“Everyday Stalinism”

Coming from Georgia, I often witness how a cold-blooded, dictator such as Joseph Stalin, can be perceived as a national hero and be subject of national pride. “Everyday Stalinism” by Sheila Fitzpatrick sheds light on the ‘’ordinary’’ life of soviet citizens in interaction with the State during ‘’extraordinary times’’. Fitzpatrick having a special interest for Soviet history, is also the author of “Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization”, in which she discusses the life of soviet peasants during the 30’s. “Everyday Stalinism’’ explores different aspects of urban life, controlled by the Soviet government in Russia, trying to give an overview of how soviet people, whether workers or corrupt bureaucrats, coped and survived under Stalin’s brutal, totalitarian regime, filled with terror, shortages and injustice. Dedicated to her students, I believe this book is well structured, engaging and most importantly shows convincingly how Homo Sovieticus dealt psychologically and physically with social upheavals.


First of all, Fitzpatrick in the introductory chapter, gives a quick overview of the 30’s, discussing major themes of Stalinism. Fitzpatrick examines aspects that range from the ‘’grandeur’’ of the Communist Party, urbanization and shortages, terror and “class enemies’’, the Great Purges, the emergence of a new elite, the existence of patronage and chaotic bureaucracy, but also family problems. This chapter is very useful to engage the reader, it creates context, which I believe is crucial to understand the rest of the book and the notion of “survival”. Because of this rich introduction, the reader has high expectations about the amount of information the book provides, which, at the end, might be disappointing. The book is structured in eight chapters, with an introduction and conclusion – each chapter has subparts which sometimes seem too detailed. Her style is always the same, different policies adopted by the state, followed with experiences and stories and finally, an overall analysis. In the introduction she clearly explains her goal to analyze interactions between the State and the soviet population, and not class – since class was not the most interesting part of the Soviet life anymore, the importance of production was replaced by consumption. This book is about Russia, not USSR and discusses urban life, not rural and neglects everyday life at work (Fitzpatrick, 1999:13).

Communism as Marx and Lenin imagined, had one aim “a society without class” yet during Stalinist times, while the rest of the population suffered from food and housing shortages, from terror, an emergence of a new elite was striking. Fitzpatrick in chapters 1, 3 and 4 discusses the importance of privileges and patronage. By using case studies, she manages to get us in the heads of those elites who justified their privileges because of their cultural superiority in a backward society. The phenomenon of “misrecognition” was very common as Fitzpatrick describes, communist party members were also considered as part of the intelligentsia since they were the most cultured segment of a savage society (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 105). The author emphasizes on the form of these privileges which was not money, but the access to goods. She describes special stores used by the elites, their servants, their dachas – a vacation house. While workers suffered, bourgeois were killed, a new elite was born. As Fitzpatrick underlines in a world of scarcity, patronage and blats played a major role – the Soviet system was based on personal relations and corruption.                                                                                                                                Stalin promised a radiant future to everyone, in exchange of hard work and commitment to the Communist party – Stakhanovites, who were workers privileged for an outstanding production, served as an example that everyone could succeed – every “little man” mattered (Fitzpatrick, 1999:72) Obviously, those Stakhanovites were more despised than admired by the workers.                                                                                                                             To support her argument, she uses a vast number of sources: memoirs, letters, newspaper articles caricatures from “Krokodil” but also secret police reports and the Harvard project –interviews with former Soviet citizens, describing their experiences which gives the book, a story-like form.

Fitzpatrick provides an answer to the question – How did the Soviet citizens react to this social hierarchy? Well, the author points out that people believed in utopianism and were promised that one day, once “Socialism was built” everything would be better – as one respondent answers “I thought that all the difficulties were connected with the sacrifices which were necessary for the building of socialism and that after a socialist society was constructed, life would be better.” (H. Kent Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia:128 cited by Fitzpatrick, 1999: 66). Propaganda was used to brainwash the population “Privilege was only a temporary phenomenon, a step towards universal enrichment’’ (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 105). What Fitzpatrick delivers from this book is “Building socialism together, united society with no class” is a fiction– as she says “The antithesis of “us” and “them” was basic to Soviet subaltern mentality in the 1930s” (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 222). There was no equality or fairness in what they did – even the people felt separated from the government. Yet in the conclusion, Fitzpatrick successfully explains why Stalin had support –  what united the population was the feeling of patriotism, modernization and progress, the welfare state (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 226)

Terror – the main characteristic of Stalinism, is also explored through a series of cases. In chapter 5 “Insulted & Injured”. The stigma of bad social origin, political past never disappeared and those concerned – bourgeois, priests, kulaks were now outcasts. While the regime promoted “remaking of man” where everyone had the chance to change, in reality, outcasts were humiliated, exiled or even killed, the “unmasking of enemies” was now the central goal of a paranoid Stalin. Fitzpatrick explores “concealment”, where people had double life, public self – often internalized, and private self – often hated. Soviet citizens lived in fear – being accused of capitalist beliefs, plotting, conspiracy. In Chapter 7 “Conversations and Listeners” Fitzpatrick explores how freedom and private space were neglected, in the Soviet Union: people were not allowed to express their opinions publicly, though there were formal letters – it did not make a change. Yet the government, very interested in what people thought, used the secret police to collect information.

