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Parler de soi sous Staline

Brigitte Studer
Berthold Unfried
Irène Herrmann

ΙII. Autocritique

5. By Deeds Alone: Origins of Individualization in Soviet Russia

Oleg Kharkhordin

Texte intégral

1Individualization of the population under the Stalinist regime is a relatively well established topic in Russian studies. Researchers of the two formerly dominant schools in interpreting Soviet historical experience – the totalitarians and the revisionists – seem to agree on this point, even if they contradict each other on most other points. Thus, Raymond Bauer, echoing Hannah Arendt’s thesis that totalitarianism was based on atomization of the masses, stated in his classic 1952 study that the Soviet concept of man was characterized by “responsibility, rationalism, individualism, all seeming contradictions in a totalitarian society” (Bauer 1952: 177). Similarly, works of revisionist historiography appearing some thirty years later noted the extreme individualization of the workforce which was brought about by the Stakhanovite movement (Kuromiya 1988; Siegelbaum 1988). Donald Filtzer recently summed up the shared beliefs of all, perhaps, when he wrote that “economic and political life in the Soviet Union became characterized by extreme individualism, for it was only as individuals [...] that people could function” (Filtzer 1992: 125).

  • 1 Brzezinski produced a remarkable classic work in this respect (Brzezinski 1956), providing a functi (...)

2In this article the problem of atomization or individualization in Soviet culture during the same period will be tackled albeit from a different angle. An analysis is first made of the Communist Party’s drive for “the individual approach” in the 1930s, specifically concentrating on the small practices and techniques of individualization. Later, some considerations on the historical origins of these practices will be discussed. In particular, certain parallels between Bolshevik purging procedures and Orthodox church practices of self-revelation by deeds will be stressed. Primary data come from the printed instructions for the Party purges between 1921 and 1935. However, in contrast to previous researchers who studied them with the aim of uncovering the deep essential economic or political processes that underly the appearance of these documents,1 this analysis will remain on the surface level through trying to take these published sources seriously at their face value.

Stalinist Individualization

3Party discourse in the 1930s demonstrates a steady increase of attention to the “individual approach” (individual’nyj podkhod) towards Party members. The origin of this tendency is usually dated to Stalin’s “New Tasks” speech in June 1931, in which he lashed out against “depersonalization” in the use of equipment, and called for clearly defined personal responsibility in order to ensure the most efficient use of scarce machinery. Scholars register an insistent “urgency of human problems” in his speeches of 1931-35 (Bauer 1952: 48), culminating in the famous “cadres decide everything” statement in 1935. This speech provided a canonical version of the injunction to be attentive to each common wo/man, and to stop treating her/him in a “soulless and bureaucratic manner.”

  • 2 He offers, however, an interpretation that is different from the present one.
  • 3 “Ob oshibkakh partorganizatsii pri iskljuchenii kommunistov iz partii” [On Mistakes of Party Organi (...)

4The subsequent years of the Great Terror (1935-38) witnessed a real offensive in the Party press to urge this “individual approach” upon Party members. Reproducing the discourse of these Party documents, J. Arch Getty was the first to register a “direct line of succession” of six important Party resolutions – in three years! – on implementing the “individual approach” (Getty 1985: 187).2 Thus, in June 1935, the Central Committee criticized the leadership of the Western administrative region for mishandling the verification of a Party documents campaign in which the “individual approach” had been neglected. Then came the criticism of the Saratov leaders for the same violations. In March 1936, the Plenum of the Party Control Committee vigorously attacked those who “subverted” the Party resolution on the careful handling of the appeals of previously expelled Party members, followed by the special Central Committee letter on appeals in June 1936. The famous resolution of the February-March 1937 Plenum of the Central Committee that unleashed the height of terror in the Party was accompanied by speeches from both Zhdanov and Stalin, once again calling for a most meticulous “individual approach” as opposed to a “formal-bureaucratic” one. Finally, the resolution of the January 1938 Plenum of the Central Committee on violations during the mass purges blamed them on continuous local deviations from the line of successive central Party resolutions on the “individual approach” (KPSS ν rezolucijakh... 19859, 7: 8-10).3

5All these resolutions took the local Party cadres to task for conducting the business of the purge behind closed doors, as well as for the resulting mass expulsions from the Party. The resolutions implied that some formal rationale was employed by the local leadership to justify mass expulsions, the usual pretext being charges of not showing up at a Party meeting or ignorance of some paragraph of a Party statute. Speeches and directives coming out of Moscow, on the contrary, continually insisted on the need to concentrate on the personality of each screened or expelled communist, while the local leaders seem to have consistently ignored these exhortations and resorted to the tested practice of expulsion based on “formal-bureaucratic” criteria.

  • 4 “Itogi proverki partdokumentov” [The Results of the Verification of Party Cards], resolution of the (...)
  • 5 “O vozobnovlenii priema novykh chlenov v VKP (b)” [On Re-starting the Admission of New Members into (...)
  • 6 “Instruktsija ο novom prieme” [Instruction on the New Admissions] in RKP (b).

6To get a more complete picture of the extent of the “individualization drive” of 1935-38, a series of other measures must be added to the succession invoked by the January 1938 resolution. For example, an instruction on the exchange of Party documents in 1936 ordered secretaries of the Party district committees to personally hand over each new Party card after a member individually filled out the three new registration forms in the secretary’s presence (Lenin i Stalin... 1941, 2: 874).4 Before 1936, unidentified clerks handled the issuing and exchange of Party cards. This resulted in widespread opportunities to illegally obtain a Party card, thus including many “dead souls” on the Party rolls, which resulted in the fact that many secretaries were not aware of the actual size of their organizations. There was also a novel stress on strictly individual Party recruitment in 1936 (Lenin i Stalin... 1941,2:877).5 Heretofore the procedure had been rather collectivist. In the early 1920s, a list of those joining the Party would be hung on the wall for public scrutiny. If no denunciations arrived by a certain time, the whole list would be voted on at the next meeting of the Party cell and then handed over to the district committee for approval (K proverke... 1921).6 Apparently this practice persisted through the 1920s until the Central Committee finally decided to abruptly end it.

