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EveryDay Stalinism: A Review

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism, Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930's. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 288 pages. Reviewed by Steven Harkness.

For every perceived error of communism, there is an obvious historical equivalent within western democracy. To truly understand this reality, however, one must search beyond the military histories, which deal in belligerent atrocity for land acquisition, beyond the political histories, which deal in intrigue-driven bloodthirsty power struggles, and beyond the religious histories, which impose fantasy and superstition on the natural relationships between cause and effect. To see the grand hypocrisy inherent in the ubiquitous twentieth century ideological feud that was the Cold War, one must stand on the streets of Smolensk, Kiev, Leningrad, and try to sleep in a crowded kitchen corner with no heat or food, and hear the endless confrontations between neighbors, families, local authorities, and even children, as the old wedge of utopian liberalism inspired some, and terrified others. For this, the modern student of history is well-served by Sheila FitzPatrick's Everyday Stalinism. Her thoughtful and in-depth approach to Ordinary Life In Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930's takes that elusive “street view” of the real outcomes of mankind's best and worst intentions, as measured by the only true sociological test of an idea, the people themselves. The result is a hauntingly familiar narrative of misguided optimism, nationalist bravado, and unintended consequences, that bridges the gap between the world's foremost revolutionary peoples, who happen to be still suffering the symptoms of each nation's most debilitating xenophobic ailment: mutual enmity, suspicion, and, in the worst of times, free-wheeling antagonism.

Fitzpatrick takes the long, circuitous route through the trenches of post-revolutionary Russia under the Party, as led by Ioseph Stalin. Her bibliography includes dozens of newspaper and journal articles from the period in question, along with references to hundreds of scholarly books and discussions. These vary from harrowing accounts of gulag prisoners, transcripts and analysis of the infamous “show trials,” correspondence between all levels of institutional administration, diaries, interviews, cartoons, state-drafted news reports, and crucial historical data concerning industrial and agricultural output, both contrived and otherwise.

The author combines these invaluable resources with a consummate attention to detail, a sincere regard for objectivity which neither mocks nor rationalizes her subject, a polished understanding of Soviet History, and a humanizing talent for storytelling that reveals the impossibility of life under the great Red menace. It is not the author's intention to offer a comparative history, nor does she. Her work is simply so thorough and so complete that her image of the most common Russian citizens have been so stripped of pretense and rumor and myth that what remains is indistinguishable to the reader from his or her own conscience. Fitzpatrick cuts through all the propaganda and knee-jerk judgementalism which are so intractable with political and military histories. The hero is the impoverished single mother who can no more influence her wayward husband's abandonment than she can find food for her children. The great oration is the pathetic and helpless plea for assistance in letters ignored by the regime. The enemy is a formless, “flexible” concept, which never materializes without some external activating component, such as a conflict over living space, or wages, or worse, opinion. Fitzpatrick captures these figures and moments with integrity, and preserves them for the coming generations in an orderly, sincere, and concise registry.

For American scholars and citizens alike, there are many images engrained in the social consciousness from lives not lived. From the savages dining with (or fighting) beleaguered settlers, to Paul Revere's ride, Washington's crossing, the Philadelphia convention, the emancipation of slaves, Lincoln's assassination, the repugnant working and living conditions of urbanization and industrialization, the parades and propaganda surrounding the Great Wars, Jim Crow, McCarthy-ism, internment camps, the President describing Elvis Presley as “niggardly” on national television, square-jawed boys machine-gunning Laotians and Cambodians from helicopter windows, the Civil Rights riots,(and police brutalization), the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the Church committee, Iran-Contra, and Reagan's stereotypical “welfare queens driving around Chicago in Cadillacs...”

But for all this, if asked what Russia and America had in common, most westerners might not look much further than the Arms race and the Space race. This is why Fitzpatrick's work is so valuable. For decades, the western view of Communism has been akin that of leper-phlegm: it's best to not get any on you! The thought process reflects a profound lack of understanding, an even deeper absence of empathy, and a refusal to entertain the notion of common ground. The effect of this dehumanizing void not only skews one's perception of “homo-Sovieticus,” but also reveals a wanting understanding of western history, especially American history.

The Bolshevik revolution effectively ended serfdom, which was, in both theory and practice, the enslavement of all common peoples by their noble and aristocratic lords. Alex II had formally set them free nearly half a century earlier, but like the American slaves, their freedom was an illusion that came with no specification (and certainly no guarantee) of basic human rights and freedoms. Tsars like Alex II pretended to be abreast of the now-global trend toward liberalization, but clearly understood that it was his own power that would be compromised. Like Americans in the war for independence, the Russians struggled against Royalists (which Americans called Loyalists) to throw off the shackles of monarchy and despotism. Like Americans, the Russians knew first-hand the frustration and waste of being drawn into the endless European wars, and wanted leadership that could (and would) resist the tendencies of Imperialism.

In the nineteen thirties, famine and war combined with unrestrained executive exuberance and economic instability. Americans and Russians alike remember the breadlines, the hunger, and the depression. Both cultures read the writing on the wall, but were powerless to influence or abate the changes coming from on high, as a new generation of ideologues-turned-bureaucrats labored to remake the entire country (or countries, as it were) in the far-reaching image of modernism. Both cultures set out to end illiteracy, to defend the rights of workers, to industrialize, to nationalize land for vast farming initiatives, to elevate the roles of women from dependent housewife to self-reliant worker and citizen. While the “great purges” paint an Orwellian image of the dangers of centralization and government overreach, one must not forget the horrific lynchings and cross-burnings of American aggression toward blacks.

