Villains and Victims

I’ve just got back from a conference at the University of Nottingham, organized by Sarah Badcock in the History department, entitled ‘Villains and Victims: Justice, violence and retribution in late Imperial and early Soviet Russia.’ It was a small, workshop-style conference with a couple of dozen participants, and like many of the other people there, I thought it was one of the most enjoyable conferences I’ve ever attended. The different disciplinary backgrounds of the speakers brought in an interesting range of perspectives — the majority of speakers were historians, but there were also papers by literary critics, legal specialists and so on, and although the balance was in favour of the early Soviet period, from the civil war to development of the judiciary to collectivization and famine, there were also papers covering topics such as sex crimes, alcoholism, and the penal system in the late Imperial era (the latter was where I came into it). I’d actually quite like to give a detailed discussion of all the papers, but that’s not really practical time-wise (essays to mark…). Plus lot of the papers were drafts and not for citation, so there’s a limit to what I can say, though I hope many of them will be published sooner rather than later. Instead I’ll reflect a bit more about my own paper and the ways others resonated with it, and focus on the recurring themes that arose. My apologies to my fellow participants for any specific points I fail to attribute correctly. Apologies also if what follows is a bit convoluted — this is my first attempt to bring some order to my thoughts on what was an extremely rich and intense couple of days.

Some of the discussion touched on the themes one would expect at such a conference — continuity and change in the transition from tsarist to Bolshevik rule, and the gap (which also existed in both pre- and post-revolutionary eras) between ideology and pragmatism, or between the centre’s plans and implementation on the ground. On that theme, one of the major narratives of the conference, as Erik Landis suggested in his thought-provoking closing remarks, was that of failure — the state (whether Soviet or Imperial) was incapable of realizing its projects, and had no control at the local level, leading to disintegration, frequently with tragic results. Andrew Gentes’s paper on forced labour on the Trans-Siberian railway gave us a glimpse of the exception that proves the rule, but elsewhere the story was one of plans consistently being thwarted by corruption, indifference, and factions with different agendas. Was it always that way round, though? Gerald Suhr pointed out that there was a desire for penal reform at the centre which (rather like everything else that came from the centre, it seems) was undermined at, or perhaps simply never reached, the peripheries. On the other hand, George Kennan, one of the subjects of my paper, depicts local officials as concerned about the manifest deficiencies and unfairness of the tsarist exile system; for him, the problem lay in the St Petersburg bureaucracy. Whichever way round it was, it does seem that this problem is an indication of an extremely weak state, both before and after the revolution, which has to rely on violence because there is no other way of getting anything done (again, this was Erik Landis’s point: coercion works, and it’s cheap into the bargain). So then the questions are: to what extent does the state’s use of violence become habitual? or is it that the state’s weakness in Russia is an insoluble problem? I certainly don’t see much sign of change, but I’m not sure which explanation has greater traction. The other thing that occurs to me is that governments of all complexions in Russia have operated on the assumption that the ends justifies the means. This, of course, was a central plank of Dostoevsky’s critique of left-wing ideologies, but it does in fact seem to be a feature of Russian statecraft per se. Is that also the case elsewhere? I’m generally rather sceptical about the idea of Russian exceptionalism — the more I look at it, the more I think it’s not so different from other countries — but here I’m not sure. Perhaps the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative. Does Russia merely express openly what is equally true but less apparent elsewhere? Do other governments just not have to behave like Russia’s because they’re not as weak?

My own paper, focusing on narratives about imprisonment and the penal system in late Imperial Russia, was one of several that dealt with the question of the state’s violence against the individual, which, among other things, has the capacity to turn villains into victims (one of many grey areas in this whole subject). I was looking at the different ways in which the representation of ‘ordinary’ (i.e. non-political) convicts is problematized in Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island and Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System. It worked very well alongside Sarah Badcock’s paper, which also concentrated on this faceless mass of prisoners/exiles existing on the very edges of society in the Yakutsk and Irkutsk regions and the question of how we can know them, and her approach of examining the practices of everyday life for the punished is a very fruitful one. For me, the key question is what (and how) the texts tell us about societal attitudes and structures and their effect on individuals (whether the author/narrator or the convicts/exiles/free settlers/authorities). And what emerges in very different ways in these texts is a profound sense of separation and difference which appears impossible to overcome and which relates to a very distinctive feature of Russian society — the separation of rural and urban Russia, or, in Dostoevsky’s terms, of the peasantry (the narod) and the elite. Tracy McDonald, who gave an excellent paper on collectivization, resistance and memory, and showed her fascinating short film The Uprising, commented on how strong this separation still is, and even though I’ve just questioned whether Russia really is different from other countries, I think this is one area in which it clearly is. But how much of Russia’s history and development has been affected by this division? And to what extent does the sort of state-sponsored violence we were discussing during the conference originate in a large proportion of the population of Russia being perceived as other? Basically, my paper grapples with implications of that separation when punishment is brought into the equation, but as my conclusions are still only half formed I won’t say any more for now.

There are other things I’d like to discuss — language and violence, and gender and violence, forms of symbolic violence — but I’ll maybe return to those when I’ve got a bit more time. For now I’d just like to say thanks to everybody who was at the conference for their comments and suggestions, which have helped develop my thinking in all sorts of ways, and not only for the paper I was presenting, and for making it such an interesting event in general. Thanks also to Sarah for organizing it.

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  1. New article: Knowing Russia’s Convicts | Sarah J. Young

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