||Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov.
Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in
Documents compiled by Ludmila Kosheleva, Larisa Rogovaia, Lewis
Siegelbaum, Andrei Sokolov, Vladimir Telpukhovsky, and Sergei Zhuravlev.
Translated by Thomas Hoisington and Steven Shabad. "Annals of
Communism" series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press,
2000. xvii + 460 pp. Bibliographical references, photographs, index.
$35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-300-08480-3.
Reviewed by Elena Krevsky,
Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada.
Published by H-Russia
Stalinism in Its Own Words
This book allows those people who lived through the turbulent decade
of the 1930s to speak for themselves. Most of the documents are written
either by ordinary citizens or about them. After reading Stephen
Kotkin's Stalinism as a Civilization and Sheila
Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism, one should not be
surprised to see yet another attempt to take a look at the life of
ordinary citizens during these extraordinary times. With their
circumspect commentary, Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov do a superb
job of carefully leading the reader from document to document and not
stealing the limelight from the voices of the past.
The documents are diverse. Formal reports, memoranda, and speeches
present an authoritative point of view (or sometimes a lack of the
latter and, thus, complete confusion). But it is the letters of ordinary
citizens that comprise the most interesting and important part of this
"narrative in documents." Letters to newspapers and to
official organs, as well as personal letters to Stalin, Krupskaia and
Kalinin, capture some very special moments in the lives of Soviet
citizens: a moment during which they interact with the system. Each
letter, whether it is a cry for help or a denunciation of a neighbour,
can be seen as a manifestation of one particular process: the
germination of a Stalinist psyche, one in which the political and the
personal became closely intertwined.
In the editors' view, the average Soviet citizen wanted to break his
ties with the past in order to become purely Soviet. This leads the
argument to the major controversial point of Stalinist studies--the
problem of the Great Terror. It is this urge to become purely Soviet
amidst the vestiges of the cursed past that reveals "the popular
dimension of the terror" (p. 23). So the question for the editors
is not why and how the terror was organized, but why it was supported
and embraced by the masses so actively. At the same time, newly
discovered documents presented here clarify the problem of resistance to
the Soviet state. The tension between popular support for the new
society and popular resistance to it provides a counterpoint for the
whole book. The tension was so acute because the society itself was not
yet defined; it was in the process of formation. This is why the
development of the argument is twofold: logical and chronological
(following the process of the formation of this new society and
observing its "childhood illnesses").
The starting point of the narrative is 1929, when the full-scale
collectivization of agriculture was initiated. Siegelbaum and Sokolov
comment on the rhetoric and connotations of major government policies
such as the "socialist offensive on all fronts." This warlike
lexicon was easily absorbed by the masses. The government proclaimed the
creation of several fronts for its "socialist offensive"
(Industrialization Front, Collectivization Front, Tractor Front,
Ideological Front, Cultural Front, etc.). Addressing the First Congress
of Shock Brigades, a representative of the workers of The Proletariat's
Victory textile factory warned: "Working in the foremost lines of
the economic battlefront, one must not forget that we find ourselves
amid the fiercest class struggle" (p. 32).
In this first chapter, as well as in the rest of the book, the
juxtaposition of bombastic official slogans with reports and letters
describing the reality is striking. The documents clearly demonstrate
the defeats that were suffered in almost every newly proclaimed
battlefront. A young Leningrad worker, who arrived at the famous shock
construction site in Magnitogorsk, writes to his uncle: "There is
such a mess here that you wouldn't be able to make head or tail of it.
Our big shots here are nothing but bureaucrats, there's complete
confusion, you can't find anything anywhere" (p. 35). Several
letters indicate that workers cannot fulfill their quotas for one simple
reason: they are hungry (pp. 38-41).
