Soviet Workers and Late Stalinism: Labour and the Restoration of the Stalinist System after World War II (review)
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Reviewed by
Donald Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Late Stalinism: Labour and the Restoration of the Stalinist System after World War II. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 276 pp. $70.00.

"[V]ictory had not brought the relief and freedom that were expected at the end of the war." So observed Boris Pasternak's narrator at the end of Doctor Zhivago. The novel, published in 1958 during the early post-Stalin "thaw," reflected an optimism that was somewhat contradicted by the subsequent fate of the book in the USSR, and of Pasternak's Nobel Prize in literature, which the Soviet authorities prevented him from accepting.

The narrator of Doctor Zhivago had not been alone in such expectations. The better postwar future anticipated—in vain—by so many from a Josif Stalin whose genuine charisma and popularity were probably never higher than in 1945 has often been a theme of history and memoir. Donald Filtzer's detailed, exhaustive book, his fourth since 1982 on Soviet workers, explores the hows and whys of the return to repression after 1945.

What Stalin did from 1945 on was neither build "social consensus" nor achieve an "organic hegemony in the Gramscian sense," but resubjugate society. Repression and Zhdanovshchina (a crackdown on culture and literature) held the urban intelligentsia in check, while other segments of society encountered "mass impoverishment, restrictions on the freedom of movement, and harsh criminal sanctions for those who found these conditions intolerable or unacceptable" (p. 264). Filtzer details a brutalizing [End Page 167] time, when many of the regime's economic goals and its own institutional coherence were compromised in the bid to reimpose control, creating a situation that all of Stalin's heirs, no matter how complicit, sought to escape after March 1953.

The food crisis—decreed by nature and exacerbated by the regime—made a hard time harder, but eventually it abated. With the immediate crisis over, the Soviet Union entered on a period of "attenuated recovery," the attenuation a product of resource shortages and allocation decisions that chronically starved non-priority sectors but also under-rewarded those who worked in "priority" sectors (the adjective having more to do with valuation of the end-product than the welfare of its producers). The reconstruction of the industrial labor force—redeploying survivors from prewar times, breaking in young, predominantly rural and peasant recruits, and abandoning the looser management practices of the war years to return largely to the discipline, sanctions and maximal demands characteristic of the 1930s—is the main focus of the book. Filtzer draws on a great deal of archival research to produce a grim, detailed picture of factories and workers' lives in the postwar years to 1953.

Stalin aimed to exert rigid control over the "free" labor force and to extract maximum output from workers for minimal compensation. Largely he succeeded, as evidenced by Filtzer's account of atrocious factory conditions, pitiful wages, unaffordable prices (often even for rationed goods), ghastly crowding in wretched housing, and chronic shortages of everything from socks to soap. The daily material struggle of workers old and young (but especially the latter) under such extreme conditions sapped their capacities for even individual forms of resistance. Control was thus all the easier for the Stalinist system that well before the war had deprived workers of any possibility of organized collective resistance.

Yet control was anything but total. Despite the state's reserves of economic and administrative coercion, people in massive numbers broke the rules, evaded their work assignments, and left—or failed to arrive at—the plants and localities to which they had been assigned. Job-changing of sorts illegal under the tightened "mobilization" rules took place and often went unprosecuted. "Society" could not really resist and "act" on its own, but segments could and did re-act to the demands from above.

Filtzer notes that "hundreds of thousands" broke harsh laws on labor desertion, a sign of the magnitude of peasants' and workers' "desperation . . . during the worst postwar years," and yet they escaped major sanction, in part because "the very harshness of the laws" engendered "laxness and inconsistency with which officials applied them" (p. 177). People who escaped bad work situations...