New York Times Book Review
Everyday Stalinism; Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Timesby Sheila Fitzpatrick
Here is a pioneering account of everyday life under Stalin, written by one of our foremost authorities on modern Russian history.
Focusing on urban areas in the 1930s, Sheila Fitzpatrick shows that with the adoption of collectivization and the first Five-Year Plan, everyday life was utterly transformed. With the abolition of the market, shortages of food,… See more details below
Here is a pioneering account of everyday life under Stalin, written by one of our foremost authorities on modern Russian history.
Focusing on urban areas in the 1930s, Sheila Fitzpatrick shows that with the adoption of collectivization and the first Five-Year Plan, everyday life was utterly transformed. With the abolition of the market, shortages of food, clothing, and all kinds of consumer goods became endemic. As peasants fled the collectivized villages, major cities were soon in the grip of an acute housing crisis, with families jammed for decades in tiny single rooms in communal apartments, counting living space in square meters. It was a world of privation, overcrowding, endless queues, and broken families, in which the regime's promises of future socialist abundance rang hollowly. We read of a government bureaucracy that often turned everyday life into a nightmare, and of the ways that ordinary citizens tried to circumvent it, primarily by patronage and the ubiquitous system of personal connections known as blat. And we read of the police surveillance that was endemic to this society, and the waves of terror like the Great Purges of 1937, that periodically cast this world into turmoil. Fitzpatrick illuminates the ways that Soviet city-dwellers coped with this world, examining such diverse activities as shopping, traveling, telling jokes, finding an apartment, getting an education, landing a job, cultivating patrons and connections, marrying and raising a family, writing complaints and denunciations, voting, and trying to steer clear of the secret police.
Based on extensive research in Soviet archives only recently opened to historians, this superb book illuminates the ways ordinary people tried to live normal lives under extraordinary circumstances.
New York Times Book Review
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One "The Party Is Always Right" Few histories of everyday life start with a chapter on government and bureaucracy. But it is one of the peculiarities of our subject that the state can never be kept out, try though we may. Soviet citizens attempting to live ordinary lives were continually running up against the state in one of its multifarious aspects. Their lives were tossed around by Communist policies; their tempers were tried on a daily basis by incompetent and arbitrary officials, clerks, and salespeople, all working for the state. This was the omnipresent context of Soviet everyday life; there was no way to live without it. Thus, our story begins with an overview of the Stalinist regime and its institutions and practices, particularly the Communist Party's style of rule and mentalite. At the end of the 1920s, the conventional starting point for the Stalin period, the Soviet regime had been in power for not much more than a decade. Its leaders still thought of themselves as revolutionaries, and they behaved like revolutionaries too. They meant to transform and modernize Russian society, a process they described as "building socialism." Since they believed that this revolutionary transformation was in the long-term interests of the people, they were willing to force it through, even when, as with collectivization, a majority of the relevant population clearly opposed it. They explained popular resistance as a result of the backwardness, prejudices, and fears of the unenlightened masses. The Communists' sense of mission and intellectual superiority was far too great to allow them to be swayed by mere majority opinion. In this, they were like all other revolutionaries, for what revolutionary worth his salt has ever conceded that "the people's will" is something different from the mission he has undertaken to carry out on the people's behalf?. "Backwardness" was a very important word in the Soviet Communist lexicon: it stood for everything that belonged to old Russia and needed to be changed in the name of progress and culture. Religion, a form of superstitition, was backward. Peasant farming was backward. Small-scale private trade was backward, not to mention petty-bourgeois, another favorite term of opprobrium. It was the Communists' task to turn backward, agrarian, petty-bourgeois Russia into a socialist, urbanized, industrialized giant with modern technology and a literate workforce. For all the party's dedication to the idea of modernization, however, Soviet Communist rule in the 1930s was definitely acquiring some neotraditional features that few would have predicted in 1917. One obvious example was the evolution of the party's "proletarian" dictatorship into something close to personal autocratic rule by Stalin exercised through the Communist Party and the secret police. Unlike the Nazis, Soviet Communists had no Leader principle, but they did increasingly have a Leader practice. Some of what Khrushchev would later call Stalin's "cult of personality" reflected the contemporary style of self-presentation of the Fascist dictators, Mussolini and Hitler, but in other respects the cult--or the Russian public's reception of it--had more in common with the Russian tradition of the "little-father Tsar" than with anything in modern Western Europe. The image of Stalin, "father of peoples," was acquiring a distinctly paternalist cast in the 1930s. The paternalism was not limited to Stalin. Regional party officials lower in the hierarchy practiced it too, receiving and responding to many humble petitions from their obedient subjects who appealed, often in astonishingly traditional terms, to their fatherly benevolence. The official rhetoric increasingly emphasized the state's protective function with respect to its weaker and less-developed citizens: women, children, peasants, and