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 Politburo itself was rarely explicit about what it wanted, preferring instead to give general ‘signals’ on new policies. Important changes in direction were indicated by vague speeches or articles – which, as Fitzpatrick shows, made it possible for the leadership to repudiate the disastrous consequences of a given policy’s implementation. But she also points out that the administrative machinery was so clumsy and unsophisticated that it could respond only to simple directives: stop, go, faster, slower. In addition, there were the endless inexplicable contradictions between what Moscow instructed and what local officials actually did. Despite Politburo orders against purging Party members on grounds of their class origins, for example, local officials constantly arrested citizens for having dubious family connections. On this and many other fronts Moscow spent a good deal of time undoing the work of its local representatives.

Living standards plummeted as a result of Stalin’s decision to concentrate on heavy industry, and in 1932-33, city-dwellers consumed a third as much meat as they had in 1928 and half the amount of bread their parents had eaten in 1900. Even to get that they often had to stand in line for many hours – police in Leningrad reported queues of 6000 people. Private shops and craftsmen disappeared, to be replaced by state stores that were either empty or stocked with defective goods. The list of near unobtainable items was long: lamps, soap, matches, pottery, hats, baskets, knives, dry goods and shoes, as well as construction and repair materials. Shopping had become, in Fitzpatrick’s phrase, a ‘survival skill’.

Everyone remembers shoes. Footwear bought in state stores usually fell apart in days. Sometimes assistants kept a large bin behind the counter, into which pair after pair would be thrown until one was found that was in a fit condition to sell to a customer. At the beginning of the 1935 school year in Yaroslavl, an important industrial city, there wasn’t a single pair of children’s shoes in any of the state stores. In Leningrad the situation was so bad that even when consignments of defective shoes arrived, the queues disrupted the traffic and the line of would-be purchasers was so dense that it was liable to push against and shatter adjoining shop windows.

As Fitzpatrick notes, it wasn’t until the Khrushchev years that the regime put resources into new housing. In 1939, Pskov, a town of 60,000, had no streetcars and no paved roads. Stalingrad, a major industrial city, had no buses. Homo Sovieticus became accustomed to calculating housing quotients in square metres per person and average living space in Moscow dropped from 5.5 square metres per person to 4 in 1940. Most people lived in communal flats, with one or more families per room and shared kitchen and, with luck, toilet facilities – most Moscow flats in the 1930s had no bath and a third had no sewer connection. Unlucky or marginal people slept in corridors, entrances, corners of other people’s rooms or barracks, sometimes together with their families. Friction was inevitable and led to gossip, denunciations and open conflict. The fact that every kommunalka veteran recalls the presence in the flat of a drunken old man and a demented old woman makes one wonder if this, too, were part of some bizarre bureaucratic plan.

How did people cope morally and psychologically? For many, the only available response was grim resignation. Things had always been hard in Russia, and there was nothing to do but grumble and try to get by. Others, perhaps very many others, saw the shortages and difficulties as bearable because of the promise the future held. In that sense this was a time of utopian enthusiasm, and there is good reason to believe that the optimism was not just an artefact of official propaganda.

Millions of people were moving up from field to factory, from factory to office. Education was expanding rapidly: there were 3 million high school students in the late 1920s; a decade later, there were 18 million. In the same period literacy rates doubled to more than 80 per cent. Contemporary memoirs record the universal obsession with studying, not only in order to move up in society but to help build the future. This was the time when optimistic young Khrushchevs and Brezhnevs worked day and night to overcome ‘temporary’ difficulties. They dreamed of ‘future palaces’ and a time when technology and industrial growth would bring plenty for all. Moscow was being rebuilt, and new monuments were everywhere. A new All-Union Exhibition of Economic Achievement attracted 30,000 visitors a day. For many, as Fitzpatrick shows, today’s problems were merely bumps on the road to the promised land.

How did people set about getting the space and goods they needed? On one level, of course, they didn’t. They suffered. But they suffered in varying degrees in an economic system whose unitary image hid a variety of legal and illegal channels of distribution. The Stalinist economy was not an economy at all, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. On the face of it, everything was straightforward: the state monopolised all production and distribution and citizens used their wages to buy goods from the state shops. In reality, many – probably most – goods were not distributed this way, and many of the biggest distribution networks had nothing to do with money. When they talked about acquiring goods, Soviet citizens in the 1930s did not use words implying purchase or indeed any kind of economic transaction. Verbs that had to do with giving and getting replaced those that implied selling and buying. One did not ‘buy’: one ‘got hold of’. Similarly, ‘they’ did not ‘sell’ things: they were ‘giving them out’.

