The Struggle for Social Control in the Soviet Union, 1929 to 1956

The Struggle for Social Control in the Soviet Union, 1929 to 1956

Dr. Immo Rebitschek, Lehrstuhl für Osteuropäische Geschichte Jena; Prof. Aaron B. Retish, Dep. of History, Wayne University
Vom - Bis
15.10.2020 - 16.10.2020
Immo Rebitschek

We have known that those living under the Stalinist state experienced a repressive regime marked by mass violence and incarceration of its people. A decade ago researchers brought the social dimension of this repression to our attention. They found that in the 1930s, social disorder was perceived by state leaders as the greatest threat to a socialist utopia. Millions of returnees from exile, economic outcasts, homeless and unemployed, orphaned kids and “politically disenfranchised” constituted the new Soviet social reality. As a response, the secret police launched the mass operations as a new form of class war by Stalin’s design, targeting “socially harmful elements” in society and wiping out whole segments of the population through mass shootings and arrests.

This workshop builds on, and challenges, the scholarship on the response to social disorder under Stalin by examining social control more broadly. Police purges were a massive response to social disorder, yet the question of social control was not limited to the police. In the same decade, courts and prosecutors were processing millions of cases. From a law criminalizing abortion to passport regulations, criminal and civil proceedings were important for the implementation of social norms. Unlike the police, the justice system was designed to control and not to cleanse society. Enforcing order on the basis of codified norms, legal organs complemented (and often challenged) the police operations and its pre-emptive and unchecked strikes against social target groups. Social control did not just come from above. “Stalinist subjects” themselves made legal claims based on their own social interests. People sued for alimony, divorce or damages, and initiated criminal cases on their own behalf. After the war, methods of legal repression seemed to supersede the regular police in the field of social control through legal campaigns, while more and more people made appeals to the courts.

Social control in the Soviet Union was not entirely about the “state” putting its vision into practice. The social was a battleground for many participants using state and state-sponsored channels to enforce their wills and interests within the setting of social conflict. The enforcement of social norms and the response to their violations were in the hands of multiple agents. This view does not only challenge the dualistic interpretation of a state forging societies at will, it challenges the perception of monolithic state agency and puts emphasis on individual latitudes in bureaucratic structures. The workshop aims to re-examine the question of social control against the backdrop of institutional rivalries and bureaucratic spaces in Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia. It seeks to debate the important role of the people who were both oppressed by the laws and used them to better their lives.
The following questions will provide a framework for discussion: How did state and party officials perceive “social order” and how did this perception change over time? What impact did the interaction of police and legal institutions have on the broader patterns of social policy? How did the relationship between police, procuracy and courts, as well as party structures, develop and how much initiative of Soviet citizens translated into practice? To what extent did the legal sphere provide a space for popular agency – through civil and/or criminal proceedings? How did these different spheres of institutional and individual interaction evolve throughout Stalin’s reign and especially after his death?
The workshop aims to develop the scholarship on social policy and social conflict based on new scholarly research. It will focus on the Soviet secret police and the justice system as well as social mobilization through party and state sponsored structures (e.g. housing committees, municipal authorities, labor unions, kolkhoz managers). We want to draw attention to patterns and relations of agency in a dictatorship and thus pose the major question of control over social relations and the establishment of social norms. How did visions of social engineering evolve and to what extent did they fail over the ambiguity of agency? Tackling these questions could help to understand not only how the Soviet state was operating (and struggling) through different spheres of agency but how it evolved into a post-Stalinist regime and who contributed to this evolution.
We invite researchers from all disciplines to submit proposals. Subject to funding the workshop will be held in Jena (Germany) on October 15th and October 16th 2020. Papers will be presented in thematic sessions. Possible topics include (but are not limited to):

- Ideological conceptions of social order/social engineering under/after Stalin
- Crime and disorder in political and institutional communication
- Law enforcement and police operations
- Court proceedings
- Social care institutions (esp. children/youth)
- Corruption

Scholars of history, international law, legal history, political science, and any other discipline related to the topics are invited to send their proposals (max. 300 words, with a title and a short biography) to by 1 October 2019. Please note that the working language will be English.



Immo Rebitschek

Lehrstuhl für Osteuropäische Geschichte
Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena. Fuerstengraben 13, D-07743 Jena
+493641 944463