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  • Speaking Out:Languages of Affirmation and Dissent in Stalinist Russia
  • Jochen Hellbeck (bio)

A central issue in recent studies on Stalinism is the question of how Soviet citizens experienced the communist regime, and how one is to define their relationship toward the aims and practices of the Soviet state. The most striking feature of several of these studies, notwithstanding their varying approaches and conclusions, is the shared conviction that members of Soviet society for the most part remained aloof from the values of the communist regime. Purely negative categories such as non-conformity, dissent, and resistance have quickly asserted themselves as dominant keys of interpreting individual and collective attitudes toward the Soviet state.1

In light of archival revelations of recent years this assessment seems to be abundantly confirmed: the outpouring of previously classified sources from [End Page 71] Soviet archives has shed ample light on mass cases of popular dissatisfaction with the policies of the Soviet regime. These acts range from workers' strikes and disgruntled talk in bread lines, to the private reflections of critically minded diarists. Prior to the opening of the archives, these moods could only be inferred yet not authenticated. But now the available source basis conclusively shatters the image fostered by the communist regime of a harmonious union between the Soviet state and its people.2

Yet we should keep in mind that documentary editions, however much they may be based on hard archival evidence, are always selective in emphasis, and we should therefore interrogate the motives and purposes behind the current emphasis on popular non-conformity and protest. In part, it is certainly a natural pendulum swing that provides a corrective to the tradition of contrived Soviet self-representation. But in addition, one can easily discern a tendency, especially on the part of post-Soviet Russian historians, to portray state and society of the Stalin era in dualistic terms and emphasize heroic acts of resistance, in the service of representing the Stalinist regime as an alien force that violently imposed itself on the Russian population.3 In the West, the opening of the Soviet archives intersects with a methodological shift, particularly the embrace of microhistory and Alltagsgeschichte.4 With their premium on the immediate experiential world of individuals or social communities, these disciplines stress the idiosyncrasy of [End Page 72] popular outlooks and their irreducibility to the overarching ideological precepts of the ruling regime, and they thus evoke an image of individual agents effectively coping with intrusive external powers through strategies of everyday resistance.5 Evidently these distinct archival, political, and methodological trends have a cross-fertilizing and mutually reinforcing effect which lends further authority to the voices of the newly discovered sources.

Conceptually, the new concern with how members of the Soviet population engaged official policies is a welcome development which adds both concreteness and complexity to traditionally schematic notions of state-society transactions. Recent studies have imparted an exciting sense of popular agency, of "ordinary people's" capacity to mold or subvert the political blueprints of the Bolshevik regime. But in its present form the focus on popular self-expression and everyday resistance is also problematic in at least three related aspects.

First, it endows individuals with a questionable potential to engage the world of public norms, symbols, and practices in virtually limitless ways. Individual subjects are portrayed as appropriating or subverting official ideology at will, suiting their own – and this implies, extrahistorical – interests. These individuals thus emerge as strangely detached from their social and political environment. Rather than inhabiting this environment, Soviet citizens appear to treat it as a theater of public meaning with its distinct rituals, but also with its set of costumes and requisites that individual actors make free use of in the pursuit of their ulterior aims.6 Amidst the exciting discovery that Soviet citizens were not just passive or intimidated recipients of state policies but vocally engaged the terms set by the Bolshevik regime, one senses that historians have lost sight of the specific frames of meaning guiding individuals' articulations and actions. Into the ensuing void of meaning, scholars tend to inadvertently project their own liberal [End Page 73] values on historical actors, endowing them with a...


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