Currently based in the University of Sheffield’s Department of History, ‘The Language of ‘Authoritarian’ Regimes is a collaborative project intended to explore and problematise ‘authoritarianism’, broadly defined. The concept of ‘authoritarianism’ has through overuse been somewhat emptied of critical meaning. Often considered a shorthand descriptor for political ‘others’ of the West, the term can serve to disregard the political plurality and cultural diversity of and within ‘authoritarian’ regimes, as well as the social histories of their populations.
The project therefore aims to provide nuance to the rigid distinction between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic’ politics, or of similar binaries and oppositions which are often informed by Cold War and (neo)colonial assumptions, in order to more fully understand the nature and practise of power and relationships within and between states and populations.
The project seeks to provide a space in which those working on ‘authoritarianism’ can share critical reflections on usages and practises of ‘authoritarianism’ in the study of contemporary and historical contexts, enriching knowledge of the diverse cultures and societies frequently written off as ‘authoritarian’, and making connections between history and issues in the present day.
We welcome contributions that speak to this aim from a range of geographical, methodological or historical perspectives, and from all levels of study inside and outside ‘the academy’.
For more information or queries, please contact:
Hannah Parker: firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephanie Wright: email@example.com
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. The answer, therefore, was to replace paternity with fraternity, allowing revolutionaries to mobilise the nation around an idea – the fatherland – rather than a father. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.The Fatherland in Danger (Figure 4) encapsulates the severity of the situation and the even greater need for mobilisation.
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. 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.
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.
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.
 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.
 Lynne Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Abingdon, 1992) p. 53.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, edited by F. Furet (Chicago, 1998), p.208
 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.
 Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford, 2013), p. 34-35.
 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.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education (New York, 1979), p. 40.
 Susan Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France (Berkeley, 2004), p. 78.
 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.
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.
This is the second in a series of blogs that explores the relationship between law and the visual. It starts with the premise that the relationship between law and art has been long established. The practice of law contains deeply performative elements, best exemplified by the concept of the trial. In East Germany, political trials presented a valuable propaganda opportunity, and state-employed photographers covered such events in depth. The resulting images were then published in the main broadsheets of the day.
This post provides a snapshot of my investigation into East German justice, with the image of the East German judge Hilde Benjamin—or ‘Bloody Hilde’ as she became known—serving as the starting point. As in my Albanian case study about the writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari , this exploration also begins with a captivating photograph.
Hilde Benjamin (1902-1989) played an integral role in the construction of the East German legal system. In the post-WWII period, she first worked as a prosecutor [Fig.1], then as a judge on the High Court (1949-1953), then as Minister of Justice (1953-1967). Benjamin modelled herself on the Soviet jurist and Attorney General Andrei Vyshinsky (1883-1954); it was Vyshinsky who developed Lenin’s idea that law was a political weapon, which proved vital during the Stalinist period. Benjamin is mainly known for her unwavering commitment to communism, and during the 1950s as High Court judge she rendered judgments in cases that resulted in the capital sentence, which earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Hilde’ or ‘The Red Guillotine’.
Benjamin presided over all of the decisions in political cases. By learning more about this figure we are able to uncover diverging narratives that serve to broaden our understanding of the context of dispensing justice in East Germany, where the visual played a pivotal role in the process. This material aspect of the image is intertwined with its affectivity. In other words, for some of us the eye is drawn to certain features in the image that result in an affective response. We relive the captured moment at each viewing. Our understanding of the key legal actors and the dispensation of justice is made richer by the personal accounts and legal processes that were at play at that captured moment.
As in the Albanian case the images are captivating and the viewer is drawn to a certain aesthetic in the photograph. They are also powerful because of their courtroom setting: spacious theatre venues that provided room for a large audience. Finally, they are compelling because of the subject matter that also includes us as the audience in the spectacle. The driving force underpinning the law’s ability to speak legally in the East German case study points to the performance of education and ‘throttling’ [Fig.2 and Fig.4] during the trial proceedings, but also to Benjamin’s ambiguous positioning within East Germany. I intend to challenge the viewer by testing the parameters of Benjamin’s accountability within the GDR’s apparatus of repression.
