Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times:
Soviet Russia in the 1930s
Oxford University Press, 1999
Sheila Fitzpatrick is one of today's foremost scholars in Soviet history and her contribution to Soviet social history is undeniable. Her latest offering, however, falls uncomfortably between two audiences. Everyday Stalinism. Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s is a book neither for specialists in the field nor, despite the appealing title and invitingly clear structure, for the popular audience.
The work attempts to assess succinctly the daily experiences of the millions of urban dwellers throughout the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Her previous work (Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization, London / New York: OUP, 1994) concentrated primarily on the experiences of people in the countryside during the same period. From the outset, in her latest work Fitzpatrick identifies the focus of her study as being "extraordinary everydayness." She examines several aspects of the harsh realities of daily life by limiting herself to looking at social interactions which somehow involved the state, arguing that the state in urban Russia permeated into almost every part of citizens' lives. In this way, Fitzpatrick does succeed in driving home the point that daily Soviet life in the 1930s was far from one-dimensional, bland or boring (though perhaps a little more boredom would have been welcomed!).
In emphasising the idea that an entirely new Soviet society was created in this period, Fitzpatrick does not address any sense of the continuum between the Soviet Union and its imperial predecessor. She states that "the 1930s saw the establishment of the distinctive habit [of Soviet life], much of which survived into the post-Stalinist era right up to Gorbachev's perestroika in the 1980s." Consequently, despite her discussion of the reappearance of "traditional" tendencies or the return to a certain conservatism after the turmoil of the preceding decade, the allusions to a continuum are submerged.
Stalin's Russia had a dual nature, reflected as much in the state's propaganda and policies as it was in daily life. There was no uniformity in the way people were treated by and interacted with the state. Fitzpatrick runs through a number of variables that influenced people's daily lives. For example, while certain sins and crimes were forgivable, even including some ideological deviations, it was significantly more difficult - if not impossible - to distance oneself from sins rooted in family background or pre-revolutionary affiliations; this became particularly apparent once the Purges began (1936). At the same time, people did not necessarily condemn the state's punitive policies. On the contrary, a surprising number shared the view that one could not overlook one's social origins and these did potentially constitute a real threat to the state, and could be readily blamed for the shortcomings and failures of state planning. Ironically, while the old privileged classes were regarded as incorrigible, corrupt and decadent, the state increasingly urged the new ascending managerial class to adopt certain bourgeois habits. While praising the proletariat, the state encouraged its members to make sure their fingernails were clean as well.
Policies towards women
The 1930s simultaneously represent a break with the Russian past as well as a continuation of it, as can be shown, for instance, through a study of Soviet domestic and foreign policy. "Stalinist and Soviet" are used as synonyms, with, according to Fitzpatrick, "the former representing both a maximalist version of the latter and its defining moment." The state's policies marked a return to conservatism following the revolutionary period. This is most evident in its treatment of women.
Whereas the revolutionaries had fully supported women's emancipation and stressed absolute equality among the sexes, the 1930s witnessed a reversion to accentuating more traditional roles. This altered attitude was reflected in several specific policies, such as the rewarding (in material and symbolic ways) of "hero mothers" - those who continued to bear large families - and the introduction of regulations stipulating that female comrades alter their mode of dress to appear somewhat more feminine. Most striking - and something that Fitzpatrick discusses at length - was the controversy which surrounded the introduction of the abortion law in 1936 (the decree became law on 27 May). This law signalled a return to more conservative attitudes, but more interesting than the law itself are the implications of the debate it generated. For one, it demonstrated that people, women in this specific case, did not silently acquiesce to the dictates of the state. Views were expressed publicly, and passionately, and women were not prepared passively to relinquish control over their own bodies to the state.
Another major theme of Fitzpatrick's book is that of the mechanisms of privilege and reward in the Soviet state. While in theory workers should feel rewarded merely because of their service to the state - which again was theoretically their state - in practice the state quickly realised that a system of rewards had to be instituted. At a time when scarcity of goods and products was an inescapable fact of Soviet life, material rewards and privileges - which included access to scarce goods - proved to be the most logical and effective. There were privileges for the well connected and also for those who genuinely earned them through service to the state. There were shortages of everything from staple goods to reasonable living space, and long queues and crowded living conditions were a daily reality. Yet those who had the proper connections (blat) were better able to manage the shortages, and this in turn led to another altogether more confusing contradiction of the time (and perhaps of the system as a whole): the misery bred by the official policy of equality existed side by side with immense privilege - also sanctioned by the system.
Perhaps one of the main problems in undertaking a study of the urban Soviet population is that it is a difficult group to define accurately. At the time Soviet society was going through a period of flux and dislocation. While social instability - caused, for example, by illegal migration to the cities - was certainly an issue in the countryside, these problems were far more acute in the urban setting, since the cities lacked a core residential population. Older people, young children and wives were usually left in the countryside while (most often) men went off to work in the cities. Whole families rarely moved to cities together, thus creating a sense of transience amongst the urban population that certainly did not exist in the countryside. This was hardly a phenomenon unique to the Soviet Union, although the problems were certainly accentuated by the Soviet political context. However, in Fitzpatrick's book, the universal problems brought on by this process of urbanisation are not touched on, and this is perhaps indicative of one of the main shortcomings of the work: it lacks an analytical central theme that would tie all the presented materials together.
Fitzpatrick's major contribution in this work is the use and interpretation of diary sources previously published, but not analysed, in a collection entitled Intimacy and Terror. Soviet Diaries of the 1930s (New York: New Press, 1995). The beauty of this collection is that it simply lays the diaries (which were kept by citizens from all walks of life) out in their raw form, allowing readers to decide for themselves what they actually mean. On the other hand, it is questionable whether this approach and format would appeal to a broader audience because of the lack of contextualization.
The greatest problem with Fitzpatrick's book is a certain vagueness about its intended audience. It provides an interesting synopsis of the works on Soviet history that have come out in recent years, yet in so doing fails to contribute anything new. Due to the scope of the subject matter, the work lacks depth - which leaves the informed reader wanting more. That said, despite being brilliantly written, it may be too specialised for the uninitiated or non-academic reader. In short, the introduction promises more than the subsequent discussion delivers.
Joanna Rohozinska, 4 December 1999
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