members of "backward" ethnic groups. REVOLUTIONARY WARRIORS The party was by self-conception a vanguard. In terms of Marxist theory, this meant a vanguard of the proletariat, the class of industrial workers in whose name the party had established its revolutionary dictatorship in October 1917. But the significance of the concept went far beyond class. It was the framework in which Communists thought about and justified their mission of leadership in Russian society. By the 1930s, as the old concept of revolutionary mission was increasingly acquiring overtones of civilizing mission, the party came to see itself not only as a poetical vanguard but also as a cultural one. This, of course, was not very convincing to the old Russian intelligentsia, many of whom regarded the Bolsheviks as unschooled barbarians; but the party's claim to cultural superiority seems to have been accepted as reasonable by much of the rest of the population. The "cultural vanguard" concept received a further boost in 1936, when Stalin appropriated the term "intelligentsia" as a designation for the new Soviet elite, of which Communist administrators formed a major part. An important aspect of the party's claim to cultural vanguard status was its possession of esoteric knowledge, namely Marxist-Leninist ideology. Knowledge of the basics of historical and dialectical materialism was a prerequisite for all Communists. What this meant in practice was a grasp of Marx's theory of historical development, which showed that the driving power of history was class struggle; that capitalism throughout the world must ultimately succumb to proletarian revolution, as it had done in Russia in 1917; and that in the course of time the revolutionary proletarian dictatorship would lead the society to socialism. To outsiders, the boiled-down Marxism of Soviet political literacy courses might look simplistic, almost catechismic. To insiders, it was a "scientific" worldview that enabled its possessors to rid themselves and others of all kinds of prejudice and superstition--and incidentally master an aggressive debating style characterized by generous use of sarcasm about the motives and putative "class essence" of opponents. Smugness and tautology, along with polemical vigor, were among the most notable characteristics of Soviet Marxism. Party membership and education, preferably combined, were the main routes to advancement in Soviet Russia. This meant that party membership was a desirable, even necessary qualification for the ambitious; as a result the party spent a great deal of effort trying to differentiate between those who were ambitious in a good sense, meaning that they were prepared to take the responsibilities of leadership, and "careerists," who only wanted the privileges. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, admission to the party was not lightly gained, especially by white-collar office workers and professionals. For most of this period, the party's enrollment rules strongly favored those with worker or poor peasant background, as did college admissions procedures. In addition, many would-be Communists failed to make it through the complicated admissions procedure, involving letters of reference, investigations of social background, examination in political literacy, and so on. The same was true of the Komsomol, and many "true believers" fretted because of their inability to join. As the French historian Nicolas Werth notes, "The difficult admissions procedure reinforced ... the deep sentiment of belonging to a world of the elect, of being part of those who walk in the direction of History." Of course there were important changes in the membership of the party in the course of the 1930s. The ideal at the beginning of the Stalin period was a proletarian party: factory workers were encouraged to join, while office workers and professionals found the way blocked. The big enrollment of workers from the bench and peasants of the First Five-Year Plan period swelled the ranks but also introduced a lot of ballast. The party suspended admissions in 1933, and the first in a series of party "cleansings" was held the the same year. The party suffered substantial membership loss during the Great Purges; at the same time, some young Communists found themselves propelled up the ladder at dizzying speeds to fill the jobs of those who had been removed as "enemies of the people." When admissions were renewed in the last years of the decade, the old proletarian emphasis had largely disappeared and stress was put on getting "the best people" in Soviet society, which in practice meant that it became much easier for white-collar professionals to enter. We may also note another important change. From the beginning of the 1930s, organized opposition and open debate no longer existed in the Communist Party. Leaders of the Left Opposition were expelled from the party at the end of 1927, and this sufficiently intimidated the "Right Opposition" of 1928-29 that it never really organized at all. After that, there were only a few embryonic underground "opposition" groups, dealt with harshly by the OGPU. Although some prominent former Oppositionists recanted and were briefly reinstated in high positions in the early 1930s, it was well understood by all former Oppositionists that even social meetings between them were likely to be interpreted as "anti-Soviet discussions" and provoke fresh punishment. Internal party discussion and debate were correspondingly constricted. In the 1920s, the party had had its own intellectual centers, notably the Communist Academy and the Institutes of Red Professors, institutions where Marxism was taken seriously and debated at a relatively high intellectual level. Leading politicians like Bukharin and Stalin had personal followings among the young Communist intellectuals, whose militancy and radicalism were well in evidence during the Cultural Revolution. By the middle of the 1930s, however, the Cultural Revolution was over, many of its leaders discredited, and the Communist Academy closed down. This was almost the end of serious intellectual-political debate within a Marxist framework in the Soviet Union. The intense interest and