Who was Hilde Benjamin? Why do we need to dig deeper behind her photograph? Her philosophy was ‘you laugh with your friends; you hate your enemies’, a perspective rooted in Benjamin’s past. This past was one of discrimination and persecution: first, because of her gender, second, as a mistaken minority, third, as a member of a culturally leaning family and finally as a communist. After surviving the war, Benjamin decided to offer her legal qualifications to the service of the East German communist state.
Benjamin’s life account is less than well known in the English language (and not widely studied in German legal discourses). She was brought up in petit bourgeois family in West Berlin. Her personal relationships, perhaps most notably that with Georg Benjamin (brother of the philosopher, Walter), who would later become a victim of the Nazi regime, informed her politically. She was discriminated against by her compatriots who thought she was either Roma or Jewish (though she was neither). These components resulted in her decision to pursue a legal career and to commit herself ideologically to the GDR. Benjamin skyrocketed in her legal career and intentionally used the law as a political weapon against her enemies, remoulding Vyshinsky’s approach to her own.
At the same time Benjamin actively sought the inclusion of more women in the legal profession and tried to address the contradiction she saw in socialism – its gender divide. She thus became involved in the reform of family law, and also played a significant role in the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As Minister of Justice, Benjamin was at the forefront of these developments. In 1967, she was eventually forced to relocate by Walter Ulbricht, East Germany’s leader and Chairman, when her ‘political fanaticism’ fell out of favour. The wider implications of this part of the project raise important questions about Benjamin’s location in legal historical discourses, such as in Germany in the post-1991 unification period.
Benjamin, the judge, was at the heart of meting out punishment against substantial numbers of people accused of anti-state activities in the post-war period. But to stop short at this point would be to provide a superficial reading of the case study, especially where Benjamin is concerned. Engaging with her images and accompanying conflicting narratives of her upbringing and political views forces us to ask where Benjamin is located in current historical accounts of East German law, and to rethink the GDR’s role in shaping international discourses about the law and justice. Watch this space for a further evaluation of Benjamin in my forthcoming monograph.
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’. 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
 Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Merrill Umphrey, eds., Law and Performance (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018) and Desmond Manderson, ed., Law and the Visual: Representations, Technologies, and Critique (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans: Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000), pp. 21-25.
 Here ‘throttling’ refers to the violent dispensation of justice as a means of suppression and control.
 Andrea Feth, correspondence with author, 9 July 2017.
 Andrea Feth, Hilde Benjamin – Eine Biographie (Berlin: Arno Spitz, 1997)
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
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
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
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, propaganda posters began to be mass produced with their manufacture and distribution based on the Soviet model. 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’. 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.
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.
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’ , and they are ‘a major visual text central to the processes of constructing meaning and practice’ . 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’.
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 isA Crowd of Clowns (Weng Rulan, 1967) – and the dazibao [‘big character posters’] that publicly denounced and criticised their targets. 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)), 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)), 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.
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.
The only poster in this set that deviates from the established form described above, is ‘Satire and Humour’ (British Library, ORB.99/40 (5)); 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
 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The beginning of 2019 has seen much commentary on authoritarianism, political violence and student activism across the academic blogosphere. Here, I summarise some pieces that draw on new research by promising scholars, which will hopefully offer food for thought and debate!
A fitting place to start might be Brexit and the political wrangling, factionalism and jingoistic posturing it continues to unleash. Not only are leading Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming more strident; those who oppose Brexit in the major parties are splitting away to form an ‘Independent Group’ which straddles both.
