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Gessen writes: "I sometimes joke that growing up in the Soviet Union prepared me for working as a journalist in the United States."

Joseph Stalin and Donald Trump. (photo: Getty Images)
Joseph Stalin and Donald Trump. (photo: Getty Images)

Donald Trump's Very Soviet Fixation on Applause

By Masha Gessen, The New Yorker

06 February 18


sometimes joke that growing up in the Soviet Union prepared me for working as a journalist in the United States. That joke has become less funny now that the President is positioning applause as a central issue of American politics. On Monday, before a crowd at a manufacturing plant, in Ohio, Donald Trump criticized Democrats who did not applaud during his first State of the Union address. “They were like death and un-American,” he said. “Un-American. Somebody said treasonous. I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not?”

In Soviet politics, too, applause was a central issue—sometimes, it seemed, the central issue. Whenever the Politburo or the Central Committee of the Supreme Soviet or the Party Congress had a session, the newspaper would fill with endless metres of incomprehensible gray copy, in which the only lines that made any sense were the parenthetical clauses describing applause. The Soviet papers had more ways to describe applause than they had for any other event in society or nature.

“Applause” was your vanilla clapping.

“Enthusiastic applause” (literally: “stormy applause”) took the description up a notch. No enthusiastic—much less stormy—emotion was actually in evidence: Soviet apparatchiks usually stood still, mechanically touching their hands together. But “stormy applause” did last a bit longer than plain applause.

“Thunderous applause” was even more enthusiastic than “enthusiastic applause.”

“Enthusiastic applause transitioning to an ovation” was even bigger and longer and often involved standing.

“Enthusiastic long-lasting applause transitioning to an ovation. Everybody stands.” You get the idea. In my recollection, this was often the last line of a newspaper report, but a media-dictionary entry compiled by a Russian media outlet offers more options. (This was compiled years ago; all the people involved with that project have long since lost their jobs.) “Enthusiastic applause that refuses to quiet down, transitioning to an ovation. Everyone stands. Audience member spontaneously shouts out, ‘Glory to the party of Lenin!’ ” “Enthusiastic applause that refuses to quiet down, transitioning to an ovation. Everyone stands and sings ‘The Internationale.’ ”

Naturally, this emphasis on clapping led to a kind of applause inflation. Here, for example, is a two-and-a-half-minute clip of Joseph Stalin giving a speech in 1937, at the height of the Great Terror. Stalin is speaking at a campaign event. (Russia had fake elections then, too.) You can observe the progression from “applause,” which lasts five seconds, to “enthusiastic applause,” which lasts fifteen seconds, to “enthusiastic applause transitioning to an ovation,” which lasts twenty-two seconds, to a finale that consists of three short bursts of “applause” before turning into “enthusiastic applause transitioning to an ovation. Everybody stands.”

Over the next fifteen years, it appears, applause became largely panic-driven; contemporary accounts show that people feared that the first person to stop clapping would be the first to be hauled off to jail. Failure to applaud could certainly be considered treason. So they went on and on, shouting “Long live Comrade Stalin,” “Glory to our beloved Comrade Stalin,” and “Glory to the revolution,” clapping until the palms of their hands bled. At the same time, the crowd seemed preternaturally attuned to the orator-in-chief: watching footage from the nineteen-forties and fifties, one wonders about how people knew at which moment to begin clapping in unison, and marvels at how quickly and completely they quieted down as soon as Stalin opened his mouth to speak.

A generation later, that discipline was gone. Here is Leonid Brezhnev speaking, or trying to speak, at the opening of a Komsomol (Communist Youth League) congress, in 1974. The thousands of people in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses will not stop clapping. Brezhnev is helpless to control them. There seems to be confusion between the applauders and the applauded: Brezhnev tries signalling to the crowd, joining the crowd, sitting, standing, smiling—all for naught.

This was no longer the era of terror, and the Komsomol members no longer feared being accused of treason or sent to jail. Nor did they necessarily think that clapping their hands together was the best way of expressing love of their country. They just had nothing better to do: once they stopped clapping, they would have to sit down and listen to hours of mind-numbing speeches that, the following day, would cover the endless pages of newspapers with incomprehensible gray words, among which only the lines “applause,” “enthusiastic applause,” and “enthusiastic applause transitioning to an ovation, everybody stands” stood out like something resembling the language of human communication. your social media marketing partner
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