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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35.1 (2004) 138-139

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Contending with Stalinism: Soviet Power and Popular Resistance in the 1930s. Edited by Lynne Viola (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2002) 235 pp. $42.50
Soviet Workers and Late Stalinism: Labour and the Restoration of the Stalinist System after World War II. By Donald Filtzer (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002) 276 pp. $60.00

The opening of former Soviet archives to scholars is yielding significant results. These two books are prime examples of how researchers are procuring fresh data and using new analytical tools to reexamine Stalin's era as experienced by the Soviet people.

Viola's elucidating introduction and essay map out the slipperiness of the concept of resistance, noting the need to contextualize action and intent, and state perceptions and proscriptions. The seven excellent essays illustrate how opposition to the regime in the early 1930s could be overt (Jeffrey J. Rossman on a worker strike and Tracy McDonald on a peasant uprising) or existential, that is, simply by living in a minority culture (Douglas Northrop on Uzbek family customs and Dan Healey on homosexuality). Some Soviets were clearly defiant; others were defined by the regime as deviant and thus disloyal. Otherwise loyal Soviets were constrained to adopt survival tactics. For example, James Harris illustrates how regional officials pinned the blame for underproduction on "wreckers" and "saboteurs" in order to keep their positions. Elena A. Osokina argues that the black market and other forms of economic disobedience were not only coping mechanisms but, paradoxically, also props to make the Soviet system viable.

The Viola collection shows that in the early 1930s organized opposition was still possible, although ultimately futile. Filtzer's meticulous study of Soviet workers immediately after World War II chillingly documents that they, with few exceptions, were too demoralized, weak with hunger, and broken down by unbearable living and working conditions to engage in collective defiance. Only individuals desperate to escape their status as slave laborers or indentured workers (among whom were 4 million Soviet youths) actually fled, knowing full well that they risked being sent to labor camps. [End Page 138]

The regime decided not to reward the suffering of heroic survivors of The Great Patriotic War with a higher standard of living. On the contrary, these ordinary peasants and workers were made to bear the cost of restoring such Soviet strategic industries as mining, construction, metallurgy, and railroads. Soviet citizens went without consumer goods and sufficient food so that the state could attempt to regain and even increase its pre-war industrial capacity. Life for workers, in short, was ineffably grim. The nameless statistics amassed by the author through a careful examination of new archival documents are all the more moving because of their solidity and starkness.

Dickensian prose is not needed to prove that "High Stalinism" produced a new low in the lives of Soviet workers. Taken together, these two studies demonstrate that Stalin's quarter-century of rule contained notable variations in levels of central control, degrees of deprivation, and possibilities for, or limitations to, action against the regime.

Brown University