This brings to mind Andrew Heath’s piece for History Matters, based at the University of Sheffield, on whether the American Civil War can teach us anything today. Heath proposes that the splits we are seeing in 2019 Britain resemble those wrought by the ‘slavery question’ in the 1850s United States – dominated similarly by two political parties – though he is careful not to elide today’s Europe question with slavery in scale or moral consequence.
What is clear is that domestic political discourse around Brexit is deeply imbued with authoritarian and violent undertones which speak to the importance of submerged, brutal histories. Karis Campion, observing the bitter hostility and ridicule meted out to Labour MP Diane Abbott on the BBC’s Question Time of 17 January – and the routine sexist and racist abuse directed at her on social media – employs the concept of ‘misogynoir’ in considering how ‘both sexism and racism manifest in black women’s lives to create intersecting forms of oppression’.
At the same time as history excludes some, it serves others. Kojo Koram focusses on the irony of Brexiteer MPs employing the language of national liberation in a country which historically understood itself to be too ‘civilised’ for ‘overt nationalism’. In the recent past, the language of national liberation was an anti-colonial one which paternalist British elites scorned; but Koram observes a parity of intent between today’s Brexiteer elite and certain postcolonial elites of the 20th-century, whose rhetoric sometimes concealed lust for newfound political and cultural power. Understanding where such political languages come from, Koram suggests, is one step to exposing dishonest latter-day adherents.
Other interesting pieces on the themes of race, resistance and authoritarianism in colonial history include Marlene Daut’s article on the Kingdom of Hayti, and Teju Cole’s article in the New York Times on the camera as an instrument of imperialism. Daut’s is a readable and informative piece on ex-slave Henry Christophe who became king of the first free black state in the Americas. Cole’s thorough and profound piece makes powerful arguments about how photography and photojournalism – which, when paired with a ‘political freedom of movement’, has often served to ‘aestheticize suffering’ – practiced more carefully can catalyse public action on key issues.
Finally, returning to the theme of the language and concepts employed to stigmatise disadvantaged groups and populations, Kate McAllister of the University of Sheffield writes about the history of mental health treatment in Britain. Charities like Mind are currently calling for ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health conditions as politicians move painfully slowly – if at all – to recognise the country’s ongoing mental health crisis. McAllister investigates how in early 20th-century welfare legislation, the concept of the ‘unconscious’ was used to brand mental health problems imaginary. Again, the detailed study of history and its organising concepts and narratives offers crucial insights into today’s problems.
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.
It seems easy, today, to distinguish between progressive and authoritarian political discourse. The battle lines have taken shape in front of us. Strongman leaders and xenophobic demagogues identify ‘immigrants’, ‘Muslims’ and ‘globalists’ as collective enemies. They shut down universities, block NGO boats from saving desperate migrants adrift in the Mediterranean and disappear journalists who don’t agree with them. Organised in political parties, civil society groups, and protest movements, their opponents remain steadfastly supportive of civil liberties and human rights.
But is progressive political discourse constituted by the defence of rights alone? As progressive parties lose electoral support – with few exceptions – across Europe and beyond, it is becoming increasingly clear that bolder strategies and messages of hope are needed to resist authoritarian advancement. Rights we hold dear – which include, for researchers, academic freedoms – might be best maintained by constructing narratives of past, present and future which emphasise their historical importance and future promise.
My research strongly emphasises the importance of considering these questions. At a conference held in West Berlin in June 1950, a number of well-known liberal and left-wing intellectuals gathered to discuss the threat posed to freedom of cultural expression by Communism. They soon founded a permanent body, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which established offices, produced magazines and arranged conferences across 35 countries and several continents in the 1950s and 1960s. The aim was to forge a new kind of liberal and ‘anti-totalitarian’ cultural criticism which counteracted the appeal of Communist ideology among progressive intellectuals reading CCF magazines and attending CCF conferences.
