- Popular Resistance in the Stalinist 1930s:Soliloquy of a Devil’s Advocate
Over the last several decades, the western historiographical map of the Stalinist 1930s has expanded topically and conceptually, albeit incrementally and sometimes reluctantly, from cold war fixations on totalitarian control, repression, and societal atomization; to the revisionist arguments of the 1980s, which illuminated the social base of Stalinism, center-periphery conflicts, and the administrative weaknesses of Stalinist governance, while pioneering a more detached approach to source study; to, among other concerns of the present, an interest in resistance. Recent work on the topic of popular resistance to the Stalinist dictatorship in the 1930s derives chiefly from new evidence surfacing in previously classified archival holdings, although to ignore or dismiss altogether an element of historiographical virtue in these recent historical excavations would be, perhaps, shortsighted. A long entrenched tradition of historiographical bifurcation of Soviet history into a Manichaean world of good and evil based both on cold war and Stalinist mentalities (the latter seeping into the former on an all too regular basis and, more recently within Russia, the opposite as well) should serve as a cautionary tale, highlighting the polemical and potentially ahistorical pitfalls of either a valorization of resistance or a preoccupation with resistance to the exclusion of the rest of the historical record. Otherwise we risk projecting our own cold war, anti-Stalinist tropes onto the popular classes of the 1930s.
The story of popular resistance in the Stalinist 1930s is not entirely new,1 although a clearer sense of its size and content is only now emerging. The significance of the topic resides less in the fact of resistance as an object in itself than in the light the topic sheds on its historical surroundings. Popular resistance is best treated as a kind of prism that refracts and distills what otherwise might be opaque dimensions of the social, cultural, and political history of the 1930s. And at the same time that we highlight a new and largely salutary trend in recent scholarship, it is important to recognize the inherent subjectivities and blurred outlines of the nature of resistance, and to question when, under what circumstances, [End Page 45] and from what angle of vision resistance is resistance or merely resident in the eye of the beholder.
The Devil's Suit
What is resistance? This is a difficult question which will evade an easy answer, perhaps any answer at all, as we endeavor to situate the term within a larger body of questions and untidy qualifiers. At its core, resistance involves opposition – active, passive, artfully disguised, attributed, or even inferred. That our topic is popular resistance in the context of the Stalinist 1930s may make the task of definition all the more difficult in that we must rely, with few exceptions, on a single source lens shaped by the rhetorical devices and administrative structures of Stalinism.
Ostensibly, active opposition is the most clear-cut type of resistance. Active forms of resistance may include rebellions, mutinies, and riots; demonstrations and protest meetings; strikes and work stoppages; incendiary or oppositional broadsheets (listovki), threat letters, and petitions; and arson, assaults, and assassinations. The major wave of active resistance in the 1930s was centered in the years of the First Five-Year Plan (1928–32). On the eve of and during collectivization, particularly in the breakthrough year of 1930, the peasantry engaged in a massive rebellion, resulting in 1930 in 13,754 mass disturbances, over one thousand assassinations of officials, countless eruptions of protest or violence at collectivization meetings, and a wide variety of other kinds of resistance.2 Workers also resorted to active forms of resistance during the First Five-Year Plan, as the recent work of Jeffrey Rossman has demonstrated. The textile workers of the Ivanovo region took part in widespread and varied acts of open opposition, culminating in the strike at Teikovo and the uprising in Vichuga in 1932.3 Whether Rossman's findings are unique to Ivanovo and its textile workers or indicative of a broader phenomenon requires further regional archive-based [End Page 46] investigations, though the possibility of some repetition of these kinds of activities elsewhere is far from unlikely.