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Stalinism as a Way of Life

Božena Karwowska

By Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov. Documents compiled by Ludmila Kosheleva, Larisa Rogovaia, Lewis Siegelbaum, Andrei Sokolov, Vladimir Telpukhovsky, and Sergei Zhuravlev. Text preparation and commentary by Lewis Siegelbaum, Andrei Sokolov, and Sergei Zhuravlev. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Hoisington and Steven Shabad. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000. xvii + 460 pages. Index of documents, general index. ISBN 0-300-08480-3. Hardcover.

The opening of some Soviet archives to Russian and Western scholars in the 1990s resulted in a number of new books. Access to new documents facilitated discussions about the nature of the Soviet state and the Soviet regime: not entirely surprisingly, it also reopened the discussion about the sources and nature of power and politics in general. Is politics made “from above,” as the old school of Soviet specialists believed, or “from below,” as the “revisionist” school argued? As Lewis Siegelbaum aptly notices in his introduction to the volume under review, both schools of thought formed their views and produced their most prominent scholarship before they could access Soviet archives. After the archives were opened, each school focused on different kinds of documents. Siegelbaum believes that access to the documents marks a breakthrough in this traditional division and promotes new ways of looking at Soviet society under Stalin.

The book’s original Russian title (this volume was published in Russia in 1998) is Obshchestvo i vlast’ 1930-e gody: Povestvovanie v dokumentakh. Accordingly, it presents a variety of documents. The differences between them show the diversity of Soviet society at that time as it emerged from the chaos of the first decades of the twentieth century, deprived of the traditional intelligentsia and opening the door to literacy to the previously underprivileged social groups and classes. The authors use a thematic key to divide the documents into groups. In spite of these thematic differences, Soviet society is presented as nationally homogeneous and consisting exclusively of Russians. In fact, approximately half of the Soviet citizens at the time were Russians. One therefore notes the lack of voices of the Soviet minority groups in both the sources and the editors’ critical commentaries.

Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov group the documents together in six chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion), with titles not only describing the content of each but also showing the editors’ ironic view of the presented material. The book begins with “the socialist offensive” of the late 1920s and early ’30s, and its various “izations” (collectivization, industrialization, mechanization, proletarization) implemented according to the rules of military operations. Chapter 2 (named after Stalin’s famous slogan “Cadres decide everything”) presents documents relating to “the multitudinous and often mutually contradictory tasks assigned to party and state functionaries,” (7) and thus sheds light on the question of why they were performed so badly. Chapter 3 is devoted to the draft of the Stalin Constitution of 1936 and to what the editors call a process “akin to a national referendum on the Stalinist version of socialism” (7). The discussion provided an opportunity to various groups in society to present some of their own ideas and hopes. The documents project a variety of resentments, misunderstandings, and worries of members of Soviet society, thus providing a glimpse into the mentalities of Russians at that time.

The next chapter, somewhat ironically titled “Love and plenty,” consists of texts pointing to the official propaganda of happiness and a growing gap between consumers’ expectations and the everyday experiences of citizens. It is, though, not only the fact that the gap was constantly growing, but also the reaction of society and the bewilderment, unhappiness, denunciation, and repression. The countryside, with forced collectivization, is the main focus of the fifth chapter. The last chapter is devoted to the young generation, or children born after 1917, whose childhood was “happy by decree,” and the question of how they perceived their country and the great privilege of living in the best country in the world.

Soviet society is presented as nationally homogeneous, and one notes the lack of voices of the Soviet minority groups in both the sources and the editors’ critical commentaries.

The sources collected in the volume are heterogeneous. The book includes letters to the editors of various newspapers containing complaints, advice, confessions, denunciations, and petitions. Some are anonymous; other are signed by individuals and groups. Some are written in the language of the Soviet “newspeak” and many are full of grammatical mistakes, as their authors have just learned how to write. There is correspondence between the prominent figures of Soviet politics, summary reports prepared by special departments of the party, secret police, and newspapers, many of which bear the “secret” sign and are not intended to be “leaked” to the more general public. There are also formal reports prepared by middle-ranking officials. The works of the translators, Thomas Hoisington and Steven Shabad, deserves high praise; they succeed in rendering a variety of language levels and styles.

The documents were selected with the apparent intention of showing the mentality of their authors and familiarizing the reader with the situation of oridnary Soviet Russians under Stalin. However, the editors-especially Lewis Siegelbaum who was responsible for the English-language version of the book-insert their own interpretations a bit too obviously. This is apparent not only from the introduction, but also from the fact that the selection criteria have not been outlined. The editors’ choices of documents to be included in the book have never been explained.

The most interesting aspect of the book is its attempt to show the emergence of dissidence in the USSR. “On the basis of recent archival research, it has become clear that practically every major state initiative of the 1930s was accompanied by some form of popular resistance,” writes Siegelbaum. The documents show the details of this resistance, as it relates to the people’s perception of tradition versus modernization and the weaknesses and strengths of the Soviet state. However, this is a sui generis resistance. The reader is led to understand that the traditional forms of resistance were not used, e.g., humor traditionally used in folk culture was seldom employed by Soviet peasants during the times of collectivization.

While new information about purges and the Soviet penal system is still coming out, there is also plenty of evidence about Russians expressing their support for the Soviet past, the communist party, and the memory of Stalin. Russian citizens cannot claim a lack of knowledge about the methods used by the Soviet state to control its citizens, yet they express nostalgia for the system that had total control over their lives and minds. This collection is thus not only a source of documents indispensable for scholars who study society and politics of the early years of the USSR, but also a fair read for people interested in the social dynamics of the post-Soviet Russian state.

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