Two Reviews of Four Books

The 3 March issue of the Nation has two reviews of four recent books on Soviet history. The first review, “The Ice Forge,” written by Jochen Hellbeck, examines Lynne Viola’s Unknown Gulag and Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers. Viola’s book chronicles the deportation of Soviet “kulaks” during collectivization. About it Hellbeck writes, “The Unknown Gulag, is an indictment of the utopian folly and criminal neglect of Soviet officials, and a moving account of human suffering.”

Similarly, Figes text is an exploration into private life under Stalin’s rule. “Reading The Whisperers,” Hellbeck states, “one comes away with a powerful sense that stigmatization and self-reinvention were central, indeed defining, attributes of the Soviet experience for many Russians of rural as well as urban backgrounds.” Figes has set up a website for the book which allows visitors to access the many interview he had conducted for his study. Despite a few translated interviews, unfortunately the bulk of them remain in Russian making audience access is limited. One can only hope that Figes will have the funds and desire to translate more of them.

I think this observation by Hellbeck is quite interesting:

As I read the interview transcripts on Figes’s website, I was struck by how, in at least a few cases, the subjects appear to have been treated to a rather aggressive form of questioning about their thoughts and feelings in Stalin’s time. Yet one interviewee, Dmitry Streletsky, would not yield to these pressures and insisted on his own, decidedly moral, reading of his life under Stalin. Streletsky could have leapt from the pages of Lynne Viola’s book. He was born into a family of peasants who were persecuted as kulaks and exiled to a special settlement in the Urals. The death rate in the settlement was staggering. Streletsky relates how his single most important desire, to prove he was a Soviet citizen like everyone else, was constantly impeded. The Memorial worker interviewing Streletsky understands this to mean that he was driven by a fear of punishment:

Q: Did you fear that they would punish you [for your kulak origins]?
A: There was shame, and there was my conscience, it wasn’t just about the punishment, but about these things.
Q: But you also feared that they might punish you?
A: Who knows? I had doubts, yes doubts. I didn’t feel fear,
Q: And that they would punish you, right?
A: That they would punish me and all the rest. Fire me from work….

A few sentences later Streletsky’s interview partner returns to the same subject: “Tell me, please, what or whom did you fear more, the NKVD or the commander [of the settlement]? Were you afraid?” Streletsky’s response: “Listen, I didn’t feel any fear.

Streletsky then talks about how he dreamed of joining the Communist Party throughout the years of his exile. When he describes his disappointment about being turned down for party membership in 1952, his voice shakes with emotion, the transcript notes. The exchange between Streletsky and his incredulous interrogator is revealing, for it discloses not only Streletsky’s moral reading of his Soviet experience but also the gap that lies between him and the interviewer, who adheres to a cynical view of Communism more characteristic of younger generations of Russians.

In the second review, “Revolutionary States,” veteran Soviet scholar Ronald Suny tackles Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks in Power is the third in trilogy of arguably the best scholarly study of the Russian Revolution. Among Rabinowitch’s many themes, Suny notes that the central issue in this volume is: “Why did a democratic revolution based on grassroots councils and committees turn into a dictatorship that employed state terror against its opponents, real and imagined, within months of its coming to power?” A haunting question indeed.

The second book subject to Suny’s examination is Shelia Fitzpatrick’s Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia. Tear Off the Masks!, the only of the four books featured which I’ve read, is a collection of articles that Fitzpatrick has published over the last fifteen years on the subject of imposture, denunciation, social identity, and coping in 1930s Soviet Russia. It is this thematic concentration that allows Suny to conclude from Fitzpatrick’s fifteen articles that her notion of the “quintessential Soviet” is “a shrewd manipulator able to adapt to shifting opportunities, maneuver through ever-present dangers and “con” the authorities when necessary.” It is this notion of Soviet citizens as ultimately conscious, rational individuals who always knew what they wanted and how to get it is where I part with her text. In parts, Fitzpatrick’s book reads like the liberal individual triumphant, a move that borders on placing her subjects above the conditioning power of History itself.

Much of Fitzpatrick’s reductionism is partially born in a historiographical attack on what she calls the “Soviet subjectivity school.” I could never understand the propensity to ascribe schools in Russian historical studies, especially to ones like the so-called “Soviet subjectivity school” which have no more than two or three scholars attached to them. Neverthless, such ascription serves many, especially as they try to carve out an island of difference within an mostly academic sea of similitude.

The contours in Soviet historiography aside, the real tragedy is that Fitzpatrick’s effort to undermine Hellbeck’s notion of a illiberal Soviet subject, (Hellbeck and Israeli historian Igal Halfin are recognized as the theoretical hydra of a Foucaultian notion of the Soviet self), leads her to posit an equally reductionist view of the self that the “Soviet subjectivity school” has similarly, and often unfairly, been criticized for. But such is the outcome when one rejects the notion of theory altogether. Such declarations mask the fact even the most empirically based analyses are steeped in some theoretical assumption about the lives subject to them.

A study that somehow captures the inner contradictions of life under Stalin that goes beyond Soviet citizens as either dupes or tricksters is still waiting to be written. My methodological position would be an exploration into the dialectical braiding of the two poles. But that is a whole other story that is still in the making.