The Dzhaz Age

Stephen Lovell

Over the last thirty years, Karl Schlögel has been the most distinguished flâneur among historians of Russia. A sense of place – both as the setting for human encounters and something that conditions cultural and intellectual life – has informed much of his work. In 1984 he published Moskau lesen, an essayistic exploration of the Soviet capital, while his later books include a history of St Petersburg in the early 20th century which sees the city as a ‘laboratory of modernity’, and a study of Russian-German interactions through the prism of Berlin, which Schlögel christens ‘Europe’s Ostbahnhof’.

In this latest book, however, the flâneur has to change his mode of transport. To represent Moscow in 1937, the leisurely intellectual stroll is traded for a bumpy ride on a witch’s broomstick. Moscow 1937 opens with the heroine’s flight in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which, for all its phantasmagoric trappings, provides an ethnographically grounded depiction of the city in the 1930s. Schlögel’s book, like Bulgakov’s, has stomach-churning narrative lurches. Bulgakov gives us a variety show that turns into a public execution; Schlögel has the NKVD co-ordinators of mass murder holding a public celebration in the Bolshoi Theatre to mark the twentieth anniversary of their organisation in December 1937. The grotesquerie is unavoidable. Schlögel’s task is to describe one of the most notoriously violent peacetime societies in modern history at its most notoriously violent moment.

The period has been much written about in the forty years since Robert Conquest made the Soviet 1930s synonymous with the Great Terror. Scholarship on prewar Stalinism has bifurcated. On the one hand, studies of the Terror have become more detailed and nuanced. Now that the Soviet archives have been opened, it seems that the number of victims in 1937-38 was lower than Conquest estimated. But the horror has not diminished. Rather the contrary: we now know far more about the Soviet phenomenon of death by quota. Besides taking aim at former oppositionists and ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in the state apparatus, the Great Terror consisted of ‘mass operations’ against whole categories of the population that were deemed dangerous: priests, Poles, de-kulakised vagrants and many others.

On the other hand, historians have painted Stalinist society as a new and distinctive civilisation. In attempting to launch itself into industrial modernity, it borrowed feverishly from the rest of the world (even if it tried to conceal the fact), but it remained distinctive, if only because of the scale of the civilising mission, the speed at which it was implemented, and the social backdrop against which it was conducted. For all the chaos, violence and squalor of the times, the 1930s saw the birth of a new social order based on industrialisation, coercion and mobilisation, but buttressed by patriotism and aspirations to a socialist version of self-betterment.

While most historians see both terror and civilisation as important to understanding the Soviet experience of the 1930s, they tend to spend their time investigating either one or the other. Schlögel is the first to attempt to knit them together so intricately. The title of the German edition of his book (published in 2008) makes the point absolutely clear: Terror und Traum. As he notes à propos the frenzied pageantry of parades on Red Square, ‘Everything came together: confetti parade and death-sentence plebiscite, popular celebrations and thirst for revenge, carnival extravaganza and orgies of hatred.’

Representing this chaos – keeping it chaotic without rendering it nonsensical – is a stylistic and formal problem as much as a historiographical one. Schlögel’s solution is what he calls ‘stereoscopic’ vision. The text is divided into 39 chapters ranging in length from one page to more than thirty; it takes us swiftly back and forth between show trials and executions, ‘Soviet Hollywood’ and shop windows. The grand scale is combined with the vignette. Schlögel doesn’t just change topics; he changes tone and perspective. On occasion he passes judgment; at other times he lets documents speak for themselves. When the issue is the culpability of the Soviet leadership, there is no text more powerful than Operational Order No. 00447, of 30 July 1937, which listed nine distinct ‘groups subject to punitive measures’ and set out in advance how many people were to be executed in the various administrative units of the USSR. The Eastern Siberian Region, for example, was given an allocation of a thousand ‘first category’ arrestees; the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic a hundred; and Moscow five thousand. Schlögel’s account of the victims at the Butovo shooting range, one of the main killing sites of Moscow’s Great Terror, has a shattering specificity: we find a long list of victims, from illiterate peasants accused of Trotskyism to Fedor Golovin, chairman of the Second State Duma in 1907.

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