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

Beth Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Images

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

[3] Ibid, p.71.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Ibid, p. 139.

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Blog Round Up!: March-April 2019

Tom Shillam

Round Up March/April 2019

Britain, Protest, Colonialism

As the beleaguered British government lurches from one constitutional fracas to another, it seems apt again to begin with Brexit. Despite the appearance of torment – in a recurring theme for this month’s round up – the political actors involved are perhaps behaving more rationally, for better or worse, than imagined. Aaron Ackerley notes the disturbing proximity of leading ‘Brexiteers’ to ostensibly independent think tanks and brings to light a deeper history of hapless British politicians forming influential pressure groups behind the scenes.

The British government has overlooked a recent petition to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, which garnered over 6 million votes. But are petitions as contemporary and ineffective as we might think? As the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre approaches, Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller contend that petitioning acts ‘as a tool for building a broader campaign and an enduring instrument for popular politics beyond and outside elections’. Ruth Mather explores the contributions of female reformers to early 19th-century protest, emphasising their ingenuity in negotiating with a ‘tyrannical government’ which was claiming to ‘offer paternal protection to its citizens’ while actually behaving violently towards them.

Shirin Hirsch sets this violence within a broader imperial context, reminding us of how black revolutionary Robert Wedderburn drew comparisons between atrocities abroad and the oppression of the working class at home. Similarly, on the anniversary of another colonial atrocity – the Amritsar Massacre of 13 April 1919 – Oliver Godsmark remarks on how political actors today continue to treat such violence as an aberration rather than a means through which to initiate difficult conversations about Britain’s past.

Anti-Colonialism, Decolonisation, Memory

A number of writers have considered how scholars of different backgrounds and disciplines can help begin these conversations. Eva Schalbroeck – perhaps offering a model for historians of other regions – explores how students of Belgium and the Congo can write revisionist and challenging histories which help establish ‘more culturally diverse post-colonial relationships’. Meg Foster highlighted the problems that can result from the uncritical portrayal of the histories of indigenous societies. In her review of an exhibition of Oceanic art held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last year, Foster argues that such exhibitions often index indigenous artworks as objects of intrigue, distracting us from reckoning with their continued affective importance for the producers.

Speaking of the imperial mind and its affinity for ‘exotic objects’, Tom Harper of the University of Surrey studies how China has been variously depicted in the Western world as ‘a uniform mass with little or no individuality and prone to extreme cruelty’ and more recently as a neo-colonial power comparable to ‘the Great Powers of the Past’. Today, China is using its growing geopolitical clout to try and reshape these depictions.

Mark Fathi Massoud and Hussein Omar both offer hope in the face of authoritarian retrenchment. Omar shows how uprisings which occurred across North Africa and the Middle East 100 years ago comprised not isolated protests but an early ‘Arab Spring’ in which local actors exchanged ‘slogans, ideas, ideals and personnel’ in resisting European imperial intrigue. His emphasis on how history might have turned out differently had alternative ideas entered the ascendancy is replicated by Massoud, who demonstrates that a democratic conception of Sharia – which comprises ‘a broad set of values and ethical principles’ rather than the rigid code of law implied by Islamophobes – predominated among many politicians and intellectuals in early postcolonial Sudan.

Reason and Resistance

For those more interested in modes of political control in authoritarian states, in December Elena Goukassian penned a fascinating piece in Lapham’s Quarterly about the associations between time and power. She argues that the standardisation of time zones from the mid-19th century onwards has provided a means for authoritarians across the world to assert control over populations and manoeuvre towards important geopolitical allies.

As she suggests, as political power consolidated within the state, actors on the periphery resisted. Quan Nguyen offers some context for the recent attacks of prominent politicians on schoolchildren protesting about climate change, reminding us that the ‘understanding that emotions must be tamed for the sake of rational discourse…stands in a long tradition of Western philosophy’. Victoria Brooks goes into much greater detail about this Cartesian tradition, emphasising its gendered character, and calling for new philosophies which do not ‘value ideas over bodily sensations’.

