Cristina Vatulescu, “Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times.”

Cristina Vatulescu, Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2010, 262 PP.

Cristina Vatulescu’s book, Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times, deals with the aestheticization of politics and the intersection between Soviet secret police practices and artistic production. The book takes its impetus from the archival turn following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Attempting to unearth the secrets of the communist years people in Eastern Europe have turned to archives in search for truth about the past, betraying “an enduring belief in the authority of their holdings”(13). In response to this phenomenon, Vatulescu, a professor of Comparative Literature at New York University, set out to investigate how these files should be read. She focuses on the secret police personal file as a source of immense influence on the self-perception and representation of the Soviet subject. Wary of reading these files as repositories of truth, Vatulescu wants to analyze their structure and rhetoric to glean the strategies that defined the activities of the secret police.

The main argument of Police Aesthetics claims that secret police practices such as surveillance and interrogation heavily influenced writing and filmmaking in Soviet culture. Delving into the relationship between art and culture, Vatulescu analyzes the aesthetic strategies shared by Soviet artists and the secret police. Her project entails examining the effect of the secret police personal files on the relationship between the subject and the words and images artists used to represent themselves. At the core of Police Aesthetics are works from the 1920s and 1930s, which span the foundational period of the Soviet Union (1917-1927) and the subsequent, first decade of Stalin’s rule. Vatulescu marshals the literary texts of Isaac Babel, Mikhail Bulgakov, Victor Shklovsky, and Maxim Gorky, as wellas the films of Dziga Vertov, Aleksandr Medvedkin, Ivan Pyr’ev, and Andrei Cherkasov. The study also includes Romanian sources, which are meant to illustrate the diffusion of Soviet secret police practices geographically beyond the borders of the Soviet Union and chronologically beyond the period of its foundation as communist rule in Romania spanned 1947-1989.

This combination of sources is explained as an attempt to establish the expansiveness of the aesthetic influences of the Soviet secret police, with Romania positioned on the periphery and the Soviet Union, more specifically Moscow, at the center. The book, however, does not include a discussion of the history of this influence. An historical account could shed more light on the aesthetic system, which Vatulescu already claims extended across borders and evolved over time. In regards to a critical history of policing and punishment, the author does differentiate her project from Michel Foucault’s argument in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison for a linear progression from absolutist monarchies to enlightened despotism to liberal states. Vatulescu infers from the selective use of Tsarist and contemporary European penal policies during the 1930s in the Soviet Union that the Soviet and East European penal history has a nonlinear trajectory with techniques and goals being used, discarded, and revisited later. This type of convoluted trajectory also seems to apply to the history of the relationships between aesthetics and policing.

The point of origin of the term “police aesthetic” is poet Osip Mandel’shtam’s The Noise of Time (Shum vremeni). The designed image of the imperial police found in Mandel’shtam’s prose, the captivating effect it has on the young Mandel’shtam in his autobiographical work, and the sophisticated style of his adult prose represent for Vatulescu the fundamental example of the relationship between police aesthetics and artistic interpretation. Referring to Jacques Rancière’s concept of the ‘”distribution of the sensible,” Vatulescu defines police aesthetics as the kind of regime of signification that organizes the relationship between words and images, persons and things. Since Mandel’shtam in The Noise of Time was writing about the pre-revolutionary imperial police and the concept Vatulescu bases this term on is identified in works ranging from the 1920s to the 1970s, I was left with the question of how the relationship between art and culture evolved and how this relationship was influenced by the secret police over the course of the twentieth century.

This book presents an ambitious project that strives to delineate the visual and textual representation of power, its effect on the sensibilities of subjects of that power, and how artists incorporated these police aesthetics. Matters are further complicated by the necessity to compare the aesthetics of power and control with artistic strategies mobilized to contend with the practices of the secret police. Vatulescu compares these practices in a set of idiosyncratic case studies that are meant to show the wide range and depth of this interchange. The relationship between aesthetics and policing varies from instances of writers satirizing police practices like Bulgakov in Master and Margarita, his masterful novel about the fantastic adventures of the devil in 1930s Moscow, to filmmakers like Dziga Vertov using examples of hidden camera footage and emulating surveillance techniques in Kino-Eye (Kino-Glaz, 1924), the film that was meant to make Soviet citizens more perfect and precise by exposing their lives caught unaware. Vatulescu takes an interdisciplinary approach, referring to criminology for the history and structure of police files, to psychology for Soviet views on human nature, and to literary studies for a consideration of ethics for reading these files responsibly. Vatulescu’s examination of reading strategies concentrates on devices and formal features shared by literary and nonliterary texts, with the goal of deducing from this overlap how the Soviet system influenced the work of writers.

In those sections of the book concerned with literature (chapters 2 and 5), Vatulescu juxtaposes literary and nonliterary sources in order to analyze the relationship between the creation of literary narratives and secret police procedures of self-presentation and the representation of its others. For example, in the chapter that takes up Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Vatulescu refers to the author’s personal file to investigate aspects of his novel that bear similarities to secret police practices, including character descriptions that resemble police accounts, narratives written from the point of view of insignificant characters that seem like informants, and the function of the narrator who acts as an archivist collating the separate stories into a novel. Vatulescu later examines the autobiographies of Victor Shklovsky and Nicolae Steinhard for their attempts to manipulate the aesthetics of interrogation and confession through the literary device of estrangement.