As for the Collectivization Front, letters demonstrate either peasant
opposition to the kolkhoz movement or their fear and
apathy. Again, warlike rhetoric seems appropriate: failures are often
blamed on "class enemies." From the report on collectivization
in Belorussia, we learn about the backgrounds of several kolkhoz
chairmen: one is a former gangster and horse thief, another a Red Army
deserter and a smuggler, the third is the son of an Old Believer priest,
the fourth a former kulak (pp. 55-56). But the picture that
emerges from other letters and from the continuation of this report is
much more complicated: drunkenness and chaos reign in the kolkhozy,
whether their leaders are communists or former kulaks; at the same time,
extremely high taxes are forcing independent peasants to join the kolkhoz
movement. The peasants echo the workers: they, too, are hungry and
One can clearly see how this warlike rhetoric, misery, and confusion
caused the birth of the idea of the Great Purge. In a letter from Middle
Volga Krai we read: "We poor peasants haven't retreated from our
post but have fought to the last drop. We finally took power into our
own hands, as expected of us we switched to normal work, but then,
however, the tsarist hangers-on saw at once what the deal was" (p.
73). The author of this letter proposes to purge everyone "in the
place where he was born and where he grew up or where everyone knows
him" (p.73). For this narrator, the great purge seems to be the
only sensible solution. We also learn how severe the People's Courts
were, even in the early thirties: for stealing a rooster, a sixty-five
year-old woman was sentenced to three years' exile; the sentence for
selling a half-liter of water as vodka was two years in prison (p.91).
But one of the most ominous and terrifying reports from this chapter
does not speak at all about human suffering, although it does sound like
a description of a rehearsal for the Great Terror. The people did not
suffer in this purge; the libraries did. In a confidential memorandum,
N. Maltsev, a member of the TsKK (Central Control Commission), tells the
story of the book purge in the libraries. According to him, in some
cases 80 to 90 percent of the books were withdrawn. The list of the
"withdrawn authors" contains some of the best-known names in
world literature: Turgenev, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Dickens, Hugo, even Marx
and Lenin. The books were removed en masse without any consultations.
Maltsev's perceptive interpretation of this purge sounds like a
blueprint for many upcoming campaigns: "in view of the difficulty
of this undertaking, and the risks involved, the matter was allowed to
take its own course, whatever happened would happen, and responsibility
could be placed on those who actually carried out the work" (p.78).
The second chapter, "Cadres Decide Everything!" begins
cheerfully. G. M. Krzhizhanovsky, chairman of Gosplan, describes the
acclamation that his speech on the Five-Year Plan received. The speech
ended with "thunderous applause," the "singing of the
"Internationale" and "even instances of hysterics"
(p. 103). It was the new leaders, the so-called promotees (vydvizhentsy),
who emerged during the years of the First Five-Year Plan and who were to
comprise the new nomenclature, since Stalin did not trust the old one.
In 1929, the party decided to purge itself and the state apparatus.
Examples and results of the purge are discussed in many reports and
letters presented in this chapter. An "old specialist," M.
Matiukhin, writes to M. I. Kalinin: "There's no end to
denunciations. You literally can't spit anywhere without hitting some
revolting denouncer or liar in the puss... The less gifted a bastard,
the meaner his slander" (p. 125). Of course, those
"bastards" used the purge in order to improve their position
in a new society.
The next chapter reflects people's reaction to the new Soviet
Constitution proposed in 1936. The nationwide discussion of the
Constitution lasted five months and "left... a vast trail of
documents." These documents show how democracy was feigned in this
nationwide campaign: in some places people were forced or tricked into
"working on the Constitution" (pp. 164-5). The editors
emphasize the difference between published and archival materials. The
published ones, usually appearing with some bombastic headline such as
"We Are the Luckiest People in the World," were written by the
workers and then "carefully chosen and edited." The
unpublished ones (the majority that comes to light only now) arrived
from the countryside and usually contained a negative assessment of the
In this chapter we find several letters that seem important but
somewhat downplayed by the narrators of the commentary, the letters of
happy people. An old worker, Berman, wrote: "I don't remember any
youth in my past, I didn't have any. Youth came at an advanced age. I am
young because only in 1934 did I graduate from a technicum, I am young
because one of my sons is a professor, another is the director of the
enterprise, the third is a mining engineer and the fourth is a student
at a transport institute. I am young because it is a joy to live in our
country" (p. 174). A seventy-year old peasant Postnikov is happy
because for the first time in his life he owns a piglet, which he
received as a bonus for honest labor. He also won the first prize in the
rayon competition as a singer. Now he is going to the krai competition
and dreaming of seeing "all these cars and buildings."