Of course, developing new philosophies of life in an increasingly authoritarian and xenophobic global political climate demands intercontinental networking. On this note, it is worth rounding off this blog with the movements and arguments of two very different but equally determined internationalist activists in the mid-20th century. Samuel Zipp argues that Wendell Willkie – a little known Republican nominee for President in 1940 who later travelled across Africa and the Middle East observing the spread of nationalist movements – engineered an egalitarian and anti-imperialist vision of international order which is worth re-examining today. Carolien Stolte looks into an anti-imperialist actor with greater affective and symbolic reach among decolonising African and Asian peoples – African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson. Despite the US State Department preventing him travelling over a period of 8 years through the 1950s, by 1958 Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was calling for ‘a widespread celebration or Robeson’s sixtieth birthday’. This was thanks to the ingenuity of countless Global South activists and internationalists many of whom were inspired by Robeson’s music. Their refusal to be bowed by censorious states and a global atmosphere of growing political cynicism perhaps offers hope today.

Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.

Re-visiting Musine Kokalari: a lost story of defiance in the face of political oppression

Agata Fijalkowski

 This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My current project about imagery and the law was sparked by a photograph of Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer and political dissident. Kokalari was imprisoned and suffered the humiliation of a public show trial under a despotic regime which murdered her brothers and kept her under surveillance and in exile most of her life. Her brave story can now be told after secret police files were released that revealed details about a shocking miscarriage of justice which deprived the world of a great writer.

Kokalari was Albania’s first female writer of note from the pre-communist period. She was born in 1917 in Adana, Turkey, where from an early age the young Musine showed a passion for literature and national folklore. The Kokalari family were at the centre of literary and political activity in the area.

They returned to their native Gjirokastra in southern Albania in 1920, and  in 1938 Kokalari left to embark on her university studies in literature at La Sapienza University, Rome. She kept a diary, My University Life, which was eventually published in 2016. In 1941, she published her first book, called As My Grandma Says,  about the daily struggles of a Gjirokastran woman living in a deeply patriarchal society and which can be seen as an early feminist text.

The writer and political dissident

It was during her studies in Rome that Kokalari joined anti-fascist and anti-communist movements. She continued her political activities upon her return to Albania in 1942 where she co-founded the Albanian Social Democratic Party. Her brother’s bookshop

agata image 1
Musine Kokalari. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute, Author provided

became a hub of intellectual activity. As a result the family was kept under close surveillance by the communist authorities (represented by the National Liberation Movement/National Liberation Front). Two of her brothers, Vesim and Muntaz, were executed by the state for their political activities. Kokalari herself was detained and arrested several times in 1945 after openly expressing her views against totalitarianism.

She was then involved in the Democratic Coalition, a political movement that supported the postponement of elections, and called for multi-party elections. The writer hoped that representatives from the United Kingdom and the United States would monitor the elections. But all 37 members of the coalition were arrested and deemed traitors of the Albanian nation. Neither the US nor the UK intervened.

Hair torn from her head

In 1946, following these arrests, Kokalari stood before the military court in the Albanian capital, Tirana. She was threatened, intimidated and coerced. Archival memos refer to her hair being torn out of her head by bystanders. Her trial was transmitted live via loud speakers to the crowds outside. Her stoic stance is illustrated in a photograph taken by the Albanian Telegraphic Agency. In defiance she wore a mourning veil in memory of her executed brothers. Her powerful image made the front page of the broadsheets in Albania two days running.

This trial was the second in a run of six trials organised by the authorities in that period

agata image 2
Kokalari with her brother Vesim. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute., Author provided

that effectively eliminated “enemies of the state”. It was dubbed the “political dissidents trial” and it sent a message about the direction that the regime was taking towards free speech. It did not deter Kokalari, who used the trial to stand up for her rights. Witness accounts speak of her declaring: “I do not need to be a communist to love my country”. Despite her bravery, she would have endured severe, prolonged torture during her detention and trial. The court refused to let her speak for any length of time.

