‘Losers’, ‘usurpers’, and their linguistic and historical translation

Lani Seelinger

The Normalization regime in Czechoslovakia — as Václav Havel aptly illustrated in his widely read work, “The Power of the Powerless” — rested on a carefully constructed social contract. As long as Havel’s greengrocer was willing to put a sign amongst his goods displaying the “Workers of the world, unite!” slogan, he could reap all the materialistic benefits that the regime provided. The words on the sign, however, didn’t express the greengrocer’s deeply held belief; instead, they were a signal that he was willing to comply with what the regime asked.

Václav Havel

But what about when people didn’t comply? The government could deploy certain punishments against the so-called “unreliable” individuals — demotions, blacklisting, the refusal of exit permits, even imprisonment — but one of its most important and effective methods of attack was through the propaganda machine. In the government-controlled media, like the Rudé Právo (Red Justice) newspaper, the regime could denounce the offenders in vicious terms, though their words weren’t intended merely to convey meaning. Again, they served an additional purpose — but this time, they acted as a warning.

In 1977, 242 people signed Charter 77, a document criticizing the regime for its failure to uphold the human rights requirements of documents like the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia and the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The precipitating event for the Charter was the arrest of the members of the Plastic People of the Universe, a psychadelic rock band whose messaging didn’t align with the regime. The so-called “Chartists” then banded together to express their support for the band, because they saw the arrest as being in direct conflict with the regime’s commitments to human rights on paper. The regime reacted in numerous ways, but one of the most important of these was its attacks on the signatories in the press. On January 12, 1977, an article came out in Rudé Právo called “Zkroskotanci a samozvanci,” which translates to something like “Losers and Usurpers” or “Traitors and Renegades,” in which the government denounced the dissidents who had signed Charter 77.

The article begins with a description of the regime’s enemies: “imperialism,” “ the bourgeoisie,” and the “rule of capitalism,” which together have been “looking for new

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 12.47.09 PM
Via socialismrealised.eu

forms and methods to mount anti-communist attacks, to disrupt the unity of the socialist countries.” This, the article claims, is what the good citizens of Czechoslovakia have to fear — and then it introduces Charter 77 as “the newest defamatory article,” which “a group of people from the failed Czechoslovak reactionary bourgeoisie and the failed organizers of the 1968 counterrevolution passed on to certain western agencies at the order of the anti-communist and zionist headquarters.”

Already, this description relies on a number of recognizable enemy forces purported to be at work in the article’s publishing. In the language of the communist regimes, the bourgeoisie was always the enemy of socialism and the people working to build it, and here too the concept repeatedly turns up. The article also refers to the Prague Spring as “the 1968 counterrevolution” — the period of liberalization that resulted in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in an effort to “protect socialism” — and a “failure”, meant as both a derisive statement as well as a warning to anyone who might try something similar. In the Cold War context, which the article also acknowledges, the West was the main antagonist, connected to all of the enemies mentioned above. By pointing to “western agencies” as the force that spread the charter, the article set up the charter’s authors as connected to Czechoslovakia’s enemies, rather than Czechoslovakia itself.

In essence, this article’s introduction illustrates the characteristics of an antagonist — the “bourgeois world” — and then describes how exactly Charter 77 is working on behalf of that antagonist against the equality, progress, and peace that the socialist system offers. The harsh denunciation of the Charter and its authors, though, only makes up a relatively small section of the article. After calling the Charter an “anti-state, anti-socialist, anti-people, and demagogic lampoon,” and describing its authors as members of the bourgeois, cosmopolitan class attempting to break up the socialist government, it quickly moves on to describing socialism as a system that is more than prepared to deal with such attempts.

“Everything against socialism is good for it,” the article reads, referring to a document calling for reform published in the lead up to the Prague Spring as an example of the sort of “bourgeois print” that the regime had readily handled in the past, despite the best efforts of numerous western media outlets, which it names in particular as the BBC, The Guardian, Le Monde, and others. These and other attempts to “dirty and malign” the system never succeeded, however, as the system was always prepared for such flimsy attack jobs, as the article’s writers maintain: “Socialism nevertheless didn’t even recoil from atomic extortion, much less from hack writers of reactionary pamphlets done to seed fear.”