While state supervision of such employment subtleties as being a few minutes late for work might seem anachronistic to modern thinkers, one must not forget the days when American Presidents used armed forces to crush worker-strikes that threatened production of certain goods the government deemed necessary. One may look upon the rampant culture of suspicion and terror that followed the dreaded renunciations of fellow citizens during the Stalinist regime, but one must also recall the political witch-hunts that arbitrarily destroyed families and careers in the US as religious fanatics and pedantic politicians abused political power to “root out” hidden communist threats, whether real or perceived.

One may rebuke the Communists rage and aggression towards the clergy, but few Americans would welcome those efforts of religious fundamentalists trying to control what may or may not be taught in schools, or what policies the leadership embraces with regard to foreign diplomacy and interventionism. One may cringe at the notion of state-run press, but one must then consider the $80 Billion spent by each of the two major candidates for the democratic Primary in the 2008 presidential campaign, and one must give pause to the fact that in thirty years, all major American news and media broadcast networks were consolidated under less than a half dozen holding companies owned by the wealthiest and most powerful few businessmen in history, or that men like these (like the Koch family, Northrup Gruman, Exxon-mobile, and Haliburton) wield an immeasurably disproportionate influence on the American political process when compared to the single, sacred vote of a confused, mislead, and helplessly uninformed citizen.

What the modern western reader may have lost his or her sense of, however, is how terrifying the possibility of failure must have been for the (ironically paternalistic) founding fathers, for with it came the risk of reversion. Had the British won the War for Independence, it is not unreasonable to assume that in the quiet, remote, darkness of eastern wilderness, colonists would have suffered terrible retribution for their participation in the treasonous acts committed against the crown. This is the difference for post-Revolutionary “communists” or Bolshviks.” The philosophical and ideological threats to the Soviet cause were not rooted on a small island across thousands of miles of stormy ocean. The royal family had many sympathizers, both in and out of Russia, at every level of class society.

As the claim was commonly made, Russia was “encircled” by these powers at all times. For all the pejorative rhetoric and fear-mongering that defined the Cold war and the Nuclear arms race, an American president remains the only leader in history to have willfully unleashed that terrible weapon on hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, and this, during the height of American patriotic nostalgia! For all the nightmarish anxiety of what suffering might follow Communist expansion, American kids became trained butchers in the Vietnam war, murdering hundreds of thousands more of farmers, women, children, and occasionally, some “bad guys” who visibly or audibly rejected American (or French, for that matter) intervention and control. For those who scoffed at the Orwellian images of anti-individual institutionalism, characterized by gray walls, incessant propaganda, jack-booted children chanting in unison, and the cold impersonal finger of absolutist bureaucracy, perhaps the image of remote control airplanes firing hellfire missiles into the rural homes, wedding parties, or mountain convoys of “suspected militants” ought to provoke some anger. But the tragedy is in perception. Vladimir Putin stirs up a war in the Ukraine, and all the American prejudices rush to the forefront of civil consciousness. Age old fears of the “dripping red menace” are stoked by old archetypal TV villains, and a resurgence of blind nationalism envelopes the dialogue. Meanwhile, the US sustains a military presence in over 250 bases in nearly every country, and has started several oil wars in Iraq for which there is almost no equivalent outrage.

Recent events aside, Fitzpatrick explores all of these prototypical “Russian” experiences from the point of view of the people themselves. Starvation, Unemployment, Repression, and Fatigue were the common bonds of many nationalities who understood why the revolution happened, who believed in the ideologies set forth by the intelligentsia, and who went from subservient backwards illiteracy to unbridled political awareness in a single generation. The great disappointments of the Stalinist experience were not products of an ideology that threatened the values Americans and other civilized nations held dear. They were the results of once well-intentioned leaders becoming drunk with power and mad with paranoia, a phenomenon which has not failed to visit the American government or any other in history.

A few rotten apples aside, the Russian people were not stupid, nor were they cowardly or unambitious. Within about three decades of the assassination of Nicholas and his family, the Soviet Union made history by putting the first man in space. Within less than ninety years of the Revolution, the Russians have proven themselves to be tenacious competitors in all fields of enlightenment, from technology to medicine to industry and agriculture. Fitzpatrick's work presents these people in their darkest hour, and does not neglect their humanity, optimism, suffering, or frustration. Through her eyes, modern audiences may peek through the intellectual filters so rigorously applied by both governments to see the people for who they truly were: desperate, scared, confused, hungry, and beaten down. For this, the reader can not help but to admire their struggle, and to find a common cause with those once treated as enemies.

But perhaps the most alarming elements in Everyday Stalinism are not the eerie similarities in both culture's struggle for self-determination, but the even more disconcerting similarities between the egregious policies of the Stalinist regime and the drifting policies and hawkish attitudes and impermeable elitism so characteristic of modern American politics. For this reason, perhaps more than any other, Sheila Fitzpatrick deserves the highest accolades for this outstanding academic portrait of an age not-quite-so gone by. Modern scholars and historians will find this an invaluable contribution to the subjects of revolution and liberalism for decades to come. Modern audiences in the west will find common ground with an old nemesis, on a profoundly personal level. And if two peoples separated by so much hyperbole can come to see each other as equals in a common struggle, a basis for fraternity and good will is possible. Each culture may learn from the other's mistakes and successes, but each must first concede that their struggles were not so different, nor were their intentions, and nor were their mistakes or shortcomings. A work like this is transformative and therefore exceedingly rare and of great worth. A fantastic read, and highly recommended!

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