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.

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