Soviet Agitation Trials

Agitsud from the 1920s

Robert Amsterdam’s blog has a translation of a fascinating Kommersant Vlast’ article (the Russian version is here along with some great photos.) on one of the more peculiar forms of early Soviet propaganda: the agitation trial. The article argues that agitsudy were one of the ways “the Bolsheviks managed to change the attitude of tens of millions of people towards the repressions being conducted by them.” I’m quite familiar with agitsudy and their role in fostering a Soviet-style morality among the illiterate masses. I have a few copies of these court room dramas. They come in such stiff names as Trial of Sexual Promiscuity and Trial of Hooligans. I use one titled Trial of a Komsomol or Komsomolka for Breaking League Discipline in my discussion of Komsomol expulsion.

Here is a description of what a typical agitsud looked like:

The most serious attention was devoted to imparting to the staged trial full similitude with a real one. In one of the instructions was said:

“The space where the staged trial is put on must itself recall the general appearance of a courtroom. On a dais – the stage in the auditorium or on a specially cobbled-together platform is placed a table, covered with red cloth. At the table are three chairs: for the chairman and the two members of the court. At the left side – a rostrum for the defender, at the right – the same kind of rostrum for the prosecutor. Somewhat deeper – a table for the secretary and the stenographer. At the sides two doors – one, leading to the “Deliberations room”, the other – to the “Witness [room]”. Somewhat below the level of the stage – a special dais for the defendant.

From this same dais appear the witnesses as well. The stage is decorated with portraits of Lenin, people’s commissar of justice Kursky, the procurator of the republic Krylenko and so forth. On the walls halls posters with slogans: “The proletarian court defends the conquests of the October revolution”, “The proletarian court defends the interests of working people”, pictures of an old and a new courts, photos from our correctional houses, diagrams giving a general impression about the work of our proletarian courts, excerpts from our constitution concerning the proletarian court, codes of laws and so forth printed in large letters.”

It was stipulated very strictly that the trial must not last longer than 4-4.5 hours, otherwise the viewers may tire and lose interest in what is going on. In an appendix to certain plays was appended a time sheet for every stage and every appearance. Moreover, it was especially underscored that the reading of the accusatory conclusion [bill of indictment] for the avoidance of that same loss of interest and attention must not extend for more than 20 minutes. They began to make special demands also of the quality of the accusatory conclusion. It was recommended that it be written by some kind of worker of the procuracy. And about the course of the subsequent “judicial examination” were given the most detailed and concrete indications:

“In order that some kind of bickering begin between the chairman and the defendant (this enlivens the general testimony of the defendant, interrupting his monologue with dialogue), they arrange in advance with the defendant about how he will intentionally drag out his word. The chairman interrupts him with the retort:

“‘I ask you, citizen N, to speak more briefly and closer to the matter at hand!’

“The defendant seeks support from the people’s assessors and complains that they are not letting him speak, that he can not calmly tell everything in order, that they are terrorizing him.

“It is good if at this time someone from the instigators would shout from his seat: ‘You, comrade chairman, don’t muzzle the defendant, we’ve got us a proletarian court here, and everyone can say all he knows’, while another instigator would interrupt him: ‘But if he’s spewing all sorts of garbage and completely, it can be said, not on the matter at hand, then what, the proletarian court is obligated to listen to him and waste time plain and simple.’

“Such sparring between the two instigators will evoke a certain noise in the hall, squirming on the chairs of the defender and prosecutor, the ring [Russian equivalent of “gavel”] of the chairman, while all this will enliven the session.”

Literally everything was regimented – from the character of the testimonies of witnesses and experts to the speeches of the prosecutor, defender and defendant. In essence, in political cases the defense lawyer was supposed to not defend the defendant, but together with the procurator recognize his guilt and ask for leniency due to mitigating circumstances. Thus did they slowly and quietly habituate the population to [the idea] that they do not put the guiltless on trial in the USSR.

A good description, but a few over statements. First, while agitsudy scripts provided guidelines to how to stage and conduct them, there was no guarantee that directives from “above” were followed “below.” Quite the opposite usually. Plus even after 1925, trial scripts encouraged local troupes to adapt their performances to local conditions. Many of their scripts were actually written locally. Second, there is a question to how widespread these trials were. Hundreds were written and published, but their distribution was quite small. Far smaller than newspapers, which the article rightly says hardly reached even information hungry (and literate) citizens. Therefore, I doubt “millions” of people were exposed to them.

Most of these trials were more like moral plays rather than about political enemies. Most dealt with religion, sex, martial relations, hygiene, and other ethical norms. There were some overtly political ones, especially those during the Civil War, where Red Army agitators staged mock trials of White generals–Denekin, Wrangel, and others–or to promote Bolshevik propaganda, like the Trial of Lenin.

Also, many mock trials from the 1920s were scripted to have an open ended judgment. The audience was encouraged to discuss possible verdicts according to a kind of multiple choice list. It was only in the 1930s that they became more didactic and predictable. A few historians have tried to make a direct connection between these agitation trials and the great show trials of the 1930s. Elizabeth Wood’s Performing Justice: Agitation Trials In Early Soviet Russia and Julie Cassiday’s The Enemy on Trial: Early Soviet Courts on Stage and Screen are two such examples. I remain unconvinced of their overall impact on both citizens’ moral and political outlook. At most, agitsudy belong to a whole range of mechanisms that promoted (often unsuccessfully) a particular Soviet ideological worldview.

In fact, agitation trials weren’t even a Bolshevik invention (when it came to forms of agitation, the Bolsheviks invented rather little). Nor were their Tsarist predecessors only about students putting literary characters on trials as the article suggests. Tsarist moralists organized agitation trials pretty much around the same topics as the Bolsheviks–hygiene, sex, morality, sobriety, and other topics– as a means to “enlighten” a mostly illiterate population.

The Tsarist mock trials weren’t widespread either and had minimal impact on peasant morality. When it comes to promoting a “legal consciousness” on a mass level, you would have to turn to the volost court and its Soviet predecessor, the people’s courts. To my knowledge, there has yet to be a study of the Soviet people’s courts, mostly because I think people incorrectly assume they were vapid ideological shells. There has been a study of the volost court. These, as Stephen Frank shows in his Crime, Cultural Conflict, and Justice in Rural Russia, 1856-1914, were quite popular and their outcomes, often to the chagrin of Russia intelligentsia, reflected community norms rather than the “law.” And if the justice metered out by the court didn’t jive with the community, the latter took matters into their own hands via charivari, or samosud, a practice which incidentally continues to this day.