These letters provide illustrations of Zinoviev's argument that
Stalinist society embodied popular ideals, but the editors dismiss them
by noting how relative their notions of "happiness" are:
"the more people have suffered... the lower their standard of
'happiness' has been" (p. 174). It is hard to accept this
commentary. What is it to peasant Postnikov if his piglet does not count
for much in our contemporary scales of happiness? His heart is still
full of joy when he sees this little creature. We cannot simply dismiss
the happiness of the Soviet people by deeming it low. On the contrary,
it is happiness and enthusiasm, not only fear and terror that we need to
fathom and explain when we approach the Stalinist "way of
One can easily discern indications of this enthusiasm in many other
letters, even the letters of complaint. For example, in 1940, I. Kotov,
a sailor, wrote a personal letter to Stalin about the inspection on his
ship that was to ensure "constant combat readiness." Kotov
complained that the inspectors took away all books, pictures, and
postcards deemed unnecessary. What was the object, so dear to the
sailor, that its loss prompted him to write to Stalin himself? He
states, "I had a postcard of Sergei Mironovich [Kirov] among Young
Pioneers, I've had it for a long time since I was a Pioneer and I saw
Sergei Mironovich a few times, but they are not allowing me to keep
it" (p. 275). The editors present this letter as an illustration of
the pre-war "nerve-racking atmosphere," but one can also
interpret it as an indication of the appearance of a new generation
imbued with Stalinist values and ideals.
The last chapter of the book, "Happy Childhoods," is the
study of this new "revolutionary" generation, the children and
youth who were born between 1915 and 1924. This chapter falls outside of
the well-organized chronological movement of the narration, but, the
editors contend, it is a necessary tribute to the generation, which was
born with and moulded by the revolution only to perish later in the
battles of the Second World War. In a collection like this, one or two
sentences can reveal the image of this whole generation, inspired by the
war-like rhetoric, devoted to Stalin, and often deceived by the
grown-ups. Here is such a sentence from the letter that Vania Korolyov
of Orel Oblast wrote to the Krest'ianskaia Gazeta in 1939:
"Thank you to Comrade Stalin for our happy schooling I would write
more but I have no paper" (p. 419).
Many children addressed their letters to M. I. Kalinin or N. K.
Krupskaia. They took that precious piece of paper and started:
"Dear grandfather Kalinin," or "To uncle Kalinin,"
or just "Hello, uncle Misha." Each letter signified utter
neediness but also naive and sincere belief that "dear uncle Misha"
or "dear Nadezhda Konstantinovna" will help. Quite often
children believed in vain. But the existence of this belief is what is
important. Apparently, presenting Stalin as the 'father-figure' of the
Soviet people, we simplify relations in the Soviet family of the 1930s.
There were other 'relatives' like "uncle Misha" and "dear
Nadezhda Konstantinovna," who clearly was the 'mother figure.' One
poor girl who wanted to study and "bring benefit to the
state," wrote: "Oh dear N. K. please show concern for me I
will be grateful to you till I die give me maternal
help" (p. 411, my italics).
Of course, children's letters are the most heart breaking. But almost
each single document in this narrative presents a fascinating story.
Life in the countryside receives especially scrupulous and detailed
treatment in the fourth and fifth chapters, "Love and Plenty"
and "Bolshevik Order on the Kolkhoz." Again, the stream of
complaints is juxtaposed with newspaper headlines such as "Growing
Stronger Every Day" or "Hauling Manure onto the Fields is the
Best Present for the Eighteenth Party Congress" (p. 290).
Assembling all these documents, the editors managed to show the
multidimensionality of the Stalinist "way of life." Pompous
official rhetoric, angered or puzzled reports, as well as letters with
complaints, denunciations and requests help us comprehend the process
that Soviet propaganda used to call "formation of the new Soviet
man." The book could be used in teaching both undergraduate and
graduate courses. The documents are invaluable for understanding of
social history of the Stalinist society. The narrative is engaging: it
will induce interest and lively discussions in a class of any level.
. Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a
Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995);
Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism, Ordinary Life in
Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s(New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999).
Citation: Elena Krevsky . "Review of Lewis
Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov, Stalinism as a Way of Life: A
Narrative in Documents," H-Russia, H-Net Reviews,
April, 2002. URL: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=226271019495405.
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