involvement with which many Communists and Komsomol members had followed high politics and policy debates in the 1920s were no more; it had become dangerous to be too interested in politics and political theory. "An army of revolutionary warriors," was how Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich described the party at the XVII Party Congress of 1934. This notion was dear to Communists, many of whom still carried a gun, looked back on the Civil War with nostalgia, and, like Stalin, continued to wear a version of military dress, with field jacket and boots. It was a party of urban men with a strong macho ethos: words like "struggle," "fight," and "attack" were constantly on the lips of its members. Throughout the 1930s, Communists lived with the expectation, justified or not, of foreign attack. In Stalin's view, the danger in which the Soviet Union stood required a special kind of assertive confidence in dealing with the outside world. Commenting to Molotov on the draft of a public statement on international affair in 1933, he wrote: "It came out well. The confident, contemptuousness tone with respect to the `great' powers, the belief in our own strength, the delicate but plain spitting in the pot of the swaggering `great powers'--very good. Let them eat it." Stalin, thinking in terms of great power relations, was not greatly interested in the prospect of international revolution in the 1930s. But it was otherwise for a whole generation of the young who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, for whom world revolution was something inspiring, urgently desired, and, as Lev Kopelev's memoir suggests, integrally linked with dreams of modernity and access to a wider world: The world revolution was absolutely necessary so that justice would triumph, all those incarcerated in bourgeois prisons would be set free, those starving in India and China would be fed, the lands taken from the Germans and the Danzig "corridor" would be returned and our Bessarabia would be taken back from Rumania .... But also so that afterward there would be no borders, no capitalists and no fascists at all. And so that Moscow, Kharkov and Kiev would become just as enormous, just as well built, as Berlin, Hamburg, New York, so that we would have skyscrapers, streets full of automobiles and bicycles, so that all the workers and peasants would go walking in fine clothes, wearing hats and watches.... And so that airplanes and dirigibles would go flying everywhere? For Communists of Kopelev's generation, education was extremely important: to acquire an education was not just a path to personal success but also an obligation that one owed the party. Communists must be "constantly learning, especially from the masses," the Reichstag-fire hero Georgii Dimitrov told an audience at the Institute of Red Professors. In the real world, however, studying in school was more important than learning from the masses. A network of party schools provided Communist administrators with a mixture of general and political education; in addition, many Communists were "mobilized" to attend college to study engineering, especially during the First Five-Year Plan. (Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Kosygin all had this experience in the early 1930s.) It was a party member's duty to "work on himself" and raise his cultural level, even if he was not involved in a formal education program. At the lower levels of the party, one of the touchstones of a good Communist was having rid oneself of the superstition of religion. Conversely, one of the most common ideological offenses for a party member was to have allowed his wife or other female relative to remain a believer, to christen their children, attend church, or keep icons in the house. Party members were frequently cross-examined on this score, as in this dialogue reported from a local party cell meeting: Did you baptise your children? The last one to be baptised in my family was my daughter in 1926. At what date did you break with religion. In 1923. It seems that there are still icons in your house. Yes, that's because my mother-in-law doesn't want me to take them down! Discipline and unity were high on the list of party values. They were spoken about in almost mystical terms even in the 1920s: as early as 1924, the speech in which Trotsky conceded defeat in the leadership struggle included the words "The party is always right" and "One cannot be right against the party." One of the defendants in the Great Purge trials noted in his final plea that "the shameful example of my fall shows that the slightest rift with the Party, the slightest insincerity towards the Party, the slightest hesitation with regard to the leadership, with regard to the Central Committee, is enough to land you in the camp of counterrevolution." The requirements of democratic centralism meant that every Communist was bound to obey unswervingly any decision of the party's highest organs. The old qualification that unswerving obedience was required once a decision had been reached lost its force as the pre-decision stage of public party discussion disappeared. There existed a formal scale of punishments for Communists who violated party discipline, starting with a warning and proceeding through various levels of rebuke to expulsion, which meant exclusion from public life and deprivation of privileges like access to special stores and health clinics. In practice, however, the scale of punishments went higher. Already in the late 1920s, members of the Left Opposition were sent into administrative exile in distant parts of the Soviet Union, and Trotsky was actually deported from the Soviet Union. During the Great Purges a few years later, execution of disgraced party members as "enemies of the people" became commonplace. Vigilance--an attitude of watchful suspicion--was an important part of Communist mentalite. According to Dimitrov, a good Communist must "continually manifest the greatest vigilance in relation to the enemies and spies that secretly penetrate into our ranks." A Communist who was not ceaselessly vigilant, that is, endlessly suspicious of his fellow citizens and even fellow party members, was