Moscow 1937

Polly Jones praises an intentionally disorientating evocation of a capital gripped by state terror

October 25, 2012

"It was especially terrifying to walk down Lub'ianka street and Komsomol alley in the summer nights of the year 1937...It seemed as though the entire enormous city was pinned down by the glinting glass gaze of the Lub'ianka." This was how the novelist Vasilii Grossman described the streets around the headquarters of the Moscow secret police in 1937 in his magnum opus Life and Fate. He is one of many Russian writers who have attempted to capture the atmosphere of the Soviet capital at the height of Stalinist terror. Alongside this literature (most of which was published only during or after the era of glasnost ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev), an enormous archive-based historiography has also accumulated since the late 1980s, which has also started to explain how and why the Stalinist leadership carried out a disruptive and damaging purge even as war loomed. Yet this enormous corpus of texts has exacerbated the sense that neither literary nor historical narrative is adequate to represent or explain the events of 1937, which played out with especial force in Moscow. While emphasising that much remains inexpressible and inexplicable, Karl Schlögel's inventive approach to sources and narrative illuminates this time and place with startling originality. Drawing extensively on literature and diaries as well as on archive documents (largely synthesising the research of other Soviet historians), his deliberately dizzying narrative vividly captures the grotesque contradictions of this pivotal year in the life of the Soviet capital and of the Soviet project itself.

After all, although Grossman's depiction of an "enormous city...pinned down" by the terror evokes a crucial aspect of the experience of living in Moscow in 1937, it is also true that life in the city - and in the empire of which it was capital - was disrupted, but not entirely dominated, by terror. Life went on in the midst of (and sometimes in total ignorance of) mass death, while longer-term processes of social, cultural and economic Stalinisation continued even as the Stalinist system teetered on the brink of self-destruction. For example, as Schlögel shows, Moscow in the grip of terror played host to numerous festivities, many linked to the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution (and of the secret police, itself traumatised by the terror). The city itself also continued to be "Stalinised", even as swathes of its population were slaughtered in sites such as the Lub'ianka. In this sense, 1937 was a year of unprecedented destruction and disruption, but it also marked a crucial stage in the construction and consolidation of Stalinism and Sovietness. Schlogel is one of the first historians to wrestle directly with these apparent contradictions, seeking new ways to narrate them, as his manifesto-like introduction announces.

Through a rapid-fire succession (or "montage") of snapshots of Moscow and Soviet life in 1937, Schlögel paints a dizzyingly brilliant panorama of the enormous variety of events and processes unfolding in Moscow between 1936 and 1938: show trials and mass shootings; the ambitious and ruthless reconstruction of the city, designed by a restive architectural profession and implemented by disgruntled, violent migrant labourers; endless parades and exhibitions showcasing the Soviet Utopia; and efforts to consolidate distinctively Soviet forms of literature, music, architecture and film, while destroying the cultural elite that could have managed the process. Schlögel's narrative juxtaposes all these contrasting (though in some senses complementary) events, taking the reader on an intentionally disorientating journey through "the extremes of terror and dream".

Despite this apparent chaos, the terror provides both a narrative and a moral spine. From the first show trial of 1936 through the pivotal party plenum of February-March 1937 to Nikolai Bukharin's defeat at the final trial, the events of the terror proceed and accelerate inexorably, all the more strikingly given the disregard for chronology and teleology across the book's other chapters. In a similar way, the spectre of repressions haunts the book throughout: lists of victims crop up continuously, powerfully evoking the breadth and depth of the terror's impact (although, appropriately given the fundamental irrationality of the policy, there are chance survivors, too, such as the leading geologist Vladimir Vernadskii and better-known figures such as Il'ia Il'f, co-author of Odnoetazhnaia Amerika, a 1936 American travelogue, and Mikhail Bulgakov, of The Master and Margarita fame, who died natural deaths during and after 1937).

