“Everyday Stalinism” review

In Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, we are given a world of knowledge surrounding how Post-Revolutionary Russia was an ever-changing situation. After all, “This was an age of utopianism[1].” Many Russians felt that Communism could be the answer to their prayers. Unfortunately for many, life under Stalin was one full of hardships, hope and opposition to the government.

The life of the Soviet people during the 1930s was very difficult. The revolution had ended, the Czar and his autocracy no more, and yet there was still this miserable poverty and repression that came as a result of Lenin’s death and Stalin’s take over of power. From the hope of equality to the bitter reality of Stalin’s brutality, the endurance Soviet people exhibited is truly commendable. Everyday necessities such as clothing, food, shoes and other important consumer goods were unavailable,[2] and waiting in lines for food or other important items were typical of the day. The failures of the harvests in 1932-33 and again in 1936 were the result of Collectivization. This disastrous series of episodes created famine, hostility and mass starvation. Thousands of innocent people died as a result of the Party’s collectivization idea. When troubles came, the government found scapegoats, usually counterrevolutionaries who were trying to undermine the Party’s power by preventing the goods from being given to the people.

“You know, they are putting people in prison for nothing now.[3]” The totalitarian state over which Stalin presided was a time filled with terror. The “time of troubles” as Ms. Fitzpatrick calls this time, was an Orwellian nightmare of surveillance and waves of atrocities- the Purges. “The Great Purges introduced a new definition of the target of terror: “enemies of the people[4]”- a term coined by Stalin. People were mercilessly taken and arrested merely for any suspicious cause, much like would be later done in Mao’s China.

Another huge problem the Soviet people faced was in regards to its social problems. There were many unfortunate circumstances surrounding the homeless, orphans, juvenile offenders et cetera. Juvenile crime, mainly stemming from the extreme poverty evident in this period, steadily increased during the beginning of the 1930s[5]. People were forced to live in insalubrious communal homes, with little privacy and also little food, due to rationing.[6] It in unimaginable to consider the absolute suffering and sense of helplessness many of the people in Soviet Russia must have felt waiting hour upon hour in the snow in order to get a few morsels of food to fill their empty stomachs. Such must have been the sheer hopelessness of some that they preferred to make their children orphans than keep them with them, since there was no way to feed them. Orphanages became crowded as a result and contributed to the already vast amount of social problems facing the population during Stalin’s era.

Amongst the social problems were included the Abortion law, which completely prohibited the use of abortion- and act which shocked many.[7] Such a law was not very realistic given the lack of financial security of many married couples- if they had an insufficient amount of funds to bring up a child- how could they be expected to bring another child into the world? This new law not only focused on the prohibition of abortion but also on divorce, child support and rewards for mothers who had many children. Divorce was made more difficult to obtain with the addition of a hefty fine which increased the number of times a given person divorced. The rewards for mother with many children was interesting because a family needed to have a minimum of six children in order to receive monetary benefits from the state.[8] This sort of government-sanctioned encouragement for an increase in the birth rate was not exclusively a Soviet idea, for it was being practiced in many European countries as a result of the devastating number of casualties from the Great War.

Living standards declined dramatically during the start of the Stalinist era, once again the famine of 1932 played a huge role in this for approximately three to four million people died as a result and this in turn had a substantial impact on the birth rate in the nation.[9] Also, people were dehumanized and were moved arbitrarily wherever the government wished to move them. Fitzpatrick states that the government was practicing a kind of social cleansing, involving the removal of marginal urban residents, “degenerates” whose presence was regarded as corrupting and disruptive, and their forcible relocation in labor camps or provincial exile.[10] This is in many ways similar to the kind of social cleansing Hitler and the Nazis were attempting in Germany, for these people who were taken out of the population were in many respects considered to be “undesirables.”

“We shall build our world, a new world.” The youth in Russia during the 1930s strongly believed that the building of socialism was an historic moment in time, and they were thrilled to be part of such a movement[11]. Like many of the world’s great social movements, the Russian Revolution was aided in great part by young revolutionary students, idealists and the like. These youthful idealists maintained the enthusiasm for the Communist cause because they felt it was the answer for their country, a way to rise up and become stronger. Many thought, “We are taming space and time, we are the young masters of the earth,” and “we were born to make fairy tales come true!”[12]

What could be the possible causes of such enthusiasm and hope for the future of Russia and her people? Education always plays a major factor in a population’s wishes. Everyone wishes to be able to have an access to an education. So, during the Stalinist period literacy rates jumped from fifty-seven percent in 1926 to eight-one percent in 1939. Fitzpatrick includes a rather perfect line in her description of the enthusiasm of the Soviet youth; “A Soviet citizen might believe or disbelieve in a radiant future, but could not be ignorant that one was promised.[13]” Just the belief, the hope that the future could be brighter than the past was good enough for many young people.