failing in his duty to the party and falling into "Rightism." Enemies were everywhere; and, most dangerous of all, these enemies were often disguised. A Communist must always stand ready to "unmask" hidden enemies and show their "true face." Like freemasons, Communists had many rituals. They were brothers and their brotherhood was in some sense secret. Their status as Communists was related to their mastery of esoteric language. They had symbols they cherished, like the Red flag, and a history, including a martyrology, that every Communist had to know. They had a body of sacred texts, comprising the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, and were required to study new additions to the corpus like Stalin's latest speeches and important Politburo resolutions. There was an atmosphere of mystery in the party's oblique forms of communication, only fully comprehensible to the initiated, and its Aesopian language practices. To be expelled from the party meant to be outcast from this community, cut off from the common purpose: in Bukharin's words at his trial, "isolated from everybody, an enemy of the people, in an inhuman position, completely isolated from everything that constitutes the essence of life." "Don't push me to despair," wrote one Communist threatened with expulsion in less extreme circumstances, adding this pathetic postscript: Now spring is coming, the May day holiday. People will be happy to be alive, cheerful, but as for me, I will be weeping in my soul. Can everything be collapsing this way? Is it possible that I could have become the enemy of the party which has formed me? No, it is a mistake. One of the key rituals through which vigilance was exercised was the "small-p" purge or cleansing, a periodic review of party membership to weed out undesirables. In the Cultural Revolution period, similar purges were conducted in all government offices as well, bringing excitement into the workaday bureaucratic routine. The proceedings would begin with an autobiographical statement by the person under review, followed by interrogation by the purge commission and members of the audience. The questions could deal with any aspect of his political or personal life. What was he doing before 1917 and during the October Revolution? Was he at the front? Was he ever arrested before the revolution? Did he have any disagreements with the party? Does he drink? ... What does he think about Bukharin and the right deviation, about the kulak, the Five-Year Plan, the events in China? ... Is it true that he has a private automobile and a pretty wife who was an actress? ... Did he get married in church? Did he baptize his son? ... Whom did his sister marry? In her memoirs, Elena Bonner, later wife of the dissident Andrei Sakharov, describes her childhood memories of a purge of the offices of the Communist International, probably in 1933. Her stepfather Gevork Alikhanov worked for the Comintern, and the purge meetings were held in the evenings after work over a period of weeks in the "Red Corner" of the Hotel Luxe, where the Alikhanov/Bonner family and other Comintern officials lived. Elena and other Comintern children hid behind the curtains and eavesdropped. You could see that they were nervous.... They asked about people's wives and sometimes about their children. It turned out that some people beat their wives and drank a lot of vodka. Batanya [Elena's formidable grandmother] would have said that decent people don't ask such questions. Sometimes the one being purged said that he wouldn't beat his wife anymore or drink anymore. And a lot of them said about their work that they "wouldn't do it anymore" and that "they understood everything." It reminded young Elena of being called into the teachers' room at school for a dressing-down and having to say you were sorry. "But these people were more nervous than you were with the teacher. Some of them were practically crying. It was unpleasant watching them." There was a confessional as well as an intimidatory quality to these purge rituals, and when simple people went through them they often got sidetracked out of the political and social realm into personal confessions and revelations. But it was a special kind of confessional ritual: one in which there was no absolution. "Going through the purge" meant confessing your sins endlessly, especially membership of oppositions and bad social origin, but there was no provision in the ritual for being relieved of the burden. You "recognized your errors," you apologized, and, if lucky, you were sent away with a warning. But the errors were still there next time, for by the 1930s the party was no longer interested in your "subjective" attitude to your sins, but only in the existence of a record of past sins in your file. Show trials, which also often featured public confessions, were organized for a broader audience. The show trial may be defined as a public theatrical performance in the form of a trial, didactic in purpose, intended not to establish the guilt of the accused but rather to demonstrate the heinousness of the person's crimes. As an entertainment-cum-agitational genre, it went back to the Civil War period, when extemporized theater of all kinds was very popular, and arose as a result of local initiative. In its early years, it often took the form of a theatricalized trial of a symbolic figure ("the kulak," "the wife-beater"), though real-life offenders, persons accused of hooliganism or absenteeism from work, were also sometimes "prosecuted" in show trials as a local disciplinary measure. These early trials did not result in real sentences. A pioneering centrally organized show trial of former political opponents of the Bolsheviks (Right Socialist Revolutionaries) was held in 1923. But it was not until the Cultural Revolution of the late 1920s that show trials, featuring elaborately planned "scenarios" and intensive media coverage aimed at a national audience, became an important agitational tool of the Central Committee. In the Shakhty trial (1928) and the "Industrial Party" trial (1930), engineers and other "bourgeois specialists" were accused of sabotage and counterrevolutionary conspiracy in association