Kokalari was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, of which she served 16. She spent a further period of exile in northern Albania, where she worked as a manual labourer. She joked that she was a “mortar specialist”, as her work involved heavy, arduous construction. On her days off she would visit the library and sit in a public place reading a book under the watchful eye of the secret police. Despite the fact that she was forbidden to write, she secretly completed a manuscript about the founding of the Social Democratic Movement. Kokalari died in 1983 – two years before the decline of the dictatorship – after being refused treatment for cancer by the Albanian government.

The fragile rule of law

The near full isolation imposed on her by the communist authorities denied Albanian society and the wider world her powerful voice and writings. Kokalari’s writing tapped into local custom and language, using local dialects in a lucid way, as she wrote about the challenges facing her generation of women. Her broader outlook about her country’s future as a democracy is far from outdated. At its core, the protection of free speech as a key to participating in, and contributing to civil society should serve to remind us how democracies are always works in progress. Her trial and the trials of her contemporaries show how fragile the rule of law can be.

In April 2015 the Albanian parliament passed a law permitting individuals to access their secret police or Sigurimi files. In 2017 the Kokalari family was presented with the file that the Sigurimi kept on her. Within it they found the powerful and defiant photograph of the writer standing alone in front a crowd of people as she was put on trial for her beliefs (fig.1). Kokalari is evidence of a political dissident voice in a country with little experience with democracy and which existed in near isolation for most of the 20th century. It continues to struggle with its authoritarian past.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the contribution that this remarkable woman made to Albania’s cultural and political life. Her life story is a poignant tale of achievement and ambition, of hope in the face of repression and also inspiration – for Albanians and non-Albanians alike.

Dr Agata Fijalkowski is a Senior Lecturer in Lancaster University’s Law School, where she is currently working on a monograph on ‘visual law’, which considers photographs of trials from the period 1944-1957 in Albania, Germany and Poland and the way that these photographs ‘speak legally’. The powerful image of the Albanian writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari discussed in this article resulted in an exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford that also included a short, ‘arty’ film An Unsung Hero: Musine Kokalari (2017). More broadly, she is interested in transitional criminal justice, law and the visual and war crimes. In July 2019 she will be joining Leeds Beckett University as Reader in Law. Find her on Twitter at @AgataFijalkow

‘Knock Down the Gang of Four!’: Caricatures in the British Library’s collection of post-1949 Chinese posters

Dr Amy Jane Barnes

Introduction

In 1942, at the Yan’an wartime base of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mao Zedong (1893-1976) declared that:

‘There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine’ (Mao 1965: 86).

This vision for art and its vital role in the dissemination and furthering of revolutionary zeal continued after the foundation of the PRC in 1949. Although hardly a new phenomenon in China,[1]  propaganda posters began to be mass produced with their manufacture and distribution based on the Soviet model.[2] These posters ‘struck a chord’ with illiterate and rural populations, ‘who were accustomed to “reading” messages conveyed visually through shop signs, New Year prints, pictures in the temples, flags and banners on the opera stage, and crudely printed fly sheets that began to circulate in the second half of the nineteenth century’.[3]  Cheap to produce and buy from branches of the state-run Xinhua shudian (the New China Bookshop), posters were an acceptable form of decoration in homes, schools, factories and state buildings. Immediate and didactic, attractive, bold and dynamic, propaganda posters were accessible vehicles for the dissemination of ideological campaigns and points of reference for political analysis and discourse.[4]

Towards the end of 2015, I undertook a three-month postdoctoral public engagement research position at the British Library. Funded by the British Inter-University China Centre (BICC) the goal of the project was to research and compile a catalogue of the Library’s collection of post-1949 Chinese propaganda posters (xuan chuan hua). Having mostly been collected since 2005, the collection is comprised of 89 individual items (at the last count), ranging in date from 1950 to 1982. The bulk of the collection was published in the mid-1960s, just before the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (wu chan jie ji wen hua da ge ming) (1966-1976).  The posters in the British Library collection can be categorised by a series of distinct themes, including revolutionary New Year prints (nian hua), so-called ‘chubby baby’ posters, and material eulogising Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976). But what I want to focus on in this blogpost, are a series of posters featuring serial caricatures and cartoons that satirise and attack the notorious ‘Gang of Four’.[5]

Who were the Gang of Four?

gang of four 1
A poster from the International Institute for Social History (IISH) Collection, featuring a red cross superimposed over portraits of the Gang of Four. Lu Xun Art Academy,  October 1976, ‘Resolutely overthrow the anti-Party clique of Wang, Zhang, Jiang and Yao!’ (Jianjue dadao Wang Zhang Jiang Yao fandang jituan!), BG E16/68 (IISH collection).

