Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times

Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times

Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times

Police Aesthetics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times


The documents emerging from the secret police archives of the former Soviet bloc have caused scandal after scandal, compromising revered cultural figures and abruptly ending political careers. Police Aesthetics offers a revealing and responsible approach to such materials. Taking advantage of the partial opening of the secret police archives in Russia and Romania, Vatulescu focuses on their most infamous holdings- the personal files- as well as on movies the police sponsored, scripted, or authored. Through the archives, she gains new insights into the writing of literature and raises new questions about the ethics of reading. She shows how police files and films influenced literature and cinema, from autobiographies to novels, from high-culture classics to avant-garde experiments and popular blockbusters. In so doing, she opens a fresh chapter in the heated debate about the relationship between culture and politics in twentieth-century police states.


The history of Russia … could be considered from two
points of view: first, as the evolution of the police … and
second, as the development of a marvelous culture.

—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory!

Zones of Contact: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police

Broadly defined, the two subjects of this book—twentieth-century Eastern European culture and the secret police—largely fit the plan of study that Nabokov suggests in my epigraph. However, while Nabokov emphasizes the unbridgeable chasm between the “marvelous culture” and “the police,” this book explores their entangled intersections. Indeed, I am intent on mapping a wide range of relationships between culture and policing, and probing their still unfathomed depth. Not only did the secret police shape many an artist’s biography; its personal files redefined the way a life, and thus biography itself, was to be written in Soviet times. How did the secret police write about its subjects in the infamous personal file? What impact did this powerful new genre of writing have on the literature of its times? How did the secret police’s penchant for confiscating diaries and extracting confessions influence writing in the first person? What uses did the secret police have for the cinema? And what fantasies did cinema harbor about policing? What role did cinema play in the first Soviet show trial? Why were avant-garde filmmakers mounting their cameras on top of machine guns? What were film cameras doing in the Gulag? And how was the moving image affected by its excursion through the camps? How did vision, visual technologies, and policing intersect in the foundational decades of the Soviet regime?

Before setting out in search of answers to these questions, I will address the first query that usually greets this project: How could the secret police, and its key artifacts, such as personal files and films, play a role in the culture of its times if it was indeed secret? The following anecdotes should give a . . .

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