Tear Off the Masks!: Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia

Tear Off the Masks!: Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia

by Sheila Fitzpatrick

Paperback

$39.95
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Monday, August 2

Overview

When revolutions happen, they change the rules of everyday life—both the codified rules concerning the social and legal classifications of citizens and the unwritten rules about how individuals present themselves to others. This occurred in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which laid the foundations of the Soviet state, and again in 1991, when that state collapsed. Tear Off the Masks! is about the remaking of identities in these times of upheaval. Sheila Fitzpatrick here brings together in a single volume years of distinguished work on how individuals literally constructed their autobiographies, defended them under challenge, attempted to edit the "file-selves" created by bureaucratic identity documentation, and denounced others for "masking" their true social identities.


Marxist class-identity labels—"worker," "peasant," "intelligentsia," "bourgeois"—were of crucial importance to the Soviet state in the 1920s and 1930s, but it turned out that the determination of a person's class was much more complicated than anyone expected. This in turn left considerable scope for individual creativity and manipulation. Outright imposters, both criminal and political, also make their appearance in this book. The final chapter describes how, after decades of struggle to construct good Soviet socialist personae, Russians had to struggle to make themselves fit for the new, post-Soviet world in the 1990s—by "de-Sovietizing" themselves.


Engaging in style and replete with colorful detail and characters drawn from a wealth of sources, Tear Off the Masks! offers unique insight into the elusive forms of self-presentation, masking, and unmasking that made up Soviet citizenship and continue to resonate in the post-Soviet world.



Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691122458
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/25/2005
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Sheila Fitzpatrick is Bernadotte E. Schmitt Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and coeditor of The Journal of Modern History. Her books include Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times; Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization; Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History, 1789-1989, coedited with Robert Gellately; and In the Shadow of Revolution: Life Stories of Russian Women from 1917 to the Second World War (Princeton), coedited with Yuri Slezkine.

Read an Excerpt

Tear Off the Masks!

Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia

Chapter One

BECOMING SOVIET

Tear off the masks! is a slogan with only limited appeal in most societies, since they operate on the assumption that civilization requires a certain amount of masking. In revolutions, however, that assumption is suspended. Successful revolutions tear off masks: that is, they invalidate the conventions of self-presentation and social interaction that obtained in pre-revolutionary society. This happened in Russia after the October 1917 revolution which laid the foundations for the Soviet state. It happened again in 1991, when that state collapsed. In such upheavals, people have to reinvent themselves, to create or find within themselves personae that fit the new postrevolutionary society. The process of reinvention is at once a process of reconfiguration (a new arrangement of data about oneself) and one of discovery (a new interpretation of their significance). It always involves strategic decisions (how should I present myself in this new world?) and may also prompt ontological reflection (who am I really?). Those who are engaged in self-reinvention generally prefer not to discuss what they are doing, claiming instead that in their hearts they were alwaysthe new Soviet (post-Soviet) persons that they are now trying to become.

Yet in revolution, even as the millions of people that comprise the society are necessarily engaged in self-reinvention, the revolutionary militants tend to be obsessed with authenticity and transparency. They hunt for "double-dealers" who are trying to hide their true identity, for "careerists" and "accomodators" who have assumed a revolutionary persona for purposes of gain, in order to "unmask" them. In the first two decades after 1917, "vigilance" in identifying and exposing such enemies of the revolutionary was one of the cardinal virtues of a Communist. Purges (chistki) periodically conducted in the Communist Party and government and educational institutions served the same purpose of rooting out hidden enemies in the 1920s and '30s. Half a century later, post-Soviet Russia eschewed the path of purging and loyalty checks. Yet, as political scientist Michael Urban observed, the first phase of the transition in post-Soviet Russia-when almost everyone in politics had formerly been a Communist-was riven by constant accusations that some politician or other was still "really" a Communist, or unreconstructed Soviet man at heart. Urban interpreted this as a way for the accusers to give credibility to their own new personae as post-Soviet democrats, which, mutatis mutandis, may have some validity for the earlier revolutionary period as well.