with foreign powers. All confessed their guilt, providing circumstantial detail of their extraordinary (and in general totally fictitious) crimes, and all received sentences of death or substantial periods of imprisonment. Much the same pattern was followed in the better-known "Moscow trials" of the Great Purges period--the Zinoviev-Kamenev trial of 1936, the Piatakov trial of 1937, and the Bukharin trial of 1938--except that in the Moscow trials the defendants were not bourgeois specialists but top-ranking Communist leaders. Whether Stalin and other Communist leaders believed in a literal sense in the conspiracies described in the show trials is a hard question to answer. In his secret correspondence with officials about the trials of the early 1930s, Stalin wrote as if he did believe--yet at the same time these letters could be read as coded instructions about what kind of scenario should be written. For the party leadership, as Terry Martin writes, the accusations made at the trials probably represented psychological rather than literal truth. But the leaders hoped ordinary people would take them literally; indeed, workers' responses to the Shakhty trial, which included calls for still harsher punishment of the defendants, suggest that this was often the case. Conspiracy In 1926, a former Cheka man confided in Victor Serge, an old revolutionary, his secret knowledge of a monstrous plot. As Serge related their conversation, The secret is that everything has been betrayed. From the years when Lenin was alive, treason has wormed its way into the Central Committee. He knows the names, he has the proofs.... At the peril of his life, he is submitting his analysis of the gigantic crime, studied over years, to the Central Committee. He whispers the names of foreigners, of the most powerful capitalists, and of yet others which have an occult significance for him.... I follow his chain of reasoning with the secret uneasiness that one feels in the presence of some lunatic logician.... But in all that he says, he is driven by one basic idea which is not the idea of a madman: "We did not create the Revolution to come to this." This man may have been crazy, but the way of thinking was characteristic of Communists. Their work was being undermined by a conspiracy of people inside and outside the Soviet Union whose hatred of the revolution was absolute. The Cheka man thought the center of the plot was the current party leadership, a position only marginally different from the one Stalin and Ezhov were to take in the Great Purges. For the rest, he was totally typical in his super-suspiciousness. Foreign capitalists were in league with hostile forces within the country. The conspirators were hidden; only the most diligent efforts could unmask them. Finally, and perhaps most important, these conspirators, with their ingrained hatred of the Soviet Union, were making everything go wrong. There must be a conspiracy, because otherwise the fact that the revolution was not turning out as planned was inexplicable. Someone must be to blame. The Soviet regime was adept at creating its own enemies, whom it then suspected of conspiracy against the state. It did so first by declaring that all members of certain social classes and estates--primarily former nobles, members of the bourgeoisie, priests, and kulaks--were by definition "class enemies," resentful of their loss of privilege and likely to engage in counterrevolutionary conspiracy to recover them. The next step, taken at the end of the 1920s, was the "liquidation as a class" of certain categories of class enemies, notably kulaks and, to a lesser extent, Nepmen and priests. This meant that the victims were expropriated, deprived of the possibility of continuing their previous way of earning a living, and often arrested and exiled. Unfortunately this did not reduce the danger of conspiracy against the state but probably only increased it. For, as Stalin (wise after the fact?) realized, a member of an enemy class did not become any better disposed to Soviet power after his class was liquidated. On the contrary, he was likely to be full of anger and resentment. The person who had been dekulakized was a more desperate, intransigent enemy than the kulak. Moreover, he had very likely fled to the cities and disguised himself, assuming a more acceptable identity as a worker. He had become a hidden enemy, hence more dangerous as a potential conspirator. Enemies were not the only conspirators in the Soviet world. Remarkably, the old prerevolutionary self-designation of the party as "conspiratorial" remained in use (albeit secret use) into the 1930s, and Communists were regularly urged in internal party documents to observe "conspiracy" and "conspiratorialness," that is, to maintain secrecy about party affairs. In the old days, conspiracy had been a necessity of the fight against the Tsarist regime; under postrevolutionary conditions, the awkward question "conspiracy against whom?" hung in the air. "The Soviet people" was one possible answer, though it is implausible that Communists or any other rulers should perceive themselves as engaged in a malevolent conspiracy against the nation; "the encircling capitalist world" was another. But perhaps the best way of understanding the Communists' attachment to conspiracy is to see the party, in their eyes, as a kind of freemasonry, whose ability to act for good in the world depended on protecting its inner life from the hostile scrutiny of outsiders. An increasing number of party affairs were being handled in secrecy from the beginning of the 1930s. In the late 1920s, a procedure was introduced whereby Politburo and Central Committee documents were sent out to local party branches with strict limitations on the persons allowed to read them and the requirement to return them within a few days (at the end of 1938, ever this stopped). Minutes of the Central Control Commission were similarly restricted: it was "absolutely forbidden" for them to be shown to persons not on the approved list to read them, or to be copied or cited in public; and the minutes had to be returned. A Communist who violated the secrecy rules, even in a speech to a factory