Vatulescu delineates parallels in the way Shklovsky and Steinhard used this device to contend with the intrusive measures of the Soviet secret police. In his book of memoirs Sentimental Journey (Sentimental’noe puteschestvie, 1923), Shklovsky used the format of trial depositions as a model for his memoirs and practically composed answers to possible interrogation questions. Covering the period of the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War, the autobiographical Sentimental Journey presents the masks and personas Shklovsky adopted while navigating the immediate post-Revolution years. Half a century later, the Romanian writer Nicolae Steinhard used estrangement to expose and overcome the defamiliarizing effect of being cut off from the world inside the interrogation room. In his memoir Happiness Journal (Jurnalul fericirii), which was written in 1972 and finally published in 1991, Steinhard narrates how the Romanian secret police would construct an alternative reality inside the confines of the space they controlled in order to sever the individual from his familiar world. Steinhard interprets the orchestrated estrangement inside the interrogation room as surrealist because of its ability to present what is known in a radically different light.

Vatulescu’s considers a different set of aesthetic strategies when she takes up the role of the secret police in the production of Soviet cinema. The interest in cinema as an effective ideological weapon shaped the Soviet production of films, including what types of films were made and their formal features. Vatulescu first discusses films in chapter 3 and covers Vertov’s Kino-Eye, his Kino-Pravda newsreel series, Ivan Pyr’ev’s The Party Card (Partiinyi bilet, 1936), and Aleksandr Medvedkin’s documentary work. This first set of cinematic case studies focuses on the use of films for political representation of the regime’s enemies, including indolent workers, rebellious Socialist Revolutionaries, and covert saboteurs. Vatulescu uses Kino-Pravda number 8, from 1922, to demonstrate how the trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries was manipulated by the secret police through orchestrated audience reaction. Vertov’s documentary short covered the trial and “script[ed] the response of the audience to the SR trial by censoring the defiant self-presentation of the accused”(92). Also in the documentary vein, Medvedkin developed a kind of documentary cinema specifically designed to unmask delinquent workers, uncooperative peasants, and wealthy landowners. Traveling by a specially equipped film train, Medvedkin toured the Soviet countryside in 1933-1934 and by means of film prosecuted the negative elements of the new Soviet society.

Ivan Pyr’ev’s The Party Card, on the other hand, is a fictional film that presents the narrative of a spy who first deceives and marries a trustworthy member of the party, only to be exposed by his wife at the end of the film. The film, argues Vitalescu, exemplifies the style of socialist realism. The author relates its use of “exaggerated depth” to Stalinist vigilance for possible spies and saboteurs. In chapter 4, Vatulescu discusses how the film medium was also used to present a positive image of penal labor camps. The secret police played a full-fledged role in the production of Andrei Cherkasov’s eponymous 1928 documentary about the Solovki prison camp located on Solovetsky Island, in the White Sea. Made while prisoners were being abused and a typhoid fever raged at the camp, the film presents agents of the secret police playing “model version of themselves, and according to contemporary accounts of the shooting, they also played the roles of well-fed, compliant prisoners”(124).

Moving from literature to film pushes the author to discuss aspects of film production, exhibition and reception. In addition to influencing and subsidizing the production of film, the Soviet secret police was also heavily engaged in monitoring spectators and shaping their experience of films. The Soviet secret police formed the Society of Friends of Soviet Cinema – ODSK (Obshchestvo druzei sovetskogo kino) that pioneered audience surveys. Vatulescu analyzes how formal features such as editing, shot scales and mise en scène were utilized to address viewers in a fashion parallel to secret police procedures of surveillance, interrogation, and punishment. She correlates Vertov’s interest in filming his subjects unaware with the secret police techniques of surveillance. As a form of spectatorial address, Vertov’s cinematic technique aligns the audience with the point of view of the police investigator. Medvedkin’s documentaries, on the other hand, enroll the spectator in the persecution of lazy and negligent workers. Pyr’ev’s film ostensibly models the vigilant gaze Soviet citizens were encouraged to adopt.

A drawback of Vatulescu’s approach is that her interest in film and literature seems uneven. While the book takes up the shifting definition of literature during the foundational period of the Soviet regime, cinema is not considered in the same light. The definition of cinema in Police Aesthetics is primarily related to film’s capacity for ideological messaging. The book also doesn’t distinguish between the reception of literary texts and film in relation to police aesthetics, leaving a lot of ground uncovered. Vatulescu’s selection of sources presents another significant inconsistency. The combination of Russian and Romanian sources from varying historical moments creates the problem of historical continuity and coherence. Vatulescu cannot be faulted completely for these deficiencies since she never defines her book as an exhaustive study of the intersection between policing and culture. Instead, her book offers insightful, idiosyncratic case studies that explore the relationships between policing and culture from varying perspectives. Even though these relationships are not organized into a stylistic paradigm or an overarching theoretical model, Vatulescu’s book does offer penetrating analysis and astute claims about how cultures shaped art in Soviet times.