed officials on familiar terms, addressing them as ‘uncle’; ‘grandfather’; or ‘father’, depending upon whom they were addressing.
In doing so, Soviet children acknowledged both their gratitude to the regime, for the lifestyle it had provided for them, and their place within it: intimately involved with the state and its values, participating in Soviet life as they were required to, and reflecting a sense of ‘celebration’ of Soviet life. Yet simultaneously, children maintained their awareness of the paternalism and, ultimately, authority the regime possessed.
By legitimising the regime in this way through their language, children learnt how to express themselves in a politically ‘unproblematic’ manner in public life. Yet, the language Nura used to express this request belied an additional, less jovial meaning – something unchanging amongst letters to officials from citizens of all ages.
Firstly, though Nura spoke frequently of happiness, this was articulated more often than not in the future tense, dependent upon a prescribed outcome: Nura ‘Will be so proud to have a correspondence with Krupskaia’; with permission to visit Krupskaia, Nura ‘will get happiness’. Though a reader might not be able to infer more negative (and less Soviet) feelings from Nura’s writing, it is clear that, perhaps all was not quite as Nura would have liked at present.
Moreover, we can see that Nura attached stamps to ensure a speedy reply – which she identified as her own stamps. In addition to the effort that this must have required to procure stamps as a twelve year old orphan, the readiness and timing with which she refered to her status as an orphan is telling. That she did not have the material means to visit this maternal figure, nor parents of her own to bring her, Nura placed herself apart from her peers. She would be happy, and proud amongst her peers, were she able to achieve a meeting, or correspondence with Krupskaia, but she was not able to achieve this yet.
It might well have been that Nura viewed this potential comradeship with Krupskaia with childlike competitiveness: indeed this is quite likely. Yet, her inclusion of stamps; her ‘otherness’ from her peers; and even the timing of her correspondence, suggest that for Nura, schoolyard competition was not the whole story.
Finally, though Nura did not specifically reference the time of year in her writing, it is worth noting the date of the letter: December 23, 1930. Whilst being reluctant to presuppose aspects of the author’s motivations that are not embedded in the text per se, I’d also argue, in combination with the references Nura makes to her orphanhood, and her obvious desire for a response from Krupskaia, that it is likely that the timing of Nura’s correspondence so close New Year is a poignant reflection of her perceived inability, as an orphan, to participate in the festivities others shared with loved ones at that time of year, and in the celebratory New Year atmosphere she would know to be part of Soviet life.
Hannah Parker is in the fourth year of an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on receptions of the concept of the ‘New Soviet Woman’ by ordinary women in the Soviet Union, through their letters to the state. Reach her on Twitter @_hnnhprkr
 As my thesis argues, letters from citizens to state officials and organs are a critical source for understanding subjectivity in Soviet society, and can be used to assess the way citizens engaged the language used in public discourse, by matching, navigating and deviating from the Bolshevik ‘script’.
There is an old and not necessarily edifying debate that has surrounded the International Brigades almost since their inception. Were the 35,000 men and women who travelled to Spain to defend the Spanish Republic during the bitter civil war of 1936-9 dupes of Stalin? Part of a grand plan to export communism to Western Europe and make Spain a Soviet satellite? Or should we no longer take at face value the volunteers’ own claims that they went to Spain to defend democracy against a fascist threat?
This debate was framed by the Cold War climate in which many early histories of the International Brigades were written; yet it has lingered long past the fall of the Berlin Wall. A middle ground, attempting to understand what it meant to be a communist in the context of 1930s Europe, alongside an appreciation of the implications of Soviet involvement and control of the enterprise, is only just emerging.
Lisa Kirschenbaum’s recent book opens up a fruitful avenue in discussing the cultures of the Communist International, the Soviet agency that directed and enabled the International Brigades.
Teasing apart the logic, formulation and meanings of Stalinist discourse, the book unpacks the way in which it influenced the hodgepodge group of Communist functionaries from around the world that formed the link between Spain and the Soviet Union during the conflict, and for whom Spain represented an inspiring mission against the troubling backdrop of heightened internal tensions in the Soviet Union.
