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Why They Believed in Stalin

In a work published after he was expelled from the Soviet Union, the dissident writer Alexander Zinoviev depicted a new type of human being: Homo sovieticus, a “fairly disgusting creature” who was the end product of the Soviet regime’s efforts to transform the population into embodiments of the values of communism.1 In recent years the term has acquired a more neutral sense, as material emerging from the archives of the former Soviet Union—confessions, petitions and letters to the authorities, personal files, and diaries—has given scholars new insights into the ways Russians responded to the demand to refashion themselves into model Communists.

As well as social historians such as Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stephen Kotkin, and Lewis Siegelbaum, who focus on the self-presentation of Soviet citizens in their relations with the state, the new sources have attracted a group of young cultural historians of the “Soviet subjectivity” school such as Jochen Hellbeck, Oleg Kharkhordin, and Igal Halfin, whose approach draws on contemporary work by social scientists, literary theorists, and philosophers on the notion of selfhood. Contrary to the theorists of totalitarianism who dominated Soviet historical research in the 1960s and 1970s, they argue that far from repressing the individual’s sense of self, the pressures exerted by the Soviet state’s revolutionary agenda worked to reinforce a drive to self-perfection whose roots lay deep in pre-revolutionary Russian culture.

While the two approaches are mutually illuminating, they can also lead to divergent views on the attitudes of Soviet citizens toward the official ideology and the crimes committed in its name. A comparison of recent books by Fitzpatrick and Hellbeck shows that despite the prodigious increase in documentation on the mentalities and motives of those who implemented or colluded with Stalin’s Terror, we are still far from a consensus on the lessons to be drawn from that great historical catastrophe.

One of the most productive and influential of Western Sovietologists, Sheila Fitzpatrick began publishing in the 1970s in the US, where she was among the first to challenge the “totalitarian” school’s depiction of the Soviet people as passive consumers of an ideology force-fed to them by their rulers. Her studies of everyday Soviet life revealed a more complex interaction between rulers and ruled, the latter often adroitly manipulating the system for the purposes of their own survival and advancement. She has used newly available archival material on Soviet citizens’ communications with the regime to extend her analysis of their responses to its ideological demands. The resulting articles, written over the last decade, form the present book.

Tear Off the Masks concentrates principally on the 1920s and 1930s, when Soviet discourse was dominated by a Manichaean division between allies and enemies of Soviet power, defined in terms of class. Advancement depended on the ability to prove that one was really proletarian; ruin followed from the “unmasking” of citizens’ concealed class identity—kulak or bourgeois—on the basis of their words or practices. Fitzpatrick ranges over the multiple and ingenious ways in which Soviet citizens laid claim to a “good” class identity or attempted to discredit the claims of others through letters to the authorities, petitions, appeals, and denunciations, and the autobiographical summaries included in the files kept on every citizen.

Observing that all these forms of self-expression were animated by the effort to “speak Bolshevik” (a phrase borrowed from Kotkin)—to show that one was a genuine Soviet citizen—Fitzpatrick points to the nervousness about self-presentation and performance in Soviet society with its pervasive anxiety about class and political identity. Citizens writing to the authorities cast themselves in roles based on established Soviet stereotypes—worker, activist, patriot, victim of past oppression. She devotes two essays to the most polished and inventive of Soviet performers: the con men who flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, immortalized in Soviet literature in the humorous novels of Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, whose protagonist Ostap Bender speaks Bolshevik with such fluency that he can assume any role in Soviet society at will.

These case studies in stratagems for survival under Stalin add substantially to our knowledge of the functioning of early Soviet society, but offer few insights into the personalities behind the masks. They skirt around a question on which opinion is still divided—whether the Soviet system worked to obliterate the individual’s sense of selfhood, creating, in Alexander Zinoviev’s words, “behavioral stereotypes without convictions.” Fitzpatrick seems to imply this in her concluding essay when she cites the observation of another Soviet dissident, Andrei Sinyavsky, that Ostap Bender’s survival skills were those of “a Soviet citizen who has imbibed this system body and soul”: the personification of Soviet “new man.” But she emphasizes in her introduction that the inner lives of her subjects are not her concern, thereby firmly distancing herself from the scholars of “Soviet subjectivity.” While giving them credit for showing that Soviet citizens could be ideological agents in their own right, she questions what she sees as their overly theoretical approach to the individual personality: “my kind of historian,” she explains, is uncomfortable with philosophical notions of an intrinsic self, expressed through specific moral or ethical convictions. “I am interested in…the way people locate themselves in a social or group context rather than the way they think about themselves as individuals.”

Fitzpatrick implies strongly that despite its self-imposed limitations her research has removed the ground from beneath the feet of the other kind of historian, maintaining that one encounters a “notable silence” in the Soviet period with regard to individual soul-searching about identity. In the diaries and memoirs of the time, self-presentation took the place of self-exploration, as citizens worried “pragmatically” about how best to conform to the model of the Soviet “new man.” In periods of revolutionary turmoil, she suggests, “self-understanding becomes irrelevant, even dangerous.”