This is a book about the remaking of identities in a society cast into turmoil by revolution. What I am investigating is how individuals who find themselves in such situations deal with the question of identity-basically, how they construct new personae to suit the new circumstances of life, and how those new personae are for some considerable time uncertain, vulnerable to challenge. I am also interested in the social consequences: what social practices (purging, self-criticism, denunciation) and mentalites (suspicion, identity anxieties) develop in a situation where the individuals are busy reinventing themselves and defending their newly invented selves, and moreover are aware that their neighbors are similarly engaged. My inquiry differs from many of the "identity" studies published in recent years in that it is primarily concerned with identity at the individual, not national or group, level. Once the focus is on individuals, it is immediately clear that imposture is a necessary part of the study of identity. The impostor is one who has assumed or claimed an identity to which he or she is not entitled. In a revolutionary situation, it is extremely important to unmask the impostors who are falsely claiming revolutionary identity. Yet at the same time, imposture as a practice is uncomfortably close to the more benign practices of self-fashioning or impersonation that the revolution demands of all citizens. How this difficulty was handled, and how the two were distinguished in everyday life, is one of the subjects of this book.

The identity issue in early Soviet Russia focussed strongly on social class. The Bolsheviks had taken power in the name of the proletariat, and they assumed that proletarians were the people likely to support Soviet power and the "bourgeois" (which in the usage of the 1920s often encompassed membership of any privileged group under the old regime, including the service and landowning nobility) to oppose it. This led to a certain amount of circular thinking, whereby those who supported the revolution tended to be regarded as "proletarian" and those who opposed it to be labeled "bourgeois." Nevertheless, the new rulers were sufficiently serious about class to undertake major statistical analyses of the class structure of the population and of various institutions in the 1920s, and also to put in place policies discriminating against "class enemies" (that is, people who were by definition enemies because of their membership of a particular social class) and providing affirmative action (the Russian term was vydvizhenie, which literally means promotion) for those whose class position made them natural allies of the revolution.

"Class," alas, turned out to be an ambiguous category. It was less easily identifiable to the eye than race or gender and less readily assessed on the basis of native language and last name than ethnicity (national'nost' or "nationality" in Soviet terminology). Class was, of course, associated with social position-but in the Revolution, and indeed as a result of it, many people's social position and occupation had changed. That left manners-that is, forms of self-presentation that had been learned and could be unlearned-and biography as possible markers of class identity. The last turned out to be key in Soviet determination of an individual's class. Recounting of one's autobiography, challenges to the account from others, and defense of it became standard Soviet practice in a variety of situations, including purging and "self-criticism" sessions; moreover, all personal files contained a narrative autobiography and a questionnaire designed to elicit both an individual's political and occupational history and (in detail) the nature of his or her class position, including changes over time. Given the existence of legal and administrative structures that discriminated on the basis of class, it was obviously in the interest of individuals to compose an autobiography that concealed "bad" class backgrounds and presented backgrounds that were ambiguous in class terms in the most favorable possible light. Such practices of concealment and editing-inextricably linked with the broader self-reinvention required by the Revolution-became second nature to Soviet citizens, as did the counterpractices of unmasking and denunciation.

This book is a study of individual practices of identity in Soviet Russia. It does not deal with state practices of identity-molding via propaganda, the media, and educational institutions, or with peer-group socialization in schools and Pioneer and Komsomol organizations, though these are topics of interest in their own right. Nor does it say much about intellectual debates about identity or individual soul-searching of a philosophical kind. I would have been happy to include debates and soul-searching had I found them, but in fact both are surprisingly rare. The Communist Party and Soviet government made policies on such matters as class discrimination but did so almost without debate (where it existed, I have noted it) or theoretical exegesis. This silence of the Russian Revolution on key issues of social practice may be contrasted with the passionate debates and deeply felt theorizing of the French Revolution on such topics as denunciation. With regard to individual philosophical soul-searching about identity, here, too, we encounter a notable silence. Judging by diaries and memoirs, Soviet citizens worried pragmatically about presentation of identity and might also work conscientiously on developing a "Soviet" persona, but they rarely seem to have asked metaphysical questions about essences (who am I in this boundless universe?). This may be related to the unusual stresses of living in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and '30s, which tended to produce the kinds of behavior seen in societies in wartime. Living under a political regime that was constantly directing and often punishing its citizens, people developed a sense of fatalism that may, paradoxically, have freed them of some of the neuroses and anxieties that flourished in the capitalist West at the same period.

HISTORIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

This book is written by a social historian who began publishing in the 1970s. Its subject matter, however, has been associated more with cultural than with social historians in the Soviet field, particularly with the young cohort of mainly Foucauldian cultural historians that arrived on the scene in the second half of the 1990s and pioneered the study of "Soviet subjectivity." This combination of author and subject matter may initially be confusing for some readers-not (for once) the readers who are ignorant of the field, but rather those who know it well. It is important, therefore, to make clear from the outset that this is neither an attack on the Foucauldian "Soviet subjectivity" school nor a contribution to it, but something different. The best way I can explain what that "something different" is and how I came to engage in it is to offer a brief excursion into intellectual autobiography. Readers who are not Soviet historians are welcome to skip this section.