The Gang was headed by Mao Zedong’s fourth wife Jiang Qing (1914-1991). Jiang had assumed the role of Chinese cultural supremo in the 1960s, asserting her power and influence first over the performing arts, and later all forms of art practice. A sometime actress from Shanghai, Jiang held strident ideological views on arts and culture, and used her position to attack those in the cultural sphere who she regarded as rightists and bourgeois enemies of the state. Mao coined the name ‘Gang of Four’ for Jiang and a small group of her admirers: Zhang Chunqiao (1917-2005) – a propaganda chief in Shanghai; the literary critic Yao Wenyuan (1931-2005); and a Shanghainese organiser, Wang Hongwen (1935-1992). Together, they controlled the cultural scene and, for a time, yielded a great deal of influence over Chinese politics.  However, after Mao’s death in September 1976, Jiang and her Gang, fell rapidly from power. The blame for the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution was placed firmly at their door.

The British Library collection

Dating from the immediate post-Mao period (c. 1976-7), the British Library holds four Gang of Four-related posters and a slightly later sheet (published October 1980) from a newspaper entitled Feng ci yu you mo [‘Satire and Humour’], a title that clearly signals the spirit in which the caricatures were intended to be taken. The cartoons were intended to be viewed against the backdrop of the soon-to-commence trial of the Gang of Four.

The posters, similar in style but each from series produced by three different publishing houses, are comprised of sequential, bitingly satirical caricatures in brush and ink (with some photo montage). They comprise the work of different artists and caricaturists, who depict Jiang and her clique as engaging in devious actions, or as subjugated and humiliated villains. This group of posters represents the propaganda poster in transition, reflecting the ideological shift from Cultural Revolution to the Reform Period’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – the key tenet of Deng Xiaoping’s premiership that saw periods of economic reform and the ‘de-Maoification’ of the cultural sphere.[6]

For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, the art reproduced for dissemination in poster form was figurative (the socialist trinity of worker, peasant and soldier was a key theme) and dynamic. Colours were bright. Red, which symbolised revolutionary spirit, predominated. Slogans were strident and unequivocal.  As Evans and Donald (1991: 1) evocatively describe, these posters give us a sense of what people saw during the Mao years. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), ‘[they] were ubiquitous in public and private space. They were displayed on billboards and classroom walls and in clinics, workspaces, and domestic spaces … they were inescapable’. Posters were absolutely ‘central to the political culture of the time’ ,[7] and they are ‘a major visual text central to the processes of constructing meaning and practice’ .[8] Indeed, the former journalist John Gittings writes of the posters he saw during a visit to China in 1971, as being visual ‘points of reference … emphatic and exuberant, often stating topics with greater emphasis and clarity than our own guides’.[9]

However, the subject of this blogpost – the Gang of Four posters – are quite different in tone and style. Gittings (1999: 36) notes that when they ‘featured as targets of poster attack’, the Gang and their crimes were ‘lampooned’ in cartoon form, in an echo of earlier campaigns against purged Party leaders – the best known of which is A Crowd of Clowns (Weng Rulan, 1967) – and the dazibao [‘big character posters’] that publicly denounced and criticised their targets.[10] It is into this category of political caricature that the posters in the British Library collection – and other similar examples – fall. Pozzi (2018) has coined the term fenci xuanchuanhua (‘caricature posters’) to describe this genre – a term that ‘comprises both their content and their function’. Yet perhaps, they owe more to the ‘big character posters’ (dazibao) pasted on walls and buildings, which served as a public means of expressing complaints against officials and policies, and which were often used during the Cultural Revolution to denounce individuals accused of bourgeois activities and behaviour. Indeed, it was a dazibao written by Mao Zedong and directed at his political rivals in August 1966 – ‘Bombard the Headquarters’ – that launched the wave of persecutions that characterised the early years of the Cultural Revolution.