One of the most effective chapters is a dense, almost unreadably horrific account of thousands of shootings at Butovo, a site on Moscow's outskirts. While many of the book's other chapters could be rearranged with little effect on the overall narrative, the placement of this chapter almost at the end of the book suddenly and deliberately plunges the narrative and reader into the heart of darkness, suggesting that the terror had reached a moral and practical impasse: the only way out was to call a halt (or at least a slowdown), although not before many more thousands of bodies had piled up in unmarked graves at Butovo and elsewhere. Throughout this carefully woven story, Schlogel's intent is not to explain but to evoke. Readers looking for a new analysis of the terror will be disappointed, since the author largely rehashes other historians' conclusions (and their sources), viewing the purges as partly irrational and partly a response to international tensions and domestic pressures. However, where the author succeeds notably is in dramatising elite decision-making rituals, the spectacle of the show trials and some of their local manifestations, with only occasional lapses into melodrama.

Many events that Schlogel narrates "synchronously" with this central story of terror are well known, such as the Pushkin jubilee of 1937, the opening of the Moscow-Volga Canal (in one of the book's best chapters), and the aviation feats of Valerii Chkalov and Ivan Papanin. Others are less famous, such as major congresses in the architecture and geology professions, or represent developments not specific to 1937 or to Moscow, such as the ongoing development of radio or Soviet tourism. Some of the latter chapters feel unnecessary, especially given the epic dimensions of the book, although they do underscore the fact that "the year 1937" was exceptional but also tied to the Bolshevik calendar and embedded in longer-term attempts at modernisation.

Throughout all these case studies, the focus remains on analysing the discourses of Soviet power and the experiences of the Soviet elite, with little sense of what the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has called "everyday Stalinism": when ordinary Soviet citizens appear, it is most often as a faceless mass or even mob (here again, the narrative sometimes veers into melodrama). Perhaps this is intended to suggest the Soviet authorities' disregard for such individuals, but it also means that the book tells us relatively little about the experience of ordinary people in these extraordinary times. Overall, though, Schlogel succeeds admirably - indeed, better than any historian to date - in reproducing the atmosphere and grotesque contradictions of 1937. To those who know little about that year, reading this book will be an exhilarating and memorable experience, a fact recognised by the text winning the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding on its first publication in Germany. Yet specialists too will find much to provoke and ponder in this ambitious new approach to narrative history, making it essential reading for Soviet historians.

The author

Professor of Eastern European history at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt, Karl Schlögel was "born in Hawangen in Bavaria in 1948, quite far away from Russian or Soviet things. But my father was in the war, mostly on the Eastern front, which became a point of inter-family dispute when I became active in the student movement."

He lives in Berlin. "I came to West Berlin in 1968, where I did my first university studies. I live here with my wife, the essayist and novelist Sonja Margolina, whom I met in Moscow during my research there in the 1980s. Our daughter, who recently graduated from Humboldt University, also lives here."

Berlin is a city, Schlögel says, "where you can find traces of German history, especially of the past century, and where you sense dramatic changes after the fall of the Wall and the emergence of a new cosmopolitanism. And it is a capital city with three opera houses, and lakes to swim in just 20 minutes away."

His interest in history was spurred by "the refugees who took shelter on my father's farm and who came from Bohemia, Silesia, Moravia. For me, these people from a far-away East were interesting and stimulating." At secondary school, he says, "I had a chance to learn Russian, taught by a former displaced person who preferred to remain in the American zone. I made my first trip to Prague in 1965: it was my first encounter with the fascinating world of Central Europe."

Were he to live anywhere else, Schlogel would pick Lódz in Poland, "one of the great and tragic metropolises of Central Europe, in whose comeback as a cultural centre I firmly believe (like Detroit in the US)". His favourite pastimes are "strolling through cities and landscapes. Personally and professionally, I do what Walter Benjamin called flânerie."

- Karen Shook

Moscow 1937

By Karl Schlogel

Polity Press, 650pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780745650760

Published 30 October 2012

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