New Republic
12/18/2000, Vol. 223 Issue 25, p35


By Richard Pipes

Stalinism As a Way of Life:
A Narrative in Documents
by Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov
(Yale University Press, 460 pp., $35)

When the soviet Union dissolved toward the end of 1990, Boris Yeltsin removed the country's archives from the control of the Communist Party and threw open the majority of them to scholars, native as well as foreign. Several archives containing the most sensitive documents--the so-called Presidential Archive, along with the archives housing the papers of the KGB and the Foreign Ministry--remain virtually closed to outsiders. Even so, an enormous quantity of documentation, previously secret or available only on a selective basis, is now accessible to every historian of the Soviet period.

Foreign scholars lost no time making use of the opportunity. They divided into two groups. One headed for the depositories containing records of the most sensitive decisions of the Soviet government. A highly revealing study in this category was edited by the Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovskii, called The Moscow Trial. In 1992, Bukovskii was given access to the most secret documents, including minutes of the Politburo, as an expert witness for the Russian Constitutional Court in a trial of the Communist Party, and he managed to outsmart the archivists who had never seen a scanner and to copy thousands of documents relating to high-level Soviet policies. (Although it has been translated into French and German, his extraordinary expose still awaits an American publisher.) My own collection The Unknown Lenin, containing selections from the secret papers of the Soviet leader in what used to be the Central Party Archive, belongs to the same type of research and interpretation.

The authors of such works proceed on the assumption that in the Soviet totalitarian state the prime mover of events was the Communist Party, and hence what mattered were the decisions of the political leadership. But another group of scholars chose to ignore the politicians. They turned instead to the archives containing the seemingly most mundane materials bearing on everyday life in the Soviet Union, such as letters written by ordinary citizens to the authorities and newspaper editors. This group belonged to what in the 1960s came to be known as the "revisionist" school of Russian historians. They postulated that all history is made "from below," that is, by the interaction between the rulers and the ruled; and that in this interaction the latter play the decisive role. The same rule, in their opinion, applied also to Communist Russia. Thus Lenin did not seize power in October 1917, he was driven to do so by the radicalized masses. Stalin's regime, too, was not "totalitarian," because behind the facade of conformity there existed a complex interplay between government and people.

Andrei Sokolov, one of the editors of Stalinism As a Way of Life, wrote in the Russian counterpart of this book that he viewed "the political structures ... not as self-sufficient and self-regulating but as the consequence of social changes and shocks." This approach is really a watered-down version of the Marx-Engels theory that all history is a story of class struggles, with politics merely reflecting the alignment of social and economic forces. The purpose of such research, therefore, was to demonstrate how in an ostensibly "self-sufficient and self-regulating" state such as the Soviet Union, society played a determining role. It is far from clear that this task has been accomplished.

The present volume covers the years between 1929 and 1941, with most of the materials dating from the middle '30s to the late '30s. The parallel Russian volume, edited by Sokolov, published in Moscow in 1998 as Golos Naroda (The Voice of the People), dealt with the preceding period (1918-1932). Stalinism As a Way of Life reproduces 157 documents, many of them letters to the authorities as well as to newspapers, especially Krest'ianskaia Gazeta (Peasant Newspaper), along with reports of government officials on the public mood, all accompanied by the editor's commentaries.

The documents make for very depressing reading. They consist of a relentless succession of complaints, appeals, cries of despair, and denunciations, relieved only rarely by unintended flashes of grim humor (as, for example, a gulag official proposing to build--with forced labor, of course--a canal from Moscow to the Pacific coast.) As the Great Terror of 1937-1938 draws near, the documents become desperate in their incomprehension of what is happening and in their frenzied, self-serving glorification of Stalin.

Most of the documents are too long to cite, so a few examples must suffice. The first is an anonymous letter sent to Pravda from Kazakhstan in 1932:

    Comrade Editor,
       Please give me an answer. Do the local authorities have
    the right forcibly to take away the only cow of industrial
    and office workers? What is more, they demand a receipt
    showing that the cow was handed over voluntarily and they
    threaten you by saying that if you don't do this, they will
    put you in prison for failure to fulfill the meat
    procurement. How can you live when the cooperative
    distributes only black bread, and at the market goods have
    the prices of 1919 and 1920? Lice have eaten us to death,
    and soap is given only to railroad workers. From hunger and
    filth we have a massive outbreak of spotted fever.

The next is a collective letter to Mikhail Kalinin, the Soviet Union's pro forma "Head of State," on behalf of 50,000 women exiled during collectivization:

      Our husbands are separated from us. They are off lumbering
      somewhere, and we women, old people, and small children are
      left behind to languish in churches. As many as two
      thousand of us have been packed into each church where
      plank beds have been put up three stories high so there is
      always a steamy mist in the air. We have all become sick
      from this air and the drafts, and children under fourteen
      have dropped like flies, and there's been no medical
      assistance for all these sick persons. In the course of a
      month and a half as many as three thousand children have
      been buried in the Vologda cemetery.... We brought a supply
      of food with us, but when they moved us, the local
      officials in Vologda took it away.... Now they give us
      nothing except hot water.