My own research on the International Brigades themselves further demonstrates the pervasive influence of Stalinist discourse. Most of the volunteers were Communists before Spain, and lived their lives in social and political spheres dominated by the Party and its language and expressions. While many engaged with Party discourse in a critical manner, their way of expressing themselves and understanding the world was still inexorably shaped by Stalinist logics.
This influence expressed itself in Spain in a myriad of ways, most obviously in the way that Spain’s political context was understood. Their enemies were fascists – there was no ambiguity there. Yet it was their internal opponents amongst the Spanish left who became most defined by Stalinism. Trotskyism became a label through which ideological opponents could be simultaneously identified and targeted, in a way that was readily understood by volunteers from Canada to China. This language seeped out of official communiques and into everyday conversation and correspondence.
The language of paranoia, sabotage and enemies within influenced how volunteers saw each other. Indeed, fluency in the international language of antifascism could act as a shibboleth once in Spain. Scottish-Canadian volunteer John Dunlop recalled meeting a German who failed this test in the heady days of his arrival into the multinational environment of the International Brigades staging camp:
‘We thought that he this man was really not one of us. That was the feeling that we had about him, because he did not seem to talk the same kind of language as ourselves. The whole atmosphere about him was different… The German was taken away and we never heard of or saw him again… We assumed, and I think rightly, that the man was a spy.’
This obsession with the language of Stalinism was reflected in the political surveillance of the volunteers. Terms such as ‘saboteur’, ‘provocateur’ and ‘trotskyist’ became convenient and relatively common labels for a range of ‘suspect’ individuals, which could lead to penalties ranging from ostracisation to indefinite incarceration. Real and perceived treachery was punished, although the extent of harsh political repression in the International Brigades is often overstated – reform was generally preferred to severe punishment.
More broadly, Communist discourse informed the way the International Brigades were run in a day-to-day sense. Problems in morale and discipline were understood as political problems; each set back was met by calls for more intensive political work and organisation amongst the volunteers. Late in the war, ‘training’ was almost as likely to consist of a lecture on the political meaning of the conflict, as on the practicalities of modern warfare.
It would be a mistake, however, to allow the volunteers no room for their own agency in how they accepted and critiqued the discourse of the day. Some grew disillusioned and came up with their own narratives, either during the conflict or on their return. Many more came to terms with the mindset and justified it for their own reasons, and such decisions should not be treated with contempt born of hindsight of Stalin’s crimes at home.
There was also a great deal of space between outright rejection and wholehearted acceptance, and as ever individuals managed to express themselves in a variety of ways. My favourite such instance was in the satirical pages of a training camp newspaper. While ostensibly building on the frequent complaints about poor food, one author managed to slip in a clever critique of Stalinist norms, poking fun at the habit of ‘objective self-criticism’ as well as the use of poor ‘political understanding’ as a catch-all explanation for military and personal failings:
‘The writer would like to call to Capt. Johnson’s attention the following criticisms:
During march, when rear patrol, sent out by American company, raided vineyard near kilometre-stone 14, they failed to bring up grapes for the main body (due probably to low level of political understanding, and lack of proper liaison.
Re: the lunch: The coffee should have sugar, cream and coffee in it.
Milk and graham crackers (tea and biscuits for the Englishmen) should have been served after every 15 minutes of marching.
Instead of marching, the battalion should have advanced in lunch-wagons.‘
This example should not be taken as outright subversion or hostility to the latent Stalinism of the International Brigades. Yet it, along with many other examples, shows that to understand the influence of Stalinism in Spain it is necessary to view it not as a completely top-down totalitarian imposition on the minds and bodies of powerless individuals. Rather, it was a negotiation, which afforded the volunteers the chance to defy, question, critique or accept the logic of Stalinism on their own terms.
Fraser Raeburn is in the second year of his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, researching Scottish participation in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9). Alongside his research, he helps edit the Pubs and Publications blogging project on the PhD experience, and is the co-founder of the Scottish History Network. You can theoretically learn more about his research on Twitter, or more realistically on academia.edu.
 Lisa A. Kirshenbaum, International Communism and the Spanish Civil War (Cambridge, 2015).
 John Dunlop in Iain MacDougall (ed.), Voices from the Spanish Civil War, (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 128.
 RGASPI f.545 op.2 d.266 l. 128. Full source available online.