7Another sign of growing individualization was revealed in the Party reelection campaign of spring 1937, when, dutifully following the decisions of the February-March Plenum, Party cells and committees engaged in a “strictly individual” discussion of each candidate to be elected (Zhdanov 1937: 29). Finally, in order to achieve the political education of Party members, the Central Committee resolution of November 1938 demanded that political study circles be replaced by “individual study” of the Short Course of the History of the VKP(b), Stalin’s long-awaited catechism of Communism.

  • 7 Stephen Kotkin links the verification and exchange of documents campaigns with the onslaught of “th (...)

8This abrupt individualization of attention to every single Communist in the mid-1930s had its historical reasons.7 However, for this exposition the “why,” rooted in an historical context, is less important than the “how” of this intensification of attention to the individual. Indeed, corollary to the suddenly increased doctrinal attention to the individual, there was another – generally unnoticed and therefore more interesting – change, namely a change in the doctrinally required practices for screening the individual. Thus, Rudzutak, a chairman of the Central Control Commission, reporting on the 1933 purge at the Seventeenth Party Congress, clearly stated that the peculiarity distinguishing the last purge (the general purge of 1929) from the previous ones, was that for the first time the main emphasis was put on “how Communists revealed themselves in their deeds (na dele projavljali sebja) as really active Bolsheviks [...], to what extent each member of the Party consciously takes part in socialist construction.” (XVII s’ezd... 1934: 285). His words imply that “revelation by deeds” was becoming the new method of verification of a Communist’s true identity.

  • 8 “Instruktsija po organizatsii i provedeniju general’ noj chistki i proverke rjadov VKP (b)” [Instru (...)

9A comparison of the paragraphs of purge instructions from 1929 and 1933 dealing with individual verification procedures illuminates this point. The protocols of personal verification which purge commissions compiled according to the instructions of 1929 concentrated on the past – one’s socalled “social origin”, service in the Red or White armies, main occupation before 1917, membership in other parties – and only then proceeded to current Party assignments and any violations of Party ethics, membership in the opposition, or ties with “alien elements” (Jaroslavskij 1929: 153).8 Furthermore, the 1929 instructions provided for some differential treatment of worker and peasant Communists and those currently in office, and contained an insistent demand to be careful with those at the bottom of the Party hierarchy. Workers and peasants, conscientiously working in their posts, even if they failed to fulfill their Party tasks, could not be considered “passive” and expelled on such grounds (Jaroslavskij 1929: 149-150).

  • 9 “Instruktsija oblastnym, raionnym i nizovym komissijam po chistke partii” [Instruction to the Provi (...)

10In comparison, the instructions from 1933 dropped the class differentiation altogether. Everybody was to be checked for demonstrated zeal (aktivnost'), and could be expelled for “passivity”. Even more interesting was the fact that the protocols of personal verification with their genealogies of individual lives were also dropped. What remained were protocols of expulsion that concentrated on the misdeeds of the last 2-3 years, with required documentary proof attached. Some novel types of cardinal sins (e.g., participation in factional activities) were added to the list of misdeeds as well (O chistke... 1933: § 17).9

11In brief, it may be suggested that between 1929 and 1933 a “formal genealogy” of social origin was replaced by a “revelation by deeds” as the general method of arriving at the knowledge of an individual. A more finely detailed description of these methods of identification is important. According to Sheila Fitzpatrick, tracking down a “genealogy of origin” was the prevalent method of identifying a Communist in the 1920s. Since this category was tightly linked to the concept of class, it defined voting rights and political status and therefore was given great attention in that decade. In difficult cases certain ad hoc procedures for defining social origin emerged and solidified. For example, as a rule of thumb, seven years of prerevolutionary factory experience or volunteer service in the Red Army sufficed to demonstrate the “proletarian consciousness” in a worker under consideration (Fitzpatrick 1991: 15). In addition to Fitzpatrick’s account on the vicissitudes of this method of identification, it must be noted that in March 1928, the Central Control Commission finally adopted a resolution to institutionalize this widespread practice. According to this resolution, a given Party cell decided on the “social origin” of its members after a consideration of their predominant labor activity before joining the Party; this decision of the cell had to be approved by a higher body (Spravochnik rabotnika... 19313: 152-153). Classifying a person according to the formal criteria of his or her birth, previous jobs, and memberships seems to have been eagerly supported by the masses. Lynn Viola, describing a spontaneous purge of village soviets during the collectivization drive, notes that “political and social genealogy appears to have become a national pastime in the countryside” in the witch-hunt atmosphere of the late 1920s (Viola 1993:72).

  • 10 “O nedostatkakh partijnoj raboty i merakh likvidatsii trotzkistskikh i inykh dvurushnikov” [On the (...)

12However, it is surprising to see that in a period of only four or five years the Party leadership changed its mind completely and demanded in the 1933 purge instructions that Communists now should be evaluated according to their revolutionary deeds demonstrated in recent years rather than according to their “social origin”. This new technique of a public review of conscientious deeds performed by an individual is rather easy to describe, inasmuch as it was urged a bit later by Stalin himself in his speech at the February-March Plenum of 1937. Stalin maintained that the main enemy now was a double-dealer with clean party documents, and formal controls would not reveal him. This enemy replaced the previous enemies who were easily located by their social origin or by their former participation in factions and opposition groups. The new type of enemy was “one of us” who defected and became a spy working to destroy the Socialist Motherland. Of course, Stalin was more concerned about “unmasking the enemies” than about the new screening technique, but he asserted it inadvertently, while simply repeating the demand of the 1933 purge instructions: only close scrutiny of the recently demonstrated deeds of each Party member might reveal his or her true face (Stalin 1967, 1: 211,232-233).10

  • 11 “Instruktsija po proverke i chistke lichnogo sostava RKP na predprijatijakh” [Instruction on Screen (...)