meeting full of presumed class allies, could be accused of "betraying the party to the working class." Secrecy was invading government as well as party practice. Among the topics classified as "top secret" or "secret" in internal government and party communications were military and mobilization plans, including defense industry construction; export of precious metals; important inventions; OGPU report on the mood of the population and other matters; prosecutions under article 58 of the Criminal Code, which dealt with crimes against the state; and administrative exile, deportation, and special settlements. Strikes and workers protests were also classified topics, though at the lower level of "not for publication." Reports on cases of plague, cholera, typhus, and other infectious diseases were classified as well. One reason secrecy had become so important, we may assume, is that the Communist rulers were doing things they were ashamed of, or at least thought that outsiders would have difficulty understanding. In the early year of the revolution, the Bolsheviks had made a point of not being ashamed of their practice of terror, which they claimed to be a necessary and even constructive part of revolution: in his radical days, circa 1920, the later Rightist Nikolai Bukharin described it as "a method of creating communist mankind out of the human materials of the capitalist epoch," and another enthusiast called it "a source of great moral encouragement." Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks' handling of public relations after the suppression of the Kronstadt sailors' revolt in 1921 suggests that they were ashamed and deeply embarrassed by this event; and the collectivization struggle and its aftermath of famine produced similar reactions from the regime. The old defiant, unapologetic stance about violence by the revolutionary state was replaced by evasion, euphemism, and denial. By 1933, a secret Politburo order was in force forbidding newspapers to report executions without special clearance. It is true that in the mid 1930s the secret police was greatly publicized certain connections and its leaders acclaimed as heroes. The NKVD's big projects, like the building of White Sea Canal, were acclaimed for "reforging" the convicts who worked on them, its officers were honored and decorated, and its border guards were held up as exemplars for Soviet youth. At the end 1937, the NKVD's twentieth anniversary was celebrated with fanfare, and the Kazakh bard Dzhambul hailed its leader, Nikolai Ezhov, as "a flame, burning the serpents' nests," and a "bullet for all scorpions and serpents." But the presumably massive growth in the security agency and its network of informers in the course of the 1930s was (and remains) a state secret; and the NKVD's more mundane activities like surveillance, arrest, and interrogation were usually treated as a dirty secret and kept under wraps. It was standard practice for a person released after arrest or interrogation to be required to sign an agreement not to speak of what had happened to him. STALIN'S SIGNALS In principle, the Soviet Communist Party had no leader. It had only a Central Committee, elected by its periodic national congresses of delegates from local party organizations, and three standing bureaus of the Central Committee elected in the same way: the Politburo, a group of seven to twelve members in charge of political and policy matters, and the Orgburo and Secretariat, both of which dealt with organizational and personnel questions. In the mid 1920s, however, in the course of the undeclared succession struggle that raged after Lenin's death, Stalin had used his position as party secretary to stack local organizations and congresses with his supporters. In the 1930s, Stalin was still general secretary of the party, as he had been from 1922 and would be until 1952, but he no longer spent the time with personnel files and appointments that had characterized his rise to power. He was now acknowledged as the party's supreme leader, its vozhd'. Although he retained his previous demeanor as a simple and accessible man (not flashy and arrogant like his main rival for power, Trotsky), his humility had a special character: when he modestly and unobtrusively entered the hall at a party congress now, the whole audience rose to its feet to give him a standing ovation. Although Stalin at times deprecated his cult, he also tolerated and perhaps covertly encouraged it. For Communists of the old guard, the Stalin cult was probably something of an embarrassment. Yet in their eyes too, he was becoming a charismatic leader, though of a somewhat different kind than for the broad public. Stalin's public image in the 1930s, like the Tsars' before him, was that of a quasi-sacred leader, font of justice and mercy, and benevolent protector of the weak; he was often photographed smiling paternally on shy peasant women and children. To the party elite, in contrast, Stalin was known as "the boss," whose main characteristics were sharpness and shrewdness of mind, decisiveness, the capacity for hard work, and dislike for fancy rhetoric and other kinds of personal flamboyance. His associates also knew him to have an excellent memory for slights and a penchant and formidable talent for political intrigue. In the Politburo, the convention of an assembly of equals was maintained. Stalin usually chaired, but he tended to sit quietly smoking his pipe and let others have their say first. (This underlined his lack of pretension, but it also gave Stalin the advantage of having others show their hands before he did.) Arguments occurred in the Politburo, even heated ones in which the volatile Georgian Sergo Ordzhonikidze would lose his temper. There were also sharp factional disputes between Politburo members based on their institutional affiliations: Ordzhonikidze, for example, would speak for the cause of heavy industry, Klim Voroshilov for the armed forces, Sergei Kirov for Leningrad. But very rarely were there arguments in which a Politburo member knowingly set himself at odds with Stalin. "The Politburo is a fiction," one insider said in the early 1930s. What he meant was that the formal Politburo