Back in the USSR | The Nation


Back in the USSR

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The study of the Soviet Union in the United States, as distinguished from random journalism, memoirs and polemics, began on the right foot. After the end of World War II, a large body of Russians stranded in Germany and unwilling to go back to the Soviet Union furnished American social scientists with a priceless opportunity to study the institutions and mores of a society for more than two decades virtually unknown in the United States, then briefly allied with it and then again isolated from it by a wall of ignorance, suspicion and enmity. The so-called Harvard refugee project resulted in several pioneering works, among them Joseph Berliner's Factory and Manager in the Soviet Union, Alex Inkeles and Raymond Bauer's The Soviet Citizen--Daily Life in a Totalitarian Society and Mark Field's Doctor and Patient in Soviet Russia, all of them offering illuminating insights into how the Soviet system functioned and how it affected the daily lives of its citizens.

About the Author

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

Also by the Author



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.

But as time went on and Sovietology became an established feature of the academic scene, things changed. The early focus on social studies shifted gradually to political subjects, to an emphasis on Soviet foreign policies, the establishment of "people's democracies" in Eastern Europe, the expansion of Soviet influence in the Third World and so on. The shift was due partly to the paucity of firsthand information on the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, but also to the intensifying cold war, which inevitably influenced the scholarly community. Sovietology certainly did not become, as some have charged, an instrument of US foreign policy, but to some extent it mirrored the new atmosphere.

It is the singular achievement of Sheila Fitzpatrick, professor of modern Russian history at the University of Chicago, that her book marks a return to the early focus of academic studies of the Soviet Union. She was helped in this task by the gradual lifting of Soviet censorship, by the ability of Western students--since the early seventies--to travel and study in the USSR and also, as her bibliography amply demonstrates, by the number and range of studies of different facets of the social scene in the USSR that have been published over the past ten years or so. She has produced a fine work--engrossing, well written, superbly documented and much-needed to boot.

For her sources, she turned again to the records of the old Harvard project, still a trove of information on the thirties, and to reports written by secret-police agents for the use of a select number of high-level party officials, and held under lock and key until the recent opening of many (still not all!) secret archives. These make absolutely fascinating reading. So do letters from readers to newspapers, the personal correspondence intercepted, neatly sorted out and catalogued for their bosses by diligent NKVD agents, and a huge reservoir of denunciations, some signed, some anonymous, which were evidently carefully examined by the organs (as the security agencies were called), and sometimes read even by Stalin himself.

An assiduous scholar, Professor Fitzpatrick seems to have scrutinized every relevant scrap of paper. Her explication is a model of balance and judiciousness. She begins with the Communist Party's basic features, its untrammeled faith in itself, its revolutionary mystique, its penchant for secrecy (inherited from its conspiratorial pre-revolutionary years and hypertrophied under Stalin), the initially moderate and then increasingly lunatic cult of the Vozhd (Leader), the growing tendency of the thousands of "little Stalins" to emulate their Leader, a habit congenial to them and perilous to their victims.

The misfortunes that descended upon the country in the thirties are not exactly terra incognita. Their roots, as Fitzpatrick shows, lay in Stalin's cataclysmic policies of breakneck industrialization and collectivization, which she depicts vividly and with numerous apposite examples. "On the streets all the shops seemed to have disappeared. Gone was the open market. Gone were the nepmen [private businessmen]. The government stores had showy, empty boxes and other window-dressing. But the interior was devoid of goods."

Living standards plummeted. Shortages--of food and all imaginable consumer goods, from cutlery to shoes to needles and thread--became the reigning fact of life. People lived in hovels, windowless basements and "communal apartments," where one room housed up to thirty people and one toilet sometimes served 400. Famine and cannibalism stalked the countryside, while people would queue for up to fourteen hours a day, starting in the middle of the night, to get a single loaf of bread. Nerves frayed beyond endurance, with fistfights and knifings a common occurrence.

That these monstrous conditions were a result not only of imbecilic planning and human error but of deliberate ideological decisions is illustrated by the fact that almost all individual artisan activities were banned as "survivals of bourgeois values," human suffering be damned. Is it to be wondered at that the show trials of the thirties brimmed with accounts of "wrecking" and "sabotage," eerie cases of "placing broken glass in workers' butter" and the like, all laid at the feet of Stalin's "enemies"? The outside world was so mesmerized by the byzantine nature of the trials, with their phantasmagorical confessions and prevarications, that it has tended to ignore their more "traditional" function of singling out scapegoats to explain the consequences of the party's ruinous policies. Individual memoirs apart, most histories of this period were written from the top--that is, showing how the policies were shaped and implemented, rather than how they were perceived and experienced by their subjects. It is the latter, to repeat, that constitutes the major distinction of Fitzpatrick's book.

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