Jul 11, 2013

Everyday Life in Stalinist Russia

Last night 16 club members met to discuss Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s by Sheila Fitzpatrick. It is a short social history of life in the Communist USSR before World War II.

"Kafka was right!" That was the way Allen opened the meeting. Certainly the everyday life of people in the USSR in the 1930s seems Kafkaesque to us today. (Of course, it was also the world parodied in Orwell's 1984, with Big Brother watching everyone and the government practicing doublespeak.)

People in Russia were hungry -- sometimes starving. Consumer goods were in short supply for all but the core group of Communist Party officials. Housing was inadequate. Survival was achieved through blat, the USSR's version of networking and influence. All of the trust relationships seemed broken as neighbors informed on one another, as did workers and even family members; secret police could arrive in the middle of the night to arrest anyone, and people could wind up in prison or the gulag in Siberia.

Much of the discussion was going beyond the scope of the book as we tried to understand how society came to be that way. Sam summed up the thrust saying that Americans too often fail to understand how history determines current conditions. Author Fitzpatrick, keeping the book short, kept the focus on everyday life in Russia, drawing on diaries and especially The Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System for a rich if anecdotal account of everyday life, did not provide the more general background that some of our club members felt that they needed.

The USSR was trying to make a technological, social and economic transition that while different in nature was comparable in magnitude to the transitions made by England and the United States in a century of Industrial Revolution. Moreover, the country was trying to do so in a decade or two. It is not surprising that the effort failed. It is surprising that it succeeded as well as it did.

Certainly one important factor in the disappointment of Stalin's program was the chaos caused in Russia by World War I, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War between the Reds and the White forces.

Stalin's government gave very high priority to preparation for war. They felt threatened in the west by Fascists led by Nazi Germany, but also by the Democratic powers led by the British Empire. There was also a threat from the east from the Japanese empire. The predictions of war in fact came true. We noted that the USSR would not have fought the Nazis as successfully as it did in World War II if its efforts to build the military and heavy industry had not been somewhat successful.

As we saw Stalin's strategy, it was to build the Army and heavy industry very quickly. The heavy industry would be built in away from the greatest threats of invasion. To build heavy industry, it would be necessary to bring many people from the largely rural population to the cities. Investment in plant and equipment would be heavy, and would be derived by withholding consumer goods from the population, Stalin and his inner circle then believed that by restructuring farming, especially through the organization of large collective farms, USSR agriculture could still feed the country. The country could have adequate consumer goods and heavy industry by achieving high production in manufacturing via central planning. All of this would be achieved under the leadership of the Communist Party, with strong management by the apartachiks, giving power to the proletariat, recognizing outstanding achievement by naming people heroes of the Soviet Union, and maintaining strong propaganda that the sacrifices would be warranted by the better world to come.

One problem was that Stalin and his inner circle never felt secure in power. To maintain that power, the government was violently coercive. Everyone was spying on everyone else, and anyone suspected of disloyalty was killed, imprisoned or removed from a position in which he could be a threat. Unfortunately, the decay of trust was also a decay of the social capital that makes society work.

The Stalinists got rid of the old aristocracy, the religious leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, the kulaks, property owners -- indeed, anyone identified with the Czarist leadership -- and barred their children and grandchildren from opportunities for advancement. Unfortunately, this put the management of the economy too often in the hands of people unprepared to manage well.

We noted that while the pre-revolutionary class structure was broken, the tacit cultural traits brought forth a new class structure. Those in power lived better than the masses. Those with connections to powerful patrons managed through blat to live better than those without such connections. And of course, the former Orthodox priests, land owners, aristocrats and their like formed an underclass.

The reorganized rural economy did not work as the Communist leadership had hoped and believed it would. Collective farms especially did not produce well. In bad years there was hunger and famine. The housing industry was unable to produce enough housing in urban areas; most urban people lived many families to a (mislabeled) apartment and fought for space.

The central government could order the production of shoes and clothing to meet the needs of the population, and indeed the factories reported that they met the set  targets. However, they lied, They produced neither the quantity nor the quality of goods that were ordered and reported as produced. In part this was because the suppliers of leather and equipment on which they depended did not arrive; fixers who used blat to find the necessary inputs were critical to the process, but on average only partially successful in their efforts.

A key problem for the USSR was poverty. In 1930 the Russian economy was more similar to that of African developing nations today than to the economies of England or Germany. Today developing countries are facing huge problems building manufacturing industries. People migrating from rural areas to the urban slums in developing countries have huge problems finding adequate housing and obtaining food and clothing. A poor country seeking to generate large amounts of investment to improve productivity in agriculture and manufacturing has very limited opportunities to find the money it needs.

We noted that there were significant achievements for the USSR in the 1930s in addition to military preparedness and development of heavy industry. For example, education was improved and there was a significant attack on illiteracy. Some sectors of society had opportunities for advancement that their ancestors had never enjoyed; indeed, the political leadership late in the life of the USSR was drawn from the children of the proletariat given great opportunities for advancement through education and increasing responsibility in the Communist party.

The group clearly seemed to have learned quite a bit about prewar everyday life in the USSR by reading the book. There was some discussion of the anecdotal nature of the evidence provided by Fitzpatrick. In that context it was noted that:

  • In spite of the lack of freedom of expression in Stalinist Russia, a great deal of information had been made available from government files and diaries as a result of Glasnost and the Harvard Project interviews with refugees after the war. (The inherent bias in interviews with refugees from the USSR was noted,)
  • There was a total dearth of social science research in the USSR during the period in question; reliable quantitative economic data, such as might be provided by household surveys, was absent.
  • The compilation, selection, organization and interpretation of this evidence was an important contribution to scholarly understanding of Russian social history.
Overall, it would seem that the participants in the discussion would recommend this book. Understanding Russian social history would seem to be important in our effort to understand modern Russian society. Indeed, there are parallels between the experiences of Russians in the turmoil of the 1930s and the experience of people living through rapid political, economic, and social change in other times and places.

Here are a couple of blog posts by one of our members, written before the discussion:

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