Partners in Crime

Julie Elkner

  • Tear Off the Masks!: Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia by Sheila Fitzpatrick
    Princeton, 332 pp, £15.95, July 2005, ISBN 0 691 12245 8

At the climax of the last of the great Stalinist show trials in the late 1930s, Andrei Vyshinsky, the Soviet prosecutor general, declared that the ‘masks’ had been ‘torn off’ the accused, exposing their ‘real faces’. Before they were unmasked, Bukharin and the rest had been good comrades; now they were revealed to be conspirators against Soviet power, agents of a Trotskyite-Japanese-German-Polish-English plot. The show trials of leading Old Bolsheviks were only the most notorious and high-profile of a series of ritualised ‘unmaskings’. Such practices dramatised a key feature of Soviet political culture, which persisted long after Stalin’s death: a strong tendency towards conspiratorial thinking, manifested particularly in the drive to root out the supposedly omnipresent enemies camouflaged as loyal Soviet citizens. This was a regime that felt deeply threatened by the possibility of disjuncture between the external and the internal, a regime obsessed with the idea of authenticity.

In Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in 20th-Century Russia, Sheila Fitzpatrick examines these presumptions ‘from below’. Fitzpatrick has a long-standing interest in the ways in which ordinary Russians negotiated everyday life in the 1920s and 1930s. Tear Off the Masks! brings together a number of her studies from the past fifteen years, on a series of loosely connected themes falling under the broad rubric of ‘identity’ and its ambiguities, with notions of ‘masking’ and ‘unmasking’ as key motifs.

Many of the themes she explores – the way people present themselves, the methods employed by confidence tricksters – are inspired by and engage with Erving Goffman’s classic studies of social role-playing. But Goffman’s subjects could be observed first-hand; he had greater freedom to speculate about their psychological motivation: Fitzpatrick works under the constraints that limit the historian. She has to keep her imagination on a tighter rein, making no claims for which concrete evidence cannot be provided. And the evidence at her disposal is thin: the meagre documentary traces that people’s lives leave behind. Yet she has managed to make the paper trail left by the Soviet bureaucratic apparatus yield up human stories, even if the glimpses offered into the inner lives of the citizens of Stalinist Russia are partial and tentative.

One of Fitzpatrick’s chief themes is the way individuals edited and presented their lives, and their class identities, both to the authorities and to one another. She uncovers citizens who falsified their credentials in order to conceal their bourgeois past, and con-artists who exploited the opportunities provided by the upheaval and chaos that followed the Revolution. Such figures are familiar from early Soviet satire, featuring most famously in Ilf and Petrov’s wonderful novels The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf, in which the landscape of 1920s Russia is dotted with ‘the false grandsons of Karl Marx, the non-existent nephews of Friedrich Engels, the brothers of Lunacharsky, and as a last resort descendants of the famous anarchist Prince Kropotkin’. Fitzpatrick’s study sets out to find the real-life counterparts of these fictional con-artists. Her convincing demonstration of just how inefficient and porous the Soviet bureaucracy was is a useful corrective to the stereotype of the monolithic totalitarian state. The system was shaky until the repressive machinery was put in place, but to some extent it remained shaky throughout the Soviet period. For anyone unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the security apparatus there was little hope; but in general the system was nowhere near as uncompromising and impenetrable as modern Western state bureaucracies can be. However labyrinthine Russian bureaucracy is and was, there has always been a sense in which it is biddable: ‘If it’s forbidden, but you really want to, then you can’ – so the Russian saying goes.

The Stalinist regime was both theatrical and anti-theatrical. It paid constant attention to its own stage management, and suffered from a persistent fear that its citizens might be simulating their loyalties. There is something self-perpetuating about this kind of paranoia and the struggle to eradicate its legacy continues to this day. Fitzpatrick’s concept of imposture could be used as a way of examining not only Soviet society but also the Soviet regime: a regime obsessed not only with unmasking its enemies but with masking itself. The workings of the innermost Soviet elite were organised along strict principles of secrecy. The word konspiratsiya denoted a set of measures taken to guarantee state secrets and state security. The Soviet definition of a ‘state secret’ was exceptionally broad, and the demands of konspiratsiya made claims on librarians, economic statisticians, sports teams and ballet troupes travelling abroad, as well as on producers of street maps or telephone directories.

