Revolutionary States | The Nation


Revolutionary States

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In much of her work Sheila Fitzpatrick has gone beyond, and sometimes underneath, the surface appearances of Stalinist society to uncover how ordinary Soviet citizens lived during the years of Stalin's dictatorship. Australian-born and British-educated, Fitzpatrick is recognized as one of the most influential Western historians of Stalinism, a prominent pioneer in the revisionist historiography of the 1930s. Her latest work explores how people adjusted to the new regime by acquiring, sometimes forging, new identities. The Bolsheviks propagated a Manichaean view of a world made up of allies and enemies, those with them and those against them. Class was the key determinant of loyalty, but class in a roiling postrevolutionary society that had overturned a centuries-old autocratic order with fixed social estates was exceptionally difficult to determine. Were you a worker by birth or prerevolutionary experience, or was your current occupation to be definitive? Why not both? Being ascribed by authorities to a certain class brought with it privileges, if you were from the poor peasantry or proletariat, or disadvantages, if you were a former bourgeois, landowner or cleric. The elaborate process of being fixed into class and other categories--for example, nationality--led to impersonation, assuming an appropriate persona, or even imposture, falsely taking on an advantageous identity. Party officials and zealous ordinary folk constantly engaged in denouncing and "unmasking" those who claimed to be who they were not.

About the Author

Ronald Grigor Suny
Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History and the director of the...

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For Fitzpatrick, Marxist class categories not only did not reflect social realities in the Soviet 1920s and '30s but had to be invented and imposed on a society that they did not fit. Class was therefore somewhat artificial, an imagined community (she borrows the phrase from Benedict Anderson's familiar characterization of "nation") that was then applied to diverse people. Marxists, she contends, had a rather inflexible notion of class, which they used to define people's relationship to the means of production: some were owners, the bourgeoisie; others had nothing but their labor power to sell, the proletariat. She leaves out discussion of what may have been occurring on the ground, except to note the social dislocation of the revolutionary and early Stalinist years. It is invaluable to point out how group identities were the product of elite conceptualization of the group--acts of imagination and, yes, even invention. But Fitzpatrick sets herself off from those Marxists and other social theorists (among them Anderson) who in the past few decades have been arguing that groups of all kinds are not merely imagined as sharing common traits and differing from others but also develop some level of actual coherence from greater social communication and integration. In their analysis, class, like nation, happens over time most effectively when identity and meaning generated from above resonate with cultural understandings down below. Once brought into being, such communities may still be imagined, but they are definitely not imaginary, as people are ready to fight, kill and die for them.

In its first decades the Soviet Union moved away from the radical democracy of 1917-18 to single-party rule through the 1920s to unanticipated authoritarianism and bloody repression in the '30s, turning from a society of villages to one of massive industrial work sites and burgeoning cities. The old classes of capitalist Russia dissolved, and a new Soviet stratification of workers, peasants, intellectuals and officials replaced them. Fitzpatrick tells a history of individuals from below, drawing on their autobiographies and letters, the forms they filled out and their heroic quotidian efforts to make a life for themselves and get ahead as the whirlwind of collectivization and the Great Terror tore up the lives of many and propelled others upward into the new Soviet elite. Her sovki (Soviet people) wrote constantly to authorities seeking help, used blat (reciprocal favors) to acquire scarce goods and services, as well as connections, patronage networks, people you could "go to" for protection or favors. Stalin was the ultimate patron but dispensed his favors arbitrarily, while others, like Nikolai Bukharin and Avel Enukidze, both of whom had formerly been close comrades of the vozhd' (leader), were able to help only until their fateful falls brought down clients as well.

Terror (both upper- and lowercase) lurks behind Fitzpatrick's stories of denunciators and deceivers--the con men she calls "virtuosos of self-invention"--and their unsuspecting victims. But her dissection of Stalinism undermines the rather rigid model of totalitarianism propagated during the cold war. "It is difficult," she writes, "to see a society in which con men and imposture flourished to this extent as being under effective totalitarian mobilization and control." Rather, the Soviet Union of the 1930s "was characterized...by poor communications, lack of effective accountability, institutional habits of hoarding, and 'off-budget' distribution, credulous and ill-educated officials, and personalistic practices." Soviet citizens appear motivated primarily by the drive to survive. They are rational and desperate people rather than idealistic socialists or dedicated patriots. In a chapter on denunciations, for example, Fitzpatrick points out that the case of the infamous Pavlik Morozov, the poster-boy denunciator who turned in his family members, was quite atypical, that there were very few denunciations of family members. But she explains this finding not by citing the affective ties of parents to children or husbands to wives but by "practical reasons." To denounce a close family member would taint and endanger all who were closely related to the traitor. She explicitly contrasts her take on Soviet subjectivity with those of younger scholars who propose that Bolshevism and Stalinism produced a particularly nonliberal sense of self and purpose, a desire to fashion oneself as an authentically "Soviet Man" or "Woman." Instead of self-absorbed egoism and personal satisfaction, a true Soviet person would aim to become a politically conscious builder of the new socialist society, and generations of those who lived under Stalin's iron fist strove not to forge individualistic identities but to merge with the collective.

The quintessential Soviet for Fitzpatrick was a shrewd manipulator able to adapt to shifting opportunities, maneuver through ever-present dangers and "con" the authorities when necessary. Actual and fictional Soviet con men were read as Jews, she claims, and the immensely popular novels of Ilf and Petrov, with their trickster hero, Ostap Bender, were banned in the late Stalin period during an anti-Semitic campaign targeting intellectuals, doctors and other professionals. By the time the ban was lifted in 1956, Stalin was gone and the Soviet Union had become a much more mundane society, routinized and bureaucratic, with its revolutionary pretensions nothing more than pretensions. Soviet citizens, in the words of dissident writer Andrei Siniavskii, had imbibed Bender's survival skills, and, Fitzpatrick adds, "the Jewish trickster, in short, had become the personification of really existing Soviet Man." In the last sentence of the book she concludes, "On the road to new post-Soviet identity, the impostor, Janus-faced, was once again in the vanguard."

So, one wonders, was it all a waste of time, of millions of lives and several generations who had sacrificed and vainly hoped for a different outcome? That seems to be the verdict in much of the developed world, certainly in the United States, which treated the demise of the Soviet experiment as inviolable proof that it alone deserved to inherit the globe. Few remain who would condone the excesses of Stalin or defend his revolution ex post facto because it was the Soviet army and people who were the main force that defeated Hitler--and, ironically, made possible the revival of the capitalist West. More would reserve judgment on 1917, with its aspirations for a new society of greater equality, social justice and popular power. Historians will long stay employed fighting over when the revolution went wrong and whether Stalinism was already present in the genetic code of Leninism. Philosophers and politicians will question whether and under what circumstances violence and terror might be justified. How could it be justified? By its ends, it seems, for nothing but ends justify means. But if the means make it impossible to reach the ends or so taint the ends that they cease to be worthy or desired, then those means cannot be justified by the ends.

Eggs and omelets have been repeatedly used metaphorically to justify violence and terror. In real-world politics we break eggs because we want omelets. The Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky once retorted that he had seen the broken eggs, but no one he knew had ever tasted the omelet. There are those who believe that it was a waste of eggs to make such an impossible, utopian omelet, and others who believe in the omelet but not the breaking of eggs. But if one concludes that there are some omelets that are worth broken eggs, one should at the start make sure that all the ingredients are available and, as anyone who has made breakfast knows, remember that eggs must be broken delicately, not smashed so that yokes, whites and shells all get cooked together.

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