13However, positing a radical change in the methods of arriving at knowledge of a given individual, as reflected in the contrast between the purge instructions from 1929 and 1933, runs the risk of oversimplifying historical complexity. Such an assertion needs be qualified in two important respects. First, to be accurate, neither 1929 nor 1933 marked a decisive radical break in the techniques of verifying Communist identity. Both were at most landmarks in an on-going transition, which first spread to affect the top, and only later, the bottom of the Party. Thus, the identification of a Communist by his or her “conscientious deeds” existed already in the 1920s, but it had a rather marginal status and applied only in very special cases. For example, the purge instructions of 1921, the first ever to be published, surprise the reader by the differential treatment accorded to different social groups (workers, peasants, soldiers, officers, and Communist officials). The contrast between the treatment required for workers “from the shop-floor” and for Communists in office is most stark. Workers were not supposed to be subjected to any specific individual review unless a personal denunciation against them was made at the purge meeting. In the latter case an accused worker was required to immediately counter the allegations, restore his or her reputation, and thus alleviate the burden of deliberation for the purging commission. No written documents were required for an individual worker to pass the purge (K proverke... 1921: 10-12).11

  • 12 “Instruktsija po peresmotru, proverke i chistke partii chlenov RKP, rabotajushchikh ν sovetskikh uc (...)

14Communists working in Soviet offices, by contrast, had to supply their biographies – verified by two other cell members – and also three recommendations from other Communists with at least a three-year term of membership in the Party, which could then be evaluated by deeds done and how a given Communist “has revealed himself in public and personal life”. The purging commission was simultaneously ordered to check into this official’s everyday life at home. For those Communists whose office directly supervised some workers, an inquiry into these workers’opinions of the official was also compulsory. The introduction to the 1921 purge instructions gave the rationale for such thorough verification procedures for Communist officials, the point being to purge all individuals in this sphere who might be suspect in the slightest degree, since they were particularly susceptible to corruption (K proverke... 1921: 14, 2).12 Thus, it would seem, the 1930s simply made applicable to everyone what had hitherto existed only as a means of assurance in difficult cases, in which the certainty of possession of the revolutionary self was essential.

15There is also a second problem upon asserting that a radical change took place in the methods of arriving at the knowledge of a given individual. It seems accurate to maintain that the “genealogy of social origin” and the “revelation by deeds” represent Weberian ideal types that rarely appear in historical phenomena in such clear form as they do in the 1929 and 1933 purge instructions. Apart from these two contrasting methods of establishing knowledge of an individual, there existed many mixed and transitional forms that harbored elements of both. This was related to the fact that outside the Party, change in the methods of screening an individual was not as fast – and demand for change was not as steadfast – as within the Party. Stephen Kotkin, for example, describes “reporting on one’s work history” as a primary individualization technique among the workers of Magnitogorsk that pervaded all official documentation (Kotkin 1995: 215-225). This technique of identification through personal work history is very interesting, since it not only concerned Communists but was actually used to describe broader categories of the population. However, the actual examples of work histories cited by Kotkin show the transitory nature of these accounts in terms of the methods of individualization employed. They combine both the elements of the genealogy of social origin and the elements of revelation by deeds.

16Thus the personnel cards of the deputies of the Magnitogorsk city Soviet in the 1930s are most representative of the formal genealogical approach. They state name, sex, nationality, membership in the Party, “social ancestry” (no doubt “social origin” in the sense of the same Russian term used throughout this paper), shockworker (yes or no), service in the Red Army, place of work and home address (Kotkin 1995: 502). We can already see that shock work, typically a feature of a work effort demonstrated in the immediately preceding years, has already crept into this predominantly genealogical account. In comparison to these personnel cards, individual kharakteristiki of the Stakhanovites, issued in 1938, put more stress on revelation by deeds. Along with such genealogical features as the time of commencement of a working career or membership in the Party, they also included such items as the average percentage of the fulfillment of production norms, as well as demonstrated public activism. Finally, the list of workers who were allotted “shock food rations” in Magnitogorsk in 1933-34, was predominantly compiled on the basis of the revelation-by-deeds technique. Apart from the usual records of membership and current profession, this list also included the following information concerning each worker: instances of absenteeism, participation in production conferences (which aim at heightening the productivity of labor), study or course attendance, proposals on rationalization of socialist production, percentages of norm fulfillment, and the kinds of socialist competition entered (Kotkin 1995: 502, 216). It seems that the revelation-by-deeds technique gradually spread and squeezed out the residues of the genealogical approach, not only in identifying Party members, but also among the general populace – first the Communists, then the Stakhanovites, then just ordinary workers-, the technique trickled from top to bottom.

17It is likely that the 1937 Party re-election campaign and the self-criticism sessions that followed it supplied a particularly strong impulse to the spread of the revelation-by-deeds technique. During this campaign, the Stalinist dictum “by deeds alone” – solis actis, virtually a parody on Luther’s sola fide – previously shared only by Stalin and a few zealous Communists at the top of the Party hierarchy until the mid-1930s, was now heralded as a universal doctrinal requirement and implemented in order to reveal enemies by their deeds. This led to long discussions of the activities of many a leader during the re-election meetings intended to individually review each candidate. In the ensuing battle of denunciation between bosses and the rank-and-file, the loosing side had to leave the battlefield exposed as “enemies of the people”, with flocks of alleged collaborators of the denounced enemies soon following suit in the self-criticism sessions that raged through the summer and fall of 1937.

