Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s

Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s

Article excerpt

Free people are a peculiar lot. Eventually their lives become so leisurely that they manufacture unnecessary hardships purely for the exercise or the entertainment found in such challenges. Witness the super-successful television show, "Survivor," in which contestants willingly forsook all modern conveniences simply to show off their hearty ruggedness (and to win $1 million, of course).

This type of diversion is the byproduct of freedom and prosperity. Captive people afford themselves no such entertainment for their very lives are little more than a relentlessly brutal, never-ending game of "Survivor" in which there are no commercial breaks or season-ending finales, only constant, inescapable drudgery mixed with fear.

Such was life for Soviet subjects in the 1930s, as revealed by Oxford University historian Sheila Fitzpatrick in her book Everyday Stalinism. In a concise and illuminating way, Fitzpatrick details the heartless brutality of the Soviet regime-its paralyzing, random rule of terror; cold-blooded, methodical ethnic and social cleansing; and cruel, premeditated eradication of hope, prosperity, and happiness.

Focusing entirely on the 1930s, the height of Stalin's tyranny, Fitzpatrick reveals a horrifying world of misery and despair that was the everyday life of the average "Homo Sovieticus." To chronicle this wholly impoverished existence, Fitzpatrick sets her book into topical chapters, each explaining a particular subject of Soviet life, such as economic hardship, family disorder, or the ubiquitous presence of the NKVD (the predecessor of the infamous KGB) and other government spies.

Fittingly, Fitzpatrick begins her book on everyday Soviet life with a chapter on the state titled, "The Party Is Always Right." She opens by noting, "Few histories of everyday life start with a chapter on government and bureaucracy. But it is one of the peculiarities of our subject that the state can never be kept out, try though we may."

Indeed, Fitzpatrick's wide-ranging research shows that the ever-present state was by far the most important force shaping the lives of Soviet citizens in the 1930s. She reports the findings of an American academic who interviewed Russian women in the 1990s about their family lives. He found that these women dated their lives not by important family events such as marriage and childbearing, as Western women do, but by acts of the state, such as food shortages or the Great Purges. …

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