meetings--large-scale affairs attended not only by Politburo members but also by Central Committee members, representatives of many government agencies, and selected journalists--were not where the real business got done. Serious business was handled by a smaller group selected by Stalin who met privately in an apartment or in Stalin's office in the Kremlin. At any given moment, the group might include individuals who were not formally Politburo members. It also routinely excluded some Politburo members who were in disfavor or regarded as lightweights, like Mikhail Kalinin. There was an inner circle in the Politburo, but even its members had to be wary of Stalin's disapproval. Viacheslav Molotov, the leadership's no. 2 man for most of the 1930s and Stalin's close associate, put up with the arrest of several of his trusted assistants during the Great Purges; in 1939, his wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina, was dismissed from her position as Minister of Fisheries on the grounds that she had "involuntarily facilitated" the activity of "spies" in her milieu. Threats to family members became a favored technique of Stalin's for keeping his associates under control. Ordzhonikidze's brother was arrested in 1936 on suspicion of anti-Soviet activities. Kalinin's wife was arrested as an enemy of the people while he continued to serve as President of the Soviet Union; the same was to happen after the war to Molotov's wife. Mikhail Kaganovich, former head of the Soviet defence industry and brother of Lazar, a Politburo member who remained one of Stalin's closest associates. was arrested and shot at the end of the 1930s. It is indicative of the distance that separated Stalin from even his closest Politburo colleagues and the intensity of fear in the purge years that of these four political heavyweights (Molotov, Kalinin, Ordzhonikidze, and Kaganovich), only Ordzhonikidze seems to have protested vigorously to Stalin and unqualifiedly asserted his brother's innocence. This is only one example of Stalin's characteristic way of keeping his associates off-balance. Insight into this aspect of the man is provided by a letter he wrote his wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, when he was on vacation in 1930. She had asked him with some irritation why he had given her one date for his return from the South and his colleagues another. He replied that he had given her the correct date--but "I put about that rumor that I could return only at the end of October via Poskrebyshev [Stalin's secretary], as a conspiratorial measure. No Politburo member could be sure that he would not fall out of favor with Stalin, as Bukharin had done at the end of the 1920s and then, even more disastrously, in 1936. When this happened, the news did not come directly from Stalin but through various signs of slipping influence and clout: exclusion from inner-circle meetings, derogatory comments appearing in Pravda or Izvestiia, or rejection of routine patronage interventions on behalf of clients and subordinates. The result was that the fallen leader found himself stigmatized and outcast by his erstwhile colleagues, almost all of whom followed the unwritten rule that a disgraced person should not be acknowledged or greeted in public. The obliqueness of Stalin's communications of favor and disfavor in high politics was matched by a similar lack of explicitness in policy formulation. This may seem strange, since Stalin's regime was notoriously insistent on obedience to central directives, and how can one obey when one has not clearly been told what to do? The fact is, however, that important policy changes were often "signalled" rather than communicated in the form of a clear and detailed directive. A signal might be given in a speech or article by Stalin or an editorial or review in Pravda or via a show trial or the disgrace of a prominent official associated with particular policies. What all these signals had in common was that they indicated a shift of policy in a particular area without spelling out exactly what the new policy entailed or how it should be implemented. The collectivization drive in the winter of 1929-30 is a case in point. In contrast to previous major Russian agrarian reforms, such as the 1861 emancipation of the serfs or the Stolypin reforms of the early twentieth century, no detailed instructions about how to collectivize were ever issued, and local officials who asked for such instructions were rebuked. The signal for a radical shift in policy toward the countryside was given in Stalin's speech to the Communist Academy in December 1929, although it offered no specific guidance on collectivization other than the instruction that kulaks were to be "liquidated as a class." The closest thing to an explicit public policy statement on collectivization was Stalin's letter "Dizzy with success" published in Pravda on March 1, 1930--but this appeared only after two disastrous months of all-out collectivization and constituted a repudiation of much of what had been done without precise instructions by local officials. A less momentous example was Stalin's letter to the editors of a journal of party history, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, in 1931, endlessly cited as a major policy pronouncement for the cultural field. Written in a passionate polemical style, its general message seemed to be that Communist intellectuals, inclined to hair-splitting and faction-fighting, needed to clean up their act, but what that meant concretely, except in the specific and apparently trivial case with which the letter dealt, was obscure. Its practical policy meanings were constructed only after the fact, as each cultural institution held long, painful meetings "drawing organizational conclusions from comrade Stalin's letter," that is, deciding whom to discipline and punish. There are various ways of explaining this surprising reticence. In the first place, Stalin's regime was a great generator of mystification, consciously or unconsciously treating mystery as an enhancer and sanctifier of power. It was the aura of mystery and secrecy settling over the Kremlin in the 1930s that perhaps more than