As a social historian, I have a long history of dissatisfaction with class as an analytical category for Soviet society and of impatience with Soviet and Western Marxist discussions of "class consciousness," particularly proletarian consciousness, in a Soviet context. The Russian workers whose story I knew best, though lauded as "conscious" by Soviet commentators, were primarily interested in getting themselves and their children out of the working class, something that Soviet affirmative action policies on behalf of proletarians and poor peasants made easy to accomplish in the first fifteen years after the Revolution. Social historians in the Soviet Union were, of course, required to use Marxist class categories in their analysis and did so in an exceptionally static, reified manner. As Western social history of the Soviet Union emerged in the 1970s, I argued against the tendency to take class at face value and focus on what I saw as Marxist scholastic questions (whether Russian workers really had proletarian class consciousness; whether the peasants whom the Bolsheviks called "kulaks," meaning rural exploiters, were really kulaks or just "middle peasants").

In the late 1980s, however, I began to take class seriously myself. This was not because I had become converted to the Marxist analytical framework but rather because I had suddenly realized what may seem obvious: that class was a matter of classification. The reason to take class seriously was because class classification was a very serious activity in Soviet society. This had nothing to do with the actual social structure but everything to do with individual fate and opportunity. To me, debates about whether peasants were "really kulaks" or urban dwellers "really proletarian" might seem scholastic, but to millions of individuals the real-life outcome of such deliberations was crucial. To be labeled a kulak meant ruin: you were liable to expropriation and deportation. To be labeled a proletarian meant you could become one of the bosses instead of being a mere hired hand, and the road was open for your children-and even yourself-to get higher education and rise into the white-collar professional class.

That revelation lay at the root of a series of articles published in the early 1990s in which I explored the Bolshevik practices of class labeling and class discrimination and the social practices of masking and unmasking of class identities to which they gave rise. These were the years in which hitherto closed Soviet archives opened. Of all the archival discoveries of those years, the one that most interested me was the huge mounds of letters to the authorities from individual citizens. Initially, I was particularly interested in denunciations, which in the 1920s and 1930s were often attempts to discredit the class self-presentation of others. Later, my interest broadened to petitions and appeals, which involve authorial self-presentation (in the 1920s and '30s, often including a claim to a "good" class identity). Such identity claims necessarily involved the telling of life-stories, so I became interested in them as well.

As it happened, my social historian's trajectory had landed me in territory that was simultaneously being colonized by the young cultural historians of the "Soviet subjectivity" school. The dissimilarities between us are obvious. They are interested in discourse and ideology and have a strong theoretical orientation; I am interested in social practice and the everyday and have a low tolerance for totalizing theory, including Marxist and Foucauldian (though sharing with Marx an ingrained suspicion of ideology as false consciousness). Their focus is on the self and subjecthood; mine on identity and identification. For me, however, differences in historical approach are what makes scholarship interesting. The new cohort's arrival on the scene was a major part of the revitalization of Soviet history in the 1990s. If I were to isolate two aspects of this revitalization that I particularly appreciate, one would be the shift of attention toward experience, and the other the definitive end of the Cold War in Soviet history (the new cohort, unlike its "revisionist" predecessor, did not attack Cold War frameworks directly, but its indifference to them proved more deadly than frontal attack). Fifteen years ago, there was still a lingering sense that "Soviet ideology" was something that the regime force-fed to a population whose atomized members were merely passive consumers. It is a great step forward to have the Stalinist subject emerge as "an ideological agent in its own right."

IDENTITY: DEFINITION AND THEORETICAL FRAMEWORKS

Before proceeding further, we need to address the concept of "identity." This has become a catchword in social science in recent years, much overused and invoked in a confusing multiplicity of meanings. I am interested in social rather than personal identity, by which I mean the way people locate themselves in a social or group context rather than the way they think about themselves as individuals. I use "identity" to mean a self-identification and/or self-understanding constructed with reference to currently accepted categories of social being. There is, of course, a difference between self-identification (a labeling process that may carry only an instrumental purpose) and self-understanding (implying belief that the self is as one understands it). My definition intentionally elides this distinction, since my assumption is that the self-understanding of subjects is accessible to historians only through practices like self-identification. In this book, "identity" is shorthand for the complex revisions of self-identification that were associated with the Russian Revolution.

