Everyday Stalinism
Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s

Author: Sheila Fitzpatrick

Oxford University Press, 1999

Sheila Fitzpatrick is Bernadotte E. Schmitt Professor of Modern Russian History at the University of Chicago and past president (1997) of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.

The Soviet Union was rooting private enterprise from its economy and using state planning to promote rapid economic development. That planning, writes Fitzpatrick, "involved massive investment in heavy industry, skimping in the area of consumer goods and substantial involuntary sacrifice of living standards by the general population to pay for it all." A part of the Soviet Union's First Five-Year Plan was collectivization of agriculture. "Several million" peasants lost their land to expropriation and were deported to distant parts of the country. Millions more fled to the cities. In the towns were food shortages, rationing and overcrowding, and, in 1932-33, famine existed "in most of the major grain-growing regions of the country." 

The tempers of Soviet citizens "were tried on a daily basis by incompetent and arbitrary officials, clerks and salespeople, all working for the state." Party leaders viewed themselves as culturally superior and saw resistance to their mission as "backwardness"  – a word that "stood for everything that belonged to old Russia and needed to be changed in the name of progress and culture."

Writes Fitzpatrick: "Nobody was more critical of Soviet bureaucracy than the Soviet leaders." Bureaucrats tended to be recently appointed, inexperienced, poorly educated and inefficient. The public was encouraged to send letters "detailing cases of abuse of power by officials in their districts" – no matter that the target of a letter was probably a Party member. The Communist Party was engaged in self-criticism.

Sheila Fitzpatrick did not write this book with a mission to slander Communists. She is a better scholar than that, and Stalinism is almost in universal disrepute. She writes of the many who saw the Soviet government as their government and of those who believed they were on a course toward a better future. "This," she writes, "was an age of utopianism." Political leaders had utopian visions, and so did many citizens. She adds:

Most memoirs about the period, including many written in emigration, recall the idealism and optimism of the young, their belief that they were participants in a historic process of transformation, their enthusiasm for what was called "the building of socialism."

Bread rationing was lifted in 1935, and the Communist Party trumpeted the end of privation and the coming of plenty. But distribution remained in the hands of bureaucrats and it was done with favor to some and disfavor to others. Bureaucrats had a citizen's social class to consider. The Communist Party had been interested in redistribution, taking from those who had been privileged and giving to those who had been exploited. Almost two decades since the revolution began, prejudice against the previously privileged began, including the children of the privileged. The Communist Party was not yet ready to embrace equality, including equality of opportunity. Distribution of the products of labor was a dominant preoccupation of Party leaders, and, writes Fitzpatrick:

All of the social goods like housing, medical care, higher education, and vacations were distributed by state agencies. The citizen obtained them by making an application to the relevant bureaucracy. 

Heroes of labor – the Stakhanovites – and engineers were favored. So too were leading Party officials, believed to be heroes in their dedication to society. And so were cultural heroes: celebrity intellectuals and such. For ordinary people without special connection, writes Fitzpatrick, the most likely source of patronage was one's boss or local party secretary."

In 1936 the Soviet Union's new constitution suggested to some that amnesty was on its way for those who had been labeled class enemies. But this was not to be. Families of the so-called privileged remained restricted in their movements. Social origins remained a taint that could not be removed by a change of heart. The Party thought more in terms of history's "objective"' forces rather than the subjectivity of changed thinking. 

Fitzpatrick writes of the urban housing conditions forcing families into "miserably confined spaces," contributing to a high rate of desertion by husbands, "especially after the birth of a child." She writes of many women entering the labor market for the first time and many of them as the sole breadwinner for their family. By the mid-thirties, the Soviet state was openly pro-family. In 1936 it outlawed abortion. It made divorce harder to obtain and more costly and began stigmatizing irresponsible fathers and husbands.  

The Party continued to struggle against remnants from the past. Prostitutes were taken off the streets. So too were beggars, who were often making old-fashioned appeals to religious charity. They were accused of being "church agitators." And those pursuing the old profession as traveling tailors were accused of spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda. Practicing the old and publicly advocating it was easily melded by some advocates of a new society.  

"By the beginning of 1937," writes Fitzpatarick, "both educated and uneducated Russians were seeing signs that a time of national misfortune was at hand. The most important proximate cause for this perception was the failure of the 1936 harvest." Hard times meant finding enemies. On July 2, 1937 a secret order from the Politburo (the Party's leading body) called for the rounding up of habitual criminals, troublemakers and persons who had illegally returned from exile. Some of these people were summarily executed. Some others were sent to the Gulag. Fitzpatrick reports that "Each region of the Soviet Union was given a quota; for the Soviet union as a whole, the target figure for executions was 70,000 (including 10,000 'socially dangerous elements' already in Gulag)."

A major target in controlling class enemies were the minority of old Party members who had expressed disagreement with majority Party opinion. Here came the infamous purge trials, complete with confessions by the accused. Many citizens joined in the denunciations of class enemies. They believed that the regime was acting in the best interests of society, and they continued their letter writing, believing that the government could and should help people. The Soviet leaders wanted to know what people were thinking. The secret police (the NKVD) listened to people while standing in lines outside stores, in factory cafeterias, in bathhouses, and they talked to academics. Citizens writing letters with complaints were a source for knowing what people were thinking. These letters were welcome. They were written for action to improve and were signed. Many citizens "shared the authorities' belief that letter-writing was a democratic practice that brought citizens closer to their government."

There were also too many who were hostile to the Communist regime for the Party to do anything about. Some were wishing for Stalin's death, and there were opinions such as,

Our business is to work like horses and get nothing for it, and the Jew does nothing, sits in power, and lives at our expense. (Some Bolshevik leaders were Jews.) 

Managers, meanwhile, were playing the system as best they could. Writes Fitzpatrick:

Risk-taking was sometimes a necessity for effective functioning. Industrial managers, for example, could not get the raw materials, spare parts, and labor they needed without breaking rules and taking risks, despite the ever-present possibility that they would be punished. The economic historian Joseph Berliner pointed out that in the Soviet Union 'the successful manager, the one who climbs swiftly to the top and makes a brilliant career, is the one who is willing to hazard arrest and prison sentence. There is a selective process at work which raises the risktaker to the top, and causes the timid to fall by the wayside.'

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