anything else set Stalin's style of rule apart from Lenin's. In the second place, the regime operated with a primitive administrative machinery that responded to only a few simple commands, such as "stop," "go," "faster," "slow down," which could adequately be conveyed by signals. Moreover, the regime itself had a low degree of legislative competence: on the occasions when the government did try to issue detailed policy instructions, its decrees and orders usually had to be repeatedly clarified and expanded before the message was satisfactorily communicated. There were also political advantages, at least from Stalin's Byzantine perspective. In the event that a new policy went wrong, as in the case of collectivization, signals could be more easily repudiated and reinterpreted than explicit policy statements Signals were ambiguous, which was useful if there was a lack of leadership consensus behind a policy, if a new policy violated existing Soviet law, or if its nature was such that the regime did not want foreigners to understand it. All three of these last factors were at play, for example, in the case of policy toward the church in 1929-30. Soviet law and administrative practice through most of the 1920s extended tolerance, at least of a limited sort, to religion and forbade the arbitrary closing or destruction of functioning churches. A substantial group of "soft-line" Communist leaders, mainly working in government rather than party agencies, strongly supported these policies, as of course did international opinion. But in 1929, with the onset of the Cultural Revolution and an upsurge of radical militancy in the party and Komsomol, a powerful "hard line" in favor of mass closing of churches and arrests of priests became dominant and evidently won Stalin's approval. Secret "hard-line" instructions were issued to local party organizations but not published. When the anti-religious drive inflamed the anger of the rural population, not to mention that of the Pope and other Western church spokesmen, the regime was able to back off from a policy that it had never publicly endorsed anyway. In cases like these, ambiguity and secrecy may have had political advantages, but they also had enormous practical disadvantages. In the church case for example, Soviet officials in charge of religious affairs asked plaintively how they were to explain the actions of local authorities to church representative when the formal law was actually on the churches' side. They pointed out in vain that an instruction allowing former priests to register at labor exchange (giving them the right to employment) was unlikely to have a beneficial effect as long as it remained secret and hence unknown to labor-exchange officers. The combination of ambiguous policy signals and the cult of secrecy could produce absurd results, as when certain categories of officials could not be informed of relevant instructions because the instructions were secret. In one blatant example, the theater censorship and the Ministry of Enlightenment headed by A. V. Lunacharsky, spent weeks arguing at cross purposes about Mikhail Bulgakov's controversial play Day of the Turbins, despite the fact that the Politburo had instructed the Ministry that the play could be staged, because "this decree was secret, known to only key officials in the administration of art, and Lunacharsky was not at liberty to divulge it." A few years later after Stalin had expressed strong views on cultural policy in a private letter that had circulated widely, if unofficially, on the grapevine, Lunacharsky begged him to allow publication of the letter so that people would know what the party line on art actually was. Some of Stalin's cultural signals were even more minimalist, involving telephone calls to writers or other cultural figures whose content was then instantly broadcast on the Moscow and Leningrad intelligentsia grapevine. A case in point was his unexpected telephone call to Bulgakov in 1930 in response to Bulgakov's letter complaining of mistreatment by theater and censorship officials. The overt message of the call was one of encouragement to Bulgakov. By extension, the "signal" to the non-Communist intelligentsia was that it was not Stalin who harrassed them but only lower-level officials and militants who did not understand Stalin's policy. This case is particularly interesting because the security police (GPU, at this date) monitored the effectiveness of the signal. In his report on the impact of Stalin's call, a GPU agent noted that the literary and artistic intelligentsia had been enormously impressed. "It's as if a dam had burst and everyone around saw the true face of comrade Stalin." People speak of Stalin's simplicity and accessibility. They "talk of him warmly and with love, retelling in various versions the legendary history with Bulgakov's letter." They say that Stalin is not to blame for the bad things that happen: He follows the right line, but around him are scoundrels. These scoundrels persecuted Bulgakov, one of the most talented Soviet writers. Various literary rascals were making a career out of persecution of Bulgakov, and now Stalin has given them a slap in the face. The signals with Stalin's personal signature usually pointed in the direction of greater relaxation and tolerance, not increased repression. This was surely not because Stalin inclined to the "soft line," but rather because he preferred to avoid too close an association with hard-line policies that were likely to be unpopular with domestic and foreign opinion. His signals often involved a "good Tsar" message: "the Tsar is benevolent; it is the wicked boyars who are responsible for all the injustice." Sometimes this ploy seems to have worked, but in other cases the message evoked popular skepticism. When Stalin deplored the excesses of local officials during collectivization in a letter, "Dizzy with success," published in Pravda in 1930, the initial response in the villages was often favorable. After the famine, however, Stalin's "good Tsar" ploy no longer worked in the countryside, and was even mocked by its intended audience. (Continues ...)
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