Performing Justice: Agitation Trials in Early Soviet Russia

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After seizing power in 1917, the Bolshevik regime faced the daunting task of educating and bringing culture to the vast and often illiterate mass of Soviet soldiers, workers, and peasants. As part of this campaign, civilian educators and political instructors in the military developed didactic theatrical fictions performed in workers' and soldiers' clubs in the years from 1919 to 1933. The subjects addressed included politics, religion, agronomy, health, sexuality, and literature. The trials were designed to permit staging by amateurs at low cost, thus engaging the citizenry in their own remaking. In reconstructing the history of the so-called agitation trials and placing them in a rich social context, Elizabeth A. Wood makes a major contribution to rethinking the first decade of Soviet history. Her book traces the arc by which a regime's campaign to educate the masses by entertaining and disciplining them culminated in a policy of brute shaming.Over the course of the 1920s, the nature of the trials changed, and this process is one of the main themes of the later chapters of Wood's book. Rather than humanizing difficult issues, the trials increasingly made their subjects (alcoholics, boys who smoked, truants) into objects of shame and dismissal. By the end of the decade and the early 1930s, the trials had become weapons for enforcing social and political conformity. Their texts were still fictional—indeed, fantastical—but the actors and the verdicts were now all too real.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Performing Justice is a fascinating story, skillfully told and extensively researched, of how theater and revolution got mixed up in early Soviet Russia."—Sheila Fitzpatrick, University of Chicago

"Elizabeth A. Wood traces how a creative educational experiment—the agitation trial—turned into a method of oppression. This excellent book should be read as a primer on the utopian and dystopian possibilities inherent in the Russian Revolution."—Lynn Mally, author of Revolutionary Acts

"Elizabeth A. Wood's landmark book does not only tell the story of these ancestors of the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. Her interdisciplinary insights from anthropology, sociology, and history show the complexity of didactic, discursive, performative, and ritualistic aspects of these trials. Performing Justice explains a great deal about formative early Soviet practices in general."—Arch Getty, UCLA

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801442575
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 6.16 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Table of Contents

1 A question of origins 15
2 Experimental trials in the Red Army, 1919-20 37
3 The trial of Lenin 57
4 Teaching politics through trials, 1921-23 68
5 The culture of everyday life, 1922-24 85
6 Melodrama in the service of science 105
7 The trial of the new woman 128
8 The crisis in the clubs and the erosion of the public sphere 150
9 Shaming the boys who smoke cigarettes 174
10 Fiction becomes indistinguishable from reality, 1928-33 193
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