A number of prominent progressive thinkers on the British Left – such as Bertrand Russell and Stephen Spender – and on the Western Left more broadly, became involved with the project. These thinkers often believed that the freedoms they enjoyed, including freedom of expression and freedom of speech, were linked to the level of individual freedom achieved in Western societies. Human progress followed a democratic capitalist path; certainly, tensions existed, which Western CCF writers suggested might be eased by introducing welfare states, but a basic formula for attaining key freedoms had been worked out in the West.
When turning to the pages of British CCF magazine Encounter, though, it is easy to uncover less than progressive sentiments festering beneath the veneer of liberalism and human advancement. These sentiments often reared their heads in essentialised treatments of the Third World. In the first edition of Encounter, Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont, seeking to ‘find’ India, oozed stereotypes; spiritualism was ubiquitous, and the country was stunted by its ‘primitive’ hierarchy which kept all passive. The ‘profound crisis of India’, inhibiting any advancement towards ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’, crystallised in its failure to ‘rupture with magic’.
Similarly, in October 1955, South African writer Laurens van der Post turned an ostensibly critical eye on prospects for progress and development in Africa. A deeply racialised account ensued. The ‘African’, or the ‘black man’, had endured in a timeless state of ‘natural and innocent society’ until the arrival of the ‘white man’ or the ‘European man’. Now, Africans entered onto the stage of history. Their temperamental quiescence meant that, for some time, they ‘served the white man in a way that is almost too good to be true’ in a moment of ‘hush and suspended indigenous development in Africa’ which carried ‘immense potentiality’. Van der Post believed his account was progressive – he proceeded to critique ‘unenlightened white policy’ in Africa which had destroyed these potentialities of development – but it clearly turned on racist imagery.
De Rougemont and van der Post are extreme examples, but the same thinking subtly undergirded many Encounter considerations of similar topics. Where a progressive politics might have engaged with Indian and African intellectuals and invited their ideas on what human ‘freedom’ meant and how it might be achieved, a ‘progressivism’ characterised by race exceptionalism predominated.
Indeed, the Western CCF did attempt to bring Indian and African intellectuals, among others, into the fold, but not as independent contributors. They got in contact with intellectuals deemed receptive to a Western liberal and anti-Communist politics, inviting them to organise magazines and conferences on related themes in their home countries. When these intellectuals talked too much about politics – Indian CCF intellectuals frequently drew on their experience of colonialism to challenge the notion that ‘freedom’ was a Western import – they were seen to have gone off script; Western organisers complained and set up replacement magazines.
Not only did the ‘liberalism’ of the CCF’s founders conceal beliefs which were authoritarian in their political implications – if Indian and African societies were uniformly illiberal, it would take a strong and robust state, as Western writers often observed, to change them – it also served unexpected geopolitical ends. The CIA, which sought from the late 1940s to promote the ‘non-Communist Left’ in the US and beyond, found something it approved of in the CCF, covertly funding early meetings and offering further support throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Several historians have suggested this had the effect of taming the more radical and innovative currents within CCF branches whilst strengthening the ‘liberal’ ones examined above; anyhow, a seemingly independent civil society movement was relying on CIA funds.
These points emphasise that anti-authoritarian political and civil society forces are not, by default, progressive, an impression that is easy to gain when one looks at political landscapes today. ‘Liberal’ political languages can exclude and essentialise different groups of people, with authoritarian implications. This is not a problem restricted to colonial history; several professedly ‘liberal’ publications including The Economist have recently welcomed President Bolsonaro of Brazil, suggesting his premiership may do good even whilst openly acknowledging his despicable views. To be a progressive is to constantly consider and reconsider whether one’s own views and those of movements one finds appealing contain exclusionary elements. This helps a truly progressive politics take root against its openly authoritarian counterparts.