Although the young idealists of the day were dreaming of the perfect socialist country, others distrusted this new political structure. One example of this opposition to the government can be seen from the Public Discussion or narodnoe obsuzhdenie in which people were often forced into attending.[14] At such a meeting concerning the new Constitution (that had many rights promised within it), many people did not take those promises seriously, as they had very little faith in the government.[15]

The Soviet people often wrote letters to the government full of “complaints, petitions, denunciations, and other letters to the authorities” and many were written anonymously- for fear of punishment should the government find out who they were.  Some anonymous letters were also sent to the government displaying disapproval of the government’s actions. One letter written to Molotov read: “Comrade Molotov!…Don’t think that people follow you and vote for you unanimously. Many are against you, but are afraid…Believe me, all the peasantry is against you. Long live Leninism! Down with the Stalinist dictatorship![16]

Another way we are able to ascertain the depth of disdain for Stalinist practices was in how, for instance, when the consumer goods prices doubled in 1939, many people reacted negatively with hostility and resentment (and with good reason!). As one person was noted to have said, “Life has become better, life has become more cheerful- everything is for the bosses, they raised their salaries.[17]” Such bitterness was as widespread in Russia as the poverty and hunger was.

In many ways, this alienation of the country’s people and the dehumanizing elements apparent in the way the government governed could be reason enough to cause extreme opposition to the government. The situation that presented itself during the Stalinist era is rather similar to today’s situation here in the United States, for the more the people’s rights are taken away, be it with the Patriot act or something of that nature, the general population becomes more and more wary of any government action that may seem even slightly incorrect.

There were a prodigious amount of circumstances surrounding the harshness of the Stalinist era, but it was nevertheless still a situation in which some people could still maintain a sense of hope for the future of Russia and its people. Although the hardships were extremely trying, the belief in the ideals of Communism as was created during the Lenin era, was the one thing that was the most important factor in keeping the people alright.

In conclusion, Fitzpatrick, unlike many western historians, does not condemn Communism as a whole, but instead focuses on how, like in any political situation, who the leader is makes all the difference. She artfully weaves historical facts about the brutal truths surrounding Stalin’s governmental policies with human elements which create a compelling and informative read. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s is indeed an important read for those who wish to better understand the struggles and many issues surrounding the Stalinist era in Russia.


[1] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 67.

[2] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 44.

[3] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 190.

[4] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 191.

[5] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 150-151.

[6] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 54.

[7] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 152.

[8] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 156.

[9] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 40.

[10] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 126.

[11] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 68.

[12] Fitpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 68.

[13] Fitpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 67.

[14] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 178-79.

[15] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 180.

[16] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 187.

[17] Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, 170.

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Hear ye! 3 thoughts — so far — on ““Everyday Stalinism” review”:

  1. Ludwik Kowalski

    1) Unfortunately, most young Americans know very little about dark pages of the Soviet history. That creates favorable conditions for the return of totalitarianism, in one form or another. Fitzpatrick’s book should be required reading for those who learn history.

    2) I wish my short book about Stalinism was also reviewed on this forum. I would be happy to send a copy to a potential reviewer. Excerpts from that easy-to-read book can be seen at:

    http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/excerpts.html

    The book is dedicated to my father, a victim of Stalinism

    kowalskiL@mail.montclair.edu

    Ludwik Kowalski

    Reply
    1. Andrea Post author

      Hello Mr. Kowalski.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. I appreciate the fact that many people do not try to inform themselves about past events, and though I am young, I have always had a great interest in learning history. I would be quite interested to read your book and happy to review it here. Thank you for the link and I hope you have a lovely day.

      Sincerely,

      Andrea Zuvich

      Reply
  2. Ludwik Kowalski

    Dear Andrea Zuvich,

    The is probably not for replying. That is why I am responding here.

    Please email me your postal address, when you are ready. I will send you a copy of my book. Keep in mind that I am not a historian sharing new information. The book describes well known facts and provides references. It was written mostly for those who know very little about Stalinism. By the way, it was published the same week that Solzhenitsyn died, nearly one year ago.

    kowalskiL@mail.montclair.edu

    Thanks in advance,

    Reply

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