"What was the meaning of this theatre of absurdity": public shaming meetings in the late USSR

Stephenson, Svetlana (2023) "What was the meaning of this theatre of absurdity": public shaming meetings in the late USSR. Versus, 2 (5). pp. 15-40. ISSN 2782-3679


In recent years, we have seen a resurgence in the practice of public branding, a process in which members of a society express moral indignation at the views or behaviour of an individual or a group. This stigmatization is especially common on social media, but it can also take other forms (meetings of Academic Councils and ethics commissions, the so-called cancel culture, and so on). The splitting of the public into opposing groups, the fury of the accusations, the severe consequences of stigmatization for social status, the reputation of a person, the often revealed interest of the state and certain institutions in unleashing or using stigmatization - all this makes it an important phenomenon of modern public life. Stephenson’s article examines the practice of prorabotka, a ritual of public shaming that took place in schools, universities and workplaces in the Soviet Union. It argues that rather than being events dedicated to moral improvement and re-education of individuals by the collectives (as they were seen in the official discourse), these were repressive rituals that led to social degradation of the victims of shaming. It shows that in addition to an official script, the meetings had a supplementary script that unleashed negative moral emotions and affects but also generated guilt and fear.

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