Tom Shillam is a PhD student based in the Department of History, University of York, whose research considers the cultural Cold War and decolonisation in 1950s & 1960s South Asia. He is currently looking into early Congress for Cultural Freedom journals published in Britain and India, which reveal intriguing divergences on what ‘freedom’ and ‘authoritarianism’ meant to intellectuals from different political and cultural backgrounds. His broader interests include blogging and public history, which has led to articles for fora such as The Conversation.
 Frances Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999); Giles Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Political Economy of American Hegemony 1945-1955 (London: Routledge, 2002).
 Denis de Rougemont, ‘Looking for India’, Encounter (October 1953), 36-42.
 Laurens van der Post, ‘The Dark Eye in Africa’, Encounter (October 1955), 5-12.
 Eric Pullin, ‘Quest: Twenty Years of Cultural Politics’, in Campaigning Culture and the Global Cold War: The Journals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, ed. Giles Scott-Smith, and Charlotte Lerg (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 286.
 Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
The rigid dichotomy of the ‘political prisoner’ vs. ‘common criminal’ continues to frustrate researchers of the Soviet camp system. Although accounts of late Imperial exile and hard labour have argued persuasively in favour of studying a wider range of carceral experiences, this dichotomy remains unchallenged in studies looking to reconstruct daily life in the Gulag.
Though an impressive achievement, the relatively recent volume edited by Michael David-Fox struggles to break down the reductive labels of ‘criminal’ and ‘political’ assigned to inmates. While—on a purely personal level—this volume proved incredibly helpful, as I was able find the activities of criminal gangs through terms such as urki (‘criminals’), vory (‘thieves’) or bandity (‘bandits’) in both survivor memoirs and archival documents, these inquiries raised the fairly obvious questions of who exactly constituted a ‘criminal’ in the Soviet Union in the first place, and what differences there might be within this broad category?
Looking for further ways of breaking down these labels and based on excellent advice by colleagues (special thanks to Miriam Dobson!), I began to look at prisoner newspapers from the 1920s The most prominent of these was the newspaper of the early Soviet ‘showpiece’ penal institution on the Solovetskii Archipelago in the White Sea – the inspiration behind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous allegorical metaphor.
Beginning in 1923, and running until the spring of 1930, the most renowned publication from the camp, Solovetskii Island, reached an impressive circulation figure of around 3,000 copies and was available both via subscription or at kiosks in Moscow, Leningrad and Kharkov. Upon first glance, the all too familiar dichotomy of ‘criminal’ vs. ‘political’ prisoner looked to be even more pronounced here than in the Gulag memoirs that I consulted, particularly given that the vast majority of articles were written by prisoners hailing from the educated and cultural elite.
This was encapsulated perfectly in the title of the article “Frayera” i “Svoi” from the August 1925 edition of Solovetskii Island. In this sense, frayera is best understood as slang for an ‘outsider’ and svoi as ‘our own’, both implying a clear boundary of inclusion. These groups were consolidated further by the author of the article, a prisoner named ‘B. Borisov’ (pseudonyms were used by a number of authors ), who began the piece by depicting inmates from the 13th Work Company looking down from the walls of the Solovetskii Kremlin, dividing the mass of prisoners in the gardens below neatly in half.
Borisov clarified that these were the aforementioned two groups, with ‘outsiders’ representing anyone who could be stolen from (my emphasis), with ‘our own’ meaning those who earned their livelihood through stealing. Although, they stated, this divide could be clearly seen through physical appearance and mannerisms, the author also suggested that differences were not just external. As a self-ascribed ‘outsider’, Borisov explained how the opposing group viewed not just camp life but the entire world according to these rules, even lamenting that his group lacked the strict ideology and moral code that ‘our own’ lived by!
‘‘Frayera’’ i ‘‘Svoi’’ from the August 1925 edition of Solovetskie Ostrova.
‘‘Frayera’’ i ‘‘Svoi’’ from the August 1925 edition of Solovetskie Ostrova.
