Most popular books about the Stalin era feature the big names and a firm narrative shape: Robert Conquest's The Great Terror; Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin. Some books yield their revelations at a glance, like the stunning The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia.
But scholar Sheila Fitzpatrick is famous for letting the common people and the facts speak for themselves, in all their complexity. Her new book on Soviet life in the 1930s--based on research in newly opened archives--does for urbanites what her Heldt Prizewinning Stalin's Peasants did for rural victims. The many witnesses in this fascinating horror story cast doubt on Stalin's notorious 1935 slogan "Life has become better, comrades; life has become more cheerful."
A comment made by a victim of Ivan the Terrible would be more apt: "We Russians don't need to eat; we eat one another and this satisfies us." Famine, caused by bad weather and worse policies, plagued the decade, and life became a chronic struggle to wrest crumbs from an incompetent bureaucracy. Stalin's sly methods of deflecting blame from the state onto allegedly disloyal citizens provoked orgies of denunciation (which could backfire on denouncers). A mad starch factory director forbade comrades to get shaves or haircuts at home--it would have been disloyal to the factory's hairdresser. One kid, Pavlik Morozov, reported his father for grain hoarding in 1937, was murdered by relatives, and became a national hero to kids. Andrei Sakharov's future spouse Elena Bonner was shocked at her 9-year-old brother's response to his father's arrest: "Look what these enemies of the people are like--some of them even pretend to be fathers." The celebrated Moscow Children's Theater put on The Squealer, a drama strikingly like Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront.
Fitzpatrick gives a sense of what it really was like to live under the satanic circus master Stalin: it was beyond Kafka, and it was bloody hard work. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
In a parallel to her 1994 Stalin's Peasants, a textured study of life in the countryside, Fitzpatrick, a University of Chicago historian known for her writing on social and cultural history, addresses the trials and tribulations of urban life in Stalin's Soviet Union. Based on archives and interviews, her newest fleshes out our general knowledge of the hardship Russians endured under Stalin. Not only did people gravitate blindly to queues, but the few goods available, such as shoes, were terribly made. In poorly equipped, cramped communal apartments, residents hung sacks of food out of the windows for space and preservation. The transformative spirit went well beyond propaganda: men dropped peasant names for more modern identifiers (Frol for Vladimir). The totalitarian state was so imposing that many people blamed Soviet power in their suicide notes. But citizens had their strategies to counter the oppression, among them blat (which translates as pull, influence or, under the Soviets, thievery) and subversive jokes that twisted Soviet slogans?for, as Fitzpatrick concludes, "Homo sovieticus was a string puller, an operator... a survivor." While she notes that the Great Purges of 1937-1938 could be endured but not explained, she cites the state's manipulation of patriotism and its provision of welfare as reasons for Soviet citizens' acceptance of their government. Fitzpatrick's absorbing study provides solid details for the general and student reader and lays the groundwork for future research.
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