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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 129-131

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Book Review

Stalinism as a Way of Life:
A Narrative in Documents

Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov, Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 460 pp. $35.00.

This latest volume in Yale University Press's Annals of Communism series contributes to a growing body of work using newly opened archives to explore the attitudes and practices of Soviet citizens in the 1930s. Unsolicited letters from Soviet citizens to newspapers and to party and state authorities constitute the majority of the volume's 157 translated documents culled from former Soviet archives. Also included are reports on the mood of the populace that were compiled by party officials, the secret police, and the press. The collection is designed to illuminate the responses of ordinary people to a range of state and party initiatives. Lewis Siegelbaum, the primary editor of the English-language edition, contributes a valuable introduction, and he and his co-editors provide commentary that skillfully weaves the documents together and places them in historical context. (Andrei Sokolov is the main editor of the Russian edition of this volume, published in Moscow in 1998 under the title Obshchestvo i vlast' 1930-e gody: Povestvovanie v dokumentakh.

The book's six chapters are organized thematically to underscore the contradictions and shortcomings of Stalinist policies and campaigns, as well as the fallacies in party rhetoric. For example, chapter one, "The Socialist Offensive," features popular reactions that stand in stark contrast to official heroic narratives of the Stalinist regime's drive to build socialism via rapid industrialization, centralized economic planning, forced collectivization, and dekulakization. Even readers familiar with the period will find at least a few surprises in documents that highlight the ironies that accompanied verification and purges of government functionaries, popular participation in denunciations, and efforts to establish order in the countryside via collectivization. Two chapters provide particularly novel archival sources. The third chapter, "Stalin's Constitution," details the public's remarkably creative responses to the draft constitution released for comment in 1936. The documents show how individuals interpreted the constitution's articles to serve their own interests and challenge official interpretations. The final chapter, "Happy Childhoods," presents accounts of the arduous lives of younger people that are at odds with official rhetoric about the priority given to children's well-being in the Soviet Union. Records of children's needs, experiences, and conceptions of the world around them suggest that Stalinist policies frequently worked against both children's welfare and the regime's goal of creating upstanding, healthy, and politically devoted young citizens.

Siegelbaum says that he wants to allow a broad section of the Soviet populace "to tell [its] own stories in [its] own words" (p.6). The stories paint a vivid picture of widespread social cleavages in the 1930s: The elderly rebuked the actions of the younger generation; workers disapproved of peasants who fled collective farms to work in industrial areas; older residents resented new settlers; interethnic hostilities abounded; Soviet citizens cursed foreigners; kolkhoz members loathed the administrative power of supposed former landowners; nonparty citizens disliked komsomol and [End Page 129] party enthusiasts; women reproached sexually abusive males; and non-Jews condemned Jews. Siegelbaum rightly claims that the volume affords particular insight into "popular dimensions" of the Stalinist terror. The documents reveal that people regularly explained away difficulties in their lives by blaming other individuals and groups. Social resentments and hostilities fueled allegations and denunciations, contributing to a climate that facilitated the purges.

The volume also sheds light on the strategies of resistance, adaptation, and accommodation that individuals employed in the face of the massive upheaval, constraints, and possibilities that the Stalinist system created. The book's rich historical detail includes stories about how individuals opposed dekulakization by protesting the regime's inhumane treatment of peasant exiles; how citizens adapted to the bacchanalia of denunciation by using it to settle personal scores and advance their own interests; and how peasants accommodated collectivization...