With titles like ‘Thoroughly expose and criticise the Wang Zhang Jiang Yao anti-party clique’  (British Library, ORB.99/40 (2)),[11] and ‘Deeply expose and fiercely criticise the “Gang of Four”, the armed forces oppose the disorder of their heinous crimes” (British Library, ORB.99/40 (3)),[12] the latter no doubt targeting a readership of servicemen and women – the intent of the posters is explicit. Through text and image, the posters visually signalled this new post-Mao/post-Gang era to the Chinese people and compelled them to direct all their anger for the calamitous failures of the Cultural Revolution at Jiang and her cronies.

gang of four 2
An original painting of a similar style of caricature as depicted in the British Library posters. Here, Jiang Qing is shown taking a photograph of Marshal Lin Biao pretending to study Mao Thought. Behind him is a sword named ‘571 Plan’ (571 gong cheng), which refers to Lin’s supposed plan to launch a coup d’etat in 1972. The implication is that Jiang collaborated with Lin in the plot to overthrow her husband. Guangzhou Xiangqun Printing Agency (Guangzhou Xiangqun yin shua she), c. 1977, ‘Let me take a shot of you’ (Ni chui wo pai), DS778.7 .W446 no.65 (CUHK Digital Repository).

In one cartoon (British Library, ORB 99/40 (2)) Jiang, wearing her characteristic black-rimmed glasses and bun hairstyle, dynamically whirls around an athletic hammer (or is it a wrecking ball?), accompanied by the caption ‘Old Performer’ (lao yiren); likely a reference to her former acting career. Another on the same sheet, which depicts Jiang in insect-form devouring a corn-on-the-cob, is titled ‘Female locust’ (nu huang). The poster, ‘Overthrow the careerist Jiang Qing’ (Da dao ye xin jia Jiang Qing) (British Library, ORB.99/40 (4)), features a cartoon of the members of the gang, squashed beneath the weight of a giant fist emblazoned with the characters for ‘Knock down [the] Gang of Four’ (da dao si ren bang) – the meaning here is self-explanatory. Other cartoons in the series show the Gang living it up in luxurious surroundings at the expense of the Chinese people, quaffing from goblets and bottles of alcohol, or taking a leisurely boat ride, during which Jiang is attended to by her cronies, who fan her with palm leaves and supply her with yet more wine.  There may be further implicit meanings within these images: as I am not a proficient reader of Mandarin, I may have missed the subtleties and culturally-contingent meanings of some of these captions.

gang of four 3
A detail from ‘Supernatural Wind and Evil Matron’ (Yao feng he yao po), c.1976-7, DS778.7 .W446 no.69, CUHK Digital Repository.

The only poster in this set that deviates from the established form described above, is ‘Satire and Humour’ (British Library, ORB.99/40 (5));[13] a partially colour-printed newspaper supplement, which was published and distributed in the People’s Daily (Renmin ribao) some years later than the others, in October 1980. This demonstrates that anti-Gang of Four sentiment was still in full swing some four years after Mao’s death and their downfall, but that by 1980, the tone had somewhat changed. Here, the Gang are ridiculed rather than directly attacked. They’re made figures of fun, absurd characters for people to poke their fingers at and laugh; loathed, but no longer feared, perhaps? The anti-Gang caricatures here feature alongside other cartoons. There is politics here, but also lighthearted fun; possibly emblematic of the more relaxed political context and cultural changes taking place in China under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.

In conclusion, this short exploration of anti-Gang of Four caricature posters has sought to cast light on an overlooked genre of post-1949 art from China. From a Western perspective, we often dismiss the visual culture of authoritarian regimes as moribund and stagnant. And yet, these caricature posters help to challenge this view, demonstrating that there was diversity and inventiveness in the visual culture of this tumultuous period of Chinese history, even if it was given over to ideological motivations.

