- Stalinism on the Frontier of Empire: Women and State Formation in the Soviet Far East
Writing in the New Yorker in 1838, newspaperman Horace Greeley famously advised young American men coming of age to "go to the West." Go they did, although not necessarily in direct response to Greeley's appeal. Almost exactly a century later, on 5 February 1939, a lengthy article attributed to a hitherto unknown Red Army officer's wife appeared on the second page of Komsomol'skaia Pravda (the [End Page 653] newspaper of the Young Communist League). Said Valentina Khetagurova to young Soviet women coming of age, "Join us in the Far East!" Elena Shulman's erudite, elegant study Stalinism on the Frontier of Empire: Women and State Formation in the Soviet Far East begins with the roughly three hundred thousand women who volunteered to do just that. More importantly for our understanding of the Stalin era, she focuses in considerable detail on the roughly twenty-five thousand "Khetagurovites" who actually made the long migration to the Soviet Union's Pacific rim.
Underlying Shulman's approach is the sensible idea that "Stalinism" (defined à la Fitzpatrick as shorthand for the institutions, structures, and rituals of the 1930s) had peripheral as well as comparatively better-known central roots. It was worked out not only in Moscow and Leningrad and Kiev but also on the conceptual and physical margins of Stalinist space. As inconsequentially peripheral (or more so) as anywhere in the Soviet Union going into the Stalin Revolution, the Far East suddenly became vulnerable when the Japanese moved into Manchuria in 1931. The Politburo's response was a crash military buildup facilitated by forced labor, a kind of über Stalinism that Shulman calls "an exaggerated version of practices and policies associated with Stalinist rule" (p. 4). At the same time, however, the Far Eastern frontier offered enormous potential for those involving themselves in its development. This was particularly true for women—historically in short supply regionally, and whose presence needed to become permanent if the eastern sixth of the Soviet Union ever was to become well integrated with the rest of Stalinist society. From this came the Khetagurovite movement. And with its earnest young volunteers came a host of questions, chief among them the factual nature and terms of their participation upon arrival, along with the discrepancies between their idealism and frontier-Stalinist realities.
Shulman's book explores those questions in six substantive chapters plus a framing introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1, "Women and Soviet Power," contextualizes the Khetagurovites by outlining the basic contours of Soviet gender policies since the October Revolution and by situating the Far East in terms of dynamics (e.g., upward mobility, repression) accentuated in the 1930s under Stalin. Chapter 2, "Where Steel Cracks Like Glass" (the reference is to extreme winter cold), illuminates the Khetagurova movement proper: its origins, the resonance of its appeal, the selection of what are rather convincingly presented as enthusiastic volunteers, and their transport and dislocation in the Far East. Chapter 3, "'Our Famous Valia': The Rise of a Soviet Notable," takes a close look at the eponymous instigator of the [End Page 654] movement, who became what Shulman calls a "local celebrity" and (briefly) a regional patroness of women at the age of twenty-three. Says Shulman, Khetagurova "was not an inert archetype publicized by the propaganda establishment for its own ends" (p. 118). Rather, within the possibilities open to her she exercised considerable agency on behalf of "her" cause.
Chapter 4, "'Envy for Everything Heroic': Women Volunteering for the Frontier," gets to the heart of gender issues in the construction of Stalinism by examining the enormous public response to Khetagurova's Komsomol'skaia Pravda appeal. The idea of honorable service in the defense of the Soviet state apparently had considerable general resonance; moreover, says Shulman, "women's possible contribution in the event of total war became an arsenal in the women's demands for entry into previously all-male...