In conclusion, the article moves into a full-on celebration of socialism’s successes, emphasizing the unity of the socialist countries and their progress beyond the “imperialistic circles.” Charter 77, it says, is just part of the “stream of lies” that the “reactionary propaganda has unleashed into the world about us.” The socialist system and the people within it constitute, the article concludes,

a good, honest path that will steadily guide us to the communist goals. Everyone who works honestly and contributes to the common good will find for himself life security. No mendacious defamatory article can negate history’s truth.

Throughout the article, the authors rely on terms important not so much for their meaning in the dictionary, but for their broader meaning in the national and Eastern bloc-wide discourse. We’ve already discussed the terms used to mark the enemy — reactionary, bourgeois, imperialist, Western — but on the positive side, “Life security” is a good example — in the Czechoslovak case, this meant exactly what Havel’s greengrocer was after — a job, a second house in the countryside, access to passable schools for his children. Readers may not have believed everything that the article claimed, but they would have understood the threat lurking between the lines — this, readers, is the treatment that you can expect if you join the dissident movement.

To audiences today, on the other hand, “Losers and Usurpers” reads rather as a parody, extolling the virtues of a system that would fall less than two decades after the writing of this article and denouncing the people who would emerge, in the eyes of most, as heroes. The terms that held such meaning coming from the Czechoslovak communist leaders have lost that meaning today, deprived of the discourse surrounding them. This phenomenon, however, of government propaganda and at times even normal propaganda relying on fixed discursive elements that mean more than what it says in the dictionary, is far from relegated to the past. “Losers and Usurpers,” then, serves not only as a glimpse into the past, but also as a reminder that it’s always important to approach media, especially when it comes from someone with an agenda, with a critical and discerning eye.

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


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

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

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]


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.


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

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

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

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

Image Attributions:

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

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

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

By Lani Seelinger

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Suicide really isn’t war: megalomania, counterculture and the joy of metal music in the Soviet Union

By Dawn Hazle

Popular music presents a problem to authoritarian regimes: by its nature it either has to be controlled, or banned. Yet, control requires a lot of resources, and simply just pushes the problem underground.  In the Soviet Union, both approaches were undertaken: popular music was controlled through state-sponsored Vokal’no-Instrumental’nyi Ansambl’ (VIA) groups and everything else was banned.  Consequently, anyone who didn’t fit the bill simply went underground and, due to pressures, ignorance or lack of enforcement, they went often unpoliced and proliferated.

Russian metal music was one such disregarded and, therefore, underground genres. It grew in a similar way to Western metal music and was inspired by Western metal, but also

AriaFest concert in Moscow (November 2015)

by Russian rock. Metal and rock, intentionally or not, are forms of ‘counterculture’ that provide an alternative to the dominant culture, and in the case of Soviet Russia, to official Soviet culture. One of the first bands in the Soviet context to establish themselves solely in the genre of metal are Aria, still going strong today and regarded as the Russian Iron Maiden. On 31 October 1985 they released their first album, Maniia Velichiia (Megalomania), in magnitizdat format.


Upon a cursory glance at the tracklist (in Russian), it is clear there is more to this album (and by extension, to the band) than sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: the final track, ‘Pozadi Amerika’, with its generally recognised translation ‘America is Behind’, looks much like an anti-Western song.[1]  But a closer look at the lyrics shows something altogether different: it is merely describing a man reading a travel magazine. The song talks about the world being laid out in front of him, and this sense of ‘pozadi’ is lost in the translation .

Another potentially anti-Western song is ‘Zhizn’ Zadarom’ (‘Life for Free’). A simple reading of the lyrics shows this is not necessarily inaccurate, as there are lines such as the following:

Wisdom, beauty and talent – all overshadowed by the pricelist And it happened that he gave his life for nothing

But a simple reading is not enough: this denunciation of Western decadence can also be accurately applied to Soviet officials and the privileges that they enjoyed. The eponymous instrumental, ‘Maniia Velichiia’, can also be read this way: highlighting not only capitalist decadence in its harsh guitar entry but also Soviet megalomania as the near-operatic vocal chorus becomes ever louder.