18Of course, the outcome of each battle depended on the organizational assets of the local Party leaders and secret police chiefs, the firmness of their entrenchment and the availability of connections to the top Kremlin leadership, their ability to stifle “the voice of the masses” which Moscow so insistently elicited in print, the presence or absence of emissaries from the center at a given re-election or self-criticism meeting, the dynamics of discursive exchange at such meetings, etc. Of course the scapegoats targeted by these meetings, and their numerous “collaborators” uncovered a bit later, did not comprise all the victims of mass terror. As other evidence suggests, the NKVD arrested millions on trumped up charges under pressure from the top Party leadership (Kotkin 1995: 334, 579). But the notable chaotic and snowballing character of mass terror cannot be explained only by the fantasies of the secret police agencies inventing connections between alleged conspirators. The snowballing effect was also achieved because the search for enemies during the 1937 self-criticism campaign employed the mechanism of revelation by deeds, with denunciation itself becoming a “deed”, that is, an act of speech that demonstrated either a true Bolshevik selfor a traitorous self. It was possible to be denounced by others for not having denounced enough or for having denounced too much, for having recklessly overlooked a working neighbor as an enemy or for leveling irresponsible libelous charges against honest Communists. In other words, the search for deeds which revealed an enemy also helped to effectively transform the Party during the spring and summer of 1937 into a huge slaughterhouse, with sheep fighting under external pressure to decide who would be sacrificed in the next turn of the meat-grinder, the basis for decision being “deeds” performed during the previous turn.

  • 13 Some explanations imply that revelation by deeds was employed in both unleashing and curtailing ter (...)

19The mechanism of “revelation by deeds” that contributed to this avalanche-like quality of mass terror was not challenged even when the terror abated.13 On the contrary, the practice of “revelation by deeds” came to constitute a part of the pragmatic bedrock of mature Soviet society. After 1939 it was imposed on the whole populace rather than on the Communists alone, and institutionalized in such familiar and widespread rites as discussions of each individual’s kharakteristika by the collective; or, in a slightly modified form, an evaluation of an individual’s contribution to a joint effort at regular meetings of workers’ brigades; or compulsory review of each individual pupil at the public gathering during the annual Lenin Pass ceremony in each Soviet high school, and the like. There is no doubt but what these procedures became routinized and almost meaningless by the end of the Soviet epoch. However, they contributed to the Soviet citizens’ background understanding of how people naturally came to know who they were as individuals – those wishing to get this knowledge of themselves had to subject their deeds to evaluation by the relevant community.

20In summary, “revelation by deeds” became the supreme authorized method of Soviet individualization in the 1930s. By the 1933 purge, “revelation by deeds” had been doctrinally fixed as the way to arrive at the knowledge of the individual self, and attempts to implement such revelation in practice were carried out in successive campaigns through the years 1933-1938. Every Bolshevik was to pass this individualizing rite, officially either in the purge of 1933 or in the exchange of Party documents of 1936, informally in the frenzy of meetings to foster mutual vigilance, develop self-criticism, or re-elect leaders between 1935 and 1938.

21Kotkin has recently argued that the ideological revival of the Party in the mid-1930s was one of the chief preconditions for the unleashing of mass terror (Kotkin 1995: 301). One may suggest that this revival of ideological purity implied an evaluation of each Communist in terms of his or her effort in socialist construction. Aiming at evaluating the purity of each, the Communists subjected themselves to an intensive individualizing procedure – a public discussion of each individual’s deeds – that later became the pattern of individualization for the whole Soviet population. The practice of revelation by deeds came to constitute the background against which the phenomena of everyday life of millions of Soviet people made sense, thus enabling these people to talk about their individual life experiences in a very particular way, intelligible to all of them, but hardly understandable to those Western observers who did not share in the same individualizing practice.

The Practice of Oblichenie: Denouncing the Sins and Publicizing the Self

22This method of self-revelation was so obvious to many and was so readily adopted because the revelation of self, as proposed by the Bolsheviks, was predicated on an age-old Russian tradition, namely that of oblichenie, a practice of the Orthodox Christian Church for publicizing sins and accusing the sinners. As will be shown, the Bolsheviks simply recast this traditional practice, part of the heritage of Russian culture, by stressing its publicizing aspect. Because it was thus re-focused, the recast practice was not simply replicated, but altered; yet the alterations involved no radical break with the past.

23The verb oblichat’ pervaded the discourse of the purges, its dominant meaning at that time being “to accuse, to condemn, to denounce”. The practice of oblichenie (the noun derived from the verb oblichat’) recurrently appeared whenever accusation of misdeeds, criticism of sins or denunciation of a comrade occurred during the collective deliberation concerning a given individual during the purging process. The Ushakov dictionary, published during the Great Terror, registered the following dominant meaning of the verb oblichat’: “to expose, unmask (deception; some foul, negative phenomena) by telling the truth and condemning” and gave the following examples of usage: “to expose abuses”, “to denounce bribe-takers”, “to condemn political enemies” (Ushakov 1934-1940, 3: 658). Examples of the definitive usage of the noun oblichenie came from Lenin’s revolutionary manifesto What Is to Be Done? (1902).

  • 14 See, e. g., this term used in Dmitrij Pisarev’s famous essay “Realisty” (Pisarev 1956, 3: 8).