The pervasiveness of konspiratsiya in Soviet official parlance was in part a hallmark of the Bolshevik Party’s formative years in the underground. The first generation of Soviet leaders used pseudonyms in order to evade the tsarist secret police, but never discarded them even when the need for them had passed. Perhaps, at an unconscious level, the Bolshevik leaders saw themselves as presiding over an impostor regime: certainly, they appear to have feared that the population over which they ruled might see them as impostors. The leadership’s obsession with ‘enemies’ makes more sense in the light of this general secrecy, those ingrained habits of konspiratsiya and subterfuge which party life never really lost.

Only secret police had official sanction to mask their authentic selves. They patrolled the boundaries between outward behaviour and inner thoughts, between real and false friends; they were the chief executors of the Soviet fantasy of creating a new human being, free from artifice, in whom all ambiguity and conflict would finally be erased. Unlike an ordinary citizen, the secret policeman was allowed to cross borders and move between different worlds in different guises; in the early decades of Soviet power, this meant moving among the members of the dying classes, monitoring and hastening their demise. It was said that one of the perils of the job was the possibility of being contaminated by contact with the ‘filth and vileness of the old world’, as one 1936 newspaper article put it. The secret policeman was meant to be able to see through the masks: Soviet propaganda held that people’s ‘souls’ were transparent to the gaze of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka.

Ostensibly, the secret police acted in the interests of greater transparency: more often they were responsible for muddying the waters. They specialised in setting up façades, in creating worlds and scenarios which then took on a life of their own. Provocateurs gave virtuoso performances as covert opponents of the Soviet regime. Half a century later, the founder of US counter-intelligence, James Jesus Angleton, was nearly unhinged by his study of the ‘classic’ deception operations mounted by Soviet intelligence in its early days; it was from them that he derived his view of what he called the ‘wilderness of mirrors’ – the ‘secret world’ of Cold War spying. The Soviet side arguably played the decisive role in establishing the enduring theatricality of international espionage, with its bizarre props and ritualised conventions. This dimension of Soviet life is muted in Fitzpatrick’s account, possibly because she is reluctant to accept the caricature of the omniscient and omnipotent Soviet secret police of Cold War propaganda. But the massive and powerful secret police system, inefficient and crude as it often was, is an essential part of the backdrop to the stories that Fitzpatrick tells.

In Western historiography, there is often ambivalence on the issue of the Stalinist terror, and on Soviet state repression more broadly. Historians reacting against distorted or sensationalist images of Stalinist society, whether handed down by Cold Warriors for propaganda purposes, or circulating in mass culture for money-making ones, sometimes regard a focus on terror and repression as automatically suspect. Such attitudes are partly a residue of the ideology-driven historical debates of decades past, in which social historians of the revisionist school, of which Fitzpatrick was a pioneering figure, had to fight to justify themselves in the face of fierce criticism and occasional vilification. As a consequence, these historians can seem blinkered to the suffering of the people whose history they are writing. This is sometimes true of Fitzpatrick’s work, as in her faintly depreciatory use of the term ‘victim’ or ‘victim-focused’ history. Fitzpatrick strives to avoid moralising and mawkishness in her writing, which may make for rigorous scholarship, but also may entail sacrifices.

A case in point is her treatment of the practice of denunciation. Here she tests one of the key tenets of the ‘totalitarianist’ approach to Soviet history: namely, that the regime led to, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, the ‘atomisation’ of society, encouraging its citizens to betray one another to the secret police, thereby poisoning even the closest relationships. An example often invoked is that of the official cult surrounding the child-informer Pavlik Morozov, who betrayed his father to the Stalinist secret police and was held up as a role-model for Soviet children. In Comrade Pavlik,[*] Catriona Kelly showed that Pavlik’s story was largely fictional, but it made for excellent anti-Soviet propaganda: it seemed to provide evidence that the child-informers of Orwell’s 1984 were a reality in the USSR and that the totalitarian regime had infiltrated the family itself.