The album moves further into anti-Soviet territory with ‘Bivni Chernykh Skal’ (‘Tusks of Black Rocks’).  This song contains the following lyrics:

He shouts to the gods: “I have no more need for you,

I can understand everything and do it myself!”

The cry’s echo was picked up at the same moment,

Carried away and smashed on a glacier


A rock cracked and an avalanche came down

And carried him away like a grain of sand

This appears to represent the leaders of the atheist Soviet Union, now beginning to pay the price after turning their backs on their people as they have turned their backs on God: the

AriaFest Concert, Moscow (November 2015)

economy was in terrible shape, food imports had increased and relations with the West had soured.


In an interview I conducted with the writer of these lyrics, Alexander Ielin, in November 2015, he assured me the intention was largely anti-war. I have found this hard to fathom in ‘Pozadi Amerika’, but the lyrics of ‘Bivni Chernykh Skal’ and ‘Volunter’ (‘Volunteer’) could easily be interpreted as such.  One song which makes this anti-war stance particularly clear is ‘Eto Rok’, with its dual-meaning title (‘This is Fate’ or ‘This is Rock’). The last verse reads as follows:

It is enough to put on a brave show, the fate of all of us is as one Suicide really isn’t war, Not Waterloo, or even Armageddon There is not and never will be a winning side

I do, however, urge you to listen to the song: the lyrics given here paint a dreary picture (this part starts around 3:48) but the musicians are clearly enjoying themselves during most of the song. This, after all, is usually the point of this kind of heavy metal: to have fun, share that joy with others and ignore those who don’t like it.

Bio: Dawn Hazle is a part-time Master of Arts (by research) student in Russian & Slavonic Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include Russian heavy and power metal, Tolkienism and the convergence of myth and reality. Her current study is investigating the influences on Aria’s first album, Maniia Velichiia, in the contemporary late Soviet climate. You can find her on Twitter at @keletkezes, and find out more about her interests on her blog.


[1] (see the album’s reviews on Encyclopaedia Metallum – in Russian)

Full Image Attributions

Image 1 & 2: created and provided courtesy of Dawn Hazle

Language Policy in Soviet Ukraine

“Son, join the school of officers of the Red Army, and the defence of soviet Ukraine will be ensured!” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

by Katie Harrison

Ukraine’s history has been undeniably tumultuous. The Ukrainian nation as we currently know it has, for centuries, been split territorially, and portioned off to different empires. Broadly speaking, the eastern regions of the country were part of the Russian Empire, and the western regions were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then Poland.  These historical divisions have resulted in modern Ukraine being a nation of two almost distinct halves: historically, geographically, culturally, and linguistically.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the fifteen which comprised the Soviet Union. Its borders shifted between the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 and its collapse in 1991, with the western Ukrainian territories being annexed from Poland in 1939. As part of this annexation, the Soviet authorities implemented various language policies in an attempt to instil socialist consciousness in the populace and create the socialist union they desired. This had significant consequences on the use of Ukrainian.

The Early Soviet Years: ‘Nationalist in Form, Socialist in Content’

In the early years, as an attempt to unify all nations of the Soviet Union, the government implemented a policy on nationality called korenizatsiia (nativisation) – koren’ being the Russian for ‘root’. This policy gave all non-Russian speaking nationalities the right to use their native language in all aspects of their lives, for example in education or in publications. Stalin had conceived this idea almost ten years beforehand in Marxism and the National Question, in which he argued that all nations should have the right to samoopredelenie [self-determinism] (Stalin, 1913).

It was hoped that transmitting socialist ideology via an individual’s native tongue – rather than compelling them to use Russian – would make it easier to promote Soviet ideology in Ukraine. This policy appeared to have great success in reviving a language which had formerly been repressed by the Russian Empire. Ukrainian was allowed to develop, leading to a rise in the number of Ukrainian publications and theatre productions, as well as a steep increase in the number of children attending Ukrainian schools (Bilaniuk, 2005: 91).

