Here is a pioneering account of everyday life under Stalin, written by one of our foremost authorities on modern Russian history.
Focusing on urban areas in the 1930s, Sheila Fitzpatrick shows that with the adoption of collectivization and the first Five-Year Plan, everyday life was utterly transformed. With the abolition of the market, shortages of food, clothing, and all kinds of consumer goods became endemic. As peasants fled the collectivized villages, major cities were soon in the grip of an acute housing crisis, with families jammed for decades in tiny single rooms in communal apartments, counting living space in square meters. It was a world of privation, overcrowding, endless queues, and broken families, in which the regime's promises of future socialist abundance rang hollowly. We read of a government bureaucracy that often turned everyday life into a nightmare, and of the ways that ordinary citizens tried to circumvent it, primarily by patronage and the ubiquitous system of personal connections known as blat. And we read of the police surveillance that was endemic to this society, and the waves of terror like the Great Purges of 1937, that periodically cast this world into turmoil. Fitzpatrick illuminates the ways that Soviet city-dwellers coped with this world, examining such diverse activities as shopping, traveling, telling jokes, finding an apartment, getting an education, landing a job, cultivating patrons and connections, marrying and raising a family, writing complaints and denunciations, voting, and trying to steer clear of the secret police.
Based on extensive research in Soviet archives only recently opened to historians, this superb book illuminates the ways ordinary people tried to live normal lives under extraordinary circumstances.
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Most popular books about the Stalin era feature the big names and a firm narrative shape: Robert Conquest's The Great Terror; Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin. Some books yield their revelations at a glance, like the stunning The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia.
But scholar Sheila Fitzpatrick is famous for letting the common people and the facts speak for themselves, in all their complexity. Her new book on Soviet life in the 1930s--based on research in newly opened archives--does for urbanites what her Heldt Prizewinning Stalin's Peasants did for rural victims. The many witnesses in this fascinating horror story cast doubt on Stalin's notorious 1935 slogan "Life has become better, comrades; life has become more cheerful."
A comment made by a victim of Ivan the Terrible would be more apt: "We Russians don't need to eat; we eat one another and this satisfies us." Famine, caused by bad weather and worse policies, plagued the decade, and life became a chronic struggle to wrest crumbs from an incompetent bureaucracy. Stalin's sly methods of deflecting blame from the state onto allegedly disloyal citizens provoked orgies of denunciation (which could backfire on denouncers). A mad starch factory director forbade comrades to get shaves or haircuts at home--it would have been disloyal to the factory's hairdresser. One kid, Pavlik Morozov, reported his father for grain hoarding in 1937, was murdered by relatives, and became a national hero to kids. Andrei Sakharov's future spouse Elena Bonner was shocked at her 9-year-old brother's response to his father's arrest: "Look what these enemies of the people are like--some of them even pretend to be fathers." The celebrated Moscow Children's Theater put on The Squealer, a drama strikingly like Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront.
Fitzpatrick gives a sense of what it really was like to live under the satanic circus master Stalin: it was beyond Kafka, and it was bloody hard work. --Tim AppeloAbout the Author:
Sheila Fitzpatrick teaches modern Russian History at the University of Chicago. A former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, and a co-editor of The Journal of Modern History, she is also the author of Stalin's Peasants, The Russian Revolution, and many other books and articles about Russia.
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