At times of extreme shortage, the regime rationed bread and other foodstuffs. Although presented as an extraordinary measure, rationing was so frequently imposed as to become the default means of distribution. Rationed goods could be purchased at fixed prices only on presentation of a ration card, and the quantities one could buy depended on several factors. Although in some periods factory workers’ rations were larger than those of white-collar workers and even of some Party officials, on the whole, higher-status workers and officials were entitled to more and better goods. Entitlements also varied according to region and the kind of industry people worked in. In all its forms, however, the ration system distributed goods without regard to price or ability to pay.

People at all levels of society were allocated food, goods and accommodation through ‘closed distribution’ schemes at their workplaces. These ranged from free or nominally priced hot meals in factories to the ‘closed shops’ and ‘special packages’ of gourmet foods for high-ranking Party officials; from the reserved housing space allocated to a factory to relatively luxurious flats for senior officials. It was an economy of privilege rather than of wealth. In fact, as Fitzpatrick notes, the higher a person’s status in the Party, the more goods they received, and the better their quality, as well as the lower their ‘price’. No wonder those at the top could persuade themselves that socialism was at hand.

Patronage was another way of getting hold of scarce goods and services. Powerful politicians presided over networks of clients and dependants: a given intellectual or artist would ‘go to see’ his or her politician; ordinary people, too, often found a patron in a local Party secretary, trade-union leader or factory manager. Thanks to their privileged position (or ability to steal), patrons were able to supply access to housing and goods that were otherwise unobtainable. Money wasn’t necessarily involved: it wasn’t unusual for patrons to ‘give out’ goods to their dependants. For the patron, the reward was power and prestige. For the client or supplicant, it was often the only way to get something they needed.

Two theatre managers, Ruslanov and Popov, lived in the same building. Popov hung flowerpots that Ruslanov did not like from his balcony. Ruslanov got an order from the local police requiring the pots to be removed. Popov retaliated with an order from the city chief of police to leave them where they were. Ruslanov appealed to his patron, the chief of civilian police for the USSR, who ordered that the pots be removed. Popov retaliated through his patron, the Minister of Defence Voroshilov, who ordered that Popov not be bothered further. Ruslanov trumped Popov’s patron with his own, the President of the USSR Kalinin, who ordered the removal of the flowerpots.

Acquaintances and even total strangers wrote to national leaders like Molotov or Stalin with requests, which were often granted. Some of these ‘transactions’ were quite strange. I found a letter in the archives from the widow of Alexander Shliapnikov, a Bolshevik dissident who was arrested and shot in 1937. After her husband’s execution, she wrote to Yezhov, the head of the NKVD and the man responsible for her husband’s death, with a request for help in finding employment. (Not surprisingly, the language of such petitions was unchanged from the time when peasants begged noblemen or tsars for support.) Despite her late husband’s ‘enemy’ status, Yezhov ordered that work be found for her. In 1936, when the Old Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin was already under suspicion, he wrote to Yezhov requesting a new dacha and permission for his wife to join him on a business trip to Paris. The nouveau bureaucrat Yezhov graciously approved both requests.

The saying ‘better a hundred friends than a hundred roubles’ acquired real meaning at such times, as did the term blat, which refers to personal advantage derived from friends and acquaintances. Patronage implies a hierarchical relationship; blat was about who you knew and about chains of reciprocal relationships: Andrei can get shoes, Pavel’s uncle can get train tickets, Masha’s friend can get you a coat. Every Soviet citizen remembers the importance of these connections: ‘If you need to buy something in a shop, you need blat. If it’s difficult or impossible for a passenger to get a train ticket, then it is simple and easy po blatu. If you need a flat, don’t ever go to the housing administration, to the procurator: better to use just a little blat and you will have your apartment.’ Sometimes these networks of acquaintances, relatives and friends of friends overlapped with patronage systems. It was not uncommon to score points with one’s boss by using friends to acquire goods for him or even supplies for the factory or workplace. Blat wasn’t confined to the black market. Fitzpatrick describes a 1930s cartoon in which a shop assistant tells a customer: ‘He’s a courteous man, our store manager. When he sells cloth, he calls the customers by name.’ ‘Does he really know all the customers?’ the man asks. ‘Of course. If he doesn’t know someone, he doesn’t sell to them.’