The 1930s: Russification

This resurgence of Ukrainian did not last for very long. Stalin’s government made quite the U-turn at the start of the 1930s, enforcing Russian as the ‘national language’ throughout the Soviet Union. Stalin seemed to be instrumental in this, as with nativisation: in The National Question and Leninism, written in 1929, Stalin envisioned the dying out of national languages, which would be replaced by ‘one common language’ (Stalin, 1929).

Ukrainian was forced to become more like Russian: spelling conventions, grammatical forms, and lexicon were altered accordingly. In addition, in 1938 Russian language classes were made compulsory in all schools throughout the Soviet Union in the hope that every young Soviet citizen would possess at least some knowledge of Russian.

Ukrainian School, c.1930-33 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

1958-9: A New Schools Policy

This schools policy changed at the end of the 1950s, allowing parents to choose the language of instruction for their children. However, this did not mean that more parents were opting for their children to be instructed in Ukrainian, though this option was available. Due to a combination of high levels of Russian immigration and the comparably high quality of Russian-language education in Soviet Ukraine, Russian schools were the more popular choice for parents. Russian was deemed the language of science and culture, and was ultimately granted higher prestige than Ukrainian.

The Late Soviet Years: Resistance to Russian?

Towards the end of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian language continued to be manipulated so as to be more similar to Russian, while Russian maintained its status as the more prestigious of the two languages. Discrimination against Ukrainian-speakers persisted; something which appears to have provoked pro-Ukrainian feelings in those who had previously been apathetic (Bilaniuk, 2005: 9). The emergence of these feelings seemingly acted as a catalyst for the pro-Ukrainian language policies that were implemented even before the fall of the Iron Curtain: the 1989 Law on Languages made Ukrainian the single state language of the Ukrainian SSR.

Announcement in a Lviv school: “We speak Ukrainian here” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, further language laws have sustained attempts to cement Ukrainian’s status as the sole official language of the country. However, despite such efforts, the country remains largely bilingual and linguistically split, with those in the south and east typically using Russian, and those in the west using Ukrainian. This bilingualism appears to be relatively stable and unlikely to change drastically in the near future, as people are able to either switch to the most suitable language in a given situation, or even to conduct conversations in both languages due to their proximity.

Katie Harrison is currently in her first year of a Midlands3Cities DTP-funded PhD on the role of language in the Ukrainian diaspora of the United Kingdom. You can find her on Twitter @karrison27


Bilaniuk, Laada. Contested Tongues: Language Politics and Cultural Correction in Ukraine (Ithaca, 2005).

Stalin, Iosif V. 1913. ‘Marxism and the National Question’, [https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1929/03/18.htm].

Stalin, Iosif V. 1929. ‘The National Question and Leninism’, [https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03.htm].

History Matters: ‘On the Language of “Authoritarian” Regimes’

Written by Hannah Parker, this post originally appeared on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters blog on February 25, 2016

On February 12 2016, Steph Wright (who works on disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War) and I held a conference on ‘The Language of Authoritarian Regimes’. The day aimed to explore the creation, dissemination and reception of discourse in regimes commonly considered to be ‘authoritarian’ from an interdisciplinary perspective; to discuss how to effectively analyse discourse through a range of different sources; and to understand any broad parallels that can be drawn between different regimes. 1

The speakers addressed a fascinating range of topics, covering Soviet literacy campaigns and the texts of Soviet citizens; the ‘emancipation’ of Tunisian women to create a modernised national identity; personal naming and mental health discourse in Franco’s Spain; music and ballet in the Soviet Union; Nazi language in the context of historical discourse analysis; and the translation of foreign texts for Soviet citizens.