In early Soviet discourse, the closest equivalent of the term "identity" was litso (literally, face). In its "identity" meaning, however, the term was used almost entirely with two qualifiers: klassovoe (class) and politicheskoe (political). The class identity (as well as the closely related political identity) had to be made manifest (vyiavleno, defined in Ushakov as "exposed, shown in its true colors.") Discussion of identity was closely linked with questions of disguise and concealment, since the Revolution had made certain social and political identities dangerous handicaps and thus fostered concealment. A disguised identity must be "unmasked" (razoblacheno), a very common term in early Soviet discourse. Double identity or duplicity (dvulichie, dvurushnichestvo), the latter defined as "behavior of a person ostensibly belonging to one group but acting on behalf of the opposing side," was regularly excoriated in the Soviet press.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Tear Off the Masks! by Sheila Fitzpatrick Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Preface and Acknowledgments xi
INTRODUCTION 1
CHAPTER ONE: Becoming Soviet 3
PART I. Class Identities 27
CHAPTER TWO: The Bolshevik Invention of Class 29
CHAPTER THREE: Class Identities in NEP Society 51
CHAPTER FOUR: Class and Soslovie 71
PART II. Lives 89
CHAPTER FIVE: Lives under Fire 91
CHAPTER SIX: The Two Faces of Anastasia 102
CHAPTER SEVEN: Story of a Peasant Striver 114
CHAPTER EIGHT: Women s Lives 125
PART III. Appeals 153
CHAPTER NINE: Supplicants and Citizens 155
CHAPTER TEN: Patrons and Clients 182
PART IV. Denunciations 203
CHAPTER ELEVEN: Signals from Below 205
CHAPTER TWELVE: Wives Tales 240
PART V. Impostures 263
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: The World of Ostap Bender 265
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: The Con Man as Jew 282
AFTERWORD 301
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Becoming Post-Soviet 303
Selected Further reading 319
Index 323

What People are Saying About This

Lewis Siegelbaum

What makes Tear off the Masks! so appealing and why the pieces work so well together is that they cover a broad range of experiences associated with what it meant to be a Soviet citizen. Certainly, it will be a boon to the field to have the book available for courses. Tear off the Masks! is so appealingly written, full of wit and occasional humor, that it could serve as a model of the historian's craft. What we get is a phenomenal, nearly unparalleled depth of research combined with a transparency about research methods that invites the reader into this particular(ly skilled) historian's laboratory.
Lewis Siegelbaum, Michigan State University, author of "Stalinism as a Way of Life"

Catriona Kelly

Tear off the Masks! will be indispensable to students of Soviet history and valuable to scholars as well. Not only does it make available to the reader pioneering writings on important subjects such as defining class in the Soviet era and the institutional operations of Soviet patronage, alongside new work, but it is held together by focus on one important theme: 'the pragmatics of Soviet identity,' as it might be called. Fitzpatrick gives a vivid, sympathetic, and often entertaining picture of Soviet citizens surviving (barely) the class war (or, conversely, clawing their way up the ladder when circumstances allowed), and engaged in battles for existence of a different kind in the 1930s and 1940s.
Catriona Kelly, University of Oxford, author of "Refining Russia"

From the Publisher

"What makes Tear off the Masks! so appealing and why the pieces work so well together is that they cover a broad range of experiences associated with what it meant to be a Soviet citizen. Certainly, it will be a boon to the field to have the book available for courses. Tear off the Masks! is so appealingly written, full of wit and occasional humor, that it could serve as a model of the historian's craft. What we get is a phenomenal, nearly unparalleled depth of research combined with a transparency about research methods that invites the reader into this particular(ly skilled) historian's laboratory."—Lewis Siegelbaum, Michigan State University, author of Stalinism as a Way of Life

"Tear off the Masks! will be indispensable to students of Soviet history and valuable to scholars as well. Not only does it make available to the reader pioneering writings on important subjects such as defining class in the Soviet era and the institutional operations of Soviet patronage, alongside new work, but it is held together by focus on one important theme: 'the pragmatics of Soviet identity,' as it might be called. Fitzpatrick gives a vivid, sympathetic, and often entertaining picture of Soviet citizens surviving (barely) the class war (or, conversely, clawing their way up the ladder when circumstances allowed), and engaged in battles for existence of a different kind in the 1930s and 1940s."—Catriona Kelly, University of Oxford, author of Refining Russia

Customer Reviews