“A ritual civil execution”: Public shaming meetings in the post-Stalin Soviet Union

Svetlana Stephenson

Abstract

The resurgence of public shaming campaigns in modern societies has important antecedents in the relatively recent past. The paper addresses the practice of prorabotka, a ritual of public shaming that took place in schools, universities and workplaces in the Soviet Union. Prorabotka, whose genealogy can be traced to early post-revolutionary years, was aimed at the reinforcement of social norms challenged by political and moral deviance. Public shaming was applied to a wide range of behaviours, including ideological and moral deviations such as public drunkenness, marital infidelity by party members, planned emigration to Israel, etc. The paper applies a theoretical framework that builds on Durkheimian and neo-Durkheimian approaches to ritual, Garfinkel’s outline of the theory of public degradation ceremonies, and Zizek’s account of split law. It shows that, in addition to an official script, the meetings had a supplementary script that unleashed a jouissance of punitiveness but also generalised guilt and fear in the face of collective justice. It addresses the consequences of shaming for the perpetrators and members of the group. It is based on oral history interviews with individuals who participated in the meetings as denouncers, witnesses or perpetrators.

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ISSN: ISSN 2398-5836

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