Fitzpatrick seems to be projecting onto Soviet society a tension between, on the one hand, the claims of the public sphere and, on the other, a liberal conception of selfhood as the pursuit of individual autonomy. Of course there were Soviet citizens who felt such a tension. But the Soviet notion of selfhood had deep roots in a different cultural tradition which did not recognize the same dichotomy of public and private. Lack of historical perspective is a major flaw in Fitzpatrick’s book. The “new man” was not, as Fitzpatrick implies, a concept invented by the Soviet regime. It was central to a tradition of introspection and moral self-perfecting that arose in the early nineteenth century as a response to the dilemma of the Russian intelligentsia2 whose talents were frustrated in their benighted country, and whose longing for personal fulfillment was combined with a strong commitment to social justice. From Enlightenment rationalism, German romantic philosophy, and French utopian socialism many educated Russians absorbed a vision of history as a collective process leading to the fullest self-realization of man through the healing of all painful divisions between individuals and the social whole. Radical critics urged writers to speed up the advance to this goal by creating images of “new men,” integrated personalities whose personal fulfillment was achieved through heroic labors for the good of society. We have the testimony of Lenin himself that it was this exemplary type, as embodied in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s enormously influential novel of 1863 What Is to Be Done?, that set him on his revolutionary path.

The romantic dream of self-realization through fusion with an all-powerful collective force was transformed into alleged scientific certainty by the Marxist account of the laws of history; the notion of the new man was harmonized with Marxist Prometheanism by Bolshevik theorists such as Leon Trotsky (who described the Communists of the future as an “improved edition of mankind”), the writer Maxim Gorky, and the Commissar for Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky, who responded to the need to energize the masses for the building of socialism with a collectivist version of Nietzsche’s heroic model of personal authenticity. The doctrine of socialist realism did its part by making the depiction of Communist heroes an imperative for all Soviet writers. A secularized form of belief in the coming of a millennium, Stalinist ideology aimed to transform not only society but the very nature of man. Hence the endless campaigns of purification, personal and public, ranging from self-criticism in the workplace and Party cells to the show trials of the Great Purge. We know now that very many who took part in these campaigns were genuine believers in the messianic ideal. The sacrifices involved in the country’s industrial transformation were prompted not only by coercion and fear but also by the efforts of individuals to perfect themselves in line with Party directives based on the Bolsheviks’ claim to the sole knowledge of history’s path.

In the worst years of Stalinism many maintained their faith in the Party’s infallibility by developing a dual consciousness. As Stephen Kotkin explains, for Soviet citizens the discrepancies between lived experience and revolutionary ideology based ultimately on theory seem to have given rise to a dual reality: life could resemble “a split existence: sometimes in one truth, sometimes in the other.” Even when theoretical “truth” was contradicted by common sense, it still formed an integral part of everyday existence; without an understanding of it, citizens found it impossible to know what was permitted and what not. But acceptance of the truthfulness of the revolutionary truth also fulfilled another function: “it was also,” Kotkin writes, “a way to transcend the pettiness of daily life, to see the whole picture, to relate mundane events to a larger design; it offered something to strive for.”3 True believers could explain away the worst excesses of Stalinism by viewing the present from the perspective of eschatological time. In this form of secular religiosity, history, like Providence, was seen to move in mysterious ways; when the goal was attained it would become clear that policies and actions which now seemed objectionable or senseless all had their place in the overall grand design.

A telling example was the case of Nikolai Bukharin, one of Bolshevism’s founding theorists, convicted of treason in a show trial of 1938 and shot, who explained that the combination of shared Bolshevik goals and repugnant Stalinist methods produced in him “a peculiar duality of mind.” In conversations with émigré Mensheviks during visits abroad in the 1930s he set out his dilemma: the Party was the whole meaning of his life, and though Stalin was a monster he was a “sort of symbol of the party.” Bukharin’s faith in the Party’s collective infallibility made opposition to Bolshevism from within untenable for him. Resigned to his eventual death at Stalin’s hands, he consoled himself with a historicist argument: “One is saved by a faith that development is always going forward …like a stream that is running to the shore. If one leans out of the stream, one is ejected completely.4

Stephen Kotkin observed in 1995 that in the absence of documents from the secret police archives it was difficult to judge how much people consciously thought through the inconsistencies they saw between the Party’s version of events and what was actually happening. The declassification of Communist Party records is still far from complete, but Jochen Hellbeck’s searches in private collections and his personal inquiries have yielded a rich harvest of Stalin-era diaries which give important new insights into the ways in which Soviet citizens struggled to rationalize the monstrous irrationality of Stalinism as they worked on perfecting their inner selves.

  1. 1

    Alexander Zinoviev, Homo Sovieticus, translated by Charles Janson (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985).

  2. 2

    On the sui generis nature of the Russian intelligentsia, see the essay by Isaiah Berlin, “The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia,” Russian Thinkers (Viking, 1978), pp. 114–135, and The Russian Intelligentsia, edited by Richard Pipes (Columbia University Press, 1961).

  3. 3

    Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (University of California Press, 1995), pp. 228–229.

  4. 4

    See Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888–1938 (Knopf, 1973), p. 351, and Andrzej Walicki, Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia (Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 463.

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