Surreal dream of ketchup and ale

The Secret File of Joseph Stalin - Everyday Stalinism
April 12, 2002

How should we write about Stalinism? It would be hard to imagine two books whose answers to this question were more different. One is a psychological study of the dictator, complete with blood-curdling tales of blackmail, poisoning and patricide; the other a survey of everyday life, of the common people, of shopping and housing and sport. Roman Brackman's narrative tells us little about its wider political context, and nothing about Soviet society. Sheila Fitzpatrick's social history spurns all high politics and assumes that its readers know quite enough about the personalities of Stalin and his dismal cronies.

Of the two, Fitzpatrick is incomparably the finer historian. Even when there were no archives to study, when the academic fashion was to analyse the political elite and the mechanics of what was known as the "regime", her pursuit of Stalinist society was unwearying. In the 1980s, when the sources for serious social histories of the Soviet Union became available, she was among the pioneers. Such books have drawn consistent praise but there has also been a steady rumbling from the political right, from critics who assert that no account of the Soviet dictatorship is valid that does not insist on the centrality of state-directed terror. Fitzpatrick's interest in everyday life - an interest that would be deemed humane and democratic in historians of other societies - has been denounced for missing the main point. Controversy on this issue has not confined itself to individual reviews. There have been debates at conferences, special issues of learned journals and attempts to define rival camps. There are academic circles, especially in the United States, in which the social history of Stalinism is almost explosive.

Strikingly, none of this can be inferred from Everyday Stalinism . If anything, the book is too modest, avoiding the references to controversy that would make it sparkle. There is no doubt about the quality of Fitzpatrick's research, and anyone who knows the archives that she cites, as places, will stand in awe of her resourcefulness and sheer hard work. But this book's importance, from the value of its detail to the contribution that it makes to wider interpretative thinking, is unclear from its well-written pages. A student who picks it up will need to be told that almost every paragraph is a small triumph, a victory over the secrecy that used to cover even trivial details of everyday Soviet life. She will also need to know that the omission of a narrative of high politics was neither accidental nor uncontroversial. These insights will help, too, when the book's analytical structure, which places evidence from different times and places together in loosely themed chapters, creates confusion among those to whom Soviet culture is utterly foreign. Fitzpatrick calls the 1930s "extraordinary times". There are moments when she depicts a world that might more accurately be called surreal.

Among the greatest tragedies of this world, as Fitzpatrick is careful to insist, was the pervasiveness, in every area of life, of politics and bureaucracy. Everyday Stalinism begins with the state and ends with terror. "Normal life," Fitzpatrick explains, was a luxury that few ever attained. She describes aspects of the abnormal, the adaptive, the ways in which people coped with the conditions that daily threatened to defeat them. We learn that city-dwellers lived by bending rules, by bargaining, trading on the side, appealing to patrons and making use of friends. They devoted hours to queues; waiting for bread, for official permits, for news of those they loved. The anecdotes of their survival can be humorous - irony was a reliable defence against despair - but no black humour can conceal the unpredictability and misery of life for millions of Soviet citizens in the 1930s.

Fitzpatrick also chronicles success. Again, this is a tarnished concept, for even the privileged could not know when everything they owned, including their lives, might suddenly be taken by the state. Temporary or not, however, the rewards that success could confer were attractive. By the late 1930s, proletarian egalitarianism had all but disappeared. What mattered was "culture", an aspirational concept that included everything from carefully furnished apartments to tailored suits, tins of butter and meat, gramophone records and bottles of sweet Soviet champagne. There were promises of more to come, including ice cream and American tomato ketchup. As Anastas Mikoyan, the politician responsible for provisions, memorably asked: "What kind of happy life can we have if there's not enough good beer and good liqueurs?" To those whose dreams extended no further than finding something solid in the swill of their canteen soup, the question must have seemed absurd.

The strength of this book may seem to lie in details of this kind. But its value is greater than the sum of its footnotes and wry tales. In describing the surreal quality of urban life, Fitzpatrick has caught a major truth about arbitrary power. There are few grand narratives within the book, few stories, certainly, to rival the biography of a dictator. The reason is that millions of lives were fractured, their meanings dissolved. "I feel I've lived someone else's life," a Soviet citizen, a former peasant dispossessed in the 1930s, reported 20 years later. Stories such as hers do not follow standard patterns, and general conclusions about them remain elusive. It is even difficult to construct statistical tables: for counting, the mainstay of traditional social history, demands reliable numbers, and statistics on anything, from popular opinion to patterns of consumption, were doctored or concealed by a state that feared and disdained its people's needs. Even allowing for the fact that her subjects were survivors, and not the many millions of undisputed victims, the prisoners and the dead, Fitzpatrick has drawn a dispiriting picture of Stalin's Russia.

Roman Brackman experienced Stalinism, including the arctic prison camp at Norilsk, at first hand. Like many other prisoners, he became fascinated by his oppressor. He blamed the injustice of the Soviet system on Stalin personally, and his subject remains a man, and not some faceless politics or ideology. His book describes a mesmerising viciousness, but it tells us little that we did not know. Its evidence comes from a range of sources, mostly those of emigres, but the archives of the secret police and Communist Party are notably absent. Its central ideas remain speculative. Among them is the crudely Freudian suggestion that Stalin was obsessed with his father, the drunken, violent Vissarion Dzhugashvili. We are invited to believe that his death was Stalin's work, and that the weapon, an axe wrapped in a coat, became a centrepiece of the dictator's later fantasy life (an axe was used to kill Trotsky in 1940). But patricide was followed by the craving for an ideal father. Stalin "instinctively understood the Russian people's collective trauma" when the tsar was murdered. When Lenin died six years later (in Brackman's view, from poison administered by Stalin), Stalin again "sensed the longing" in his people for "the embodiment... of the stern and punishing father". The result, Brackman writes, was Stalin's decision to launch the Lenin cult. This version gets the chronology wrong, and - like much else in the book - attributes to Stalin an omnipotence that he seldom really enjoyed.

The "secret file" of Brackman's title is more intriguing. Brackman suggests that Stalin was a double agent, working as an informer for the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, from his earliest years in the Caucasus. By 1907 he may have become one of the Okhrana's key agents, rivalling the infamous Bolshevik informer, Roman Malinovsky. The file on his activities survived in the Okhrana archive, waiting for discovery like an explosive from some forgotten war. Brackman traces Stalin's later acts of vengeance, including many of the show trials, to his fear that the file might be made public. He alleges that Stalin poisoned his police chief, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, to protect the secret. We might wonder why the great dictator did not simply grab and liquidate the file.

A book such as this does not explain the central problem. Stalin was not the first secret police informer. What matters is the culture of state-sponsored violence in which such work is rewarded. What matters even more is the process by which this culture perpetuates itself across a major revolution. The explanation for that lies in the interaction between state and society: somewhere between the focal range of each of these two books.

Catherine Merridale is reader in European history, University of Bristol.

The Secret File of Joseph Stalin

Author - Roman Brackman
ISBN - 0 7146 5050 1
Publisher - Cass
Price - £35.00
Pages - 466

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