The Enemy on Trial: Early Soviet Courts on Stage and Screen

Attempting to indoctrinate the public into a new society, the Bolsheviks staged show trials - legal trials that incorporated theatrical elements such as coached defendants, memorized scripts for confession, and gruelling interrogatory rehearsals . This genre of legal spectacle, whose origins lay in Soviet theatre and cinema of the 1920s, moved from mass public spectacles to the courtroom, as the Bolsheviks sought to effect ever greater social change. In this interdisciplinary study, literature scholar Cassiday argues that the trials deliberately used avant-garde drama and cinema to educate the citizenry about the new social order. This work examines how elements of theatre and film were incorporated into Soviet courtrooms, turning public trials into vehicles for propaganda. Unlike scholars who have emphasized either the performative or the legal aspects of show trials, she gives equal weight to both. Drawing on a variety of popular media from the 1920s, she reveals the origins of the show trials; melodramatic legal discourse built around confession, repentance, and pleas for reintegration into Soviet society. She shows how techniques such as costuming, scripting, out-takes, editing and the framing of shots contributed to the spectacle. Detractors have long discredited the show trials as legal fiction, ultimately throwing into question the legitimacy of the entire Soviet regime. Cassiday shows, however, that the mixture of theatre and the law is not unique to the Soviets, but is a pairing long exhibited in the West as well, in media events like the Nuremberg trials and Scopes monkey trial.