Other ways of acquiring goods and services were less savoury. Fitzpatrick describes the exploits of the famous Bay Leaf Gang, a group of speculators in tea and spices, who made 1.5 million roubles. Graft and corruption were endemic in the Stalinist system of distribution. Workers stole materials and tools. Managers used their position to divert goods from state channels into blat or patronage networks, or to black-market gangs. Store managers were notorious for moving goods into shady channels of distribution and train conductors were known for helping to transport goods illicitly. The archives are full of stories of clever swindlers and con men. One Party inspector reported that a state farm director had sold 450 of the farm’s pigs on the black market. Asked why the local authorities had not prosecuted him, the inspector replied: ‘We examined the case, and it turned out that the mayor and the prosecutor had themselves received pigs from the state farm, and everybody was happy.’

Party Secretary Maslov and his assistant Pimenov led a group of crooks in the Stalingrad region. Local courts would confiscate a newly convicted criminal’s property and sell it to friends – who might include the judges’ wives. Maslov blocked investigations of complaints against ‘his people’ and managed to quash 43 indictments on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Needless to say, it wasn’t always clear where necessity stopped and crime started. Some kinds of workplace theft, for example, were essential to keep the economy going. A construction foreman complained:

We think: what to do? We went to supply organisations, showed them the construction plans and said: give us the materials. They just stared at us blankly and said they had no material. Then they said: ‘Ivan Ivanovich, if you give us meat, bread and money – on a certain freight car you will find the nails and glass you need; you will get everything.’ We thought again, what to do? If we wait, we cannot build. If we break the law, we can. We decided to break the law.

The regime may have boasted about the virtues of collectivised agriculture, but we have known for a long time that it was really the private plots that fed the country. Thanks to Fitzpatrick, we now know that ‘leaks’ in the urban economy may turn out to have been equally important. What the sources we have at present don’t allow us to estimate with any precision is the size of the leaks and how much was bled from the official pipeline. Fitzpatrick is properly cautious, observing only that they ‘took the harsh edge off the Stalin system’, but it is clear that the closer we look, the more we find happening outside official channels.

And the regime knew it. One of Fitzpatrick’s most interesting chapters, ‘Conversations and Listeners’, is about its constant attempts at surveillance. From the latest instalments of Khrushchev’s memoirs, we know that Stalin installed listening devices in the homes of his most trusted lieutenants. This was a regime which, despite blandishments and its brave propaganda claims, was very insecure about its hold on power. Politburo members carried revolvers for fear that angry citizens would try to ambush them in public. If a joke was going the rounds, detailed reports on its circulation were compiled. Student drinking and travelling societies were seen as ‘counter-revolutionary’. The police arrested some students from Saratov who tried to get German visas for a holiday, claiming they were spies. A report on this ridiculous incident was sent to the Politburo for serious discussion and ‘political evaluation’. The Politburo was even afraid of dead people: if an ordinary citizen committed suicide the Politburo would commission a report and insist that conclusions be drawn. Suicide, according to Stalin, was a dangerous political act.

Ironically, ignorance of what was really going on in society was itself responsible for much of the fear. Yezhov gathered a large file of ‘unexplained incidents’ for investigation: they included car accidents, plane crashes, firearm accidents involving children, fistfights, industrial accidents, even floods. Surveillance was, we know, routine: it was also almost unbelievably extensive. I recently came across a document in the Party’s archive suggesting that in Leningrad alone in 1934, a cadre of 2700 intelligence ‘residents’ each ran a circle of 10 regular ‘informants’. A further network of 2000 ‘special informants’ was attached to factories, schools and government departments, with each informant expected to gather information from 10 ‘casuals’. Moscow had a network twice that size, and Stalin was informed that in the USSR as a whole there were at least half a million regular informants.

