Back in the USSR | The Nation


Back in the USSR

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The thirties were not only an age of excruciating misery for Soviet citizens but also a decade of hope, utopian dreams and idealism. While millions starved and suffered, others--mostly young party zealots but also some writers, poets and other intellectuals--genuinely believed that the agonies of the present were bound to yield to a radiant future.

About the Author

Abraham Brumberg
Abraham Brumberg has written extensively on Russian and Eastern European developments.

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Few of those who followed the David Irving libel trial held in London
three years ago could avoid being struck by the calm but towering
presence of the British historian Richard Evans.

Alongside the sham, cynicism and opportunism of daily life were selfless sacrifice, a sense of commitment and--last but not least--rewards in the form of upward mobility for the emergent "new class." More than half a century on, it is sobering to realize that most of those superannuated men and women parading their nostalgia for the good old days on the streets of Moscow and Petersburg, and hysterically waving portraits of Stalin, are the authentic if pathetic remnants of those hordes of idealists and the beneficiaries of Stalin's policies, all of them remaining touchingly faithful to his memory.

Fitzpatrick writes with grim amusement about the privileges extended to the new class--special stores, foods average citizens could not dream about, dachas and spacious apartments equipped with modern conveniences. She writes with compassion about the lives of the dispossessed, disfranchised, disdained and humiliated, the vast majority of Soviet citizens. Among them were millions of "dekulakized" peasants, "socially alien elements" and their offspring--i.e., aristocrats, priests, czarist officials (including the lowliest ranks), "capitalists" and the like, not to speak of those thousands of erstwhile members of hostile political parties.

The result, she notes, was a society filled with resentment, suspicion, fear of informers and hypocrisy, a natural result of having to conceal one's "social origins." Children were among the most helpless victims, denied entrance into schools and professions, pressured to reject, if not to denounce, their parents. Hundreds of thousands of bezprizornye--homeless and often delinquent children--roamed the countryside, much to the annoyance of people like Marshal Voroshilov and Stalin himself, who in 1935 issued a decree making minors 12 and older subject to the death penalty.

One chapter in Everyday Stalinism deals with the impact of the upheavals of the thirties on the institution of the family. Fitzpatrick observes (and documents) that the response to the continued blows from without was very frequently a valiant attempt to keep the family together. Given the circumstances--with husbands running away from their wives and children, the age-old Russian blights of alcoholism and wife-beating (to which the police frequently paid little or no attention), and women forced to function as breadwinners, mothers and homemakers--it was no easy task.

Not all was silent suffering and submission to fate. As Fitzpatrick illustrates, defiance of the authorities, hostile remarks about Communist leaders (including Stalin), mordant jokes and even open expressions of anger and criticism were rife. Naturally, the organy were concerned. By 1937, when terror, a recurrent feature of Soviet life, swept the country like a plague, open or half-concealed opposition to the authorities became impossible. Frank conversations, even within the inner sanctum of one's home and family, were fraught with danger.

Fitzpatrick ends her description of the upheavals and anguish caused by the mass terror on a striking note: "There were fearful things that affected Soviet life and visions that uplifted it, but mostly it was a hard grind, full of shortages and discomfort. Homo sovieticus was a string-puller, an operator, a time-server, a freeloader, a mouther of slogans, and much more. But above all, he was a survivor."

One wonders, in reading this absorbing book, to what extent the long-gone thirties shaped not only the era of Stalin's direct successors but also that of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the post-perestroika period already a decade old and not--as far as one can see--about to vanish or be superseded by yet another drastic upheaval, however long Yeltsin may stay on his throne. The unfulfilled promise of a society ruled by law; the wretched conditions of the vast majority of Russians side by side with the rise of a bloated and cynical middle class; the corruption, the freewheeling criminality--how much is all this, and more, rooted in the conditions, the mores, the patterns of thought and behavior, and the institutions whose foundations were laid in the twenties and came to fruition in that terrible decade of the thirties?

That Russian society has undergone some fundamental changes is a truism not worth repeating or exploring. But how much of the past has come back to haunt it? Perhaps Professor Fitzpatrick will take up this question next time she puts pen to paper.

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