Palaces on Monday

J. Arch Getty

  • Everyday Stalinism. Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s by Sheila Fitzpatrick
    Oxford, 280 pp, £25.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 19 505000 2

It was not until the 1970s that ‘Soviet studies’ evolved into ‘Soviet history’. The totalitarian model, with its focus on government control of an inert population, gave way to the study of modern Russian society. The new Soviet social history insisted that society mattered, even in dictatorships, that the Stalinist regime had had to deal with a society whose traditions, structure and inertia could derail or modify the state’s plans. Although society never ‘won’ the contest, neither were the state’s victories complete. Even in the 1930s, the regime, which wanted communal farms, sometimes had to settle for private plots and privatised cows.

Sheila Fitzpatrick is the most prolific and influential historian of the Soviet Union working today. Her 11 books and numerous articles have guided two generations of scholars eager to prise open the mysteries of the Soviet experiment. It was Fitzpatrick who, twenty years ago, advanced the proposition that state and society were engaged in an ‘informal negotiation’, a suggestion that was inflammatory at the time but is now the received wisdom. It was her study of education and social mobility that first documented the existence of support for Stalinism. In a deceptively unpretentious collection of essays, published in 1978, she set the terms for a twenty-year debate on whether policy initiatives always originated ‘from above’ or could also come ‘from below’ as part of a ‘cultural revolution’.

The 1990s saw another revolution in Soviet historiography. In the early part of the decade, the secret archives of the Soviet Party and Government began to be opened and scholars flocked to Moscow. Some were eager to find definitive answers to old questions, but others were interested in altogether new matters. One of the topics that preoccupies historians is the relationship between the population and the Stalinist regime, and whether the Soviet people resisted it, passively accommodated to it, or actively and passionately supported it. Different historians have different views on these matters. Secret documents suggested to Lynne Viola and Jeffrey Rossman that peasants and workers did not sit quietly and take whatever the regime dished out. Stephen Kotkin, on the other hand, was struck by how little resistance there was, and shows that Soviet citizens (like most people in most countries) simply accepted and accommodated to the prevailing system. Influenced by Foucault, he describes the Soviet people as learning to ‘speak Bolshevik’ in order to manoeuvre within the existing power matrices. Some have gone further. Demonstrating the impact of the ‘literary turn’ in historical analysis, Jochen Hellbeck looked at a number of diaries and makes it clear that many not only accepted and believed in Stalinism: they actively tried to remould their souls to become one with the regime’s goals.

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s recent writings have explored resistance, accommodation and adherence in several settings. She is not really interested in sweeping assertions or grand theorising and doesn’t mind being accused (as she sometimes is) of theoretical poverty or of the crime of ‘essentialism’: strictly empirical analysis is her preferred method. It is not that she is scornful of theoretical approaches: her work on Soviet social identities and culture shows that she can use these ideas and vocabularies when she wants to. She has simply not found a grand theory that explains her facts. In her view class analysis does not make much sense at a time when some classes were melting away and new ones forming, and familiar categories like ‘peasant’ or ‘working class’ were made up of entirely different people from those who used to carry these labels. She is also doubtful of the explanatory force of Foucault’s multiple discourses of power when we still know so little about what was actually happening out there in society.

Fitzpatrick’s urban Homo Sovieticus of the 1930s had to deal with three overwhelming obstacles to a normal life: an arbitrary, incompetent and unpredictably violent state; shortages of food, clothing and shelter (and just about everything else); and constant cataclysmic upheavals that made life impossible to plan. Tens of millions of people changed their jobs, homes, class and self-identity as an unprepared but determined state suddenly abolished the market and took control of every element of agriculture, industry and trade. All this would of itself have been traumatic enough, yet the regime decided at the same time to carry out the most rapid industrialisation in history while, for political reasons, deliberately crushing the social groups – traders, factory-owners, engineers and commercial farmers – that had been at the heart of modernisation elsewhere. Millions of people moved to towns that had no new housing and little adequate sanitation. Most fateful of all was the decision to destroy private farming in favour of an untested and unpopular system of collective agriculture. Without it, there would have been chaos. As it was, millions died of starvation and millions more went hungry for years.

None of this is news. We have been studying this process from outside and from above for years. We knew about Stalin’s decision to launch this revolution and have had a steadily increasing supply of statistical data. Fitzpatrick and others have documented the aggregate changes in politics, culture and society that accompanied it, but until now we have known precious little about the most intriguing question of all: how did ordinary people manage? How did they live when it was virtually impossible to find satisfactory food, clothing and shelter? What mental processes enabled them to deal with the unpredictability of terror? And why do so many of them have positive memories of the time and of the regime that caused their suffering?

The bureaucracy of the 1930s was staffed by inexperienced recruits, drawn into the Party to cope with the new economic tasks which the leadership imposed. Most were poorly educated and many were corrupt, arbitrary and inefficient. The simplest matters were caught up in webs of red tape and pointless paperwork that made the new plebeian bureaucrats feel important. Although there was no shortage of rules and regulations, virtually everyone, at every level, felt free to interpret and impose regulations as they liked, regardless of Moscow’s policies. A pyramid of ‘little Stalins’ extended from the top down to the lowest administrative level. Each petty bureaucrat had his patron or chief above him and a set of subordinates and clients below. The result for the population was arbitrariness accompanied by random and frequent punishments. One collective farm chairman imposed large fines for impolite language. In Stalingrad city officials fined anyone caught travelling on a streetcar in dirty clothes – which made things difficult for factory workers in a factory town. In Astrakhan one could be forced to pay 100 roubles for wearing a hat in the wrong place. The punishments associated with the terror of 1937 just as arbitrary.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in