While this initial sketch subscribed to the conventional political vs. criminal paradigm with which we are familiar, Borisov later began to break down the category of ‘one’s own’ into a hierarchy which demonstrated a more diverse constellation of criminal identities. At the top of this pyramid, in Borisov’s words the ‘aristocracy’, were ‘swindlers’ (those who engaged in profit-making scams), followed by a ‘large bourgeois’ of safecrackers and counterfeiters. The remaining masses comprised of pickpockets, house burglars and thieves who stole from shops or market stalls with the aid of their accomplices.
According to Borisov, the ‘have-nots, pariahs and shpana (habitual prisoners)’ who formed the bottom layer were driven by their ‘petit-bourgeois morality’. Interestingly, but not surprisingly given that it had to pass through secret police censors, the article had absorbed the language of the New Economic Policy which looked to crackdown on old, capitalist ways of life. Although Borisov stated that criminal hierarches were full of ‘hypocritical traditions’, they stated that more professional crimes such as ‘safe-cracking’ could not be compared to situational offenses, such as the wild, ‘feral’ activities which took place in Khitrovka – a famous Moscow district afflicted by its association with alcohol, drugs and prostitution, and which came to be used as ‘shorthand’ for these activities..
This analysis not only reflects discussions in contemporary criminology regarding the ‘hierarchy of crime’ where some activities have traditionally carried more esteem than others, but shows how the pejorative label Khitrovka could be prefixed to criminals, regardless of whether or not they actually hailed from that location. Further interesting avenues this leads to could be to explore the interplay between incarceration and areas designated as ‘criminal spaces’ outside of penality; for instance the Odessan suburb of Moldvanka which appeared regularly in prisoner songs from the same period.
With criminals being designated a ‘Khitrovka pickpocket’ or ‘Khitrovka prostitute’ it also opens the possibility of looking at the differences between how male and female prisoners were discussed in the publication. Although, as suggested, the problems of using the camp newspapers are manifold, the information they have provided goes far beyond the survivor memoirs from the Solovetskii camp, helping to break down this reductive binary. This, in itself, would seem like a worthwhile endeavour in looking to construct a more detailed and nuanced picture of prisoner society during the early years of the Soviet regime.
See, in particular: Sarah Badcock, A Prison Without Walls? Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism (Oxford, 2016); Sarah Young, ‘Knowing Russia’s Convicts: The Other in Narratives of Imprisonment and Exile of the Late Imperial Era’, Europe-Asia, 65:9 (2013). Link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09668136.2013.844509
 Michael David-Fox (ed.), The Soviet Gulag: Evidence, Interpretation and Comparison (Pittsburgh, 2015).
 Gullotta, Andrea, ‘The ‘Cultural Village’ of the Solovki Camp: A Case of Alternative Culture’, Studies in Slavic Cultures, XI (2010), p.12.
 Borisov, B, ‘‘Frayera’ i ‘Svoi’’, Solovetskie Ostrova, No.8, August 1925, pp.80-82.
 Definitions of criminal activities checked against: Vitaly von Lange, Prestupnyy Mir Rossii: Moi Vospominaniya ob Odesse i Khar’kove (Odessa, 1906).
 See similar comments regarding prostitution in: Kowalsky, Sharon, Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia 1880-1930 (Dekalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2009).
 Crewe, Ben, The Prisoner Society: Power, Adaptation and Social Life in an English Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
The revolution that ended Bourbon absolutism and established a constitutional monarchy had developed more rapidly than anyone could have predicted. Spiralling food prices, provincial uprisings and incursions by foreign armies led to unbearable tension in the capital. In September 1792, following an explosion of popular violence against suspected reactionaries, the monarchy was abolished. By January, the ex-king Louis was dead.
Republican leaders knew that instability required decisive leadership. In July 1793, the hard-line Montagnard wing of the Jacobin Club ousted the faltering Girondin faction and centralised power in the Committee of Public Safety, headed by the ‘incorruptible’ Maximilien Robespierre.
