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Public and Private Life in Soviet Society Through Lewis H. Siegelbaum's Research

From: Ab Imperio
pp. 381-387 | 10.1353/imp.2013.0049

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With the significant opening of local archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union, historians have developed two main approaches to the study of Soviet society on the basis of recently disclosed documents. Some started to investigate the relations between the state authority and the society, while others concentrated on the history of everyday life of Soviet citizens. The former trend has lead to the elaboration of aspects of Soviet history such as the state's "war on peasants," the cultural policies of the regime, the available forms of popular dissent and resistance, and the hitherto secret chapters of the World War II period. The latter trend - with its interest in everyday life and private lives - took a more individualizing and anthropologically oriented stance. These new research paradigms resulted first in the publication of thematic collections of original archival documents (very useful for scholars), followed by in-depth studies that have greatly enriched our understanding of many key aspects of the Soviet past.

The two books that are the focus of this review are produced by Lewis H. Siegelbaum - author of several well-known essays and monographs on labor history and Stalinism. Published quite sometime ago (in 2000 and 2006), they illustrate historiographic trends as well as both modes of historical production: documentary publications and case studies. From the outset, the Soviet historical experience is placed into the broader context of historicizing everyday life in other societies of the Eastern Bloc (such as East Germany).

The first volume, Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Docu -ments is based on the work of a Moscow-based research team of archivists and historians coordinated by Andrei Sokolov. The team selected documents from recently declassified archives and arranged them in the form of a coherent documentary narrative covering the first decade of the Soviet regime. Sokolov was in charge of the Russian edition of the collection, while Siegelbaum prepared the English publication, contributing explanatory and bibliographic notes, and rearranging the Russian version of the collection. Revealing a "polyphony of voices" of ordinary people and bureaucrats, the selected documents comprised

...a volume of social history that allows peasants and workers, intellectuals and the uneducated, adults and children, women and men, Russians and those of other national groups, the downtrodden and the elite to tell their own stories in their own words. They "speak Bolshevik" (some better than others), as well as other languages. They complain and beseech, and are both elliptical and shockingly blunt. They proclaim their unswerving dedication to building socialism and their horror at some of things that are done in its name. Taken together, they reveal, unwittingly for the most part, the social values, codes of conduct, stereotypes, pathologies, and, yes, hopes and fears that produced and were produced by this most traumatic decade in Soviet history

(P. 6).

The first chapter begins with the "socialist offensive" of the late 1920s−early 1930s. This notion refers to the opening of various "fronts," and the forceful implementation of several policies: industrialization, collectivization, tractorization, mechanization of the Donbass, and cotton planting. The second chapter presents documents on the cadres policy, focusing on the tasks assigned to party and state functionaries and the reasons why they accomplished them so badly. The third chapter deals with "Stalin's Constitution," focusing on the letters in which people expressed their own ideas, hopes, and resentments about its implementation. The documents of the fourth chapter reveal the discrepancy between the assertion of socialism's achievements and everyday experiences that caused bewilderment, and which provoked denunciations followed by repressions. The fifth chapter is dedicated to the countryside and what the "Bolshevik order" meant for the collectivized peasants and those on state farms. The collection ends with a look at the younger generation, born after the 1917 Revolution, whose childhood was expected to be happy, and in particular with everyday life under socialism.

This volume offers not only a rich variety of documents on everyday life of ordinary people but also an interesting analysis of the sources themselves, particularly of letters sent to newspapers, party leaders, and various organizations. Siegelbaum also uses summary reports (svodki) prepared by special departments of the Party, the Secret-Political Departments of...

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