Back in the USSR

Back in the USSR

The study of the Soviet Union in the United States, as distinguished from random journalism, memoirs and polemics, began on the right foot.


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.

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.

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.

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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