The Committee realised that the threat of violence alone was not enough to consolidate the Revolution. A form of unifying ideology was required. Here the Jacobins fell back on a word that was already widespread in political rhetoric: Vertu, or ‘Virtue’.
The philosophical concept of virtue has its origins in the Enlightenment. In her 2013 study Choosing Terror, Marisa Linton highlights the two key strands of ‘virtuous’ thought that developed over the eighteenth century.
The first is a highly intellectual form of virtue referred to as classically republican. Popular with philosophers such as Montesquieu, this interpretation focuses on the merits of selfless patriotism in safeguarding the democratic republic (modelled on Ancient Greece or Rome). Virtue here represents the philosophical means to a political end: establishing specific intellectual principles upon which governments can base their style of rule.
The second strand is natural virtue. Commonly associated with Rousseau, natural virtue is a more emotional concept than its classical counterpart. It is a popular sentimental force aimed at promoting a ‘sublime level of happiness and fulfilment’ among the people through virtuous acts. This process requires a personal moral development beyond the realms of high intellectualism.
Classical virtue of the first type was what drove the men of the Third Estate when they split from the crown in 1789. To them it remained a ‘high’ philosophical concept, endowing their revolutionary project with a sense of classical destiny steeped in Enlightenment tradition.
This is reflected in the visual art of the time: in August 1789 the Neo-Classical painter Jacques-Louis David exhibited Les licteurs rapportent à Brutus les corps de ses fils (‘The lictors bring Brutus the bodies of his sons’), depicting the Roman republican leader who executed his own sons for plotting with royalists. Emphasising the themes of patriotic sacrifice for the classical-style state, David’s painting portrayed ‘classical republican’ virtue in a clear yet deeply intellectual style.
However, there was a limit to the practical use of lofty Enlightenment idealism. As crises multiplied and French politics edged towards hard-line republicanism, the semantic nature of virtue changed. By 1792 the Jacobins were advocating a form of virtue far closer to Linton’s ‘natural virtue’.
This strongly emotional sentiment was aimed at the streets rather than the drawing rooms of political clubs. Spread by propagandists such as Jean-Paul Marat, natural virtue represented a ‘passionate commitment’ to the preservation of the patrie and the rooting out of all counter-revolutionary bodies.
The populist appeal of natural virtue gave the Jacobins (or by 1793, the Montagnards) a method of winning support among ‘the urban workers’, particularly in Paris. Virtue was propagandised as a semi-mystical force that existed within all honest republicans – a helpfully ambiguous definition that allowed the Montagnards to use it to popularise actions taken to preserve their power.
The 1793-4 Terror demonstrated this flexibility of meaning. Virtue became the order of the day, acting as the motivation behind the relentless political violence required to sustain Jacobin power. Robespierre summed up the use of natural virtue in the mechanism of terror on 5 February 1794:
‘The basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is monstrous; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing more than justice – swift, severe and inflexible.’
Robespierre’s words clearly show the transition of virtue from a philosophical concept to a practical justification for state violence. Semantic ambiguity gave it political potential. From here, one can draw a line to later authoritarian regimes and their use of deliberately vague language to justify violence. For example, the Soviet propaganda machine made liberal use of the term ‘Class Enemy’, changing its meaning to suit the purging of particular social or ethnic groups.
This flexibility is what made Vertu so dangerous. What started out as a highly intellectual term was transformed into a political buzzword used to legitimise terror. The French Revolution introduced many new political ideas to Europe, but perhaps its most remarkable legacy was the realisation that the power of a single word can be virtually limitless.
Sam Young is currently studying for an MA in Modern History at Sheffield. He holds a BA French & History at the University of Nottingham, where he wrote his undergraduate dissertation on the use of ‘Virtue’ in French republican painting. He is currently researching for an MA dissertation on the creation of French-Algerian exile communities in 1960s France. Find him on Twitter: @Samyoung102
 Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford, 2013).