Amy Jane Barnes is a freelance academic, curator and soon-to-be coach for final year PhDs and early career researchers. She has a background in Asian art history and museum studies, and received my PhD from the University of Leicester in 2010. She has worked in museums as a curator and researcher, and in academia as a lecturer, tutor, researcher and programme manager. In addition to her freelance activities,  I am also a University Teacher in the School of the Arts, Loughborough University and an affiliate of King’s College London. Find her on Twitter at @AmyJaneBarnes

 

 

Notes

[1] See Gittings 1999: 29-30.

[2] Gittings 1999: 29.

[3] Gittings 1999: 29.

[4] Gittings 1999: 28.

[5] A note on illustrations: Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to illustrate this post with images of posters from the British Library’s collection, due to its understandably strict adherence to copyright law. See my December 2015 blogpost for BICC for further details. I would like to extend my thanks to the International Institute for Social History for the permission to use representative examples from its collections. Images from the CUHK Digital Repository are used under a Creative Commons license.

[6] See Landsberger 2008: 54.

[7] Evans and Donald 1999: 2.

[8] Evans and Donald 1999: 2.

[9] Gittings 1999: 27.

[10] See Evans and Donald: 1999: 8.

[11] Che di jie fa pi ping Wang Zhang Jiang Yao fan dang ji tuan.

[12] Shen jie meng pi si ren bang fan jun luan jun de tao tian zui xing.

[13] Feng ci yu you mo.

Bibliography

Evans, Harriet and Stephanie Donald. 1999. ‘Introducing Posters of China’s Cultural Revolution’. In Evans and Donald (eds), Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., pp. 1-26.

Gittings, John. 1999. ‘Excess and Enthusiasm’. In Evans and Donald (eds), Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., pp. 27-46.

Landsberger, Stefan. 2008. ‘Designing Propaganda: The Business of Politics’. In Zhang, Hongxing and Parker, Lauren (eds), China Design Now. London: V&A Publishing, pp. 53-55.

Mao Tse-Tung. 1965. ‘Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art’. In Mao Tse-Tung, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung: Vol. III. Peking: Foreign Languages Press: 69-98.

Pozzi, Laura. 2018. ‘The Cultural Revolution in Images: Caricature Posters from Guangzhou, 1966–1977.’ Cross-Currents e-Journal June 2018 (No. 27). https://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/e-journal/issue-27/pozzi, accessed 11 September 2018.

Debunking ‘Continuity Russia’ 

By Nathan Brand

Since the election of Donald Trump in the US and the resurgence of the radical right across Europe, you’ll have seen the reports of Russia’s involvement in the democratic process in the West.  You’ll probably have picked up on the McCarthyist-style links fashioned by the media against anyone suspected of being connected with the Kremlin.  And, if you’re lucky, you’ll have seen the level of conspiracy theory in some commentary raised to Cold War spy novel standards.

What all of this points to is an ongoing crisis in Western analysis of contemporary Russia and its international relations.  This is not so much an economic problem; the structure of daily life is defined in both Russia and the West by relatively strict adherence to neoliberal economic management.  Rather, it is crisis borne of our relation to the past.  As we know from Giorgio Agamben, amongst others, our knowledge of the past is the only way to access the present.  It follows that a lack of interrogation of the past would lead to a mis-reconstructed present.

The dominant discourse in the Anglophone Western media about Russia is the thesis of ‘Continuity Russia’.  This thesis argues that Russia has been a continuously dangerous power for the West over the course of the last couple of hundred years, despite its changing guises – Tsarist, Soviet, post-Soviet.  It relies upon one particularly problematic construction in particular; that the current leadership of the Kremlin can be understood using the tools of the Soviet era because they are, more or less, continuations of the Soviet era.

