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…

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