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  • Tear off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia
  • Jeffrey Brooks
Tear off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia. By Sheila Fitzpatrick (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. xii plus 332 pp.).

This is a collection of linked essays chiefly about social identity. Most have already been published but it is good to have them available in one place. With this compendium Fitzpatrick fills in the larger context for her somewhat underappreciated Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union, 1921-1934 (1979). In that study, she showed how the Bolsheviks won a constituency and provided a substantial minority with better or at least more prestigious lives. In this volume she shows how certain unstable social identities played out in that transformation, whether used by the government to identify its supporters and opponents or by Soviet citizens to secure a safe haven in the new order and to stigmatize people they disliked. Drawing in part on the work of Erving Goffman, Fitzpatrick employs the term identity chiefly to refer to how individuals defined themselves and were defined by others. As in her earlier works, she invokes class as a preeminent category of identity in reference to actual social formations and to various cultural constructions of class.

Curiously, there is little in the book about the positive features of new identities associated with Bolshevik rule, though many people including certain national minorities certainly adopted such identities with great enthusiasm. That is not to say that Fitzpatrick does not describe any "good" or more exactly useful identities but simply that she focuses on identities in play. The essays therefore largely concern Soviet society's experience with unstable and unwanted identities, questionable identities people sought to acquire or to shed, even though as Fitzpatrick has shown in her earlier work socio-economic and political changes led to new often stable identities. Thus the largely positive or at least self-satisfying aspects of mobility by which peasants and other lower-class people became functionaries, engineers, and white collar employees with responsibilities are overshadowed in this volume by the negative aspects of the great transforma- tion—its paranoia, falseness, efforts to mask and unmask social identities that were considered reprehensible, attempts to acquire identities with positive associations.

The topics of the essays in the book range from the construction of class to a number of case studies in individual social identity. The essays on class concern chiefly concern official uses of identity in the 1920s and 1930s and the efforts of the populace to work the new system to their advantage. This was not always easy, since as Fitzpatrick explains, "In the 1930s, as in the 1920s, the Soviet approach to class involved an important retrospective dimension" [End Page 456] Therefore origins often counted for more than the actual position a person occupied in society at a given moment or even over a considerable period of time. This has a curious ring to it given the persecutions, liabilities, and benefits the Bolsheviks conferred according to attributed hereditary class origins. On this basis, she argues that the Bolsheviks "invented" their own notion of class, and therefore inadvertently encouraged the populace to create favorable class identities. It is interesting to compare Fitzpatrick's treatment with that in an excellent recent monograph by Diane Koenker, Republic of Labor: Russian Printers and Soviet Socialism, 1918-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005). Whereas Fitzpatrick portrays the Bolsheviks as the driving force in creating notions of class or in provoking inventions on that score, Koenker shows how powerfully the idea of class resonated with workers in the printing industry and how these workers used or at least tried to use their deeply held notions of class to defend themselves against the Soviet bureaucracy.

Among Fitzpatrick's case studies, the most interesting are perhaps a series of essays on women's identity, particularly that of women with problematic identities. Thus she describes a certain Anastasia, who claimed to come from a poor family of peasant carpenters but was then accused during the 1930s of belonging in fact to a family of rich peasants. Another essay concerns women's autobiographies from the 1920s through 1990s, which not...


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pp. 456-457
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