Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Everyday life in Russia in the 1930s.

I just finished reading Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s by Sheila Fitzpatrick. The book was first published in 1999 (and may therefore have been somewhat outdated by subsequent research -- I don't know).

Here are a couple of reviews which I found interesting:

The book focuses on Russia although it refers to other portions of the USSR. It focuses on the 1930s, although it makes many references to the preceding decade. I don't know much about Russian history and I found I had to spend time looking up some basic facts and history. Here is an earlier comment on the book with some of that information.

Russia began the 20th century as the poor cousin in the European family of nations. It was a very poor country, with a rural and uneducated population and ill governed. It lost a war with Japan in the first decade and saw a political revolution that left the country as still ill governed. The population suffered badly in the first world war, leading to a revolution, political turmoil, and eventual civil war. By 1930, Stalin had consolidated power.

Not only had the Tsar been deposed and killed, but so too had the aristocracy been deposed; political power had been centralized in the Communist Party and representative bodies established on the basis of industrial occupations. Private property had been abolished. Agricultural production was soon to be reorganized on the basis of large agricultural cooperatives and state farms. Markets had largely been abolished and the state was seeking to orchestrate almost all economic transactions. There had been disestablishment of the state religion, churches were transformed public buildings and priests and their families had joined the aristocrats and kulaks in that they all dealt with extreme prejudice. People were moving to the cities in large numbers, fleeing the poverty of the rural areas, but the cities were unable to house them well nor satisfy their needs.
"Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
So what was everyday like in Russia in the 1930s. The country was poor, and there was extreme shortage of food, clothing and housing; indeed there was a famine in 1932-33. Most people spent a great deal of time satisfying basic needs. However those in power or with connections got more and did so more easily. Power came from ascendancy in the Communist party and party dominated institutions.

Fitzpatrick suggests that after the class structure of Tsarist Russia was abolished it was replaced by a new class structure. In theory the proletariat of industrial workers was at the center of public power, with the rural farm workers as a "backward" class. The intelligencia is described as another class, consisting of subgroups such as writers, film makers, artists, and engineers. "Employees" seems to be a group analogous to our "white collar" workers, people who managed enterprises. There was an "untouchable" class of those who had been deposed from power, either in the old regime or the new or their children or grandchildren -- people who often found difficulty in finding work, who often found themselves deported from their homes to far distant parts of the USSR, who could be imprisoned or sent to the gulag. And there was an upper class including the members of the Communist party, the young Communists, and designated "heros" for their successes.

However, it was a society in which people could change status with great speed. High officials could be denounced, tried in show trials, convicted and executed. People went virtually masked, seeking to hide their class identity and fit in to more protected groups; on the other hand there was an extensive presence of secret police and constant spying on citizens including by their neighbors who could and did denounce each other. But also children of factory workers got preferential entry to universities and could through study become engineers or leaders of the Communist Party.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that such whole-scale change in political and economic institutions would be difficult. Staffing the new institutions with inexperienced and poorly educated and trained people resulted in widespread incompetence, inefficiency and corruption. The formal systems just didn't work very well. Not surprisingly, people sought alternatives to get what they needed to live.

Why did the people not revolt? Who knows? Perhaps part of the explanation is that revolution after revolution had failed to make life better; people may have lost faith in revolution as a means to progress. Perhaps the Stalinist survivors had learned how to use their power to maintain their ruling elite in power. Perhaps the regime was successful in spreading the belief in the myths that Communism was the wave of the future, that life was getting better and would continue to do so, and that Russia was modernizing and becoming more "cultured" and less "backward".

Fitzpatrick points out that the USSR was very aware that it was surrounded by enemies and that it was likely to be attacked after the 1930s, a belief that proved to be true. Stalin's government responded in part by a massive effort to build heavy industry, accepting shortages of consumer goods in order to build factories and infrastructure. In retrospect it seems clear that the USSR suffered from the worst impact of World War II and did the most damage to the German war machine; presumably it would not have been as successful in resisting the Nazis had it not had major successes in preparation in the 1930s. Those successes were built on the suffering of the citizens of the USSR.

Everyday Stalinism is social history, informed by diaries of Russians and postwar interviews conducted by the Harvard Project. I felt confident of Sheila Fitzpartick's mastery of her subject. The book was clearly organized and relatively easy to read. As others have noted, this is not a history of major events nor famous people, but rather one that focuses on aspects of everyday life. While the organization by chapters suggests a theoretical model, the book does not attempt an exhaustive review of what life was like for Russians in the 1930s. I enjoyed the short, interesting book, but wish that it had been in larger format with bigger print (my vision is not 20/20).

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