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Everday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extradorinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Fitzpartick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.


One might wonder if a social history of URBAN Russia in the 1930s would be of interest to agricultural German-Russians who want to understand the lives of their relatives who remained in Russia and experienced the consolidation of Soviet power. Fitzpatrick, a scholar based at the University of Chicago, who had access to Russian archives only recently opened, warns that what she has written in this book pertains only to Russia, not to the other republics, and only to the cities of the 1930s. She says that change was rapid, so it is not accurate to generalize the happenings of the 1930s into the 1940s or beyond or to assume across the board that what was happening in Russia was also happening in the other republics. (Reviewer's note: This is an important caveat because so much of what appears in the literature of the Germans from Russia generalizes the communist era in a way that does not take change into account.)

That said, it would have been diffiult to package a book of this period as exactly as Fitzpatrick initially would have liked. She says that the communists led by Stalin had as their goal the creation of a centrally planned and controlled industrial society, and part of that plan was to have the rural peasantry bear the brunt of the change. The rural peasantry definitely included the German farmers who had for two centuries made the Ukraine into Russia's bread basket. The way Stalin functioned in implementing communist ideas kept even his most devoted operatives on edge. He would "signal" policy through a speech, a newspaper article, or comment, rarely spelling out the dimensions of the change he wanted, then, when success appeared within reach, denounce his operatives for excesses.

The author makes only a few direct references to ethnic Germans, but the book is replete with 1930s occurrences that would have impacted them: Prosperous peasants, who knew early in the communist era that they would be tagged as kulaks, fled their villages and passed themselves off as workers in other areas. Rural people killed livestock during collectivization, adding to the shortage of leather for shoes as well as to the more obvious shortage of meat and dairy products. Famine in the rural areas in 1932-33, created by policies of expropriation of all grain and disruption of production cycles, killed tens of thousands. Starving peasants left the rural areas and fled to the cities, joining the bread lines. Thousands of abandoned children arrived at orphanage doors, hoping to find care. (Other sources say that Germans sometimes did this, hoping to save their children.) An arctic explorer named Otto Schmidt, clearly a German, is mentioned frequently as a hero of the decade; they touted his exploits to distract people from their miseries. The communists seemed pretty dim when it came to associating shortages of basic foods with their own messed-up rural policies.

Fitzpatrick, who drew from newly-opened Secret Police archives, has sharp insights into the times. (The chapter notes show that she frequently draws from her own previously published writing, but that is okay because her subsequent books build on what she has learned from all her research.) She forays to housing, patterns of marriage, a distribution system that left virtually an entire population in poverty, the handing out of honors to hero workers, privileges claimed by officials, the public view of the purges, the creation of the passport system, denunciation, public confession (which never absolved one of guilt and which could later be used against you), abortion, deportation, summary executions, and show trials. An atmosphere of surveillance pervaded the country. She writes of enforced group discussion of the 1936 constitution and the surprising positive value of this to the people.

An interesting aspect of communism was the concept of "enemies of the people" that pervaded how people were viewed. It included guilt by association. There was the enduring belief that there were alien groups in the population (like kulaks, priests and Protestant clergy, and nobility), and these persons should be isolated and punished. These persons, it was believed, remained aggrieved and dangerous and could never reenter normal society. It was very popular to curry favor by "unmasking" someone who had committed some economic crime, by communist standards, or who simply was discovered to be a member of (or related to or acquaintance of) an out-of-favor "element."

Fitzpatrick learned that the Russians were great letter writers to their government officials and agencies and to newspapers, and that the officials paid attention and sometimes actually righted grievances. She found and read great caches of these letters, some of which had been published.

The Russian people throughout all of this, were encouraged to believe that their lives were getting better and that they were building toward an abundant future. Tension builds in the book as she leads the reader from event to event to the Great Purge, which reached its height in 1937. Near the end of the book, Fitzpatrick tells of a collective to which kulaks had been exiled. The members of this collective embarrassed the communists, who were always ranting about the need to increase production, by quickly outproducing their non-kulak neighbors. Sounds a lot like Germans.

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