Picture1
Cover of the New Statesman (5th May 2017) – Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Putin pictured together as fellow travellers

As its big Other, the West constitutes one of the major defining points of Russian identity.  Indeed, scholars such as Viatcheslav Morozov have argued that the question of Russia’s European-ness constitutes one of the major issues for Russian identity in the last 200 or so years.  This is also evident in the recent conservative turn in Russian politics, but even more so in culture, where conservative cultural elites have claimed Russia as the true heir to the culture of European antiquity.  It is especially dangerous, then, for Western (and particularly Anglo-American) analysis of Russian political culture to fall, at best, into cheap stereotype and at worst into outright historical revisionism.

More often than not, such revisionism comes from the north Atlantic foreign policy establishment; the response of the liberal media in the United States following Donald

Picture2
Cover of the New Statesman (21st March 2014) – portrait-style image of Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev and Putin

Trump’s election exemplifies the thesis superbly.  The coded argument here is that a Trump win could only have been down to Russian meddling, as opposed to a poorly-run campaign on the part of the Democratic party.  Andrew Bacevich’s convincing article this month on the ISS forum shows how historical revisionism has become the stock response to Donald Trump’s election as President and the fear that American hegemony will no longer be prioritised in the international sphere.  The irony, Bacevich points out, is that although Trump may appear “closer to full-fledged illiteracy than any president since Warren G. Harding” he nonetheless intuits the need for a change in U.S. foreign policy. In Great Britain, which has a great history in celebrating historical revisionism, The New Statesman has been the most frequent flyer in this great airplane of obfuscation.

In their most recent coverage of Russia on the front pages, the New Statesman commonly uses two tropes: 1) crude homophobic depictions of Vladimir Putin as a sexual predator, ready to come for other countries in Europe; and 2) the portrayal of Russia as a reincarnation, or even a continuation, of the Soviet Union.  Most commonly these two tropes are combined, as shown by the two images below

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Cover of the New Statesman (13th January 2017) – Putin pictured nude, with an ‘insatiable desire to regain superpower status’
Picture3
Cover of the New Statesman (7th March 2014) – Putin dressed as a Red Army soldier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The function of these recurring depictions of Russia is, of course, to inhibit resistance to the liberal interventionist foreign policy which has dominated the North Atlantic Anglophone powers since the heady days of the early 20th century.  This foreign policy portfolio is recently exemplified by interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as support for dictators in those countries (and many others) whilst it suited them.  The argumentation follows that if Russia has not sought to change its stripes in the last

Picture5
Cover of the New Statesman (28th March 2014) – Russia is depicted as an ursine aggressor

century, then why should we?  Such specious reasoning escalates tension between the major powers, as well as encouraging the militarisation of our societies, sending us spiralling back toward the dark days of Cold War rhetoric.

This is certainly not to endorse Putin’s foreign policy exploits; the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent spiritual climate which it has created, capable of sweeping away the demands of the labour movement at home, are certainly nothing to stand up for.  But the assumption of Russia as a historically continuous entity, threatening Western values, from the Tsarist empire, through the Soviet empire, to its current status within the neo-liberalised global economic system helps do nothing but mystify.  It allows the New Statesman to argue for a foreign policy concept – in liberal interventionism – which has propped up dictators whilst they were useful, before allowing anarchy to spread in zones of the world which appeared resistant to the free flow of capital.

Ultimately, the thesis of continuity Russia leads necessarily to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If the Western media seek to exclude Russia from the symbolic global order by way of writing historically revisionist works of selective tradition, then Russia will indeed be excluded.  Such is the power of the global hegemon.  But if semi-authoritarian, anti-democratic rule can be seen to be on the rise in Russia, dogmatic, historically inaccurate portrayals of the contemporary leadership can surely do nought but help its cause.

Nathan Brand is a WRoCAH-funded PhD researcher based in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds.  His current research focuses on the so-called Conservative Revolution in post-Soviet Russia, with a particular emphasis on visual aspects of the political and media discourse of this far-right movement.  He is co-convening a conference next year titled ‘Sovereign Bodies and Bodily Sovereignty: Mediation of Body in Semi-Authoritarian Countries’

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).

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.

Picture1

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.

Picture2

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.

 

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.