24This was hardly accidental. In this classic pamphlet, the title of which precisely replicates that of the revolutionary novel by Chernyshevsky, Lenin attempted to effect a certain transformation of the practice of oblichenie, which the Bolsheviks inherited from the Russian radicals of the nineteenth century. The line of succession from the radical intellectuals of the 1860s and 70s to the Bolsheviks is well documented in literature, with doctrinal and biographical continuities usually stressed (Haimson 1955). This discussion, however, focuses only on the practical continuity relevant to this study. With their attention to oblichitel’naja proza,14 a genre of critical secular literature which appeared after the Crimean War of 1853-56 and sought to reveal the crimes of the government, the radicals supplied Lenin with an obvious means of revolutionary activity. Lenin recast the practice of oblichenie, already in the stock of revolutionary techniques available at the time, and made it the central practice of Bolshevik tactics. The Bolsheviks were to denounce the crimes of the czarist regime, linking all the examples of exploitation together and then reinterpreting singular injustices as instances of one great injustice, revealed according to the Marxist doctrine (Kharkhordin 1997).

  • 15 The editorial board of this journal was correspondingly nicknamed “the Consistory”, the name for th (...)

25There is still a lot of historical research to be done on the actual points of transition of oblichenie practices into Soviet life. At present, it may only be hypothetically suggested that this transition happened at two levels, at the level of elite learning and at the level of popular religiosity. At the elite level, the Bolsheviks picked up the practices of oblichenie from the earlier revolutionary radicals, many of whom – like Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov, the heads of the editorial board of the radical journal Sovremennik15 – were sons of clergymen and thus educated in church seminaries where they learned about the canonical bishop’s duty to reveal the sins of the powerful and to defend justice against their encroachments. These seminary-educated revolutionaries were also taught the skills of fighting competing creeds – the other facet of oblichenie which the Bolsheviks later practiced so well against their other socialist rivals and thereafter institutionalized in their purges.

  • 16 There are also curious direct connections between sectarians and the Bolsheviks: the founding Secon (...)

26But, more importantly, it seems that the common people in nineteenth-century Russia were accustomed to the practices of oblichenie in its mundane, lay version through the activities of numerous virtuosi of popular religiosity, be it the monk-elders or the outlawed but numerous fools for Christ, or through the lives of millions of peasant schismatics and sectarians of different brands, most of whom waged the war of oblichenie against the enthroned Antichrist.16

27The new institution of the mass purge which the Bolsheviks tried imposing on the populace brought elite and popular practices of denunciation of sins together. When the Bolsheviks institutionalized oblichenie, they tapped into the widespread sources of righteous lay critique, now, however, pointed at each individual rather than at singular transgressors or abstract injustices. But doing so, they also recast oblichenie. They stressed the publicizing of the self inherent in this practice rather than accusations of misdeeds, thus bringing this long-overlooked aspect of oblichenie into the foreground once again.

  • 17 Dela, a ne slova, oblichajut cheloveka, pokazyvajut podlinnoe lico i lichnost’ ego.

28Indeed, oblichenie, which figured so heavily in “unmasking” or “exposing” enemies in the 1930s, extensively relied on this other aspect. As the second, and perhaps a more ancient and profound meaning of the term oblichenie – “to reveal”, “to expose” – might suggest, it was publication or, better, revelation of the self that became the end result of the individualization procedure that many people underwent during the purges. Ushakov illustrated this meaning with a quote from Pushkin, but, perhaps, nobody captured this meaning more felicitously than Vladimir Dal’in an example of usage in his famous nineteenth-century Dictionary of the Living Russian Language: “Deeds, and not words reveal the man, indicate his real face and personality.”17 (Dal’1980 5, 3: 596). Indeed, this is very close to the Stalinist insistence on revealing the real person by his or her deeds. In this second sense, the word oblichenie may be said to almost literally mean “enpersonation” (ob-lichenie), the endowment of someone with lico (face or juridical person) or lichnost’(personality).

29This revelatory aspect of oblichenie supplied the means of knowing oneself for millions of Party members. Consider, for example, the following episode. An autobiography of the shock worker Nikita Izotov, My Life – My Work, published in 1934, and one of the first of its genre, merited a special supplement. Pasted on the inside of the back cover of the book was an exact copy of the front page of the newspaper Mechanized Mine of April 4, 1933, entirely devoted to Izotov undergoing the purge. The narrative informs us that the hall was filled to the limit because everybody wanted to know the secrets of Izotov’s heroism. After he recounted his biography, questions about his current activities were posed from the presidium and from the hall. Izotov answered them, giving details about the secrets of his mastery. Then his disciples spoke about their teacher. The Party secretary spoke, summing up the meeting, and characterizing Izotov as “a teacher and leader”, and giving back Izotov his full fellowship within the Party, accompanied by the sound of the audience’s applause.

30The constitutive element of this ritual, oblichenie as the publicizing of a heroic self, is now easily seen. The purge, of course, might have ended differently, and Izotov might have been revealed as a traitor and wrecker. In both cases, however, the publicizing of the self (of the heroic or treacherous kind, respectively) would have occurred. Most interestingly, the composition of the book itself embodies the process of oblichenie conceived as publicizing of the self. The really curious detail is that Izotov’s autobiographical account had to be published along with an insert which carried a public seal of approval of Izotov’s self. It is as though his individuality might not have emerged simply by means of autobiography, but had to be supported by the purge record. Individualization occurred not so much through Izotov’s having written a self-narrative, but through testing this narrative against a public discussion of Izotov’s deeds. For the majority of others who, unlike Izotov, were not accustomed to writing self-narratives, the purge procedure possibly represented the first occasion of their own public revelation, and thus, of the very appearance of their selves.

  • 18 Figures from XVII s’ezd... 1934: 287.

31Few authors, if any, notice the individualizing component in the atrocious purge rituals, which is demonstrated by the insert in the Izotov book. Indeed, if 17 % of the Party members were expelled in the most extensive universal purge of 1933-34 and 6.6 % were demoted to the lower status of “sympathizers”, this also meant that 76.4 % or 850,000 of them were affirmed (even if only temporarily) as possessing a revolutionary self.18 And all of them, those assured and those disappointed – the elect and the reprobate, one might say in the language of a different epoch – were subjected to the practice of revealing a certain self.

