New Statesman
01/22/2001, Vol. 130 Issue 4521, p57

By Oliver Ready


What is the legacy of Stalinism? A collection of papers from the Soviet archives, and newly translated fiction by the "banned" Andrei Platonov, offer fresh insight into a time of living dangerously

STALINISM AS A WAY OF LIFE: A NARRATIVE IN DOCUMENTS Edited by Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov Yale University Press, 480pp, £25 £20 at (+£1 p&p)

The Soviet Union learnt to read and write, something for which its citizens would be for ever thankful. But the black magic of the written word served the leadership far better than its subjects. There was no crisis that could not be rewritten by the elite to conform to Marx and the "general line": in the reports compiled after the Central Committee plena of the 1930s, where quotas of thousands of "enemies" to be eliminated were casually set, all acrimonious internal disputes would be erased before being sent out through the country.

Tale-telling was endemic to the self-delusions of not only the elite, but also the ordinary citizen. The master plot of the path to communism, enshrined in socialist realism and replete with obstacles and rewards, became the new fairy tale of the people, just as Stalin had become the new God. The gift of literacy thus endowed Homo sovieticus with the grammar that would, in fact, enslave him. This helps explain the paramount historical importance of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose writings succeeded, albeit belatedly, in giving the victims of repression a different narrative. Yet this, too, became a straitjacket: recently, Catherine Merridale spoke of how, during research for her new book on death and memory in Russia, Night of Stone (Granta), former convicts under Stalin could relate their own experiences only according to the models of The Gulag Archipelago.

Western accounts of Stalinism also developed their own deeply revealing narratives. The "totalitarian" school that flourished in the cold war demonised Stalin at the expense of a balanced account of the role of society. The "revisionist" school, born in a new intellectual climate in the 1970s, attempted the opposite. Both worked from inadequate source materials, and both are now being significantly rewritten. Today's historian, meanwhile, paddles in an ocean of archival material, but returns with a tale almost too complex to tell. Bureaucratic, prolix Soviet society left behind a never-ending matryoshka of narratives, each pointing to further research and distancing "final" interpretations.

In its "Annals of Communism" series, Yale University Press has taken a commendably clear-headed approach to these dilemmas by enlisting both Russian and American scholars to sift important documents and present them in all their turgid, yet often dramatic, prose. The reader is invited to form his own narratives, aided by an informative and gently persuasive commentary. J Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov's The Road to Terror, published in the series a little more than a year ago, stands as a ground-breaking study of the collective psychology of the alienated Bolshevik elite which led directly to the policies of the Great Purges.

Stalinism as a Way of Life would, in theory, be the ideal companion, an analysis of the mental processes by which policy was felt, implemented and perpetuated by the ordinary citizen. But while the editors, Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov, claim that such an analysis is their aim, the focus of the selected material, and of the accompanying commentary, is often unclear. Meanwhile, as a study of the quotidian reality of the 1930s, the overall image is less vivid than that provided by Sheila Fitzpatrick's outstanding account, Everyday Stalinism, published by Oxford University Press in 1999.

The editors rightly choose to concentrate on the countryside. Despite the urban focus of Bolshevik policy, peasants constituted the bulk of the population under Stalin and suffered the harshest (and least mourned) disasters, from the collectivisation begun in 1929 through the famines of the 1930s. The documents, which also bring to light underexamined themes such as inter-ethnic conflicts and childhood experiences, are based largely on citizens' letters (classic "fictions") to the authorities and newspapers, and summary reports on popular opinion by the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs). One of the most striking features is the often sophisticated political critiques and suggestions offered by the correspondents on intricate issues such as independent farming or alimony procedures. Yet the peasants' illusion that they were living in a participatory democracy was precisely that-their voices were unheeded in any constructive sense.

The documents paint a predictably bleak picture of the Soviet pastoral idyll: collective farm chairmen who use their authority to spread venereal disease; agronomists who need six hours to fix their faulty equipment before their daily round; a 65-year-old woman exiled for three years for stealing a rooster. The bleakness, however, needs to be contrasted with the immense enthusiasm specific to Stalinism. This is represented here, but insufficiently: we do not really get inside the mind of the provincial activist, for example, whose zeal the centre often had to restrain. Nor can we fully appreciate the euphoria that was occasioned by the grand projects and technological advances of the time, deeply felt even by Stalinism's most observant critics, such as the writer Andrei Platonov.

This is a shame, because study of the period, cut loose from its old ideological moorings, will inevitably head towards greater understanding of the emotional excitement generated by Stalinism and permitted by an extraordinary confluence of historical processes. We will perhaps cease to think of the 1930s simply as "the Terror"-- the Russians never have -- even if the tally of the dead makes us uneasy. Our unease is as nothing compared to the agony of the Soviet Union's direct descendants who, as Vladimir Putin's recent comments about the achievements of Stalinism made clear, are still floundering for a narrative that will at last do justice to the past.

Oliver Ready is the literary editor of the Moscow Times. His translation of a contemporary novel by Yuri Buida, about life under Stalin, will be published by Dedalus later this year