Though there was clearly much ideological variation between the different regimes discussed, many of the processes occurring within these societies were in fact very similar, and so I’ve taken the liberty of articulating some of my own, quite general observations. The workshop originated in an interest Steph and I share in the ways citizens negotiated and shaped the discourses of gender and citizenship they were presented in our respective research fields. I was aware, based upon my own research into Russian women’s self-perceptions and social roles, of the degree of ‘negotiation’ of authoritarian government and discourse in the Soviet Union, but after listening to the other papers delivered, I was struck by the extent to which this process of negotiation was a key feature of authoritarian societies more generally.

Zhenshchina na rabotye

Due to these processes of negotiation, a common feature of the running of ‘authoritarian’ regimes is risk management. Inherent to the nature of all the regimes and societies discussed at the workshop was the task of balancing policies geared – often very sincerely – towards politically ‘emancipating’ a population, and managing this sense of ‘emancipation’ so as to maintain the acquiescence of the people.

Within this process, literacy, language, arts, and practices of personal naming were all key strategies for interaction with the discourse of a regime, through which citizens could express identity, dissent or compliance. These strategies also presented the regimes with a significant problem: how to manage these interactions, and the risks posed by the ways in which they contributed to a sense of discursive heterogeneity which coexisted uncomfortably with the idea that there should be a ‘homogenous’ character to state, society and the arts.

International LiteratureSamantha Sherry’s paper on the translation of foreign literature in the Soviet Union, and its inherent challenges, encapsulated this risk management problem precisely. Officials feared ‘opening the floodgates’, so to speak, to Western influences and so they censored foreign texts by removing not just whole passages or texts, but manipulating the entire ideological premises to ‘complement’ the broader principles and finer details of Soviet ideology.

The interdisciplinary element of the event worked really well, and definitely broadened my perspective on discursive matters within and between authoritarian regimes. In particular, the papers given on the development of Soviet ballet, and the use of time in the choral music of Veljo Tormis, highlighted the importance of conceptions of time, movement, and space as a ‘language’ to negotiate dominant discourse.

The concept of monumental time as the time of oppressed people, discussed by Claire McGinn in her paper on the music of Veljo Tormis, highlighted the dichotomy of time in application to both state and society. All of the societies in question sought to ‘modernise’ or ‘mechanise’ their populations in some way: a future-driven linear historical time characterises state discourse and understandings of ‘progress’ in authoritarian (and ostensibly many other twentieth-century) regimes.

Oppressed people on the other hand belong to monumental time – devoid of the linear regularisation of historical time – which is something the Tunisian state arguably sought to address in its framing of the 1956 personal status code, attempting to link the modernisation of the Tunisian state to concepts of kinship to create.

To some extent this is also reflected in the development of ballet in the early Soviet Union: the use of folk dance, the reworking of old narratives, as well as the evocation of non-verbal discourse all functioned as a means of negotiating life under such severe creative restrictions. And this speaks directly to the problem of ‘risk management’ with which policy makers – and censors – in these states sought to grapple.

The papers delivered on the day have brought me closer to an integrated understanding of ‘authoritarianism’ as a social and discursive phenomenon, and have added invaluable insight to my own research on the reception of Soviet gender ideology by ordinary women. Steph and I were also delighted with the variety and cohesiveness of the programme overall, for which our guest speakers are entirely responsible.

Based on the success of the day, we will be starting a blog based on the same theme. Any relevant contributions would be much appreciated, so please send any expressions of interest to hparker2@sheffield.ac.uk or smwright1@sheffield.ac.uk!

Hannah Parker is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the reception of gender ideology by women in early Soviet Russia. Steph Wright is a WRoCAH-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield. She’s researching disabled nationalist veterans and perceptions of masculinity in Franco’s Spain. You can find them both on twitter @_hnnhprkr and @EstefWright. A full list of speakers and their papers can be found in the conference programme.

Header image: Language of Authoritarian Regimes poster, courtesy of Guy Parker.

In-text image 1: Women at work in a large textile factory. Picture extracted from the article ‘Woman at Work’, from “Женский журнал” (Women’s Journal), 1928.

In-text image 2: Internatsional’naia literature (International Literature) No. 1.