Public and Private Confession

32Contrasting oblichenie – a practice of coming to know oneself through submitting one’s own deeds to public review – with a private autobiographical narrative as a method of self-cognition shows another interesting feature of this practice. Revelation by deeds was alien to solitary introspection or private confession – methods of self-knowing prevalent in the West – but it had been central for Eastern Christianity for ages. In effect, the Stalinist intensification of oblichenie only reinvigorated these Orthodox Christian practices of the public knowing of oneself.

33In his sketch of the origins of techniques of self-knowledge in Christianity, Foucault distinguished between exomologesis and exaugoresis, terms signifying two distinct ways of arriving at self-knowledge. The first signified the early Christian ritual of public penance (also called publicatio sui in Latin and best described by such authors as Tertullian); the second applied to auricular confession, practiced by some early monks following the precepts of the founder of Western monasticism, John Cassian (Foucault 1993: 223). Foucault suggests that in the West, private confession eclipsed public penance as the practical way of coming to know oneself. After the Lateran Council introduced compulsory annual auricular confession in 1215, and the Council of Trent attempted to intensify the technique of private confession further in 1551, confession became central for Western culture. In the History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that once confession spilled over the walls of the monasteries, where it primarily was practiced in the Middle Ages, and the wider population adopted it to confess the secrets of the fictional entity called “sex”, the Western individual was produced. Contemporary Western culture bears witness to the current predominance of the method:

“one confesses one’s sins, one confesses one’s thoughts and desires, [...] one sets about telling with the greatest precision what is most difficult to tell; one confesses in public and in private, to one’s parents, to one’s teachers, to one’s doctor, to those one loves; one confesses to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things that it would be impossible to tell anyone else [...]. Western man has become a confessing animal.” (Foucault 1980; 59).

  • 19 See also the introduction to Tentler 1977.
  • 20 This is a slighlty inaccurate but vivid translation of Foucault himself (1993: 213); the original i (...)

34However, the curious practice of publicatio sui, abandoned in the West and described by Foucault as a way of knowing oneself, seems to have encountered a different fate in the Orthodox East. There, in sum, it gave rise to the prevalence of public penance as the means of assuring possession of a Christian self. In tracing this historical development, it is seen that in early Christianity, penance was allowed only once, and was a rather lengthy procedure that lasted several years. Penance in the form of publicatio sui was imposed on anyone who voluntarily confessed his sins and wished to efface them through this ritual (Suvorov 19135: 285).19 The Latin term signified both several years of penitential deeds and the final reconciliatory ritual that involved bodily humiliation and maceration of flesh. Tertullian described it thus: “The penitent wears a hair shirt and ashes. He is wretchedly dressed. He is taken by the hand and led into the church. He prostrates himself before the widows and the priest. He hangs on the skirts of their garments. He kisses their knees.”20 These deeds are necessary, according to Tertullian, in order to testily to the appearance of the new Christian self. However, only by going public, by publicizing one’s self in public penance, can one come to know it: the self is constituted by this special kind of deed. Foucault stressed in his commentary on publicatio sui that penitents in a public ritual had an obligation to manifest, to reveal their new selves to the community. “Publishing one’s sinful self’ was an essential step towards liberating oneself from sin and, in a sense, acquiring a new, true self imbued with Christian conscience (Foucault 1993: 214).

  • 21 See, for example, Almazov 1894, 1: 60. For a contemporary interpretation in English see Halliburton (...)
  • 22 Suvorov 1884: chapter 2. For Western versions of public penance see, for example, Frank 1867: 578-5 (...)

35Historians state that this voluntary and demanding practice declined in both East and West, following a specific episode of clerical mismanagement of voluntary penance in 391 AD in Constantinople.21 However, public penance was codified and imposed since the fourth century by ecclesiastical courts, thus transforming it from a voluntary sacrament to a penal sanction.22 Publicatio sui seems to have entered ancient Russian life exactly in this guise, as a ritual related to church court procedures.

  • 23 This exposition on usage is based on the articles of the words “oblichiti” and “oblichati” in Srezn (...)
  • 24 Sreznevskij 1893-1912, 2: column 521. The last phrase is part of the 34th canon rule of St. Basil t (...)

36The Church Slavonic verb oblichati was most frequently employed in the early Russian church texts to translate three Greek terms: the verbs paradeigmatidzo, demosieuo and elendzo.23 Paradeigmatidzo meant “to point out somebody as a bad, shameful example,” or “to make somebody an object of public ridicule;” the latter usage being more characteristic of the New Testament. Demosieuo was related to the word demos (people) and had a straightforward connotation of publicness. Its meanings include “to convert into public property”, “to make accessible to everyone”, “to popularize”. Latin versions of expressions containing the word oblichenie in the sense of demosieuo are particularly revealing – they relentlessly use words related to the word “public”. These expressions are usually connected to official judgments on sins, that is, with ecclesiastical courts allocating penance. Thus, Sreznevsky gives the following examples from the church canons: “to reveal the falsely written words (oblichati / demosieuesthai / publicari)” and “Our fathers have ruled not to expose adulterous wives (oblichati / demosieuein / publicari)”24 The third Greek term for oblichenie, elendzo, did not necessarily connote publicness, but simply meant “to accuse somebody”, “to scold somebody”, “to criticize”. It directly implied a negative evaluation of a person, a criticism of his or her sins and misdeeds.