Discrete channels of information reported on the popular mood. A network of Party committees compiled reports on the opinions their members expressed at meetings, but so did the disciplinary chain of command, the Party Control Commission. As they made their way up the hierarchy the reports were filtered, on the one hand, by Party officials, on the other, by the police. By and large, Party reports emphasised popular support while police reports magnified dissent. Reports from single sources were equally unreliable. An NKVD official might be tempted to exaggerate the prevalence of dangerous opinions in his region in order to justify budget increases. Or he might want to minimise reports of dissent in order to show he was doing a good job of getting rid of the bad apples in his orchard.

The archives I have seen show that the Politburo was dissatisfied with the reports it was receiving and reluctant to trust them. Stalin complained publicly about the ‘nauseating reports’ he was getting from self-interested officials. In 1934, Yezhov told him that NKVD networks around the country were unprofessional, incompetent and unreliable. Official fear and ignorance of society were among the main causes of the terror – the Yezhovshchina – as the regime prescribed regional quotas for execution with only a vague idea of who its ‘enemies’ were. By 1939, when the executions stopped, nearly a million Soviet citizens were dead.

Stalinism, with its shortages and rationing, surveillance and terror, Party privileges and patronage, enthusiasm and utopianism, is gone. As Fitzpatrick argues, the system of those years was the product of a very specific set of early 20th-century circumstances, but many of the things she describes – the hardships as well as the coping strategies – are still in operation in Russia today. Housing remains cramped and substandard, no longer because it is in short supply, but because so much of the stock has been privatised, gentrified, and taken out of the reach of most people. The average Russian today relies on all kinds of networks and subterfuges to secure and maintain a decent place to live. Many of my friends rent out their flats to rich people and live in crowded hovels, often with relatives, in order to survive on the rent that comes in. Their new lodgings bear a sad resemblance to the communal flats of the 1930s and 1940s.

There is no shortage of goods in the shops: everything one could want (and then some) is for sale in Moscow today. The problem is that there is very little the vast majority of Russians can afford – which means that they routinely resort to the old blat networks to ‘get hold of’ the things they need. Last year, friends of mine got hold of plane tickets through friends of friends who worked at the airline and used their discounts. My colleague bought a cheap computer through his friend Nikolai’s cousin. His wife had their Moscow kitchen tap repaired by an army buddy of her friend’s uncle, who did it in exchange for a bottle of vodka.

Patronage, too, remains essential. Everybody knows that when someone changes his job, he takes ‘his people’ with him and is replaced by someone else with his own client group. This goes some way to explaining why one sees large numbers of idle young men and women ‘working’ in shops and, especially, banks: the manager’s clients must be given jobs. One middling businessman of my acquaintance has about sixty employees in his small enterprise. For them, however, it is not an employer-employee relationship. He ‘takes care’ of ‘his guys’ in return for their loyalty. If a worker’s mother needs surgery, my friend pays for it. If someone’s child needs help getting into a private school, my friend arranges it.

Organised crime provides the quintessential model of a patronage network, and it would be hard to conduct any kind of business in Russia today without mafia connections. Sergei M. has a business in St Petersburg. Like everyone else who does business anywhere in Russia, he pays for protection (‘getting a roof’, as it is called) from a mafia group. One day he quarrelled with a customer and the disgruntled customer’s mafia ‘roof’ showed up in his office with a loaded gun, demanding a refund. Sergei was allowed to call his own ‘roof’, who arrived forthwith with his own weapons. The two mafiosi had a calm discussion, which established that the patronage network of Sergei’s ‘roof’ reached higher than that of the customer. Sergei was not disturbed again. Little has changes since Popov and Ruslanov had their quarrel: the winners are still the ones with the strongest patrons.

Another thing that hasn’t changed are the vague and easily repudiated ‘signals’ which the Government issues instead of rational laws which it intends to enforce. It is also as incompetent and corrupt as it was in Stalin’s day: even more than in the 1930s, officials at all levels use their position to collect bribes and divert resources into private networks. Taking a leaf out of the Stalinist book, the Government tries to encourage enthusiasm and support by rebuilding Moscow and throwing up all kinds of monuments to the future. But in Stalinist times, such things inspired a certain pride and hopefulness: now few people care. ‘Palaces on Monday’ is a notion of the past.