Popular imaginings of how denunciation worked in Stalinist Russia are put to one side in Fitzpatrick’s analysis, as she looks at the archival evidence from the 1930s. She warns against confusing Soviet propaganda with actual practice. The evidence she has uncovered suggests that denunciation of one family member by another was rare. She has also discovered a striking number of instances of individuals risking their lives by pleading to the authorities for the release of arrested family members. Moreover, Soviet propaganda aimed at destigmatising collaboration with the secret police failed to erode the traditional revulsion that collaboration inspired in most Russians.

Fitzpatrick seeks to debunk the popular view of Stalinist Russia as a society torn apart by denunciations and monstrous betrayals. She is scrupulous in avoiding the double standards which she sees as characteristic of much Western writing; but this leads her to take up strange positions. She wants to show that Stalinist Russia was ‘by no means unique’ in its reliance on denunciation, and emphasises that ‘denunciation is a phenomenon of everyday life that exists in every society,’ in spite of the ‘tone of confident moral superiority’ found in most English-language commentary on the practice in totalitarian states. She points out the ways in which similar practices in liberal democracies are made more palatable by dressing them up with euphemisms; and makes a provocative analogy with contemporary ‘whistle-blowing’ in the United States. She sets out to illuminate Stalinist practice by examining it from unexpected angles: we are told, for example, that denunciation of wrongdoing by Soviet officials was ‘conceived as a kind of popular monitoring of bureaucracy that was also a form of democratic political participation’.

As Fitzpatrick points out, the Soviet project of making a civic virtue of collaboration with the secret police was a spectacular failure. Popular attitudes towards these practices often remained contemptuous. The Christian notion that betrayal was a sin retained its hold, as did the traditions of the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia and oppositional movements, which saw solidarity in the face of the repressive state as a virtue. If anything, these traditional values may have been strengthened by the experience of living under a police state that was far more intrusive and powerful than the tsarist one had ever been.

But the fact that this aspect of the Soviet project manifestly failed is less important than we might assume. History-writing at both ends of the spectrum – whether focused on debunking the myth of the secret police’s omniscience, or on showing that denunciation led to the moral degradation of Russian society – has tended to miss the point. The question is not whether the secret police’s use of informers was efficient: clearly, it wasn’t. We have now seen enough declassified material to have an understanding of just how petty and useless the information tended to be. Nor is it a matter of whether Soviet citizens really swallowed the crude propaganda that offered up images of the police informer as a moral ideal, for the sake of which they would be prepared to betray relatives and friends: clearly, the vast majority did not. Something quite different is at stake.

‘Unlike the Jacobins,’ Fitzpatrick writes, ‘the Bolsheviks did not philosophise about the principle of denunciation, but they instinctively adopted the practice, just as every other sect of revolutionary or religious enthusiasts has done over the ages. There can be no secrets in the community of saints.’ In fact, the Bolsheviks did debate these issues at some length in the early post-Revolutionary years, and they also left written evidence of the intentions and rationale underlying the practice. The minutes of a 1921 meeting of the secret section of the secret police – one of the long-suppressed archival documents unearthed in the brief thaw of the early 1990s – outline the strategies to be employed in the recruitment of informers among the clergy. They note that in addition to the material and monetary benefits to be offered to informer-priests, these individuals would be ‘bound to us also in a different respect, to be precise, by the fact that he will be an eternal slave, fearing exposure of his activities’. In other words, the Bolsheviks were acutely aware of the possibilities that such relationships opened up. Manipulating a fear of being exposed as a police collaborator was an instrument of official policy from very early on.

‘Thought control’ was a fiction, but so is Fitzpatrick’s ‘community of saints’ who had no secrets from one another. The criminal underworld might be a better place to look for metaphors: denunciation created partners in crime. The moral ambiguity surrounding collaboration with the security apparatus was something that the regime turned to its advantage. It opened up a space for the institutionalised blackmail at which the KGB later became so proficient, with its systematic gathering and wielding of a huge body of secret kompromat – ‘compromising materials’ in Sovietspeak – that was housed in the KGB archives. In the right circumstances, a denunciation could be used against its author as much as its target. The regime’s cynical exploitation of the stigma that attached to its own collaborators was the clearest symptom of the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet system.

[*] Reviewed in the LRB by Sheila Fitzpatrick, 3 November 2005.