Listening these stories from my childhood, I always wondered what the actual people could do in this situation, shouldn’t they react? Protest? Take control of their lives? Fitzpatrick addresses this subject in the conclusion, analyzing Soviet citizens interviewed for Harvard Project – no one takes responsibility and they all blame the government for the failures. “Respondents never accepted individual or collective responsibility for this; the situation was squarely blamed on “them,” on the government” (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 219).  Yet, the separation between “we and and them’’ was not clear, as we will see shortly.

The last chapter entitled “A Time of Troubles” is all about conspiracy, suspicion and the Great Purges – delivering a very dramatic image. Terror, combined with surveillance, was against everyone, she opens the chapter (like every other chapter) by using a quote “You know they are putting people in prison for nothing now.” (Comment of local official, 1938 cited by Fitzpatrick,1999: 190).The main issue is Terror against who by whom? As the author says, elite groups were the main target: privileged party members were prosecuted for their love of luxury, army officials, diplomats (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 199) and everyone considered to have bad social origins or opposing the regime. Who denounced them? The secret police NKVD, neighbors, friends, but also young spies such as Igor Lazich. Fitzpatrick uses as usual, stories about individuals, anecdotes to make her point and often focuses on one individual – giving a novel-kind impression. “Feuds, bureaucratic rivalries, and professional jealousies often produced denunciations” (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 208) People lost compassion and solidarity, from fear of being arrested, tortured, they were dehumanized. As seen previously, the separation between “them” and “we” is not clear, “we” the population? Was “Them” the state? One thing that Fitzpatrick underlines is that there were enemies and denunciators everywhere so that separation line between the two was hard to draw. The utopian idea of “society without class wars and harmony” turned out to be a fiction: resentment, jealousy and denunciation now characterized the Homo Sovieticus which is well illustrated by Sheila Fitzpatrick.

The book is also dedicated to family problems. In Chapter 6, Fitzpatrick explains that the 20’s was a period where the concept of family transformed itself; the move away from patriarchal society (considered as a bourgeois phenomenon), women were emancipated– abortion, divorce were legal. Yet in 20’s this changed since the birthrates were decreasing, the disintegration of families was seen as social evil and the stigma on husbands who left their families was huge (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 140). Fitzpatrick shows how the state played a major role in a couple’s life: women sent letters to the state asking for help, public show trials for deserted husbands were organized. The part about abortion and the comparison with the American debate is very successfully used by the author, showing intellectual differences between a closed bloc and the West: the Soviet anti-abortion argument was that women would want to have children, naturally (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 153).

What is more interesting is the problem of rationing and shortages –  shortages in terms of food, housing and bad quality goods. As said previously, the Soviet Union was based on personal relations, the main privilege was access to goods – your well-being depended on your connections or friends – Fitzpatrick talks about the reactions of Harvard Project respondents when asked about their own blat dealings “They always used the language of friendship and stressed the human element in blat relations. “Friends” were really important in the Soviet Union” (Fitzpatrick, 1999:63) That is how one managed to survive. The 30’s as Fitzpatrick explores in Chapter 2 “Hard Times”, saw famine due to bad harvest, collapse of rationing system and overcrowded towns.This chapter, I think, is more factual and provides an analysis of reforms such as central planned economy, 5 Year Plan and legislations (Fitzpatrick,1999: 43-44) –The author always emphasizes on her stories, but this chapter contains more analysis and experiences, than all of the others. She explores corruption and the existence of a second economy using quotes from famous economists “As Joseph Berliner and other economists pointed out, the Stalinist first economy could not have functioned without the second economy”. Yet as the author says at the end of the chapter, people still believed in the images of “socialist future of abundance” (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 66) once again exploring the minds of Homo Sovieticus. In the conclusion, which summarizes the whole book, she explains that economic situation was the main cause of distrust.


Fitzpatrick at the very end, conceptualizes the Soviet Union as a prison (lack of freedom), as a conscripted army (discipline), as a boarding school (strict rules and education) or as a soup kitchen (providers of food), by using these metaphors she summarizes the whole book – Soviet Citizens practices were explained by these 4 instances. (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 225-227). I would definitely recommend this book to everyone interested in the Soviet life and culture, though it is not a very deep analysis of Stalin’s reforms and policies, lacks statistics, it is a story of how people lived under Stalin, the ways of survival, explored through a series of anecdotes. This book can be used for undergraduates as well, if it is complemented with more factual, political analysis of the 30’s. I very much enjoyed the reading, I myself had some ideas about what the Soviet life was – stories that I’ve heard from my grandparents, symbols, photographs that I’ve seen, yet this book allowed me expand my knowledge and most importantly proved me once again that my interpretation was right – Life under Stalin was not a normal life, the lack of freedom, control and the constant terror resulted in the destruction of any kind of comfort and well being  yet soviet citizens managed to survive. As Fitpzatrick says, Homo Sovieticus ”was a string-puller, an operator, a timeserver, a freeloader, a mouther of slogans and much more. But above all, he was a survivor.” (Fitzpatrick, 1999: 227)


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