37At first it seems rather difficult to find a way through this maze of meanings. However, there is some logic to it It seems plausible that paradeigmatidzo would come closest to the Russian oblichati, insofar as it carries both the connotation of publicness (shared with demosieuo) and the connotation of making an accusation (shared with elendzo). The two remaining Greek verbs simply polarize these two connotations. Thus, oblichenie may be discussed in the sense of demosieuo when wishing to stress the aspect of publicness, and otherwise, in the sense of elendzo, when wishing to stress the interchange between a critic and the object of criticism. As is seen in the analysis of the history of the practice of oblichenie, this lexical distinction – oblichenie as making public vs. oblichenie as criticism – was retained throughout Russian history, but with the accusatory aspect later prevailing over the publicizing aspect.

38Public penance (and the publicizing aspect of oblichenie that accompanied it) did not decline in the East as fast as it did in the West, where it lost most of its rationale after the Lateran Council and the spread of the practice of buying indulgencies. Eve Levin argues that in the typical medieval Russian settlement, confession was private, but penance remained public in order to ensure compliance with the dominant order. Demonstration of penitential zeal supported the status quo (Levin 1989: 299). Indeed, the coexistence of secular and ecclesiastical punishment in the early code of Prince Iaroslav (eleventh century) – in which monetary compensation and deeds of penance were of equal status – was abolished by the fifteenth century. However, no Russian equivalent of indulgences ever developed. Historians note the predominance of public penance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as a means of punishment for the violation of church canons and communal mores. The centrality ofpublic penance persisted well into the Petrine reform period (Popov 1904: 58).

39The Church reform under Peter the Great did not challenge the primacy of public penance. It was reasserted as the dominant practice of ecclesiastical punishment in the Spiritual Reglament in 1722. Peter the Great also allowed public penance to be appointed by secular courts, in such cases, for example, as an inadvertent homicide in the army. One might even say that Peter’s reforms aimed at radicalizing public penance, by demanding public confession as part of the penalty. Feofan Prokopovich, who wrote the Spiritual Reglament, was influenced by German, Pietistic practices of public confession in this document. According to the Reglament, the sinner, in the most difficult cases, had to confess his/her sins in public, answer the questions of the bishop in public and undertake the allocated deeds of penance with diligence and zeal in public. Only then could the sinner again take part in the sacrament of the Eucharist (Popov 1904: 206). However, as suggested by Russian Church historians, public confession never took root because of its clearly German origins (Suvorov, 19135: 289).

40They also noted that the actual use of public penance was diminishing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thereby contributing to the decline in attention to the publicizing aspect of oblichenie. In 1734, the Holy Synod adopted a decision centralizing the imposition of penance (each local decision had to be approved by a higher body), resulting in long delays, and, probably for that reason, in the gradual decline of the practice. The ordinances of 1799 and 1801 allowed substitution of “public” penance in the circle of one’s family for “monastery subordination” and public penance in the local church (Suvorov 1876:220). Nineteenth-century practice is perhaps best captured by an 1852 synodal letter to local priests. Three measures were realistically advised in matters of appointing public penance: the penitent may come to church on Sundays and holidays and perform 25 or more penitential bows; he may engage in fasting and prayers at home under the surveillance of the visiting priest; and, depending on his wealth, he may perform some works of charity (Popov 1904: 443).

41By 1903, when Popov was finishing his magisterial history of punishment in the Russian Orthodox Church, public penance remained an existing punishment that could be imposed by both secular and ecclesiastical courts, but the instances of its actual use were negligible. Publicatio sui, as an ancient practice of public penance, seemed outmoded and peculiarly archaic, worthy of study only by fastidious church historians. Concomitantly, oblichenie seemed to have lost any indication of the former importance of its publicizing aspect. The term mainly retained its accusatory connotation.


42It would seem then that when the Bolsheviks intensified the practice of oblichenie in the 1930s, they also refocused it insofar as they stressed the publicizing aspect of it, which had been central to early Christianity as well. This publicizing aspect – which played a secondary role in comparison to the accusing aspect of oblichenie during its history in modern Russia – was put into the forefront once again. The Bolsheviks universalized the resulting procedure of publicizing the self through oblichenie, thereby institutionalizing it and making possible the emergence of the New Soviet Individual.

43One can see the striking structural congruence between Tertullian’s publicatio sui and the “revelation by deeds” practiced by the Bolsheviks. What is revealed in both cases is the saintly self – which had been put into question by sinful behavior – a state which may be tested through the analysis of deeds. Specifically who reveals is also similar: the agent of publicatio sui is the community of early Christians, a group with exclusive membership which deems all other memberships worthless. Similarly, the agent of oblichenie is the Party cell, or the relevant work collective. The how of the practice involves a certain highly detailed and rigorous ritual. The end result is the revelation of the self, or publicatio sui. One is bound to conclude that the penitential aspects of the demanding early Christian practice of publicatio sui were restored in its full rigor, after the Bolshevik revolution, in the form of the requirement of the “revelation by deeds”.

44Thus, the early Christian practice of publicatio sui was re-staged fifteen centuries after it was curtailed by Christianity. This re-staging, however, involved significant differences which show both continuity and radical change. In the USSR, not only those volunteering to undergo it, but each Communist – and after its routinization following mass terror, each Soviet citizen – had to pass this demanding test from time to time. The difference was that since every deed in socialist construction demonstrated the presence or absence of “Communist consciousness”, no specific penitential deeds were needed. Castigation and maceration were unnecessary; devotion and dedication were to be demonstrated in every act of life.

45The Lateran Council of the Western Church, which institutionalized annual confession in 1215, finally found its logical counterpart in the East, with regular public penance being institutionalized in Russia in 1929. One may even suggest that the Bolsheviks also acted in a way akin to that of Luther, who intensified an early Christian practice to re-invigorate the ailing religiosity of his time. Luther made Augustine’s solitary confession the very central practice of what became Protestant culture, thus paving the way for a mystical communion with God for any believer who dared to reject the Catholic priests’ claim to mediate. In so doing, he contributed to the development of individualism in Western culture. The Bolsheviks similarly radicalized the ecclesiastical practice of self-cognition available to them in their culture and based on Eastern Christianity and the centrality of public penance. The radical reformation of ecclesiastical practices in this case also yielded an individual, but one of a specific kind. If Western man was born as a confessing animal, its Soviet counterpart came to be a penitent beast.