The third letter, dated 1936, is from a kolkhoz farmer who responds to the government's request for comments on the draft of the Stalin "Constitution":

      A kind of constitution should be put out so that everyone
      can live freely and so that the brigade leaders don't shout
      at us--Hey, why don't you go to work, otherwise I will deal
      with you. You can't say a word in your own defense, or they
      will start to threaten: "Don't talk so much, or I will nail
      you with article 58. Van'ka got ten years of pulling
      wheelbarrows and it's time for you to land up there...." I
      got to thinking and I started feeling ashamed, we live in a
      free country, but there are so many prisoners and for what?
      If your crops get diseased, it's ten years, if your horse
      wears out its withers, it's ten years, if you didn't give
      somebody a cigarette, it's ten years, and so on, if our
      dear leader Comrade Stalin knew what is going in the
      countryside, he would never forgive it.

What is surprising in all these documents, given the weak development in Russia of civil society, is the belief that human beings have rights and that there is something very wrong when those rights are trampled upon.

Lewis Siegelbaum has performed a major service by selecting and translating these materials which depict the day-to-day conditions of life under Stalin, and do so the more vividly for having been written by semiliterate peasants and workers. The information that he supplies makes real, in human terms, such abstractions as "collectivization," "industrialization," and "terror." His book supplements Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism (1999) which, drawing on similar evidence, described the life of urban Russia in the 1930s.




Kolkhoz members parade under the banner "We will liquidate the kulaks as a class," early 1930s.


Yet Siegelbaum's interpretation of these materials raises troubling questions. He seems to have difficulty accepting the texts at their face value, and feels compelled to interpret them in sociological jargon that robs them of their force and dilutes their message. Consider collectivization, one of the most destructive acts in Russian history. It plundered the peasants of their land, their livestock, and their crops, transforming them into state serfs. The resistance to this mass expropriation was ferocious: Stalin confided to Churchill that the collectivization campaign, which lasted some three years, had been more "stressful" than World War II. In 1932, a certain I. Gusev sent a letter on the desperate situation in the North Caucasus:

      We are left naked, barefoot, two hundred grams of barley
      bread a day and we eat cabbage without butter. It's
      terrible to see a big strong man cry, and he cries because
      they deceived him with the kolkhoz, because he's left
      without a farm, without bread, without clothes, and he's
      lost his freedom.

This seems straightforward enough, but Siegelbaum finds such explanations of resistance to collectivization too simple: "Was this a case of the defense of tradition versus a particularly brutal form of enforced modernization?" he asks in the introduction to the book. Apart from the fact that herding farmers into state-run collectives hardly represented "modernization," one should think that such pathetic cries require no scholarly exegesis.

In his discussion of the Great Terror, Siegelbaum speaks condescendingly, with reference to Robert Conquest's book of that title, about "the simplicity and clarity of the classical interpretation of a paranoid ruler who ruthlessly exterminated former colleagues and millions of others in his unquenchable thirst of power." In fact, we now know from other archival sources, sometimes in gory detail, that Stalin personally supervised the massacres: thus, on a single day, December 12, 1938, he signed death sentences for 5,000 people who had never been tried, after which he went to his private Kremlin movie theater to enjoy two films, one of them a comedy called Merry Fellows. There were many such days.

Siegelbaum has no explanation of his own to offer for the Great Terror, but he submits a number of "potentially valuable" approaches, including one which "emphasizes the discursive significance of `purification' and `degeneration' and the desire of Stalinist subjects to be among the pure." This is admirably sophisticated, but one wonders whether the same thought ever occurred to Stalin when in instructions to police officials assigned to carry out his terror he summed up their task in one word: "beat."

There is a reluctance in Siegelbaum's discussion to concede the totalitarian nature of the Stalinist regime, and also a related inclination, contradicted by the documents cited, to see "social support for the regime." True, there were groups that benefitted from the "purges" by moving into positions vacated by their victims. Not a few Soviet citizens denounced to the authorities as "wreckers," "Trotskyists", and "spies" their bosses, colleagues, and acquaintances, but this surely was an attempt to save their own skins, not an expression of support for the terror. One cannot but wonder what is the use of social science when the main conclusion that Siegelbaum draws from his heartrending evidence is that "the picture we present of how Soviet citizens tried to navigate the 'massive social transformations' of the 1930s is not a particularly happy one." In human terms, the evidence that he adduces shows that it is a very, very tragic one.

The documents collected and analyzed by Sokolov, Fitzpatrick, and now Siegelbaum offer no support to the revisionist theory of "history from below." On the contrary: they indicate more convincingly than ever that Soviet citizens were the helpless victims of a totalitarian regime driven primarily by a lust for power. They vindicate "the simplicity and clarity of the classical interpretation of a paranoid ruler." They thus validate the work of the older generation of Soviet specialists, such as Leonard Schapiro, Merle Fainsod, and Robert Conquest. Politics were indeed the motor driving Soviet history: it was made not "from below" but "from above."

(Copyright 2000, The New Republic)

Richared Pipes is a Baird Research Professor of History at Harvard. His most recent book is Property and Freedom (Knopf).