46The New Soviet Individual was different from the Western individual simply because he/she was formed on the basis of East Christian practices of individualization, culturally distinct from those employed in the West. This cultural difference between individualization practices was usually overlooked in the West inasmuch as public features of the Bolshevik self, politically unacceptable from the liberal standpoint, were taken to be solely the result of Communist politics. However, typical political condemnations of the 74 years of Communist rule fail to explain how millions of autonomous and liberal-minded individuals suddenly emerged during the year in which the Soviet Union collapsed. It seems more logical to suggest that many of these individuals were formed under Communist rule, with the cultural means for their formation being different from the habitual Western means of private confession (to a priest, to a diary, to a psychoanalyst) or introspection. The intensification of individualization under Stalin described in this article was just a beginning of this long and complicated cultural development.



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1 Brzezinski produced a remarkable classic work in this respect (Brzezinski 1956), providing a functionalist explanation of the purges on the basis of these sources. Purges, according to Brzezinski, were one of the main instruments of elite rotation in totalitarian regimes.

2 He offers, however, an interpretation that is different from the present one.

3 “Ob oshibkakh partorganizatsii pri iskljuchenii kommunistov iz partii” [On Mistakes of Party Organizations in Expelling Communists from the Party].

4 “Itogi proverki partdokumentov” [The Results of the Verification of Party Cards], resolution of the Plenum of the Central Committee of VKP (b), December 21-25, 1935.

5 “O vozobnovlenii priema novykh chlenov v VKP (b)” [On Re-starting the Admission of New Members into the Party].

6 “Instruktsija ο novom prieme” [Instruction on the New Admissions] in RKP (b).

7 Stephen Kotkin links the verification and exchange of documents campaigns with the onslaught of “the Party revivalism” in the 1930s. (Kotkin 1995: 301). Other explanations stress the instrumental uses of individualization Bauer suggested that the authorities needed to blame delinquent individuals for the dysfunctions of the system, once the enemy classes had been destroyed during the industrialization and collectivization drives. (Bauer 1952: 38-40). Rittersporn argued similarly that the successful criminalization of existing popular practices (including Party practices) enabled the regime to escape their discursive articulation as instances of mass resistance or as an inescapable characteristic of the system itself, casting them instead as individual transgressions (Rittersporn 1991: 295).

8 “Instruktsija po organizatsii i provedeniju general’ noj chistki i proverke rjadov VKP (b)” [Instruction on Organization and Conduct of the General Purge and Screening of the Party Ranks].

9 “Instruktsija oblastnym, raionnym i nizovym komissijam po chistke partii” [Instruction to the Provincial, District and Primary Commissions of the Party Purge].

10 “O nedostatkakh partijnoj raboty i merakh likvidatsii trotzkistskikh i inykh dvurushnikov” [On the Weaknesses in Party Work and Measures Toward the Liquidation of the Trotskyite and Other Double-Dealers].

11 “Instruktsija po proverke i chistke lichnogo sostava RKP na predprijatijakh” [Instruction on Screening and Purging of the Party Members at Industrial Enterprises].

12 “Instruktsija po peresmotru, proverke i chistke partii chlenov RKP, rabotajushchikh ν sovetskikh uchrezhdenijakh” [Instruction on Screening, Checking and Purging of the Party Members Working in Soviet Offices] and “K instruktsii” [On the Instruction].

13 Some explanations imply that revelation by deeds was employed in both unleashing and curtailing terror. For example, Ritterspom argues that mass terror lost momentum and came to a halt only after the definition of the enemy as an “overzealous denouncer” was firmly established and sternly maintained through 1938, when the purgers of previous campaigns were identified as enemies and purged themselves. Thus, chaotic terror was finally also stopped by the same technique of revelation by deeds, but the deeds sought were now rigidly defined (Ritterspom 1991:202,254).

14 See, e. g., this term used in Dmitrij Pisarev’s famous essay “Realisty” (Pisarev 1956, 3: 8).

15 The editorial board of this journal was correspondingly nicknamed “the Consistory”, the name for the highest church assembly in a given Orthodox diocese (Billington 1966: 386).

16 There are also curious direct connections between sectarians and the Bolsheviks: the founding Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party (1903) adopted a special resolution on cooperation with the sectarians, authored by Bonch-Bruevich, a future secretary of Lenin. The sectarians delivered prohibited revolutionary Bolshevik newspapers across the Russian borders through their established conspiratorial channels (Klibanov 1982: 5).

17 Dela, a ne slova, oblichajut cheloveka, pokazyvajut podlinnoe lico i lichnost’ ego.

18 Figures from XVII s’ezd... 1934: 287.

19 See also the introduction to Tentler 1977.

20 This is a slighlty inaccurate but vivid translation of Foucault himself (1993: 213); the original is in Tertullian 1951,3: 664.

21 See, for example, Almazov 1894, 1: 60. For a contemporary interpretation in English see Halliburton 1990:45.

22 Suvorov 1884: chapter 2. For Western versions of public penance see, for example, Frank 1867: 578-598; Barclay Swete 1916: 107.

23 This exposition on usage is based on the articles of the words “oblichiti” and “oblichati” in Sreznevskii 1893-1912, Slovar’..., 1975-1992.

24 Sreznevskij 1893-1912, 2: column 521. The last phrase is part of the 34th canon rule of St. Basil the Great.

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